How entropy leads us to degrowth

Image: Wendelin Jacober
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By CRELIS RAMMEL*

Circular and other green economies are prisoners of fruitless efforts to divorce growth from its harmful ecological effects

Introduction

A voracious beast devours the equivalent of an entire Mount Everest of resources every 20 months. It also speeds up your metabolism, as it will reduce this period to just 10 months over the next two decades.[I] By filling its belly, the beast depletes its environment and overloads it with waste, disrupting natural systems of resource renewal and waste management. Ultimately, it annihilates its own habitat. I am referring, of course, to global capitalism.

This system requires continuous accumulation of capital and falters when it is harmed in this process. The typical response to the ecological crisis is therefore not to restrict economic growth, but to place all hope in efficiency, circularity, dematerialization, decarbonization and other profit-oriented green innovations within capitalism.

In the exposition that follows, I argue that this hope is false because entropy always comes with it. Entropy is a physical measure of disorder; Now, we are observing its inexorable increase around us: everything decays, rots, disintegrates and falls into disorder. Simultaneously, the biosphere establishes order through processes such as photosynthesis, ecological succession or cellular regeneration. These natural processes slow down and reduce entropy.

In this article, I demonstrate how the capitalist system disrupts this balance, as it increases entropy and thus overloads the natural processes of entropy reduction. I then argue that circular and other green economies are prisoners of fruitless efforts to divorce growth from its harmful ecological effects. We must consider the idea of ​​an economy that does not need expansion. I therefore conclude by endorsing the radical proposition of degrowth.

Energy conservation

The environmental crisis arises not only from a quantitative imbalance between available resources and their consumption by the world economy, but also from the qualitative deterioration of matter and energy that permeates the economy. To understand this, we must turn to thermodynamics, a branch of physical science that explains how energy transforms from one form to another, following some fundamental natural laws. Given the complexities of thermodynamics, I will strive to present the arguments simply.

In the heart of a forest, a monkey finds chemical energy concentrated in the form of a banana. The monkey quickly converts the banana into usable energy to maintain its physical condition, i.e. climbing trees, fighting enemies, and so on. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can change form, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The initial chemical energy contained in the banana transforms into chemical energy regenerating cells in the monkey's body, kinetic energy fueling its physical activities and thermal energy radiating as body heat.

The same principle applies to natural gas: when the energy contained in a cubic meter of natural gas is measured and burned to drive a generator, the energy stored in the natural gas is equivalent to the energy consumed in generating electricity plus the heat released by the generator . In short: energy changes form, but it never disappears.

The law of entropy

Why do we face an energy crisis when energy is indestructible? The second law of thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Entropy, holds the answer. When we turn off the heating in our home, the heat from the radiator will disperse and infiltrate through the walls until a state of “thermal equilibrium” is reached, meaning the indoor and outdoor temperatures become equal.

At this point, entropy, a measure of energy dispersion, reaches its maximum. According to the Law of Entropy, thermal energy flows spontaneously from a hotter body to a colder one, never the other way around. If we don't restart the heating system, heat will eventually escape to the outside world, and new energy will be needed to raise the ambient temperature once again. Inevitably, this newly added energy will also dissipate, making it unavailable for further use. This sums up the essence of the energy crisis.

The Law of Entropy applies not only to heat, but to energy in general. A charged battery contains concentrated chemical energy. When connected to a device, this chemical energy turns into electrical energy that spontaneously flows out of the battery. Essentially, the Law of Entropy states that energy naturally moves from areas with high concentrations of energy to areas with lower concentrations, resulting in an increase in entropy. The radiator in the previous example contained a greater concentration of thermal energy than its colder environment, causing this energy to radiate outward.

In summary: energy flows from high to low concentrations.

This dispersion of energy also affects matter. For example, it can lead to food spoilage, metal corrosion, and clothing wear. This deterioration occurs through the spontaneous release of energy that binds atoms and molecules together. According to the Law of Entropy, both energy and matter tend to disperse, increasing overall entropy. This process is also at the basis of the gradual breakdown of our cells. “Entropy carries a very ominous connotation,” my partner once commented.

Energy consumption and inefficiencies

Fortunately, other natural processes operate in the opposite direction, otherwise bananas would never exist. But how does energy concentrate when, following the law of entropy, it disperses spontaneously? The answer lies in a subordinate consequence of the Law of Entropy: heat can only flow from a cold body to a hot body “performing work” in the physical sense. This means that additional energy is required to transfer energy from a dispersed state to a concentrated state.

For example, a radiator only emits heat after a heating system has concentrated thermal energy. A battery only provides electricity after a charger does the work, concentrating the chemical energy. Likewise, a monkey must perform work by harvesting and digesting bananas to replace lost chemical energy and concentrate it in its body.

In short: concentrating energy requires supplementary energy.

But be careful, there is a “however”: “work” has a cost. Work may reduce entropy locally, but it consumes energy from an external source, thus increasing entropy elsewhere. The monkey keeps its own entropy low by eating bananas, but causes an increase in entropy in the forest through discarded banana peels, body heat, and feces. Gas heaters counteract heat loss, but achieve this reduced internal entropy at the expense of increased entropy in the biosphere through the extraction, purification, delivery, and burning of low-entropy natural gas.

And there is, however, another “but”: total entropy increases. A second subaltern consequence of the law of entropy states that no transfer of energy to useful work is 100% efficient. Work is considered “useful” when it decreases entropy.

As mentioned earlier, our primate friend eats bananas to maintain relatively low entropy in his body. However, energy losses occur during the transfer of energy from the banana to the monkey in the form of food waste and perspiration. Not only does the monkey decrease its own entropy at the cost of an increase in the forest, but because of these losses, the reduction is less than the increase. Useful work always entails losses, like the peanut butter residue left on the knife after breakfast.

In short: energy conversions are never 100% efficient.

Entropy and economics

What do these natural laws mean for the economy? In the 1970s, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the pioneer of ecological economics, predicted the inevitable end of capitalism, mainly due to its inherent tendency to increase entropy.[ii] He demonstrated that the economy involves not only a circulation system but also a digestion system directly connected to the environment at both ends.

Thus, the growth rate of the economy essentially means the rate at which we transform low-entropy resources into high-entropy waste. Fossil fuels enter our economy as organized matter and energy, but leave as dispersed heat, chemicals, carbon dioxide and microplastics.

We delude ourselves when we assume that our economies can establish order by converting low-entropy natural resources into even lower-entropy materials. This appearance of order is deceptive, as the production process invariably implies an increase in entropy in the environment.

Purifying ores into usable materials can reduce entropy in the materials themselves, but the purification process requires external energy sources (as dictated by the first subaltern consequence of the Law of Entropy) and inevitably incurs energy losses (as dictated by the second subconsequence subaltern of the Law of Entropy), thus increasing overall entropy. Thus, a lower entropy of semi-finished products compared to the materials from which they are produced does not mean that the law of entropy has been violated.

Nature's Counterbalance to Entropy

So far, I have mainly discussed how entropy increases, but how can it decrease locally? When monkeys eat bananas, they increase entropy in the forest. How can the forest then produce new bananas? The forest can recycle peels and feces, but this waste contains insufficient energy to produce new bananas because the monkeys have used up the difference.

Nature intervenes to compensate for this deficit through the inexhaustible energy of the sun. The biosphere takes advantage of solar energy to perform “useful work”, that is, to concentrate dispersed energy and matter in the form of new bananas (as dictated by the first subordinate consequence of the Law of Entropy). A healthy and well-functioning biosphere is therefore the only force on Earth capable of counteracting increasing entropy.

However, nature has its limits when it comes to absorbing and recycling waste streams. For example, banana regeneration depends on the rates of photosynthesis, nutrient absorption, tree growth and fruiting. These rates also limit the monkeys' rate of reproduction. In contrast to the metabolism of a group of forest monkeys, the metabolism of the destructive beast called capitalism expands too quickly for the biosphere to keep up.

Ecosystems have evolved over millions of years to optimize energy consumption in ecological food webs and to slow and reduce entropy through biodiversity. Tragically, growth-oriented economies do just the opposite, pushing against this natural order and increasing entropy at a devastating rate.

And when nature imposes limits, capitalism actively seeks ways to get around them, inevitably leading to new limits. As an illustration, we develop monocultures to facilitate mechanical farming, but as a result, the soil dries out. In response, we introduce irrigation, which then depletes groundwater, and we create drought-tolerant crops.

When these crops degrade life in the soil, we invent something else. Unfortunately, this pattern has serious consequences, as evidenced by the ongoing climate crisis and declining biodiversity. Capitalism, in its pursuit of relentless growth, damages the very biosphere it depends on to mitigate its entropy-amplifying activities. If we stay on this path, the planet faces a bleak future as an environmental desert.

Delink the economy from nature?

Can't we combat entropy through frugal and circular production? The typical response to the ecological crisis is not to slow down growth, but to rely on dematerialization and circularity. However, “green capitalism” cannot maintain itself, much less grow, just by reusing its own waste and by-products.

Just as monkeys need fresh bananas from the forest and cannot survive on their own feces, production systems require new inputs of low-entropy matter and energy to function. This applies to a forest that depends on solar energy from space and cannot survive on leaf fall alone. The shift to biomass as a feedstock for production will also not save green growth as it will intensify pressure on land, water and soil.

At first glance, it may seem that there is still immense potential for circularity and efficiency, given that the global economy recovers less than 10% of waste[iii] and retains only 28% of global primary energy consumption after conversion.[iv] However, substantial constraints arise long before achieving 100% circularity and efficiency. The circularity potential is restricted to just 29% of the total throughput. The remaining portion includes food and energy that have suffered irreversible degradation, as well as net additions to buildings and infrastructure unavailable for recycling.[v]

Even the effort to reach that 29% will be difficult. As explained, the reconcentration of dispersed materials requires energy investments and is accompanied by inevitable transmission losses that increase the overall entropy. Energy consumption increases as recycling rates increase, and energy itself cannot be recycled. And even if we had access to inexhaustible renewable energy sources, closed loops would not be established for agrochemicals, coatings, lubricants, adhesives, paints and other complex materials for which recycling technology is not available.

Let me emphasize: even if we are far from achieving 100% circularity and efficiency, the laws of nature will always prevent us from achieving this goal. To counteract all the inevitable losses and inefficiencies, we need a constant influx of fresh, low-entropy matter and energy. This requirement also applies to circular economies and other green growth models. The encouraging news is that the biosphere can convert certain types and quantities of waste back into raw materials. However, it is not reasonable to anticipate that the biosphere will perform this service at the same rapid rate at which our economies increase entropy.

In search of radical alternatives

Our supposed dominion over nature is an illusion. No matter how clever technological innovations may seem, they remain subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Consequently, a growth-centric capitalist economy finds itself trapped in futile attempts to completely detach itself from nature – aiming for a 100% circular, service-oriented and waste-free existence. This obsession stems from an inability to imagine a non-growing economy, where both the quantity and quality of its metabolism remain within safe ecological and planetary limits.

Therefore, we must seek radically different paths (in Latin radix means root). One of these alternatives is “degrowth”. In the broadest sense, “degrowth” represents a socioeconomic transformation that aims to reduce and redistribute material and energy flows, with the aim of respecting planetary boundaries and promoting social justice.

The increasing metabolism of the ravenous beast I began this article with has unevenly distributed burdens and benefits. World trade has resulted in a net outflow of low-entropy resources from the poorest areas of the world[vi] and an inflow of high-entropy waste back into these same areas.[vii] This has the consequence of depriving the poor of vital resources and harming their local ecosystems, while wealth continues to accrue to a small minority.

The degrowth argument goes beyond a response to the ecological crisis and includes the search for a fairer system. The voracious beast must yield to the tortoise. As a child, my parents gave me a small turtle. Over time, I noticed that he stopped growing before he became too big for the aquarium. When we bought a bigger aquarium, the turtle resumed its growth. But once again, it stopped before it became too big. Although the turtle no longer grew in size and weight, it continued to change in its proportions, colors and behaviors. Thus, the end of growth does not mean the end of development, but rather the opportunity to free ourselves from the compulsive and ruinous capitalist system. This will allow us to lead a healthier, social, sustainable and fair life.

*Crelis Rammelt is professor of environmental geography at the University of Amsterdam.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on Real-world Economics Review, edition no. 107, March 2024.

References


Dorninger, Christian, Alf Hornborg, David J. Abson, Henrik Von Wehrden, Anke Schaffartzik, Stefan Giljum, John-Oliver Engler, Robert L. Feller, Klaus Hubacek and Hanspeter Wieland. 2021. “Global Patterns of Ecologically Unequal Exchange: Implications for Sustainability in the 21st Century.” Ecological Economy 179 (2021): 106824.

Forman, Clemens, Ibrahim Kolawole Muritala, Robert Pardemann and Bernd Meyer. 2016. “Estimating Global Waste Heat Potential.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 57 (May): 1568-1579.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicolau. 1971. The law of entropy and the economic process. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Haas, Willi, Fridolin Krausmann, Dominik Wiedenhofer and Markus Heinz. 2015. “How circular is the global economy?: An assessment of material flows, waste production and recycling in the European Union and the world in 2005.” Industrial Ecology Magazine 19 (5): 765-777.

Hornborg, Alf. 2009. “Zero-Sum World: Challenges in Conceptualizing Environmental Burden Shift and Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50 (3-4), 237-262.

Krausmann, Fridolin, Christian Lauk, Willi Haas and Dominik Wiedenhofer. 2018. “From Resource Extraction to Waste Outflows and Emissions: The Socioeconomic Metabolism of the Global Economy, 1900-2015.” Global Environmental Changes 52 (September): 131-140.

United Nations Environment Program and International Resource Panel. 2017. Assessing Global Resource Use: A Systems Approach to Resource Efficiency and Pollution Reduction. https://wedocs.unep.org/20.500.11822/27432

United Nations Environment Program and International Resource Panel. 2020. “Global Material Flows Database.” https://www.resourcepanel.org/global-material-flows-database

Notes


[I] Calculated based on Krausmann et al., 2018, in UNEP, & IRP 2017.

[ii] Georgescu-Roegen 1971

[iii] UNEP & IRP 2020

[iv] Forman et al., 2016

[v] Haas et. al. 2015.

[vi] Dorninger et al., 2021

[vii] Hornborg 2009


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