Category Archives: sustainability

Existential connection between capitalism and entropy

global average temperature with timeAccording to Raj Patel and Jason W Moore, in his treatise ‘Das Kapital’ Karl Marx defined capitalism as combining labour power, machines and raw materials to produce commodities that are sold for profit which is re-invested in yet more labour power, machines and raw materials.  In other words, capitalism involves processes that produce profit from an economic perspective, and from a thermodynamic perspective produce entropy because the second law of thermodynamics demands that all real processes produce entropy.  Thermodynamically, entropy usually takes the form of heat dissipated into the environment which raises the temperature of the environment; however, it can also be interpreted as an increase in the disorder of a system [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ on November 2nd, 2016].  The ever-expanding cycle of profit being turned into capital implies that the processes of producing commodities must also become ever larger.  The ever-expanding processes of production implies that the rate of generation of entropy also increases with time.  If no profit were reinvested in economic processes then the processes would still increase the entropy in the universe but when profit is re-invested and expands the economic processes then the rate of entropy production increases and the entropy in the universe increases exponentially – that’s why the graphs of atmospheric temperature curve upwards at an increasing rate since the industrial revolution.  As if that is not bad enough, the French social economist, Thomas Piketty has proposed that the rate of return on capital, “r” is always greater than the rate of growth of the economy, “g” in his famous formula “r>g”.  Hence, even with zero economic growth, the rate of return will be above zero and the level of entropy will rise exponentially.  Piketty identified inequality as a principal effect of his formula and suggested that only cataclysmic events, such as world wars or revolutions, can reduce inequality.  The pessimistic thermodynamicist in me would conclude that an existential cataclysmic event might be the only way that this story ends.

Sources

Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore, A history of the world in seven cheap things, London: Verso, 2018.

Thomas Piketty, A brief history of equality, translated by Steven Rendall, Harvard: Belknap, 2022.

Diane Coyle, Piketty the positive, FT Weekend, 16 April/17 April 2022.

Image: Global average near surface temperature since the pre-industrial period from www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/global-average-near-surface-temperature

Planning to give up fossil fuels

Decorative image from video mentioned in postAt the start of last month, I wrote about the need for national plans to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels [see ‘Bringing an end to thermodynamic whoopee‘ on December 8th, 2021].  If we are to reduce carbon emissions to the levels agreed in Paris at COP 21 then the majority of the population as well as organisations in a country will need to engage with and support the national plan which implies that it must transcend party politics.  This level of engagement will likely require us to have a well-informed public debate in which we listen to diverse perspectives and consider multifarious solutions that address all of the issues, including the interests of a fossil fuel industry that employs tens of millions of people worldwide [see EU JRC Science for Policy report on Employment in the Energy Sector] and makes annual profits measured in hundreds of billions of dollars [see article in Guardian newspaper about $174 billion profit of 24 largest oil companies].  Perhaps, learned societies nationally and universities regionally could collate and corroborate evidence, host public debates, and develop plans.  This process is starting to happen organically [for example, see Climate Futures: Developing Net Zero Solutions Using Research and Innovation]; however, the urgency is such that a larger, more focussed and coordinated effort is required if we are to bring about the changes required to avoid the existential threat [see ‘Disruptive change required to avoid existential threats‘ on December 1st, 2021].

Ice bores and what they can tell us

Map of Greenland sheet showing depth of iceAbout forty years ago, I was lucky enough to be involved in organising a scientific expedition to North-East Greenland.  Our basecamp was on the Bersaerkerbrae Glacier in Scoresby Land, which at 72 degrees North is well within the Arctic Circle and forty years ago was only accessible in summer when the snow receded.  We measured ablation rates on the glacier [1], counted muskoxen in the surrounding landscape [2] [see ‘Reasons for publishing scientific papers‘ on April 21st 2021] and drilled boreholes in the ice of the glacier.  We performed mechanical tests on the ice cores obtained from different depths in the glacier and in various locations in order to assess the spatial distribution of the material properties of the ice in the glacier. This is important information for producing accurate simulations of the flow of the glacier, although our research did not extend to modelling the glacier.  We could also have used our ice cores to investigate the climatic history of the region.  The Greenland ice sheet contains an archive record of the climate on Earth for about the last half million years, stored in the snow and trapped air bubbles accumulated over that time period.  If the ice sheet melts then that unique record will be lost forever.

The thumbnail image is a map of the depth of ice in the Greenland ice sheet.  The map is about five years old and has a wide green fringe along the east coast.  Scoresby Land is the penisula to the north of the large fiord in the middle of the east coast.  In 1982, the edge of the ice sheet was about 80 miles from the Bersaerkerbrae Glacier, whereas today it is at least twice that distance because the ice sheet is receding.

References:

[1] Patterson EA, 1984, A mathematical model for perched block formation. Journal of Glaciology. 30(106):296-301.

[2] Patterson EA, 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63.

Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b5/Greenland_ice_sheet_AMSL_thickness_map-en.svg/2000px-Greenland_ice_sheet_AMSL_thickness_map-en.svg.png

Saving ourselves

I thought the photograph with last week’s blog [see ‘Happy New Year‘ on December 29th, 2021] might cause some comments.  It was taken during a road trip in the USA as we were heading west on the Interstate 90, just west of Murdo in South Dakota, on our way to Yellowstone National Park from Michigan where we lived for nearly a decade.  It shows a skeleton dinosaur being led on a leash by a skeleton human.  As a genus, non-avian dinosaurs existed for about 150 million years and the last one died about 66 million years ago. Our genus, Homo, has only been around for about 2.5 million years so there was never an overlap with dinosaurs. Our species, Homo Sapiens have only been around for about the last 200,000 years. These time-spans are not long relative to the age of the oldest rocks on the planet, which have been estimated to be 4.6 billion years old, and implies that the Earth survived perfectly well without dinosaurs and humans for billions years.  We have thrived during an epoch, the Holocene, during which the climate has been relatively stable compared to the previous epoch, the Pleistocene. However, if we cannot resolve the existential threats facing our species then it is likely that, like non-avian dinosaurs, we will only exist as skeletons in the future and the planet will adapt to existence without us.  Perhaps the emphasis of many campaigns associated with climate change should shift from saving the planet to saving ourselves – we might be more focussed on coming together to address the selfish challenge.

Reference:

Helen Gordon, Notes from Deep Time, London: Profile Books, 2021.