Understanding Entropy

For Survival on Earth

We have all been there. Chemistry class and trying to understand how all the new vernacular and numbers can really be applied to our everyday lives. Take for example the Second Law of Thermodynamics which is all about entropy in one form or another. Herman E. Daly calls entropy “used-up-ness” in explaining the finite nature of our natural world.

Raw materials (i.e. lumber) in Daly’s definition have a low entropy state (since they have not been converted to a chair for example). While the waste created in the manufacturing process has a high entropy state since the waste is most likely not going to be used for some other useful purpose. Through forced realization (increased market pressure), war, or moral obligation, we are starting to realize we can use the high entropy products to make more products through recycling efforts at the end of the process or refinement in the production process and have even come up with zero waste goals which definitely help reduce environmental pressure in low entropy systems (raw materials). But how far have we really come?

Steps to zero waste goals are important but what happens when low entropy resources are used up?

With a population now exceeding 7 billion people we are forced to understand that raw materials are finite and we have to be better at reducing our individual and cumulative impact of a planet being pushed to its limits to support our ever incessant needs. Through the Green Revolution we were able to create more food for people but now recognize that food production and environmental quality are intricately linked for citizens of any nation to survive and thrive.

For example, Thomas Friedman has written about the Syrian conflict and the tie to a drought that triggered the unrest. Without fresh water (low entropy) farmers couldn’t farm and the population once supported by the farms rapidly evacuated the dust bowl conditions into cities creating unrest and civil war in the process. Thus without low entropy inputs our species is hard pressed to survive long term.

Carbon emissions (high entropy) are producing higher temperatures, and bringing with them more droughts as well as the destruction of even more low entropy inputs.

Survival is what we all live for and so we should be very concerned about how our actions today change the low entropy inputs into our environment.

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