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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, 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".