A few posts back, I made reference to a book I read nearly a quarter century ago. Entropy by author Jeremy Rifkin. Not sure of the exact date of my reading, and it only matters in light of the fact that he kind of stood my world view on its head (as I’m sure he would be delighted to hear me confess) and has influenced the way I have perceived the world ever since.
The title of the book is a term used to describe what the second law of thermodynamics is all about. No wait, come back, I didn’t mean to scare you off. We’re not going to get all technical here, and I wouldn’t be able to even if I tried. I’m a writer, not a scientist. I just want to wrap some basic ideas up in a nice neat package for you, that’s all, and maybe change the way you see the world, as well, once you understand what’s in the box.
So…energy. You can’t create it, and you can’t destroy it. But you can change it from one form into another. We’re masters at these processes of transformation, and have been performing our magic show with Nature’s raw materials for centuries now. We’ve gotten better and better at it over time. Now, we’re to the point where we can continually dig up and pump out of the earth massive amounts of energy, then change that energy into other more useful forms, like bobbles and trinkets, souvenirs and gadgets made out of bright, bendy plastic. Gizmos that add meaning and dimension to our lives, that give us happiness and joy, even if they fill up our landfills at an ever-increasing pace. “Big deal,” we say, tossing aside the old faded whatchamacallits with a nonchalant flair so we can go out and buy newer, more wonderful thing-a-ma-jigs that promise even deeper joy, and more profound delight. We are a species that loves to surround ourselves with stuff and nobody’s gonna stop us.
The transformation gig started off with wood as the energy source that could readily be changed into heat. Then we got our hands on some coal and realized that we wouldn’t be bothering with wood much longer. It’s inefficient compared to the black gold. Coal didn’t give us heat quite as readily as wood, but close enough, and we were quite thrilled with the new option. Then somebody set some oil on the back doorstep with a pack of matches beside it–daring us to light the thing off–and the future just exploded. Oil was way trickier than coal or wood, but boy did it pack a punch. Way bigger returns, even if it needed more prep work. Whole new industries sprang up overnight. We were rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.
In a very short time, we switched from the most convenient energy source to the most inconvenient in terms of what we have to go through to get what we want out of it. Heck, we can even split an atom apart if that’s all that’s separating us from our energy. We’ll do it. When you think about all that we’ve accomplished in a very short span of time, it kind of boggles the mind. We sure are smart.
Nothing I’ve written so far sounds all that ominous, but of course you know that this little tale of technological wonder must, by necessity, now take a downward turn. To do this, let’s use a very simple illustration to get the point across. It’s built on a few obvious premises: 1) for all intents and purposes, our planet is a closed system. In other words, we are, in very large part, self-contained. We don’t have a constant conveyor belt of mineral-laden raw materials streaming down from the heavens like manna to processing centers over in Baja; 2) Because of premise 1, we can safely say that, from day one all the way up to this present moment, we have had all the basic stuff that Earth is ever going to give us; 3) (this is a biggie) Once we use a raw material of any sort, at any time, and for any purpose, we can never ever again get as big a bang for our buck from that same material as we did the first go around (if you’re thinking that recycling is the answer, please realize that it’s a very small step we take, only leading to a much watered-down redemption… don’t stop doing it if you are recycling, just know that it’s a very small part of the solution). Okay…
A barrel of oil is extracted from the ground. It took a lot of energy to get it out. A lot! And it’s also going to take a lot more to turn it into just one of the myriad products that oil provides us with, such as plastics, fertilizers, consumer goods beyond our wildest dreams, and, oh yes…fuel for our cars.
At every step along the way of this transforming process I mentioned earlier, work is performed, and a sizable amount of that work gets lost, in terms of efficiency, in the form of heat (this is thermodynamics at its finest). The bigger the transformation from raw-material-straight-out-of-the-ground to shiny-finished-product-in-the-big-retail-store, the more losses we should expect in terms of that ever present bug-a-boo by-product…heat.
Our barrel of oil, in this example, has been transformed into that beautiful amber liquid we all crave, every day of the week, guzzling it down like a large soda pop propped on the dash, brimming with crushed ice on a hot day in the middle of summer…oh…yeah: gasoline.
Here’s the question…once that gasoline gets pumped into the fuel tank of your car, then ignited inside the pistons, so the cool wheels can propel you down the highway of life, or at least around the block to the kids’ school, the J-O-B, the bank, the fast food restaurant, the shopping mall, the tanning salon or the hardware store, and then down the highway of life if you live out in the suburbs…where does the gas go from there?
The easy answer, and the one we’re going to use, is-the atmosphere. Let’s say we don’t necessarily care about that too much for right now. What we care about more is whether or not we can ever use that same gallon of gasoline again. Can we? The answer is an emphatic No, and the reason for this is Entropy, which we will now more conveniently just call Pollution.
That barrel of oil was a once-in-a-lifetime, no-repeat-performances resource that will only serve us on a single pass through, then never again. There are no repeat performances (oh, and there you go again with the recycling, but No, you are probably…definitely…way off base). All of the energy that went into the clearing of land, the building of oil rigs, the transport of the discovered oil to the refineries, the refining process, itself, the transport of the refined products to their intermediate or final destinations, the usage of those products, and their ultimate disposal into the landfill grave, that energy is gone…forever.
But didn’t I just contradict myself by saying that the energy is gone? Yes I did. What I should say is that it is virtually gone. As in it might as well be gone, or that it’s as good as gone, or that we can kiss it goodbye gone. Every time energy in a concentrated form (such as oil) is used in another form to perform work (such as gasoline to move a car down the road), the end products are still other forms of energy. Now, however, these final, more uh…transformed forms are of much less use to us, and cannot be put back, so to speak, to perform that same work again. Like I said, it’s a one way trip. Would you disagree with me if I categorized Entropy, from a layman’s perspective, as nothing more than what it truly is–Pollution? That’s a neat package.
Here’s another package that can be laid right next to the first one and that wraps up just as neatly: Entropy is one of the most pervasive, persistent, and all-encompassing laws known to physics. Einstein said it reigns supreme and will never be unseated. It’s a law, but it’s also the stuff that’s piling up all around us, and there’s no way we can ever stop it. The more we try to shove it back in its box, the more it oozes out the sides.
The most energy we ever had to exploit was the day we invented fire. Since then, we’ve been steadily depleting our stockpile, and will, by necessity, always continue to do so. We confuse technology with energy, however, and they are certainly not one and the same. Technology, for us, has mostly been put in place so that we can deplete our storerooms ever more quickly, though no politician is ever going to admit that. He’ll call it other things, like ‘job growth,’ and ‘efficiency’ and ‘progress.’ In truth, all it really means is that we are burning through our supplies at an ever-increasing rate.
Any noble attempt to slow this train down would be a pursuit with virtue written all over it, and would be a huge component of our overall Climate Change solution, whatever else we might try, as well. But we’re never going to do that voluntarily. Faster and faster is how we always want to go. Mother Nature will have to teach us how to breathe deep again, how to be happy with less again. I sure hope She lets us have another go at it.
But now, revisiting the question of where the gas goes once it’s burned, let’s switch back to caring deeply about the fact that it’s all up in the air-literally.
The atmosphere is packed to the gills with this discarded energy. It’s so full of heat now, that we are experiencing the results in all the ways that Climate Change can show us the error of our ways. That barrel of oil we pumped out of the ground months ago is still very much with us. It’s just hovering around in the air up there as water vapor, methane, CO2, and other gasses that make up this mess we have created for ourselves. In fact, it will be up there for years and years to come.
Lest you believe any of these far-fetched notions of simply sucking the stuff back out of the atmosphere to solve all of our worries and woes, I hope I’ve just shown you that there is no such thing as a free lunch in physics. In the same way we have pumped the carbon into the air as a result of energy transformation, we would also have to be pump it back out of the air again, necessitating quite a lot of additional energy transformation in the process. The energy that would be (I won’t say ‘will be’ because I truly believe this is a non-starter) required to pull off such a stunt is prohibitive, at best, and contributive, at worst.
This, then, is Entropecology, and we couldn’t have devised a less desirable ecology for ourselves and our vulnerable habitat if we’d tried. We are dug in deep.
(Awkward moment when writer doesn’t know how to present a strong closing sentence. Probably because the situation he’s writing about is awkward and without a strong closing solution. But this is our circus, and these are our clowns. Where do we go from here? Maybe slap some solar panels on the big top?)
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