The 2nd Law: a MUSE for a Sustainable Economy

What does it mean sustainable? After the last financial crisis in 2007 as well as the issues of global warming, pollution and deforestation the word “sustainable” has become very popular.

That is the question that many people have. That’s why there are many best sellers about economic crisis. That’s why nowadays economists are so popular… that’s why I’ve just bought the last book by @TimHarford “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back”.

In their latest album, “The 2nd Law“, the rock band @muse spreads out to the all the fans the concept of entropy and the second principle of thermodynamics. Paraphrasing Rockonomics by Tim Harford (see Undercover Economist: the law of rockonomics), that’s an example of Rockphysic…cool, check it out!

MUSE – The 2nd Law: Unsustainable

All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless. New energy cannot be created and high grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is Unsustainable

The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement. In an isolated system the entropy can only increase. A species set on endless growth is Unsustainable

So, according to the second law of thermodynamics each transformation requires energy (see also Does the price for inequalities exist because of the second law of thermodynamics?). If the system is isolated there is no way to recover such energy in a state that can be used. An example, think about a car as a system that transforms the chemical energy of the gasoline in mechanical energy and heat (…mainly heat actually). If the car is an isolated system, once the tank is empty the car can not work anymore. Fortunately the car is not isolated, since it’s sill possible to go to the patrol station and fill again the tank with additional energy: gasoline.

What about the planet earth: is it an isolated system? Is the world economy as is defined nowadays sustainable accordingly to the second law of thermodynamics? For @MattBellamy, @CaptMorganized, @CTWolstenholme and their friend Charles no way: it’s unsustainable.

Anyhow, since the planet is not isolated there is a chance to create a sustainable economy and thus to avoid extinction. How? Every second, every minute every day for billions of years the planet Earth has received energy from the Sun. It’s thanks to the solar energy that there is life in our planet and all the human activities are possible (even blogging!). Both, life and world economy need energy. In order to be sustainable, the sum of the energy needed for life and human activities must be lower that the solar energy received from the Sun (see Life on Earth). In this way the stock of energy available in the biosphere (number of species, forests, oil,…) will increase or, if the energy consumed equals the energy received, at least remains constant (see Figure below).


On the contrary, if the energy consumed by life and human activities is higher than the energy coming from the Sun, the energy balance is negative and the stock of energy in the biosphere will decrease (extinctions of species, deforestation, oil, gas,…). That condition can not be sustained for a long period since the stock of energy available in the planet is finite. It’s like a bank account: expenditures higher than the incomes can be sustained till the bank account is positive!

That’s way Entropy likes the song “Time is on my side” by Rolling Stone. Soon or later the 2nd Law will impose its energy dictatorship to all the humankind.

Rolling Stones – Time is on my Side

According to Tim Harford  there is an Optimistic View about a self-regulation of the world economy that, thanks to the supply-demand’s law, will guarantee an endless growth and energy efficiency as well (see Energy Use and Growth: an Optimistic View).  In particular, for Tim Harford the key fact is that:

Economic growth and energy growth are not the same thing, and there are good reasons to believe they’re already in the process of decoupling from each other

Believe!?! Despite there are good reasons, why the sustainability of an endless economic growth is not certain and still a Belief? Is really knowledge what is missing?

What about replacing “believe” with more certain words such as “assert”, “confirm” or “state”? Few simple questions should be answered:

  1. How much energy the planet Earth receives from the Sun [S]?
  2. How much energy is needed for supporting life (carbon cycle,  photosynthesis, climate,…) in the Earth [L]?
  3. How much energy is consumed by the world economy [E]?

Are the life and the human activities together in the planet Earth sustainable?


Energy from the Sun [S] < Energy for sustaining Life [L] + Energy consumed by the economy [E]

Mr. Charles, after few calculations, will give the answer: UN-UN-UNSUSTAINABLE!

So, conscious about the uncertain sustainability of the world economy as it is defined nowadays, let’s move our bodies following the irresistible funky rif of “Panic Station” from “The 2nd Law” album by Muse while since entropy is inattentive (it’s still singing “Time is on my side”).

MUSE – Panic Station

You won’t get much closer
Until you sacrifice it all (all the energy available)
You won’t get to taste it
With your face against the wall (the truth of The 2nd Law)

…actually, the humankind has already “tasted” the unavoidable rule of the 2nd law. In the 18th century, the population of Easter Island has dropped from 15.000 to 2.000-3.000 because an ecology disaster due to an unsustainable use of the natural resources (see Easter Island, they harvest all the woods in the island). If the inhabitants of Easter Island had had the chance to see a concert of “The 2nd Law” tour in Rapa Nui probably they would have decided not to hack up so many trees. Is the humankind smart enough to learn from his mistakes and make the optimistic view of growth really sustainable? Who knows!

Feelink – Feel & Think approach for doing life!

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