WORLD Rough guide to a lonely planet
We are living in a material world. To say this is not just to say that the affluent consumer societies of the Western world are excessively materialistic. It is not just to claim that our priorities and our values have become increasingly embedded in the ownership of material possessions. These claims may be true, and at a later stage of this book, I shall examine that possibility further. But there is something much more basic involved in saying that we live in a material world.
Many of our most vital needs are essentially material ones: food, water, shelter, clothing and fuel. We survive as human beings by cultivating crops to convert to foodstuffs, manufacturing textiles to turn into clothing, excavating clay, sand and rock to build homes for shelter, mining coal and oil and gas to provide us with warmth, light and mobility, and extracting metals from ores to make the machinery and appliances we need to do all this.
In fact, there is a sense in which life itself is a fundamentally material concern. All biological organisms require energy to maintain life. Some organisms (green plants) are able to obtain this life energy directly from the sun. Many organisms (including human beings) have to obtain life energy by feeding on other material organisms. The process of digestion converts food into faeces, and releases energy. This energy allows us to maintain our complex biological structure, to forage for food, to reproduce the species, and to defend ourselves against predators. Without these material inputs and outputs we simply could not survive. So to say that we are living in a material world is to say something fundamental about the interaction between human society and its environment.
These days, of course, the scale and complexity of our material interactions are vastly increased over those of earlier societies, and over those of other biological organisms. The material requirements of 'advanced' industrial societies extend far beyond the survival needs of food, warmth and shelter. There are now growing demands for a wide range of material goods from aerosols to aeroplanes, cosmetics to computers, and vinyls to videos.
In spite of this complexity, there are two aspects of the industrial economy which relate it directly to other more 'primitive' societies, and indeed to the social organisation of other biological species. The first aspect is the common aim of survival. The second is the common set of physical laws which govern behaviour in all material systems. This common physical basis is so critical to the interaction between the human species and its environment that we must gain some understanding of it, right at the outset, before we can proceed with the investigations. The aim of this first chapter is to provide that understanding.
A simplified picture (Figure 1) will help to place some elementary structure on the complexity of the industrial economy. It is clear from the diagram that there is a more or less linear flow of materials through the system. Material resources extracted from the environment at one end of this flow are processed in various ways to provide goods and services within the economy, before flowing out of the economic system back into the environment as emissions and wastes.
There is an important distinction between two different types of resource inputs. The first type of resource is called renewable resources. These resources are provided on a continuous basis by the flow of certain kinds of materials and energy through the environment in well-established cycles. Renewable resources include many timber and forest products and agricultural products of various kinds.
Resources Production Consumption Waste
The Linear Economy
Figure 1 Material dimensions of the industrial economy
The second type of resource is non-renewable. We gain access to these resources only by depleting finite stocks of materials which have accumulated in various places in the environment sometimes over many thousands of years. The industrial economy now relies heavily on a number of non-renewable resources, including coal and petroleum, metallic minerals (iron, copper, aluminium, zinc, cadmium, mercury and lead, for instance), and various important mineral rocks such as phosphate, limestone and slate.1
Resource inputs (of both types) are then subject to various stages of processing and distribution in order to provide the goods and services demanded in the economy. The first stage of processing—often called primary processing—involves separating pure materials from the mixed form in which they are usually extracted from the environment. Physical, chemical and thermal separation and recombination processes convert the raw materials into finished materials such as fuels, refined metals and alloys, and industrial chemicals. Examples of such processes are the roasting and smelting of metal ores to separate metal from rock, the 'cracking' of crude petroleum to obtain specific oil derivatives, and the threshing of grain to separate wheat from chaff.
Materials purified in the primary sector are destined for the manufacturing industries, where materials are transformed into finished products. These industries are sometimes called the secondary sector of the economy. They include the textiles industries, the food-processing industries, the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industries, the automotive industry, and the electronics industry.
Finished products from the secondary sector are then transported and distributed to the consumer. Most of the products are destined for another part of the industrial economy, sometimes called the tertiary sector. Part of this sector consists of retail trades which distribute the finished products to household consumers. The rest of the sector provides different kinds of services such as health, education, transport, household utilities, banking and communications.2 Together with households, the tertiary sector is the main 'consumer' of the material products of the industrial economy. In addition, some of the products of the primary and secondary sectors are consumed within those sectors. For instance, the mining industry uses drilling and extraction machinery, the electricity supply industry needs combustion and generation technology and so on.
When it comes to environmental impacts, the primary sector activities tend to be intrinsically 'dirtier' than secondary sector activities. The reason for this is quite straightforward. The role of primary sector processes is to separate and purify certain desired materials from a mixture of materials extracted from the environment. This means two things. First, the separation of pure materials from a mixture requires the input of energy. Second, the process of purification implies that some materials from the mixture are unwanted and must be discarded as wastes.
Consider the processing of pure copper metal from ores. To start with, excavating mineral ores requires the stripping of topsoils and rocks. This overburden can sometimes be several times greater than the weight of ore excavated. Next, the concentration of copper in copper ores is typically as low as 0.5 per cent to 2 per cent by weight. This means that for each kilogram of copper metal, between 50 and 200 kilograms of residue may be created. Finally, extracting copper from copper ore requires an energy input of between 50 and 100 megajoules3 per kilogram of finished copper.4 This separation energy is almost always provided by burning fossil fuels. And the combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for some of the most pressing environmental problems we face: global warming, acid rain, local air pollution, and the need to dispose of contaminated ashes and residues.
By contrast, the secondary sector activities tend to be less energy-intensive and often less liable to polluting residues, precisely because they are dealing with purer inputs. This does not mean, however, that they are pollution free. We shall see later in this chapter that any industrial process must inevitably generate wastes. Secondary sector industries are no exception.
The distribution and transportation of goods from manufacturers to retailers and then to consumers also gives rise to environmental impacts. In fact, the development of the industrial economy over the last fifty years has witnessed two trends in the development of transport requirements with specific environmental implications. In the first place, there has been a tendency towards centralisation—both of production facilities and of distribution outlets. Second, there has been an increasing globalisation of world trade. These two facets of the modern industrial economy impose special demands on the transport infrastructure. Goods must be transported often thousands of miles from the point of production to the point of consumption. Consumers often travel increasing distances from home to the point of sale. The increased demand for transportation has led to increased vehicle emissions, the loss of land to highways, railways, ports and airports, and the nuisance and public health effects which these developments bring with them.
The tertiary sector does not itself manufacture material products. Consequently, it does not generate production wastes. But we should not be seduced into believing that its activities are inherently clean. Most importantly, this sector consumes material products. And these products must be provided by the primary and secondary manufacturing industries. So in a sense, it is the demands of the tertiary sector which are partly responsible for the pollution from the primary and secondary sectors.
A similar thing can be said about households. In fact, householders create both the demand for material goods and the demand for services provided and distributed by the tertiary sector. This demand for goods and services is really the engine which is driving the industrial economy. It is, if you like, the root cause of the environmental impacts from the primary, secondary and tertiary industrial sectors and much of the transportation network. And this same demand generates increasing quantities of household and consumer waste: products and materials which are thrown away once they have reached the end of their useful life.
Some kinds of products are inherently dissipative in nature. Using them means consuming them in such a way that materials become widely dispersed into the environment. Some obvious examples of this kind of dissipative consumption are the combustion of fossil fuels, the use of domestic pharmaceuticals such as soaps, washing powders, detergents and bleaches, and the spreading of chemical fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Some slightly less obvious examples include the use of lead as an additive in motor fuels, the use of zinc additives in rubber, which are released when tyres wear away, and the use of cadmium in metal plating. Other products are not inherently dissipated in this way. But the pattern of consumption of most products leads to their wide geographical dispersal throughout the economy. Disposal of these products at the end of their lives also gives rise to the dissipation of materials into the environment.
Certainly, therefore, we cannot exonerate the consumer from the environmental impacts of the industrial society. Neither can we expect to clean up our environmental act just by looking at the damaging emissions from the primary and the secondary sector industrial processes. Rather we must place the consumer at the centre of the complex materials network which comprises the industrial economy. And we must place on the consumer at least some of the responsibility for making the economy sustainable.
Despite the complexity of the modern industrial society, its underlying rationale could be said to be the same as the underlying rationale of all societies throughout the ages: to provide for the needs of the men, women and children who constitute that society. Some of these needs are the basic material needs of all biological organisms: food, water and shelter. So we could even argue that part of the rationale for our complex industrial economies is the same as that which governs the behaviour of every other biological species: survival.
It is clear of course that the goals of the industrial society extend considerably beyond mere survival. In poorer countries, survival is often still a luxury. But in the affluent developed nations of the industrial world, people's expectations and goals reach further than mere subsistence. Later in this book, I will return to consider the question of these more complex goals and needs. Here I want to concentrate on the common physical basis which all biological species share alike.
So let us start by looking at the physical laws which govern our behaviour in the industrial economy. These laws are the same fundamental laws as those which govern energy and material transformations in all physical systems. In particular, they govern material activities in the ecological systems (or ecosystems) which have successfully sustained a wide variety of species for many thousands of years. So whatever the differences which now distinguish human societies from ecosystems, we can certainly learn from the basic ground rules which determine our common physical inheritance.
Two of the most important of these ground rules come from the physical theory known as thermodynamics (which means literally 'the theory of the movement or flow of heat'). Each industrial process and each economic activity involves the transformation of materials and energy from one form to another. Thermodynamics provides very specific rules and limits which govern these transformations. This theory was developed right at the start of the industrial revolution, primarily to describe the behaviour and optimise the performance of the early heat engines which paved the way for rapid technological progress (see Chapter 2). So it is perhaps particularly appropriate that we should pay careful attention to that theory in the early stages of this investigation.
Amongst the most important of these physical rules are three important conservation laws. The first of these is the law of conservation of energy (also known as the first law of thermodynamics). Energy exists in a number of different forms—including gravitational energy, chemical energy, electrical energy, heat, light and motion—all measurable in the same energy units (called joules). These different forms of energy are continually being transformed from one type to another. For instance, the energy of motion is transformed into heat when we apply brakes to a moving car. Chemical energy is transformed to heat through combustion. In fact, it is these energy transformations that allow us to carry out useful work, and provide goods and services in the industrial economy.
The first law of thermodynamics (the law of conservation of energy) tells us that energy is neither created nor destroyed during these transformations. The total energy input always matches the total energy output. For example, when coal is burned, chemical energy is transformed into thermal energy. But the heat output is no more and no less than the energy stored in the chemical bonds of the coal to start with.
A second important conservation law is the law of conservation of mass during material transformations.5 This law tells us that the total mass of the material inputs to a transformation process is equal to the total mass of the material outputs. It points out that, if we require certain material products, we must find the equivalent material resources to provide for those products. But it also asserts that all of the material resources which we exploit and transform through human activities must end up somewhere—if not in products, then in the environment.
A third conservation law governs the total quantity of each individual atomic element during (non-nuclear)6 material transformations. This means that the total amount of carbon (for instance) which is released during the combustion of a carbon-based fossil fuel must be the same as the total amount of carbon contained in the fuel to start with. Again this law allows us to count up the environmental burdens associated with the various material transformations which are used to provide services in the industrial economy.
To take an example, suppose that a certain electro-plating facility consumes 1 tonne of the metal cadmium each year in its processes. Suppose further that 900 kilograms of cadmium end up in the metal products. Since cadmium is conserved through the transformation, it follows that exactly 100 kilograms of cadmium are being emitted from the facility in some form as a waste. Even if special filters are fitted to reduce atmospheric emissions and aqueous effluent to a minimum, this conservation law insists that the unused cadmium must be going somewhere—probably to the solid waste stream.
Conservation laws are important to an assessment of the interaction between economy and environment because they insist on rigorous mass and energy balance principles in determining the material throughput associated with industrial activity.
Nevertheless, these conservation laws do not, on their own, provide a complete picture of the interaction between economy and environment. In fact, by themselves, they may even be misleading about the physical constraints imposed on economic activities. Take for example the energy conservation law. If total energy is conserved through all transformations, then why may we not simply go on using and reusing the same energy without ever needing to mine more coal or drill for more oil? Similarly if individual mineral elements are conserved, why should we not use and reuse those minerals over and again for as long as we need to? Why need we ever be concerned about running out of copper or zinc or iron or phosphate? And as for the environmental impacts of the primary sector, why could we not just do away with that sector altogether?
The answer to these questions is embedded in one of the most famous and most contentious laws in physics: the second law of thermodynamics. This law and its various interpretations are so complex and so far-reaching that it would be impossible to give a detailed description of them all here.7 The physicist Sir Arthur Eddington described the second law as occupying 'the supreme position among laws of nature';8 and the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen described it 'as the basis of the economy of life, at all levels'.9 This law is so crucial to energy and material transformation that we need to have at least some understanding of it, and its implications for the industrial economy.
The first law of thermodynamics talks about the quantity of energy during transformation. The second law talks about the availability of that energy to perform useful work. The first law tells us that the total quantity of energy after transformation remains the same as the total quantity before transformation. The second law can be interpreted as saying that the same quantity of energy becomes less and less available to perform useful work as it passes through successive transformations. The first law talks of the conservation of energy. The second law speaks of the loss of availability.
One of the first specific formulations of the second law was expressed in the following way: it is impossible to convert a quantity of heat energy into an equivalent quantity of mechanical work. This formulation was part of the early attempts to understand the simple heat engines which were beginning to revolutionise industry. Thermodynamics therefore imposed specific limitations on the theoretical efficiency which could be achieved by industrial processes. These limitations are still relevant to industrial processes today.
A specific example will illustrate some of the implications of the second law. In a conventional thermal power station, heat energy is used to raise steam in a boiler, and the steam is then passed through a turbine which drives an electrical generator. The second law of thermodynamics restricts the efficiency with which heat energy is converted to mechanical work in the turbine. So the electrical energy which comes out of the generator is always less than the heat energy that went in. This is borne out by practical experience. Usually, the efficiency with which heat energy is converted into electricity is in the region of 35-40 per cent.
Given that the total energy must be conserved, this means that around 60 to 65 per cent of the input energy has gone missing somewhere. In practice, we know that this energy emerges from the conversion process in the form of 'low-grade' waste heat. Could we not then use this heat to raise more steam for the turbine? The answer is no. And it is the second law which explains why. The heat energy which comes out of the turbine is at a lower temperature than the heat energy which went in. Because of this lower temperature, it is less available to perform the useful work of raising steam for the turbine. So the second law of thermodynamics is like a law of diminishing natural returns. Energy becomes less and less available to us as it passes through successive transformations.
The second law is in some sense a strange law because it includes considerations which appear to be subjective, such as the 'usefulness' of work. This is one of the reasons why the law has attracted so much philosophical attention. We could say, for instance, that low-grade heat is itself a useful form of energy—particularly for those who live in temperate climes. In fact, one extremely valuable way of improving the overall efficiency with which we consume fossil fuels is to find some useful application of the low-grade heat which is lost from electricity generation. For instance, in some circumstances it could be used to meet domestic space heating requirements. It might also be useful as industrial heat in processes such as drying and baking.
But once we have used this energy for drying (let us say), the second law insists that the energy output from the drying process is even less available to us. And of course this is also borne out by experience: the energy used to drive off water from a substance during the drying process is imparted to molecules of water which are emitted into the atmosphere. As a result of the first law, we know that the total energy of the molecules in the atmosphere must be marginally increased. But this extra energy in the environment is now so dissipated that it is impossible for us to recover it and put it to use.
Energy is conserved, according to the first law. But it gradually becomes more dissipated and less useful according to the second. This is why, in spite of the law of conservation of energy, we must go on mining more coal or seeking new energy resources.
ENTROPY, ORDER AND DISSIPATION
The link between these energetic considerations and the material aspects of thermodynamic systems is made through a concept called the entropy of the system. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of a certain kind of randomness or disorder in a physical system. More disordered or random states of a physical system correspond to greater entropy. Conversely, the more ordered states of a system correspond to lower entropy.10
The entropy of a system is linked to the availability of energy in the system in the following way. The states with greater entropy are those where less energy is available to perform useful work. The states with low entropy have more available energy. It is for this reason that the second law of thermodynamics is sometimes described as the 'law of increasing entropy'. As time goes by—and successive transformations take place—the energy of an isolated system becomes less and less available and the entropy increases. Or in other words, the system becomes increasingly disordered with time, and materials are successively more randomly distributed. These more random distributions of material correspond to states of the system where there is less available energy. For instance, in the case of the energy output from the drying process, the water molecules which carry the (unavailable) output energy are much more randomly distributed than the directed stream of hot air which carries the (available) input energy.
So the general picture presented by the second law suggests that energy and material transformations occur in such a way as to reduce the available energy in the system, and increase the dissipation of materials through the system.
Now we can see why the second law of thermodynamics is such a startling and important piece of physics for the industrial economy. It seems to indicate that economic activity is essentially dissipative of both energy and materials. It appears to suggest that things become slowly but inevitably more random, and more disordered, and it becomes less and less possible to carry out useful organisational work.
At first sight, this result seems wrong. How does it tie in with the rapid development of the industrial economy? How can we correlate this result with the vast organisational complexity achieved by the biological
realm? The existence and continuity of life on Earth appear to contradict the doom-laden conclusions of the second law.
This is where the order and disorder interpretation of entropy must be treated with some care. That interpretation was originally formulated by the physicist Boltzmann, who devoted much of his working life to the formulation of statistical thermodynamics. But that interpretation can only be used in a straightforward fashion when it applies to systems which have no external source of energy available to them. Where there is such a source of external energy it is possible to maintain order within the system of interest, even though the entropy of the overall system (i.e. the system of interest plus the energy source) must—according to the second law—increase. Fortunately for the process of human evolution, the planet on which we live is in just that situation (Figure 2).
It is the fact that the Earth is subject to a source of solar radiation which allows for the existence of complex biological organisation. Disorder and decay are kept at bay by material transformations made possible by a continuous flow of available energy from the sun. The increase in entropy associated with these transformations (according to the second law) is exported from the system in the form of low-grade heat energy.
Input energy is required in particular to counteract the tendency of materials to dissipate through transformation, and the global ecosystem has developed a complex, interactive network of material cycles to accomplish this task. Perhaps the most important of these material cycles is the carbon cycle, in which dissipated (i.e. high-entropy) carbon is transformed into fixed (low-entropy) carbon through photosynthesis— the process by which green plants transform solar energy into chemical energy. Photosynthesis forms the basis for a complex food network which supports almost every form of life on earth.
The thermodynamic view of ecosystems which has developed over the last twenty or thirty years12 is one in which the creation and maintenance of complex organisational structures is not only possible but expected. However, this organisation depends on the existence of well-developed dissipative structures which transform high-quality energy inputs to the system into useful organisational work and 'pump out' the disorder associated with that transformation by the second law. The more complex the structure, the greater is the need for high-quality maintenance energy. Complex organisms such as humans require more maintenance energy than simpler ones. Similarly, complex economies require more maintenance energy than simpler ones. In Chapter 9 we shall see that this fact has important implications for the process of economic growth in the industrial economy.
Using the general outline of material systems provided by the laws of thermodynamics, let us paint a rudimentary picture (Figure 3) of a simple ecosystem, say a small pond, which sustains the life of several species of small fish, numerous plants and insects and a few ducks. What are the physical characteristics of this simple ecosystem? First, there are elements of self-reliance within the system. For instance, the fish feed off the plant and insect population in the pond. The waste products of the digestion process (faeces) are excreted into the pond, where they are degraded by bacteria and protozoans (single-celled animals which feed off organic14 detritus). The products of the degradation process form the nutritional basis for the growth of new plants. This growth only occurs once additional energy is available from the sun, because high-quality
energy is needed to convert the degraded nutrients into the complex molecules needed for biological life.
So the ecosystem recycles some of the materials it needs to sustain life. But it requires high-quality energy from outside the ecosystem to accomplish this task. And it also uses some materials which come from outside the system. For instance, plant life in the pond 'fixes' some carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In this sense, each ecosystem is reliant on material cycles which are essentially global in nature, and the picture of the environment as a whole is therefore one in which the interaction between ecosystems is as important as the interactions within each ecosystem.
There are some inherently self-regulating properties in the ecosystem. The total rate of activity in the pond is limited by the total available energy flow, which is dictated primarily by the available sunlight, and by the supply of nutrients. Within these constraints it is not possible for the population of any one species to grow beyond a certain size.
Suppose that for some reason there was a small increase in the duck population at the pond. More of the plant and fish life would then be consumed as food, and more faeces would be generated. The increase in organic detritus would fuel increased activity in the protozoan population, leading to an increased supply of degraded nutrients. Provided that there was sufficient incoming radiation to convert the extra degraded nutrients into new plant life (and therefore fish life), the ducks' food supply might continue to match their growth in numbers. But once the limit of the incoming energy had been reached, and no more plant growth was possible, the food supply would run out, and the duck population would gradually decline again until an equilibrium was reached.
This self-regulation is what has allowed many such ecosystems to evolve, to mature and to sustain themselves over periods of time which are staggeringly long in contrast to the speed of change within modern-day human society. It is precisely this self-regulation which is being threatened, in many cases, by the impacts of the industrial economy.
Consider, for instance, the different influences to which our simple pond ecosystem might be subjected if it were situated in the middle of a busy city park. To start with, it will probably be subject to nutrient runoff from the fertilisers which have been used in the park to promote the quality of artificial lawns and the flowers. Second, it will be subject to the fallout from air pollution: a cocktail of substances, some of which add to the nutrient content of the pond, others which increase the acidity of the water and the mobility of toxic metals in the water, some of which simply deplete the oxygen supply. Finally, the pond may also provide the focus for family outings, where parents and children regularly arrive at weekends to feed bread to the ducks.
Each of these external factors has potentially damaging impacts on the sustainability of the simple ecosystem. Even the apparently charitable attentions of small children can have a disruptive influence on the stability of the simple pond ecosystem. Feeding bread to the ducks means that one species suddenly acquires a preferential source of high-quality energy. This eventually leads to an increase in the duck population. Since their food supply is independent of the natural regulatory mechanisms of the ecosystem, the duck population is no longer limited by the incident sunlight, but instead can grow to a size considerably larger than one which could be sustained by the ecosystem in its natural state. But the results of this unbalanced population growth are potentially catastrophic for the stability of the ecosystem. Increased faeces from the ducks' digestion of bread leads to rapid growth in the bacterial and protozoan population. The excess of degraded nutrients (possibly increased by the run-off from artificial fertilisers) cannot be turned into plant life at the same rate as it is being generated because the available sunshine remains the same as it ever was. The increased protozoan population depletes the oxygen content, inhibiting fish and plant life, and the water becomes clouded with organic detritus.
In the meantime, as their natural source of food within the pond diminishes, the ducks become more and more reliant on their Sunday visitors. When winter comes, and children stay at home, the inflated duck population overgrazes the surrounding grass, which becomes increasingly barren. The park-keepers try and solve the problem by spreading more fertilisers. And so the situation worsens. Finally, all that is left is a murky and virtually lifeless pond surrounded by barren earth around which the unfortunate ducks clamour ungraciously for bounty dispensed at the hands of fickle and unwitting environmental vandals!
Of course, I have painted a deliberately pessimistic picture. All the same it is one that is not entirely unrecognisable. Very few ponds in industrial countries still achieve the careful balance of a self-sustaining ecosystem. But this picture of the destruction of natural balances is bleak for a number of reasons. Amongst them is the undeniably good intent of those who feed the ducks. Charity towards those species which share the world with us is a relatively rare quality in twentieth-century industrial society. So it is perverse that it should contribute to—rather than prevent—environmental damage in one of the few places where it remains. Bleaker still—to the Western eye at least—is the vision of nature's harsh equilibrium in the absence of such charity. Within that vision, the fate of the birds—indeed the fate of every living creature—is to struggle for existence in a hostile and competitive natural environment which is strictly limited in its material and energy endowments. Mobility, food, reproduction, defence and shelter are all purchased at a premium—every one of them paid for from a strictly limited supply of available energy. And there is no opting out of it. Even the simplest organisms require a constant supply of such energy simply to maintain life. As Boltzmann himself once remarked: 'The struggle for existence is the struggle for [available] energy.'
I think what this example points out is how difficult environmental management is, and how fragile are the complex materials balances which support survival in the natural world. So I am certainly not recommending we chastise charity towards nature. Rather, I am using this story to illustrate how important it is to develop the complex, comprehensive understanding which a truly charitable attitude to the environment demands.
THE ESCAPE INTO AFFLUENCE?
Human society appears on the surface to have freed itself from nature's limitations more or less completely. This is especially true of the affluent industrial societies in the developed world, in which energy is plentiful, food is abundant, and manual labour has been reduced to a minimum. In fact, much of our industrial creativity in the late twentieth century is dedicated to further relief from the drudgery of household chores and the exploitation of increased leisure time.
This achievement is remarkable in its own right. It is particularly striking, however, when we consider that human society is bound by the same immutable physics that seems to render the conditions of life so hostile for all other species. How can this have happened? Is humanity exempt from the second law of thermodynamics? Or if not, how is it that we have managed to free ourselves from Boltzmann's 'struggle for existence'? The answer to these questions is at once devastatingly simple and emphatically critical of the path of human development.
First of all, we should be quite clear that there is no sense at all in which human activity can escape the constraints of thermodynamics. The material interactions of the industrial economy are subject to the same physical laws as those of the simple ecosystem. In particular, the conservation laws are the same, and the second law of thermodynamics continues to hold. This law is particularly important because it characterises economic activities (like ecological activities) as essentially
dissipative of both energy and materials. So far so good: the industrial economy behaves exactly like the pond—sustaining life by dissipating energy and materials. But there the analogy ends. The supply of high-quality energy which maintains such a delicate balance in the pond is the solar input. The material inputs and outputs form a part of global material cycles where degraded materials are returned naturally to available states using solar energy. By contrast, the industrial economy has freed itself from the constraints of the solar inheritance by learning to access vast stores of high-quality chemical potential energy locked into mineral resources (Figure 4). In particular, of course this high-quality energy store includes the fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. These reserves of low entropy provide high-quality thermal energy through combustion. And this energy is then transformed into a variety of other types of useful energy: mobility, light, electricity and mechanical work. Armed with this extra supply of high-quality energy, industrial society has gone one step further and used the additional power available to it to access material resources which are simply unavailable to other species.
These differences are absolutely crucial. The dissipation of materials by the simple ecosystem is limited to the degradation of nutrients and minerals which subsequently return to natural material cycles powered by solar radiation. These constraints provide a kind of natural regulatory mechanism which maintains complex material balances between different species within the ecosystem and between different ecosystems. The economic system provides little or no regulation over material dispersion. It dissipates a wide array of chemicals, some of which do not even exist freely in nature, and many of which exceed the natural flows by several orders of magnitude.
These considerations seem to place us on the horns of an uncomfortable dilemma: pursuing our present course appears to offer us a high material standard of living but threatens to destroy the stability of our natural environment; forgoing the benefits of industrialisation might save the environment, but threatens to return us to a savage struggle for survival.
The goal of environmental management in the industrial economy has really been to escape from this dilemma, to find a path for development which retains the advantages to human welfare which have been achieved through industrialisation and yet allows for the future health of the environment. The constraints of thermodynamics suggest that this task is not an easy one. Because all activities are essentially dissipative of both energy and materials, any attempt to clean up environmental damage 'after the fact' is itself a dissipative process, emitting its own inventory of pollutants, and sometimes doing no more than pushing pollution from one place to another.
Preventive environmental management—which provides the focus for much of the rest of this book—searches for a way out of the dilemma described above by redesigning and reorienting economic activities. The object of this reorientation is to try and make the industrial system more like a natural ecosystem: creating material cycles; improving material and energy efficiencies; reducing dissipative consumption; and improving the utilisation of our natural solar inheritance. The following chapters of the book reveal that this task is a challenging one, demanding creativity and innovation at every level: technical, economic, institutional and social. Under the strict constraints of the physical world, however, this search offers us our best—and perhaps our only—hope of developing in harmony, rather than in conflict, with nature. As the economist Georgescu-Roegen remarked: 'In a different way than in the past, man will have to learn that his existence is a free gift of the sun.'
Was this article helpful?
Is your home bursting at the seams with stuff? Is every closet crammed so full that any one of them is a death trap waiting to be opened? Has it been years since the last time you parked the car in the garage? Never fear, help is on the way. You need to get rid of some of that stuff. Dont you dare call it junk. Remember, one man or womans trash is another ones treasure!