Why Capitalism Isn’t Sustainable

Touch Base Article June 2007: I wrote this whilst I was living in Ottawa, thus the references to citizens of Canada - John Courtneidge

There are two key forces that drive everything in the physical world. Firstly, energy flows ‘downhill’ – energy flows from hot to cold, from concentrated to dilute, from ‘humanly useful’ to ‘waste heat’ (how human-needs-centric the north-western world’s zeitgeist is!). Secondly, entropy – or disorder – flows ‘uphill’ – from order (low entropy) to disorder (high entropy).

At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of people – called thermodynamicists: those interested in the science of thermodynamics – discerned these driving forces. One of them, Josiah Willard Gibbs, saw that these two driving forces could be brought together in one concept – that of ‘Free Energy’. Thus, the arithmetic of ‘Gibbs Free Energy’.

This has nothing to do with perpetual motion machines, or free-for-ever electricity -but, rather, the thermodynamicists were able to show that these fantasies were/are, well, fantasies. By contrast these ideas put on firm footing the forces with which – notice my prescriptive ‘not of this zeitgeist’ certainty! – human beings must be conformable.

So, what’s this got to do with the lives of Canadian immigrants and globally-minded Canadians? Well, actually, everything. The life support system of all Canadians – food, air, water, warmth, cooling, shelter and clothing* - are the products of application of the laws of chemistry: including the laws of thermodynamics.

Thus, I’m going to assert – in the hope of reasoned rebuttal – that (so-called) wealth creation is the consequence of the following word equation (the arrow is read as ‘goes to give’): Raw Materials + Energy = ‘Wealth’ + ‘Pollution’. (Think, from your own experience, about any wealth creation process – domestic or industrial.)

Not only is the global north-west’s life support system (its/our, so-called, ‘economic’ system) one that is, not only, wasteful of human lives, dreams, training, education, and hope, it is mightily wasteful of the well-being of the ‘rest of’ the creation/commonweal.

Since the global north-west runs on the – fantasy - notion that money must make its maximum money return in the shortest possible time, then the equation above is driven at maximum speed – to generate maximum pollution. More pollution - as we know from our day-to-day experience - than the creation/commonweal can cope with. And, hence, global (and local!) climate change.

While the second law of thermodynamics tells us that every change results in an overall increase in the entropy – disorder – of the universe, a more subtle understanding of thermodynamics – particularly of Gibbs Free Energy – tell us that localized sub-systems – life forms (you, me, a tree) can create local order and concentrate energy locally (think ‘tree’ or your cooked dinner) – but only at the expense of disorder elsewhere (think ‘your’ kitchen after dinner preparation).

The significance for Canadians of all this is the very geographical and climatic marginality of Canada – and of Canada’s part in the global financial ‘economic’ sub-system that is driving all this mayhem-creation. ‘Everything coming together,’ the subway advert says. ‘Nicely’ is the implication. And, yet, as suggested above, everything should be degenerating into low-energy, random, high entropy goop.

How can this be? If we look around, the natural world on this planet is one of beauty, order, vibrancy and coherence, while those laws of thermodynamics suggest that we should be seeing disorder and blah. The paradox is resolved when thermodynamics talks of systems – particularly of living systems.

Other writers have tackled this, by observing that local systems can defy the drive towards low energy and high-entropy blah by externalizing the drive to disorder out-side themselves, causing their surroundings to be the recipient of disorder. On a personal level, the disordered, low-energy and high entropy waste that your life (and mine) creates goes down the toilet, into the air and into the garbage can.

As for a tree, it, like all other photosynthesizing plants, uses the high energy light from the sun to concentrate energy in the cellulose and so on of its body and, moreover, organizes that material in a highly ordered - and to our eyes – beautiful way. As, indeed, it was seen to be beautiful to the God described in Genesis.

Locally, therefore, the two driving forces in thermodynamics can be run ‘backwards’, but only if the local effects alone are considered. At a global – or, even, universal – level, the laws do have to be obeyed, since the local order is only achieved if the overall change is thermodynamically consistent. And, in particular, if Gibbs Free Energy must be negative (downhill) for the change, overall, to occur, because the equilibrium constant for the change has to be large and positive.

So, what of this and the future for (human) life in Canada, globally, for new, settled and, even, yet-to-be immigrants? The key thing is that life generally, and human life in one particular, is in a life or death struggle with an alien, but human-created ‘life’ form called money. An alien ‘life’ form that is increasing in population and appetite – as it gobbles the planet up.

Money, at present, is a species that ‘lives’ by demanding its maximum return in the shortest possible time and, as the wealth-creation equation operates, money – through the four accumulation processes of rent, interest, profits and greater than average earned income – moves from being a circulation to provide for human needs to the ‘investment’ cycle – that drives the dash for short-term production – and accelerating ‘externalised’ entropy (disorder) production – ie atmospheric heating, pollution and eco-destruction. More, as we now all know, than ‘Gaia’ – the whole earth system – can cope with** (by radiation of low-energy heat into the rest of the universe and remediation by bio-sequestration processes).

So, what to do to halt the degradation and for Gaia to self-remediate? In a few words – the answer is to kill off the killing mechanism. In other words, stop money running the world and reformulate human activities towards ones that are co-operative, not-for-profit and for stewardship and care, rather than for ownership, profit, accumulation ... and destruction. And right quick!

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* ie our ‘selfish needs’ – the needs necessary to sustain our-selves as individuals – as compared with our social needs: see the Four Needs essay in the papers section at www.interestfreemoney.org

** Two worthwhile books: Margrit Kennedy ‘Interest and Inflation Free Money’ and the Ninth Schumacher Briefing by Roy Madron and John Jopling ‘Gaian Democracies’.

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TWO COMMENTS

John Scull said...
Hi, you wrote: "Thus, I’m going to assert – in the hope of reasoned rebuttal – that (so-called) wealth creation is the consequence of the following word equation (the arrow is read as ‘goes to give’): Raw Materials + Energy --> ‘Wealth’ + ‘Pollution’

While this is correct as far as it goes, it seems to me that this equation is overly simple as a description of human economic activity.

On the left side, there are other important factors: labour, technological innovation, and social organization are three influential factors of production. Thus, for example, a new technology or a government policy can "create wealth" with a variety of consequences for the consumption of energy and raw materials.

In addition, there is a possible feedback arrow from pollution on the right to raw materials on the left. This is often the case in natural ecosystems, where the decomposition path recycles most raw materials and some energy.

November 23, 2007 at 8:31 AM

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John Courtneidge replied...
Dear John

In regard to: "Raw Materials + Energy --> ‘Wealth’ + ‘Pollution’"

You rightly point to the roles of knowledge and human activity, to which I'll add 'somewhere to do it' and 'working capital - borrowed money'.

In a fuller (I hope!) description, these are factored in - I'll blog that soon under the title 'Capitalism - what it is and what we can do about it'.

You are quite right that Gaia has the wonder-full ability to recycle 'pollution' - the trouble with capitalism (etc) is that it produces pollution faster than Gaia can cope with (eg capitalist CO2 production rate is higher than nature's natural rate of photosynthetic bio-remediation/ bio-accumulation).

Ie, the problem in capitalism is that money-accumulations (through rent, interest, dividends/company profits and excess paid-work income) constitutes the feedback loop that drives pollution-generation faster and faster. (And sucks money out of the human-needs part of the economy - hence the inevitability for capitalism to create poverty and war.)

Thanks! John, for your comment!
Love 2 all, John
November 28, 2007 at 10:33 AM