Yet another attempt to summarise and elaborate Jean-Marc Jancovici’s general argument.
Economies are not perpetual motion machines. The second law of thermodynamics can be phrased as perpetual motion machines are impossible. Economies involve energy consumption and dissipation (or require energy input), transform materials and produce waste and other entropic (or ‘disorderly’) processes, in their functioning. They also involve political struggles over allocations of goods and property, modes of exchange, modes of property, forms of labour, types of regulation, decisions about what costs shall appear ‘free,’ and what costs will be born by various groups, and so on. These factors are not incidentals but necessary and essential parts of the economy.
Often it seems that economies are portrayed as endless circulations, without energy being consumed, without politics influencing markets as standard practice, without destruction, without waste, and without disruptive consequences arising from standardized actions. Complexity and the laws of thermodynamics cannot be ignored if we wish to be accurate in our understanding of economies.
Constraints on energy constrains activity, while availability of energy increases possible activity. This seems fundamental. Energy is a driver of economic processes. If our technologies or bodies have no energy they cannot produce anything, or even do anything. Energy is necessary for transformation, and is released by organised and directed transformations such as burning or chemical reactions etc.
Energy is a necessary, although not sufficient for economic action. If we extend the notion of economy to cover ecology, as is frequently done to reduce ecology to economy, then this also true. While availability of energy is fundamental we do not expect to find life on Mercury or the surface of the sun.
The industrial revolution involves many processes such as, changes in patterns of class and power relations, changes in technology, changes in patterns of living, but it is also about the growth of energy supply, and the growing transition away from human and animal labour to machine and fossil fuel ‘labour’.
In other words when Adam Smith invented the labour theory of value, he did so by seeing that, in his society, the most obvious form of directed, organised and transformative energy availability came through human labour. Animal energy was organised by human labour, wind energy came about as a result of human labour and so on. Human labour itself, depended on the energy released by agriculture. Nowadays, human labour provides far less useful and transformative energy than fossil fuels, and it becomes easier to see that energy availability is as important as the organising force of human labour for economic processes.
All energy processes are affected by complexity and the laws of thermodynamics, and they are, currently, producing a series of crises.
Firstly, industrialisation is bringing about an increasing noticeability, and consequence, of the entropic (or disorderly) processes which result from it, and which it appears to require. These include ecological destruction and climate change. These ‘side effects’ are now affecting industrialisation. Actions in complex systems have unintended effects, and this affects the system.
Secondly, while we may be able to recycle materials (with increased energy expenditure), we cannot recycle energy. Energy, when used, cannot be used again. Once we burn oil or coal it has gone. Our cheap, easy, energy supply is being used up, and will not be regenerated in any relevant time frame. The energy, and other, costs of extraction will increase lowering energy availability, and this will have an effect on economic activity – most probably, hindering it.
Thirdly, further burning, or stretching the use of fossil fuels (primarily coal) will increase the entropic effects of disorderly climate and ecologies.
The need for new energy sources remains. We can possibly harvest energy directly from the sun, or its consequences – but this also requires existing energy, as solar energy is not “ready to hand” or “ready to use” in the same way as fossil fuels can just be dug up and burnt. Renewables have to be built (but so do fossil fuel energy stations). Furthermore, any transformation will cost a lot financially, in terms of effort, in reorganisation and political conflict as established powers attempt to protect their positions. This will be magnified by the consequences of ecological and climate instability
Transition is difficult and made more difficult by the crisis. We cannot assume that the economies’ ‘markets’ alone will save us, as ‘markets’ are themselves under pressure.