“If you don’t have some appreciation of the economy as being embedded in the natural systems of the planet, you’re not going to get very far understanding why we’ve got the problems we have with the environment, and how we’re going to solve them.”
— Peter Victor, York University
The 2010 climate talks in Cancún ended with a marginal climate deal that proposed funds for climate mitigation but no mechanism to provide the money, and carbon emission cuts that remain non-binding and too negligible to arrest global warming. British scientist John Beddington warned the conference offered “little chance” of limiting global warming to 2°C and conceded, “We have to focus on adaptation.” Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released data showing atmospheric CO2 at record levels, and The Royal Society published a report, Four degrees and beyond, warning humanity to prepare for a 4°C warmer world.
Human society has known the global warming science since 1896, when Swedish physicist Svente Arrhenius described and predicted the effect. At that time, CO2 concentrations had started to grow from pre-industrial 280 parts per million (ppm) to 290ppm. In 1979, James Lovelock sent Greenpeace a graph of atmospheric CO2, which we pinned to our office wall, showing CO2 concentrations at 337 ppm. By 1985, when the first climate conference opened in Villach, Austria, CO2 concentrations had reached 345 ppm. The assembled scientists ‘expected’ significant warming.
Last summer, CO2 concentrations reached over 390 ppm. Meanwhile, methane gas rises from melting Arctic tundra, 13 million hectares of forest disappear each year and acidic seas and dying coral reefs absorb less carbon; these factors increase the rate of planetary heating.
With a century of science and 25 years of conferences behind us, why are we still losing ground in the global warming battle? We might blame greed, delusion or denial. However, one important piece of the answer may appear at the very roots of our global economic system.
A drainage ditch in Gurao, China clogged with wastewater and trash. Here the economy is centered around textile production and Greenpeace has found high levels of industrial pollution and has documented the effects on the community. Image: Qiu Bo / Greenpeace
Economics without limits
“Some very respected economists have been saying some very erroneous things for a very long time.”
-Herman Daly, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development.
In 1972, biophysicist Donella Meadows and her colleagues at the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, explaining how declining resources would eventually limit economic growth. The following year, economist Robert Solow delivered a lecture to the American Economics Association in response. Solow claimed that capital could be substituted for resources and that if this were true, then “the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.”
In neoclassic economic terms, Solow’s ‘production function’ states that economic ‘output’ is a product of capital x labour x resources. If this were true then, with a stable work force, as industry depletes resources, production could be maintained by increasing capital. This notion has remained a conventional economic justification for unlimited growth.
However, in 1971, Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen published The Entropy Law and Economic Process, formulating what he called ‘Bioeconomics’, exposing certain errors in conventional economic theory. Georgescu-Roegen made an important distinction between resources on the one hand and capital, labour and technologies on the other.
Money, or capital, is not transformed in the industrial process. However, resources – materials and energy – pass through the production process and are changed from raw materials into products and waste. This transformation must obey the laws of energy conversion, or thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, known as the ‘Entropy Law’ states that energy is always depleted and degraded in any mechanical process. Georgescu-Roegen showed how this law also applies to material transformation.
This may sound technical, but it's actually very simple. We cannot burn the same barrel of oil twice. Common sense tells us that a pile of boards and sawdust is not a tree, even if it represents the same amount of material. Although we can recycle materials, every transformation degrades matter and burns energy. There is no escape. Money, therefore, is not a substitute for energy, trees, fresh water or any other resource, and material constraints do indeed limit economic growth.
A saline deposit is the only evidence left of a small lake in the Star Sea Lake area of China which completely dried up in 2001. Image: Greenpeace / John Novis
“Since the Entropy Law allows no way to cool a continuously heated planet, thermal pollution could prove to be a more crucial obstacle to growth than the finiteness of accessible resources.”
-Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, 1975
Entropy is a measure of disorder in a system. Without energy, physical order decays toward disorder. Sunlight bathes Earth daily, offsets entropy and allows organic organisation. We eat to bring that solar energy into our personal biological system. However, every biological or mechanical process transforms useful energy (low entropy) into waste energy (high entropy).
Georgescu-Roegen showed that human economics had to respect the entropy law. This is why there is no such thing as a ‘perpetual motion’ machine. A machine cannot create the resources that it transforms. Tools can increase the harvest but they don’t create resources. Ancient hunters knew this. Making more arrowheads did not create more bison. Farmers have known this throughout history, which is why fields were left fallow to recover nutrients and energy.
The entropy law applies to materials as well as to energy. We can transform a tree into a table but we can’t transform a table back into a tree. We can recycle a table into building materials but this requires more energy and involves a net loss of both energy and material. Everyone who keeps a house can witness how entropy works. Order falls apart easily but it takes energy to put it back together again. A house left on its own does not get cleaner or more organised- it collects dust and gets less organised. That’s entropy at work.
Georgescu-Roegen and later economists such as Donella Meadows and Herman Daly (Steady State Economics) showed that resource depletion is inevitable with all economic activity. In nature, ‘sustainability’ is the state of homeostasis, balance with the material and energy flows available in a habitat. The promoters of endless growth mock this as pessimism but, to any biologist or physical scientist, it is simple realism. When we look around at our degraded Earth – acidic seas, drained aquifers, growing deserts, extinct species – we witness the entropic cost of human economic growth.
Georgescu-Roegen also stated that industrial growth necessarily results in social conflict (over depleted resources) and inequality, both regional (the rich taking resources from the poor) and inter-generational (today’s society leaving resource scarcity and waste to future generations.)
New wind turbines are constructed at the Butterwick Moor Wind Farm in the UK. Image: Steve Morgan / Greenpeace
Quest for homeostasis
“They bombard us with adverts cajoling us to insulate our homes, turn down our thermostats, drive a little less, walk a little more. The one piece of advice you will not see on a government list is ‘buy less stuff!’”
-Tim Jackson, UK Sustainable Development Commission
Today, humanity finds itself in a complex dilemma. Our primary energy source is heating Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land. To stop the heating, we must make a transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind and solar. But there is more. Hydrocarbons have allowed us to grow our numbers and consumption at unprecedented rates, and that growth itself degrades our resource base and frustrates the transition.
University of Manitoba Environment and Energy Professor Vaclav Smil warns that the biggest challenge with the transition from hydrocarbons is the scale of our oil-based economy. In the 19th century, during the transition from biomass (wood) to coal, it took over 60 years for coal to grow from 5 percent to 50 percent of human energy use. However, today, our overall energy consumption is 20 times greater than it was then.
Smil warns that the transition to renewables will take longer since “the absolute quantities that need to be replaced have only become bigger.” He advises that to make such a conversion feasible requires “decreasing the rates of per capita energy use.” The leading strategies of our energy transition must be reduction and conservation.
The entropy law teaches us that tools – including computers and windmills – do not create resources; tools burn resources. Humanity has stumbled over this fact of nature in the Sumerian cedar forests, on ancient denuded Greek hillsides, on Easter Island, and today on a global scale.
Global warming has not slowed down because it is a symptom of a deeper problem: a belief in unlimited growth. Biophysical economists such as Georgescu-Roegen, Meadows and Daly are the Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo of our age. They looked behind conventional delusions and discovered the truth. The status quo today, as in the 16th century, ignored and mocked them. However, just as the cosmos revealed itself, so too will nature here on Earth. Nature shall not be mocked.
In the end, our quest for sustainability will be governed not by wishful thinking but by nature’s laws. Anywhere in nature – in a watershed, on an island or on the entire planet – a species endures only when it discovers homeostasis, living within the natural energy and material flow of its habitat.
Deep Green is Rex Weyler's monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.