Thursday, March 3, 2016

The other side of the global crisis: entropy and the collapse of civilizations







Guest post by Jacopo Simonetta

When we discuss the impending crisis of our civilisation, we mainly look at the resources our economy needs in growing quantity. And we explain why the Diminishing Returns of resource exploitation pose a growing burden on  the possibility of a further growing of the global economy. It is a very interesting topic, indeed, but here I suggest we turn 180 degrees around and take a look at the “other side;” that is to what happens where the used resources are discarded.

Eventually, our society (as any other society in history) is a dissipative structure. It means that it exist only because it is able to dissipate energy in order to stock information inside itself. And there is a positive feedback: more energy permits to implement more complexity; and more complexity needs, but also permits a larger energy flow. This, I think, is a crucial point: at the very end, wealth is information stocked inside the socio-economic system in different forms (such livestock, infrastructures, agrarian facilities, machines, buildings, books, the web and so on). Human population is peculiar because it is a large part of the information stocked inside the society system. So, from a thermodynamic point of view, it is the key part of “wealth”, while from an economic point of view people can be seen as the denominator of global wealth.

The accumulation of information inside a system is possible only by an increment of entropy outside the same system. This is usual with all the dissipative structures, but our civilisation is unique in its dimension. Today about 97% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass is composed of humans and of their symbionts and we use about 50% of the primary production (400 TW?), plus a little less than 20 TW we get from fossil fuels and other inorganic sources.
At the beginning, our modern civilisation performed in the same way as all the others in history: appropriating energy forms such as food, livestock, commodities, slaves, oil, carbon and so on, and throwing entropy to the biosphere in different forms such as pollutants, ecosystems transformations, extinctions, heat and so on; while throwing entropy to other societies as war, migration, etcetera.

As the industrial economy overruled and substituted all others, it became the only economy in the world, and so, necessarily, found more and more difficulties in dissipating energy outside itself. In practice, sinks become problematic before wells do. But remember that in order to implement its own complexity, a dissipative system needs a growing energy flow; that is, it needs cornucopian energy wells.

Today, both global pollution and massive immigration into the more industrialized countries is evidence that our system is no longer able to expel entropy out of itself. But if entropy is not discharged out of the system, it necessarily grows inside it. And when there is more energy, there is more entropy in a typical diminishing returns dynamic. Maybe, we can see here a negative feedback which has stopped economic growth and that will possibly crash the global economy in some decades.  [Ed- this is highly optimistic, the crash has started, and ‘in some decades’ the economy will simpy no longer exist!]

If this reasoning is correct, the political and the economic crisis, social disruption and, finally, failing states are nothing less than the visible aspect of the growing entropy inside our own meta-system. Eventually, global society is so large and complex as is obvious in many correlated sub-systems that we are now managing it in order to concentrate entropy inside the less powerful ones: some yet problematic countries, lower classes and, especially, the young. But these phenomena produce political shifts, riots and mass migrations at the core of the system. This also means that the elites have lost the capability to understand and/or control the internal dynamic of the global socio-economic system.
In the meantime, the overloading of the sinks is starting to cause the deterioration of the wells. This is evident, for instance, with air and water pollution, ocean acidification, mass extinction, ecosystems disruption, and much more. In the end, as the economy grows, the global system necessarily loses the capacity to dissipate energy, condemning itself to disruption.

We can find the same phenomenon at smaller scales, such as for a single organism, or such as in a single human being. If a good energy flow is available in the form of food and heat, a baby can develop into a strong and healthy adult. Good flows of energy during adult life mean a better life and the possibility to develop culture, skills, art, science and to keep one’s health for a long time. Insufficient energy means starvation and illness. But it is also true that if the body absorbs a quantity of energy larger than its capacity to dissipate it, then we have problems such as, illness, obesity and, finally, a bad life and premature death.

We found the very same phenomenon at larger scales as well. The Earth as a whole is also a dissipative, complex system. It does not have any problems with its main energy well, the Sun. We can be sure that the 86,000 TW that we receive from the sun on average are not going away, although they will gradually increase over very long time spans. But the whole biosphere is collapsing in one of the most serious crisis it has ever faced during the 4.5 billions years of its history. This crisis is the result of human activity that reduces the capability of the ecosystem to dissipate the energy input, in particular as a result of the greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. So the internal entropy grows with the consequence of harming even more the ecosystems and reducing complexity, possibly leading to a global disaster at a geological scale.

In conclusion, I suggest that, in the coming decades, entropy will be a much more challenging problem than that of the energy supply. Only a drastic reduction in the energy input could save the biosphere. But this is a high price to pay because a reduction of energy flow means necessarily a reduction of complexity and information stored inside the human sub-system. It means misery and death for much of the human population, although it also means hope for the future one (assuming that it will exist, but humans are too adaptable and resilient to go extinct as long as a functioning biosphere exists) So, new civilizations will appear but, in order for that to occur, the present civilization will have to collapse fast enough to leave a livable planet to our descendants.


Note: this post by Jacopo Simonetta was edited by a native English speaker, the "grumpy old man" who keeps the blog "Damn the Matrix" and the edited version published on his site. So, I cut and pasted it in here, in place of the original version, with many thanks! (UB)

20 comments:

  1. "But this is a high price to pay because a reduction of energy flow means necessarily a reduction of complexity and information stored inside the human sub-system."

    I don't know.
    Fastest supercomputer: 30 quadrillion bytes, 8.2 billion megaflops, 9.9 million watts
    Human brain: 3.5 quadrillion bytes, 2.2 billion megaflops, 20 watts

    Maybe we are using energy in a very simplistic way (a brute force approach)

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    1. our brain is for the moment the best dissipation machine in the known universe.

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  2. Ugo wrote "The accumulation of information inside a system is possible only by an increment of entropy outside the same system." Given this reasoning, as Systems deteriorate will the information and energy within them be distributed to the environment they operate in? Thus decrease entropy outside the systems boundary? If yes then there may be much freed information an energy for the next evolution's of systems to happen.

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    1. Jacopo wrote that. I think it is true, but you should ask him

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    2. I think just in part. Information is stored inside organisms as genetic, body structures and so on. All of this largely disappear when the organism die, but in part is still present and is recycled by other organisms, loosing energy during the process.
      Inside civilisations information is stored in very different forms as people, buildings, art, skills, knowledge and so on. A large part of this disappear during the decadence period, but partially survive as traditions, archaeological sites, books, art and so on. So, yes, I believe that the remains of the gone civilisations can help the rising of the new ones. In Europe we have seen this with the medieval civilisation born from the assemblage of the remains of the Roman Empire with the Germanic tradition.

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  3. Hello,

    I am sorry to say that I don't understand what you mean with "entropy". In my understanding, entropy is a mesure of disorder. Do you mean that we have been able to export our disorders to "third world countries" or to the lower levels of our society ? In the beginning of th 19th century, Europe and the USA also had a large percentage of the population that was very poor, so going back to a not so fair society is not a change, but a way back.

    Etienne

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    1. Hello. Yes, entropy is a measure of disorder and we have exported it with largesse. For instance, by disrupting other civilisations, cutting primary forests, piling up garbage, mining, and so on. Weapons are a very powerful mean to export entropy. Do not you think?

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    2. Hello,

      I agree with the concept, but not with the vocabulary that is used. I am really not happy with the concept of "social entropy" or "cultural entropy" because I can't imagine a clear definition for it. A low entropy material will have well aligned atoms which is very useful, but I dont see "well aligned people" as a good model for a society. A society with a high cultural entropy is usually very strong if the power is correctly shared.

      Well, this is mainly a problem of vocabulary.

      Best regards,

      Etienne

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  4. I think the basic notion of this piece, that there is less and less "outside" of the human society, is not only correct, but a deep thought.

    While the rising CO2 concentration is indeed due to the relative shrinking of the „outside“ and insofar a sink problem, I would count the s i z e of global warming as a result of an unpredictable amplification mechanism: the energy for it coming from the sun, beeing trapped by some unwise increase of the thermal resistance between earth and space. Like with a transistor if you change the gate voltage, you throttle the source-drain-current.

    The whole earth dissipates energy from the sun by transforming it to a lower temperature radiation. It does this regardless of life on its surface or not. Life just hooked itself into this process, as a tiny stable vortex in the energy flow down the exergy gradient, based on chemical compound systems, that manage to reproduce themselves.

    From an informational point of view, dissipation of exergy and raw materials is the same: destruction of concentration gradients. By using exergy, we can in principle reverse the dissipation of raw materials. That’s what plants did all the time. Bacteria can create concentrations of substances in themselves, at the cost of exergy. And exergy there is plenty in the big solar flow. And we are just about to learn to use it.

    To apply the exergy/entropy thinking to order in the human society is very interesting, though somewhat problematic, as human beeings are not behaving statistically, but guided by their hard-wired reflexes, interests, knowledge, habits and social meme-structures. What is a "temperature" in a society? IMO, order can easily emerge in a society by self-organizing mechanisms, without pushing any entropy to somewhere outside . Education, communication, institutions come into play.

    BTW The elites never had the capability to understand or control the internal dynamic of the global system - and they didn't have to. In former times, internal entropy problems within societies were often solved by cutting their heads off ;-). Or at least try to.

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    1. yes and no. Theoretically we have all the universe as potential "outside". It's just a matter of technology. Nothing prevent us to export our "entropy" back to space

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    2. Almost until now is quite the opposite. Technology is impeding the Earth to dissipate warm into the space and this is why we have a GW.

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  5. A nice discourse on entropy but I doubt any more civilizations will follow ours, indeed, I doubt any humans will survive this collapse at all. Between abrupt, extreme climate change, and the death of both coral reefs and forests, there will not be much left to sustain large complex mammalian life forms.

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    1. Possible, but humans are a very resilient specie. Personally, I think we are not on the way of extinction, but a drastic reduction of our population is unavoidable. It is necessary for the survival of Biosphere, but it will be not amusing.

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  6. "Today about 97% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass is composed of humans and of their symbionts and we use about the 50% of the primary production (400 TW?), plus a little less than 20 TW we have from fossil fuels and other inorganic sources."

    Hi Jacopo, do you have a reference for this statistic? I am no scientist but intuitively it does seem we are using a lot more energy from fossil fuels than NPP on a running basis.

    Thanks.

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    1. The data about biomass are from Prof Vaclav Smil (http://www.vaclavsmil.com/). The 400 TWh is just an hypothesis because usually biomass is esteemed as a stock (so in millions ton), while here I am talking about a flow. So I hypnotised very roughly a 0,5% of the solar radiation on the Earth surface. Lille bit less than 20 TWh from fossil fuel is from EIEA data.

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    2. With respect, I think you overestimate the amount of solar radiation we humans harvest. Read in quite many places that over 99% of sunlight energy is reflected back into space or lost as heat, while less than 1% is used in photosynthesis by plants. Further losses occur down the line as animals eat the plants etc so by the time this reaches us surely it is quite a lot less than 0.5% of incoming sunlight.

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    3. Yes, Photosynthesis use among 1 to 2 % of solar radiation and we harvest among half of it. Possibly I am wrong with math, I will crunch the numbers again. Thank you.
      In my opinion, the focus is about the fact that becoming global, our civilisation have signed his own condemnation and will decay in a way fundamentally similar of obese folks.

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  7. I hope that humanity, through biotechnics, can increase photosynthetic efficiency rates soon, so that the sun's energy entering the biosphere increases, to allow maintainance of more biomass, human and wild, on earth, before degradation of environments limits humanity's biotechnical advancement.

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  8. Well said and needed to be said. Thanks.

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  9. You might be better served using "low-probability state" instead of "information", as its a vague term with some definitions that are the opposite of your usage...

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)