Biophysical Economics, Solar Energy, and the Reason For Life

While much of the initial thoughts regarding biophysical economics reflected on by the Physiocrats in the 18th century was done before the laws of thermodynamics were first elucidated, it is thermodynamics that is at the heart of biophysical economics nonetheless. The laws of thermodynamics elucidate both the fact that all energy is conserved and that with every energy-using event entropy increases. A necessary perspective that thus must ensue today considers the question, With nearly 7 billion people inhabiting the earth (with more to come), and a significantly large portion of those people engaged in extremely energy consumptive activities, in what form is the entropy that must accompany taking shape?

The answer to this requires a look into where exactly energy in our world comes from, and that’s what I’ll explore for a bit now.

The existence of life on our planet can be attributed in large part to the energy the sun has bestowed to the earth and continues to bestow to us today. This consistent and enormous stream of energy from the sun allows for a vastly substantial amount of the work (in thermodynamic terms) that occurs in our world (all of it?). The sun’s energy reaching the earth can be looked at as a continuous revenue stream for the earth, with income coming in hoards every day.

For nearly all of the time humans have existed we have converted physical resources–be it practicing agriculture or assembling products using the caloric energy yielded by agriculture–using only energy stemming from the sun’s current or recent energy revenue stream.

The Physiocrats of the 18th century, reflective of thoughts put forth by Francois Quesnay, formed the first organized school of economic thought with these principles in mind. They maintained that the economic process could be understood by focusing on nature and recognizing that the process was subject to objective laws that at some point humans cannot exercise free will over.

In more recent centuries humans have exponentially grown their energy conversion skills by figuring out how to tap into an endowment of energy created over millions of years–the fossil fuels. The Carboniferous period was a particularly important time for fossil fuels and current matter-energy conversion because it provided conditions for the beginnings of coal (in addition to other crucial evolutionary innovations, such as the amniote egg). This collection of fossil fuels can be looked at as a dowry, built up untouched over millions of years.

The capital this dowry has provided has allowed in recent years for the proliferation of utilitarian matter-energy conversions and the explosive growth of the human population.

This last thought reflects the insights of chemist and writer Frederick Soddy, who spent much of his time in the 20th century applying the laws of thermodynamics to question and critique the standard economic theory. Soddy made the critical insight that in the closed system in which the earth operates, it is the solar power we receive from outside our atmosphere that makes possible all life processes. Plants, which Soddy refers to in a way that is humorous in its accuracy as “the original capitalists”, capture and transform the sun’s revenue stream into forms that are directly usable by humans to drive economic systems. This is reflective of Quesnay’s perspective from two centuries earlier emphasizing the centrality of agriculture in economic progress.

Soddy, with two centuries of industrial revolution in his hindsight, was keen enough to add to this base the transition to increasing human mastery of fossil fuel energy capital as the responsible agent for unprecedented potentials of economic work. This economic work made it possible to support (albeit temporarily) an exponentially larger human population, thus increasing the demand for the high energy potential fossil fuels even more, depleting the capital even faster.

Such growth in population in combination with the various lifestyles the utilitarian conversions have begot have brought about even greater consistent extraction from our energy endowment, at rates that can’t be sustained forever. The capital is being used up fast to fund immediate purposes. Some of these purposes create lifestyles that require even more matter-energy conversion, the source of which is also drawn from the endowment. What happens then when the endowment runs out?

And for all practical purposes it will run out. In the not too distant future it will be more expensive to withdraw from the endowment than the return the withdrawal brings.

How do we reconcile this? A Pandora’s box of sorts has been opened. Many humans know what types of high energy consuming lifestyles we can have. The knowledge of that is out. Many humans in addition are embedded in such lifestyles. It will take a dramatic realization of future costs as well as empathy towards future generations for any of these lifestyles to be consciously adjusted to consume less of the endowment.

Since the Pandora’s box of sorts has been opened with many of our species cognizant of and embedded in lifestyles that call on vast energy expenditures, it is unlikely that our species will ever let go of all the things that require vast energy expenditures–rapid transportation, electricity, cheap mass-manufactured tools–until the option is taken away from us. The most sustainable solutions to the leeching off of our millions-of-years-in-the-making inheritance then perhaps lie in the condensation of total human population (for decreased capital energy demands) and the invention and implementation of ways to tap more into the sun’s continuous energy stream (using increased revenue energy more efficiently).

But signs glaringly point to the fact that innovation alone will likely not be sufficient, but will be comparable to band-aids (possible very good band-aids depending on what types of innovations are made) on a continuously expanding wound that’s gushing a finite blood supply, unless the human population is also changed.

In any case, the progress we make as a global human society can not be measured solely in our own thought up values we assign to dollars and cents. Nature, and indeed more fundamentally, energy, lies at the root of human progress. To neglect energy demand, supply, and consumption is to risk the meaning of every dollar and cent in the world in a game whose stakes are much too high for an all-or-nothing spin.

Biophysical Economics and the Energy From the Sun
Photo by kevindooley

The above is a piece I composed while a student at Stanford University, as an assignment for one of my classes. With deadlines to meet and such, it may not be 100% polished. So feel free to point out any imperfections you may perceive–I’d value being made aware of your thoughts.


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