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Thermodynamics, Economics and Survival

by ARGeezer Wed Jul 10th, 2019 at 09:32:13 PM EST

A major conceptual problem for me while taking thermodynamics in 1963 was the focus on equilibrium situations, which seemed to me to be special cases and unrepresentative of the general reality I observed. A recent paper in Real World Economic Review has brought all of that back to mind: What can economists and energy engineers learn from thermodynamics beyond the technical aspects?

In  a  conference  that  opened  the  way  to  the  thermodynamics  of  human  societies,  the sociologist  Maurice  Hauriou  (1899,  p.5)  took  up  this  idea  by  considering  that  only  the "thermodynamic laws shed some light on the possibilities of freedom". This presupposes a permanent  interaction  between  the  human  and  his  environment  and  overlaps  with  the formulation  of  Douglas  Hugh  Everett,  in  his "Introduction  to  the  Study  of  Chemical Thermodynamics"(1959),  according  to  which  "a  particular  proportion  of  the  Universe  is called the `system'while the rest of the Universe is called 'the outside' or 'the environment"(Rybac, 1968, p.137).

This  conceptualization  has  allowed  researchers  to  develop  the  thermodynamics  of  open systems,  traversed  by  a flow  of  matter  and  energy,  whereas  the  classical  conception  of thermodynamics    considers    closed    systems,    whose    exchanges    with    the    external environment   are   null   or   limited   and   tightly   controlled.   From   this   angle,   the   new thermodynamics  gives  a  major  importance  to  the  phenomenon  of  irreversibility,  where  the old is placed in the vicinity of equilibrium, in the reversibility zone, which makes the human world   appear   to   be   subject   to   its   potential   momentum   and   not   just   the   laws   of thermodynamics in their traditional meaning. In this context, the appearance of the notion of dissipative structure (Prigogine, 1967, p.371), which applies to phenomena as different as cyclones  or  living  species,  seems  particularly  interesting  because  it  applies  to  human societies.  Cyclones,  living  species,  human  societies,  are  famous  for  the  unpredictability  of their evolution.

As is so often the case, the problems that perplexed me as an undergraduate were just being addressed on the fringes of the field - open system thermodynamics.

Starting  from  the  idea  that  to  move,  work,  communicate,  it  is  necessary  to  be  constantly supplied with energy, that the natural selection favors the living organism which dissipates the energy most quickly (Lotka,1922, p.149), and that the basis of the national economy is the struggle for energy (Soddy, [1933]2014, p.63), the astronomer Eric Chaisson (2001, p.17) drew a curve that shows the energy dissipatedper unit of mass (figure 1), and reveals the emergence of structures capable of dissipating more and more energy over the history of  the  universe.  Human  societies  are  at  the  top,  since  human  beings  are  the  only  ones  to have industries, services and all kinds of products that dissipate a lot of energy.

It is disturbing to contemplate that the most distinguishing feature of living things is the high rate at which they dissipate energy and that human societies are at the very top of the list. While it is true that the Earth, considered as 'the system' exists on a timescale that far transcends the limit of individual human lives and of the lives of cultures and of species, considerations of the role of resource depletion - or dissipation - in the demise of numerous civilizations should give us pause. While the solar system will last for billions more years we may well be able to burn out our own civilization, culture and ecosystem in a stunningly shorter time.
As  astrophysicist  François Roddier  (2014,  pp.2-4)  notes,  dissipative  structures  memorize information   about   their   environment.   The   more   a   dissipative structure   memorizes information,  the  more  it  dissipates  energy.  But  the  faster  it  dissipates  energy,  the  faster  it changes  its  environment,  so  that  the  information  it  memorizes  quickly  becomes  obsolete. The dissipative structure then has more and more difficulty dissipating energy. To be able to continue  to  do  this,  it  must  constantly  restructure  itself  in  order  to  finally  reach  a  critical point.  In  this  sense,  the  more  a  human  society  seeks  to  adapt  itself  to  an  evolving environment,  the  more  it  dissipates  energy,  therefore  more  it  makes  it  evolve.  Each structure will seek to adapt itself faster and faster until where the time of adaptation can no longer decreases. In this context, its vitality takes a hit and goes off gradually.If  the  implications  of  out-of-equilibrium  thermodynamics  suggest  a  likely  collapse  of  the most energy-dissipating human societies, the question then is if it is possible to avoid or at least delay collapse of such societies. To do this, the dynamics of the process needs to be understood in order to evolve slowly enough to continually have the time to adapt itself far from the obsession with competitiveness that feed a frantic race that have no other aim than to keep a market share.

So what light do these considerations throw upon our fundamental problem?
Thus,  the  conception  of  laws  in  thermodynamics  is  different  from  that  commonly  accepted in  economics  where,  ultimately,  there  is  no  choice  but  to  adapt  or  disappear;  it  is synonymous with common property and, more generally, with trend or regularity empirically observable.  In  other  words,  it  is  not  performative.  Most  economists  forget  or  are  unaware that  the  answers  provided  by  models  are  valid  only  in  a  given  context:  there  are  no universal economic laws valid at all times and in all places.

Moreover,  the  non-equilibrium  thermodynamics,  which  postulates  the  existence  of  a  local thermodynamic  equilibrium  for  each  of  the  elementary  subsystems  associated  with  an element  of  space-time,  opens  the  field  to  diversity  and  sensitivity  to  initial  conditions.  As Henri Poincaré  (1908b,  p.72),  points  out, "if  it  may  happen  that  small  differences  in  the initial conditions generate very large differences in the final phenomena; a small mistake on the first would produce a huge mistake on the last ones. Prediction becomes impossible".

The  facts  of  everyday  life  in  the  field  of  alternative  and  renewable  energy,  which  are generally  ignored  in  economics,  become  worthy  objects  of  study  that  need  to  be  carefully studied by energy engineers, which undermines any  fixed point,  any  formula  that  is ready, any step that starts with some certainty or leads to certainty. In the world of certainty, there is no room for questioning, nor for substantive debate. There are only answers, ready-made solutions,  denying  time,  space,  and  local  cultural  heritage.  However,  as  Ilya  Prigogine (1998)  pointed  out  in  an  interview,  thirty  years  ago, "complexity  is  when the  truth  is  no longer certain, and uncertainty is not more ignorance". Moreover, the enemy of complexity, noted Edgar  Morin  (1990,  p.254), "is  not  the  simplicity,  it  is  the  mutilation.  Mutilation  can take  the  form  of  one-dimensional  conceptions  or  reductive  conceptions".  

by asdf on Thu Jul 11th, 2019 at 07:13:45 PM EST

I trust this link works .... expands on the Fermi Paradox and intelligent (?) civilization (?). 😒

by Oui on Thu Jul 11th, 2019 at 08:35:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
From Oui's link:
However, as discussed above, exponential human population growth and colonization of the planet may not be a sustainable development pattern. This fact calls into question a core justification for the assumption of exponential expansion of ETI civilizations. If ETI civilizations share similar development issues as human civilization, as is assumed in the Fermi Paradox, then ETI civilizations would not be able to sustain exponential expansion [20]. Likewise, if exponential expansion could not be sustained, then ETI civilizations would either have switched
6to a slower-growth development pattern or collapsed. Collectively, these possibilities suggest the "Sustainability Solution" to the Fermi Paradox: The absence of ETI observation can be explained by the possibility that exponential growth is not a sustainable development pattern for intelligent civilizations.

This line of reasoning I find in line with the arguments presented in the paper on which this diary is based. To me the similarities between the end result of the experiment in which a single paramecium is placed in a beaker of agar and allowed to multiply until the population collapses and the fate of any 'civilization undertaking exponential growth are far more compelling than are their differences. If we, as a civilization, cannot do better than to undertake exponential growth in a finite ecosystem we will richly deserve a similar fate.

The problems that arise from energy dissipation, as presented in the paper strongly argue in favor of building down our population and reducing our impact on the ecosystem if we want our species even to survive the next 500 years. IMO, absent a deliberate process to greatly reduce our impact on our environment the probabilities of anything like what we call 'civilization surviving the next millennium are dim.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 02:14:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Kenneth Boulding said back in the 1950s:

To believe in unlimited growth in a finite world one had to be either a fool or an economist

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 05:14:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Thu Jul 11th, 2019 at 10:26:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the spirit of that article, it doesn't matter until we encounter other life forms. We still have to solve the problems of living on our planet of origin. So far other options seem inferior to saving Earth. Mars might be made viable, but it will always be a pale second in habitability to Earth.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 01:41:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Increasing dissipation of energy cannot be the future of humanity. Luckily, the outstanding distinguishing feature of humans is their ability to adapt. Edgar Morin proposes the solution.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 10:57:28 AM EST
Is there a precis?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 05:52:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Saikat Chakrabarti Admits the Green New Deal Is Not about Climate Change

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 06:09:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the two goals are entangled. Can't really do one without the other. The trick is just to get started. I am very pleased we have the amount of renewable energy sources that we presently do. As renewables grow for reasons of cost competitiveness that will drive other aspects as well.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 06:24:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a collection of articles he has written on the subject of ecology and humanity, starting around 1970. He has been very little translated into English :
Morin did not embrace the French postmodern or poststructuralist movements, instead pursuing his own research agenda. As a result, US academics did not transport his theories into disciplinary discourses in same fashion as they did Foucault's and Derrida's.

He just turned 98. Ironically for the theoretician of complex thought, he's pretty good at Twitter :

"They label me a sociologist; in fact, I work on the trinitarian nature of humanity : individual, society, species. It's anthropology, in the literal sense : the transdisciplinary connection of all human knowledge; which led me to complexity."

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Wed Jul 17th, 2019 at 11:39:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You might want to take a look at Adrian Bejan's Constructal Theory as well:  "For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed (global) currents that flow through it."

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 05:56:09 PM EST
Adrian Bejan - Constructal Law  Duke Universisty

The constructal law is the law of physics that accounts for the phenomenon of evolution (configuration, form, design) throughout nature, inanimate flow systems and animate systems together.

The constructal law was stated by Adrian Bejan, the J.A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, in 1996 as follows1, 2:

 "For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it."

 The constructal law places the concepts of life, evolution, design and performance in physics, which is in the broadest scientific arena. The constructal law is the law of physics of life and evolution3-5.

The constructal law accounts for the arrow of time6, which is the direction of the evolution of flow organization over time.

Constructal theory   ScienceDaily

The constructal theory of global optimization under local constraints explains in a simple manner the shapes that arise in nature.

It is the thought that flow architecture comes from a principle of maximization of flow access, in time, and in flow configuration that are free to morph.

The constructal law proclaims a tendency in time about the generation of animate and inanimate flow systems: "the maximization of access for the currents that flows through a morphing flow system. " This theory replaces the belief that nature is fractal, and allows one to design and analyse systems under constraints in a quest for optimality.

This theory allows the design and understanding of natural systems, thermal dissipators, communication networks, etc.

Exposing a solar panel to the sun and extracting electricity directly maximizes the flow of energy from the sun to human uses.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Jul 12th, 2019 at 06:44:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Kinda similar to constructor theory:

Constructor theory is a mode of explanation proposed by David Deutsch, visiting professor of physics at the University of Oxford, who pioneered the theory of the universal quantum computer. With constructor theory, Deutsch generalises some of the insights that led to that earlier idea, applying them now to the whole of physics.

In constructor theory, physical laws are formulated only in terms of which tasks are possible (with arbitrarily high accuracy, reliability, and repeatability), and which are impossible, and why - as opposed to what happens, and what does not happen, given dynamical laws and initial conditions. A task is impossible if there is a law of physics that forbids it. Otherwise, it is possible - which means that a constructor for that task - an object that causes the task to occur and retains the ability to cause it again - can be approximated arbitrarily well in reality. Car factories, robots and living cells are all accurate approximations to constructors.

Find a constructor for civilization survival.
by das monde on Mon Jul 15th, 2019 at 04:59:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
OOP solves "riddle of life"

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Mon Jul 15th, 2019 at 05:57:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
OOP is too good
The problem with object-oriented languages is they've got all this implicit environment that they carry around with them. You wanted a banana but what you got was a gorilla holding the banana and the entire jungle.
by das monde on Mon Jul 22nd, 2019 at 12:39:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very much the same answer to the riddle of life:
Given a particular energy source, some arrangements of atoms will be better at absorbing and spending it than others. These arrangements are more likely to undergo an irreversible transformation. What if some systems get better at doing this than others over time? Then the series of irreversible transformations become an effect that compounds, pulling itself up by its bootstraps [...]

Of course, a system of atoms isn't trying to do anything -- it's just blindly, randomly, shuffling itself around. And yet, through its journey from one shape to another, a constellation of chemical stories, it self-organizes into something that looks to us like it has adapted [...]

[...] Darwinian natural selection could be recast as a special case of the more generalized phenomenon of dissipative adaptation, a dialect of a more fundamental language. Whereas dissipative adaptation occurs on the micro-scale, natural selection takes place in the world of macroscopic self-replicators. And self-replication is an excellent way to consume and dissipate energy. In the language of dissipative adaptation, words like "fitness" take on new meaning. "Fitness is defined here not in terms of a set of optimal functionalities, but rather as its 'give and take' relationship with available energy from the environment,"

by das monde on Wed Jul 17th, 2019 at 06:45:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Understanding collapse dynamics must be very dissipative. What can we know without experience itself?

A most likely effect of climate climate would be going down Maslow's pyramid of needs, or Graves' levels of existence. End of progress, universal deontology, kumbaya correctness. Return of (survival) myths, faith, and heroes saving pockets of humanity. Organised religion will be there for consolation and burials on demand.

by das monde on Mon Jul 15th, 2019 at 04:47:36 AM EST

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Mon Jul 15th, 2019 at 05:53:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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