Sustainability and the Cosmic Soup

Entropy & why we are destined for cosmic soup

From a thermodynamics point of view, entropy is the inevitable tendency, for irreversible systems to move to a state of relative disorder over time. Energy cannot flow from an entity that has lower entropy than a higher one without external intervention. And the result is ALWAYS that when the energy does flow, the sum of the entropy changes between the two bodies is always positive – a net increase in the amount of disorder1. Applied to basic science, this is why smoke will dissipate and become diluted into the atmosphere, and CO2 molecules will not independently and spontaneously group into a certain part of the atmosphere. It is why a refrigerator needs electricity (external energy) to transfer heat from a cold environment to a warm one. And its why the universe in expanding and not spontaneously collapsing (entropy increases even for black holes – Stephen Hawking provided the mathematical proof of that2). And the consequence of increasing entropy is that it diminishes the system’s ability to do useful work. In other words, after the system has reached equilibrium, every subsequent endeavor will incur a disproportionate amount of effort extract the same amount of useful energy/matter. That’s a scientific fact, a cosmic given, and there is no way to ever reverse it. So how does this apply to our daily lives, and what’s it got to do with sustainability? Well, the principle can be applied to mankind’s economic development, particularly in the 20th & 21st centuries1. We have made the most significant advances in mechanization and industrialization over the past century in all of known history. We have mastered the acts of extraction, refining, processing, distribution of basic goods and services to ensure the general well-being of human population, and then set about optimizing the techniques several times over to ensure higher and higher profitability. And when market penetration was saturated, we re-packaged it, invented different uses for it, sliced & diced it so we could reach more people in more ways. But human development is not without subjugation to the laws of physical science and particularly to the phenomenon of entropy, that suggests, in an anthropological sense, that the conversion of energy and matter from one form to another must result in diminishing utility of (natural) resources. In the process we’ve burnt billions of tons of fossil fuels to meet the energy demands, without thinking of the speed of the natural environment’s entropy changes. This is illustrated below, where, notionally the material in green is economically useful, and is progressively extracted, consumed and then disposed of arbitrarily into the environment.
Increasing energy requirement at progressive stages
Figure 1. Increasing energy requirement with increasing system entropy
When mankind 'concentrates' and transforms minerals & energy from nature to satisfy modern-day consumption trends, more often than not little consideration is given to the depletion or disposal factor (until recent times), and in the energy/material life cycle the disposal is inevitably chaotic and unordered (like fertilizer-bound phosphorous that is consumed by humans, passed through urine and ends up in the oceans6, aluminum cans ending up in random garbage heaps, fossil fuel fuels being burnt and ending up as CO2 in the atmosphere). So in the name of economic development we've increased the entropy of the world in an 'unnatural' way with the result that we face the problems of sustainability of economically useful energy and matter. With globalization accelerated by ICT in the past 3 decades alone, suddenly the whole world is in development frenzy; more extraction, more processing, and more profits. Information is ubiquitous and products are cheaper and more accessible. The world’s huge and growing middle-class wants to follow a 1st world economic and developmental model, where material abundance is the objective and mass-production and hyper-selling are the means. Generation Y are now more than ever connected in a global sense, and particularly in Third world countries, are epigones of western societies where convenience, abundance and consumption form the cornerstone of modern living. And the spiral of development continues, based on monolithic, profit-driven producers serving an environmentally-unconscious society.