Measuring the cost of progress


If there’s one adage that just about everyone accepts, it’s « You can’t get something for nothing.’’

We apply it to human affairs, but it applies equally to nature — and there we call it the Law of Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics.

The odd thing, however, is that wvele we accept the adage in human affairs, most of us ignore it in nature, and the result is what we see around us: global warming, smog, the rise of environmentally-linked cancers and birth defects, compromised immune systems, poverty, urban sprawl, traffic congestion, rising mounds of garbage — is a long and growing list.

To fully understand the Law of Entropy, it’s necessary to know the first law of thermodynamics. It says that the total amount of energy and matter in the universe is constant. The amount can never be destroyed, and it can never be increased.

However, says the Law of Entropy, the form in which they exist can be changed. But no change comes free. There’s always a penalty or cost: some energy is irretrievably dispersed with every change. It’s lost in the sense that it becomes unavailable for any kind of work.

On a grand scale, the law says that because energy is always being used — trees are growing, cars are being driven, houses are under construction — there is always energy being dissipated. Sometimes it is dissipated in heat (as from a car engine), and sometimes it is dissipated in pollution (as from the burning of fossil fuels to provide power for generating electricity.)

There is also heat lost by plants during photosynthesis, the process by which they turn sunlight into energy for growth. And when a skill saw is used to cut lumber for a house, in addition to heat being lost, the saw blade is dulled, which means molecules are worn off the blade — dissipated — and are no longer available for work.

In every case, the penalty imposed by entropy involves a move from usable to unusable (for instance, from gasoline to car exhaust), from ordered to disordered (from a highway surface to crumbled bits of asphalt worn loose by traffic), and from available to unavailable (from iron ore to steel mill effluent).

It is a constant shift from order to disorder, stability to instability. Looked at this way, the only thing over which we have control is how stiff the entropy penalties are going to be.

Everything we do causes entropy, because everything we do expends energy and incurs a penalty. The bigger we build our cities, the more food and other goods we have to transport into them, and the farther away we have to go to get them.

The more we have to transport, the greater the congestion and pollution. The greater the congestion, the more people want to escape to suburbs. The more they do that, the greater the sprawl.

On the other side of the coin are the glories of our cities, of what we have invented, of what useful devices we have created, of everything that that thrills us and stands as monuments to progress — and that’s where the problem lies.

We have had such success with progress, with technology and its products, that we tend to see the world within the framework of our success, and not within the framework of nature’s laws.

One of our principal measures of success is productivity, the speed by which we can produce things. We strive for higher and higher productivity, and invent more and more complex robots to achieve it. And then we do everything we can to ensure that consumer spending remains high enough to buy what’s produced. But at every turn entropy is at work.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we measured entropy the way we measure productivity? We could call it the measure of instability, and it would measure the disorder created per unit of production. And maybe, just maybe, it would help us change the way we look at what we call progress.


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