Energy Philosophy For Entropic Times

Change has to come and will come. Peak Oil means we are going somewhere else where we could or might do better.

By Andrew McKillop
Published April 09, 2006

[Editor's Note: This essay was prepared for the New York City Peak Oil Conference, April 2006.]


If we are looking for an energy philosophy that might help us in troubled times, we can try out the multiple and disputed meanings of entropy. Warning: This has been tried before by many persons from many different angles. Some even jumped the gun, long ago, by disputing exactly how to state the Entropy Law, as it is called, while others rightly argued it is is fact a principle.

Finally it was settled and set down, but never to the agreement of all players. Those players were 19th Century, mostly European scientists of all types - engineers, mechanical scientists, astronomers, mathematicians and even politicians, like Sadi Carnot. Later on, all kinds of philosophers, historians, writers, journalists and more politicians joined the party.

As a consequence, nobody today knows exactly what the Entropy Law (or principle) really means, but it seems to have a dark side and could imply that chaos rules.

For starters, entropy only concerns macromolecular arrangement of matter; it doesn't concern subatomic stuff like quantum mechanics, cosmic ray showers and the tunnel effect in silicon diodes ? without which your home PC wouldnt work, or would need a 3-floor building and an aircon system to cool down the millions of radio valves it depended on.

Entropy probably doesn't concern the formation or expansion of the Universe. Entropy maybe doesn't apply to some biological processes, notably photosynthesis, or at least how some photosynthetic pigments work in plants. Entropy possibly doesn't concern or have much leverage on large scale, multispecies ecosystems. And so on.

The only thing we need to know about entropy is that it is only zero at zero absolute temperature, when all molecular, and therefore macromolecular, activity and movement stops. No movement, no entropy.

Any kind of movement, mixing, friction, vibration, chemical change, magnetic change and of course any rise in temperature will increase entropy, that is decrease order. When we move up to large assemblies of living things, themselves large assemblies of large molecules, this Fatal Flaw is very evident; so evident, in fact, that it is ways to counter entropy seem hard-wired, or genetically and behaviorally imprinted, into socially organized living things.

Thanks to so-called free will and lots of fossil fuels, we can pretend we chose to ignore this.

Forget the selfish gene heating up anxious voters by telling them you have to take big losses in I-raq now, for him to only suffer small election losses later on. This isn't how real living systems - that is the 99%+ of the biosphere that is not human - counters entropy after a few billion years of hands on experience.

These serious and seasoned players take small losses now to avoid big ? or fatal - losses later on. This is the entropy principle for and in living systems.

Stoicians Said It Better

This started from around 300 BC so it is old stuff, despite it being the longest continuous school of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, lasting about 550 years. Firstly, the early Stoicians said, there is no free will, and exactly like the entropy principle says, there is no free ride. When you are finished and you die, you go somewhere else where you might or could do better: feeding honest worms, for example.

We, the Stoicians said, don't know and won't know, ever. Coming closer to what the 19th C entropy scientists found out, the Stoicians, just like the much maligned Epircureans, explained that everything, simply everything is mixed and melded together. So everything is complicated and bad news travels fast.

Just like a virus or a prion, entropy communicates itself all over a system in a magic-seeming way: Black Magic, that is, if you thought you could squeeze every last bit of chemical energy in your car fuel and change it all to moving your car down the highway.

We have to look higher by looking down on the system, rather than up. When we do that, we can forget the paranoia because entropy is there to help us, in a complicated, strange or funny way.

Ludwig von Bertlanffy, the inventor of Systems Theory, which concerns mechanical, electrical, and even electronic, solar and atomic systems, and in theory (because it is a theory) living systems too, explained why he would not and could not accept or believe in 'classic' Darwinist evolution and its so-called 'survival of the fittest' doctrine, by focusing examples of so-irrational seeming, and evidently non-competitive behavior in living systems.

One example he gave was the behavior of Comaccio eels in the Atlantic. Rather than stay home in their European and North American rivers and estuaries they make vast ocean voyages across one-third of the planet to mate and reproduce. During this Odyssey they die like flies, or Comaccio eels, from hunger, predation, and exhaustion. Huge numbers never even meet and reproduce; even bigger numbers die straight after mating and reproducing, along with some of their offspring.

As Bertalanffy openly admitted, Comaccio eels or the rather well-known Scandinavian lemming do not appear to know anything about Systems Theory, or entropy. Systems Theory predicates constant adaptation ? by inanimate systems ? to the entropy constraint.

When or if there is falling energy supply, or an increase in local disorder the rest of the system changes to handle and equilibrate this perturbation, reduce the growth of entropy, and then tries to bring itself back to the previous 'equilibrium' state or level.

This happens, for example, with solar systems. After a while, perhaps only a few hundred million years after the spinning gas cloud and its central sun have got on the road to cooking up a new solar system and formed a first set of planet-like entities, the system can and will expulse any intruding would-be planets, for example big asteroids that try to crash their way into the party. In our solar system, Pluto probably got that treatment: there were already enough planets and newcomers werent needed.

Comaccio eels and lemmings seem to take no notice of that conservationist approach and seem to engage in a joyful suicide party, but in fact they do the same thing as the baby solar system, despite their method seeming bizarrely wasteful.

Not Interested

Living systems like eels or lemmings, or human beings, are not primarily and only interested in cutting the growth of entropy, if we only measure how efficiently they use energy in one generation, and if we choose to argue that for non-human living things food supply = energy, and minimum entropy = maximised population numbers.

Comaccio eels, and perhaps we too, have higher goals. In the case of Comaccio eels, exactly the right numbers get back to their home rivers and estuaries. After the ocean suicide party they will live right, without too much dispute and stress over food resources, that is energy, with their neighboring fish and amphibians.

The net result is they don't have to compete, because an awful long time ago it was decided that, for example, fish do not compete with frogs and birds do not compete with snakes, whatever Darwin might have said or imagined in print. In other words they don't 'compete' with birds, or trees, or humans in pleasure boats, as Darwinism claims they should: they took advance action, in their own way.

Their losses seemed big to us, but not to them.

So we could say, to be somewhat provocative, that America is doing the world a favor through consuming 26 percent of the world's oil production for 4.5 percent of its population, at a per capita barrel count of 25-per-year.

By every classic economic development model or theory you like, China and India could or should try to get up to the same insane level of profligacy and non-sustainability. Both of them have atomic weapons, and China has thermonuclear weapons, so no ray-jeem change will be happening in their direction.

The problem is the simple fact that it is physically impossible to produce that much oil so we don't have to worry about the far-out climate change implications of this unhappy state ever coming about. Try the numbers!

There is, however, a big difference between Comaccio eels and lemmings on one hand, and Americans on the other. The first two run on 100 percent renewable energy, and the second on depleting fossil energy. This means that if you want joyful mass suicide, do it with renewable energy in a sustainable way. Later on, biologists and systems analysts can study your behavior and conclude it is totally irrational, even suicidal, but some of you will still be there and can say, "So what?"


Yet another lesson of entropy 'law' is the age-old principle of Moderation. This can't be dated, but it is really old stuff, perhaps from about 3000 BC and the Apollon cult, so hysterically put down by Judaic, Christian and Islamic philosophers.

The Stoicians, Epicureans, and Cynics also believed in moderation with a big M. The best way to understand this principle is to ask how an average-intelligence parrot or squirrel, or whale or any non-human living thing would reply to the question: Should we maximise our dependence on a depleting resource of fossil energy, and irrevocably change the world's climate for hundreds, or thousands of years ahead by simply burning it?.

They would politely decline any thought of a thing so stupid, yet Nobel prizewinning economists tell us it is the best and only thing to do! You note the logic fault: if it is the only thing to do there is no need to ask if it is the best.

To find out what is best you need choices. We badly need choices.

Back in the times when human societies were 100 percent renewable energy based, and slaves were energy slaves, Socrates in about 425 BC set out how a serious and efficient ruling class should operate. Firstly, good rulers only work in the interests of their people, and the energy slaves of the people.

How would these good rulers avoid those kickbacks, under-the-table deals, or a Chevron supertanker named in their honor? This was simple! If the ideal rulers Socrates talked about accepted the fruit of the low-hanging trees, if they accepted any gift of any kind, they would be executed. If their lifestyle was anything other than moderate and exemplary, they would be demoted to slaves themselves, or executed.

Socrates had worked himself him up into one of his frequent moralizing tantrums, but Epictete the freed slave and Stoician, in 150 BC, put it better. He said send them somewhere else, far away, where they could or might do better than here, in this world where they can't behave right.

Could the White House be relocated and transferred behind the Green Line in Bagdad City, to ensure national energy security as well as total victory in the Global War on Terra? On this Earth, that is. As Shakespeare said, that is the question.

Neither Socrates or Epictete were impressed by democracy ? to them democracy and demagogy were two sides of the same coin, although this ignores what could be written on the side of the coin, on its thickness, where all kinds of neat messages or symbols can be added, to better fool the faithful.

Today, as we know, the USA is trying to increase its exports and reduce the trade gap by exporting democracy to the Middle East, with a peace dividend or war booty in the shape of 'enhanced oil exports' by New Iraq. That was the story we heard, circa 2003.

In fact, democracy-theocracy is such a failure in Iraq it doesn't even improve Iraq's oil export performace! Very likely the same result would accrue to exporting democracy to Saudi Arabia, perhaps explaining why nobody bothers to try it.

The answer is moderation. The USA could cut per capita oil consumption by 50 percent to European levels of consumption, almost overnight as they say. The Europeans could cut their oil intensity per capita by 50 percent. Everybody could get into the act, throughout the fossil-fuelled world, although people in poor countries using one barrel per capita a year could make the reasonable suggestion, "You do it first, brother".

The cult of moderation, as we said, goes back an awful long time before any so-called 'Religion of the Book', but the Apollon cult started out with an orgiastic, bisexual, serial killer god who became, as it were, tired and bored with excess.

He took a year's sabbatical as a sheep herd, and came back moderate. We can all do this, with the oil orgy, for one reason because Peak Oil says we have no other choice, even if what are laughingly called great leaders of the Free World (aka the International Community) tell us that the nicest and most natural thing is to launch another Oil War, against Iran.

Moderate countries moderate their war urge by moderating their oil appetite, and find other things to do like educate their people and provide medical services to everyone.

Small is Beautiful

Fritz Schumacher, who invented this slogan, also claimed that every philosophy that was ever invented has at least one grain or speck of truth in it, somewhere. He obviously forgot about the New Economy doctrine and its 'philosophy' which cutely says we have no choice in the No Future, but we will excuse Schumacher for his oversight.

His slogan has plenty of sense for a restructured, re-engineered and reorganized post-fossil energy future, if we want a sustainable economy and society. First, the entropy potential of big systems is necessarily bigger than of small systems, measured any way you like. This includes the total number of real idiots, which increases with and despite the increasing number of would-be Einsteins in ever larger population groups.

The number of possible errors also increases, that is there are more errors 'available' to the bigger system. Like different nations and languages and cultures, all menaced by Globalization, nature's way of cutting down on 'available' errors is to have radically different phylums and species. As we said before, fish and birds or reptiles and amphibians find it hard to compete and mess up each others lives because they are so radically different.

Temperature itself is a measure of entropy, so low temperature processes are more efficient than high temperature processes. This offers a golden rule for a simple thing like home heating: you only use hydro or wind electricity for heating if you can't find some other non-electric heating process, and you never ever use thermal generated electricity for space heating.

The catch is that around the world and on average 70 percent to 100 percent of national electric power systems are thermal based and world electricity demand is growing at about 7 percent per-year.

Temperature is movement of molecules and transportation is the biggest single user of oil. The number of processing and transportation stages to produce and deliver any consumer good or intermediate product used in manufacturing is at flat-out maximum in the globalized New Economy.

Some people are proud of their kid's soft toys or game consoles, or their dog's collar being shipped from Guangdong with bits and pieces made in Europe, India and Japan, but this only happens because energy is still cheap, dead cheap. This will not last, so get ready by becoming more self-reliant in soft toys.

The lowest energy transportation is water transport, helping explain why around 80 percent of the world's population lives within 80 kilometres of the sea. In cities, water transport will be coming back, aided by fast-increasing world sea levels.

We can have see-through, easily checked for security water tube delivery and transportation systems carrying all kinds of payloads and packets, snaking their way around restructured, low-energy cities. Those cycle rickshaw taxi drivers of NYC can turn the pedals of Venice-style gondolas and show tourists the sustainable city's acquaculture and mariculture zones, the former tower blocks converted to massive multistorey greenhouses.

Water, water, everywhere. Mexico City, before being regime changed by the Spanish invaders, was a floating city with four-storey constructions built on rafts of living vegetation and had about 50,000 population, a nice population target for restructured, low-energy metropoles.

Naturally the wiseacres will announce, "You can't get there from here." The answer is that big systems break down and collapse or implode really fast, like a house of cards, and it is best to be outside the fallout zone when that happens.

Small is beautiful when small breaks down because the hole left in the web is small and likely repairable. In fact anything repairable is good and this now has a smart name: de-manufacture and recycling. The Indian computer industry, we can note, has a huge and widespread base of computer hardware de-manufacture and recycling. Anybody who wants a business plan for de-manufacture and recycling ventures only has to ask me.

Downsizing is Beautiful

The bottom line is to downsize when you can, which is better than doing it when you must. All kinds of persons are doing it despite the official propaganda of Big is Boomer. Take world demography and world population forecasts. All demographers, including those with the nicest jobs, are now on a moderating, post-orgy track in their forecasts for 2040 or 2050.

Since the early 1990s, their forecast numbers are down, down, and down. Back in 1990, any respectable demographer felt obliged to say the world's population in 2050 would or could be 15 Billion. By the late 1990s the demographers had downsized to forecasts of 12 Billion. Now the 'consensus forecast' is not much above nine Billion.

The difference is around six billion, which is close to the world total population of today! In Europe, some former Baby Boomers like Italy and Spain are on a track of a 50 percent reduction from current population by 2055. This is not die-off but demographic downsizing ? maybe in anticipation of Peak Oil and Peak Gas by some feedback loop we don't know, or simply through fading economic growth, mass unemployment, unliveable cities, and No Future.

With the right planning and organization, the 1974 world population of four Billion could have been close to the ultimate maximum but nobody in power, anywhere, wanted that. The simple reason is this: what is called economic growth is basically population growth. Take a 1950-2005 population curve for any big country with a big economy and then superpose the national stock market index movement for 1950-2005 on the population curve. The fit is nearly perfect.

Downsizing the oil and energy appetite of the economy will be easier with the demographic pump beginning to flag, but this also brings up the energy coefficient of economic growth. What we find is that so-called dematerialization and decoupling of the economy from energy stopped dead about 1998. Oil prices started their upward track to we-know-not-where in 1999. So we can have flagging demographic growth but increasing energy intensity of the world economy.

One figure explains this: world population growth is down to a 'tiny' 80 to 85 million new human recruits to the world population each year. World production of new cars is about 80 million-per-year. For each new baby a new car is born, if not exactly in the same places! The only thing we can be sure of is that both of these numbers will fall. Behind this, economic growth numbes will also shrink.

Some Conclusions

We can get there from here, but we have to seriously clarify what there means. At present nobody in power wants to talk about it, or about Peak Oil. These are no-no subjects. Let's talk about "ray-jeem change" and what's on eBay this week. That way we can crunch along a few more days, one more day.

When the merde hits the fan, our great leaders, including the lady who de-named her supertanker, will be out to lunch and unavailable, meaning we have to do things individually, first in small groups, now rather than later, with our own motivation and our own appreciation of what to do.

Things were always like this. The mirage of the democratic and organized super-state is a myth and a trap for a host of reasons. Entropy growth messes up the content of public messages in big states and systems, whether they have the label 'democratic' or not.

Organized religion plays a still-big, if declining, role in the farce, and as any check of world news will tell you, organized religion has a way of teaming with the organized state to ensure bigger chaos.

We are large assemblies of macromolecules so we ignore entropy at our peril, just like the Comaccio eels, the difference being that they know it and we don't. Waking up to basic facts of nature and existence should be a part of the education process, but the state and religion got there first and filled the schoolbooks with cranky logic and half-baked slogans.

Change has to come and will come. Peak Oil means we are going somewhere else where we could or might do better. Be sure of it!

Andrew McKillop is a writer and consultant on oil and energy economics. Since 1975 he has worked in energy, economic and scientific organizations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. These include the Canada Science Council, the ILO, European Commission, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and South Pacific, and the World Bank. He is a founding member of the Asian chapter of the International Association of Energy Economics. He is also the editor, with Sheila Newman, of The Final Energy Crisis (Pluto Press, 2005).


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By joe blow (anonymous) | Posted April 10, 2006 at 12:25:52

"As a consequence, nobody today knows exactly what the Entropy Law (or principle) really means" This is a indefensible statement especially from a consultant on energy. I would counsel Mr.MacKillop to reread some of the '19th century scientists' he dismisses, perhaps beginning with Ludwig Boltzmann. Perhaps he might even progress to an intelligent discussion of the ergodic hypothesis. I shall not comment on the other inaccuracies in this essay, but I would advise that no one takes any of Mr. MacKillop's statements on science seriously.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 10, 2006 at 11:28:28

This essay has all the precision of a shotgun at Texas peppering distance. If there is one scientific concept that should be at least qualitatively understood by the general public, it is entropy. Or rather, a kind of opposite definition called "exergetic efficiency", which is a measure of how effectively you use energy (more precisely, don't waste by mostly turning it into entropy) What MacKillop is probably trying to say is that north american lifestyles are indefensible with respect to wasting "exergy". Home examples are electric resistance space heating, incandescent lighting, and clothes dryers, instead of solar heat and light. Transportation - single occupancy commuting, vast majority of trucks and suv's used as passenger vehicles, transport trucks instead of rail, water, or no transport at all with compact economies. Cities - sprawl instead of walkability. In future I'll put some numbers to this so it is more obvious. But as a rough estimate the differences can be a factor of ten or more. Sustainability (essentially a modern society with no need for fossil fules) is doable but not if people defend the status quo and our embarrassing production of entropy.

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By dima (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2006 at 12:21:56

This essay is basically a lengthy riff on some interesting themes, and others not so interesting. Bringing together von Bertalanffy, the Stoics, Fritz Schumacher and the rest makes for an interesting sort of thought-salad. But what's the thesis, and how is it defended? And I don't see any sort of new philosophy here, just some words about some existing philosophies. I hope that this can be tightened up in time for the conference.

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