This is an attempt to talk about energy more concretely. It is clearly exploratory, rather than finished. Comments and disagreements more than welcomed. I do not claim to be particularly well informed.

What is Energy?

Many people spend a lot of time talking about energy in social theory, but they don’t say what they are talking about. This probably produces confusion, so this is an attempt to be more specific.

Energy is present in motion, change or transformation, or keeping things in regular dynamic patterns. This usually involves forces (such as electro-magnetism, differences in heat, or gravity) being transmitted through: physical contact; ‘radiation’;  displacement in space;  chemical bonding and so on. This is particularly the case when we are talking about “cause”. Causing or producing events takes energy. Jean Mark Jancovici, a French energy and climate ‘expert’ writes “Energy is what enables you to change the environment, by definition”.

Energy is often defined in terms of “work”. In normal parlance work means controlled, or directed, energy expenditure. It may, or may not, be useful to keep the term “work” for that specific meaning of human labour. Labour might be thought of as the directed and controlled application of human energy. With this definition, we can perhaps more readily understand why human labour may not have to increase, for there to be increased production, value or potentiality – we just need the energy to come from elsewhere.

Energy is in some ways observed in a dynamic set of relationships between ‘things/nodes’ and the systemic context and changes that the things/nodes ‘cause’.

What any organism, or group of organisms, can do, is limited by the amount of energy available to it for conversion into activity. Some animals spend almost all their obtained energy in eating, growing, healing and reproducing. As shall be stated later, energy is always lost, or dissipated, when it is used.

Let’s look at the cycles of energy on earth.

  • Naturally occurring nuclear energy within the Sun (energy within the atomic structure) provides sunlight and heat.
  • This heat drives movement of ‘matter’ on Earth: tides, weather, water cycles etc.
  • We also have planetary geothermal heat gradients, volcanoes and so on, and geographical gradients from uneven weather, stratification, upheaval, water flow, and other chemical state changes (expansion of water as it freezes, natural acids etc), which also drive the movement, and break up, of matter on Earth.
  • Chemical/biological conversions of sunlight, to the movement, or growth, of a pattern of material (an organism).
  • After organisms die they can form fossil fuels over very long (geological) periods of time and chemical processing. This also requires energy and pressure which is a form of energy stemming from gravity.
  • Organisms can convert other organisms to energy, through eating.
  • Finally we have ‘tools’ and ‘machines’, some of which are powered by human or animal energy, some by weather, some by fossil fuels, nuclear energy, or electrical energy from some other source.
  • For humans, after they are fed, using more energy really means “using more machines” (Jancovici again), or killing themselves through over-eating, or whatever.

Fossil fuels are amongst the most efficient forms of energy currently available to humans. They are easy to use, have been easy to find, and the technology involved is pretty simple. So far replacement technology for fossil fuels is more complicated, and requires more energy expenditure to build.

The laws of thermodynamics apply to energy. The important ones for social analysis, seem to be:

1) Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.

2) In a closed system the entropy, or dissipation of energy as random motion or heat, will increase over time. Things will run down. Hence energy needs to be arrive in the closed system from somewhere else.

Entropy is often equated to disorder and randomness, but this is not quite correct. With universal heat death, where entropy is maximal, order is almost total. Everything is uniform. One space is not distinguishable from another, over time. Nothing of “any interest” occurs. In that sense, disorder and difference seems essential for functioning systems. Energy occurs in patterned systems of difference.

These principles of thermodynamics roughly translate as follows (even experts sometimes disagree on what they mean):

1) Energy is not created. It is converted from one form to another, or transported from one place to another. Conversion and transport of energy usually require some other form of energy conversion. There is no energy available to humans without previous energy expenditure. Understanding this idea is vital.

Energy that is taken from a patterned system for a particular use, is not available for other uses – partly because of the next law.

2) We can never use energy with total efficiency. Some energy will be lost in processes of conversion or transport and dispelled into the general systemic context/relationships – perhaps disturbing or disrupting them. The more steps to a process, the more energy is likely to be lost/dissipated.

The ratio between energy expended and the energy available as a result of that expenditure is usually known as “Energy Return on Investment” (EROI) or, as I prefer, “Energy Return on Energy Input” (EREI)- because this makes it clear that energy input is central and money, while important, is secondary. The higher the EREI the higher the “energy availability” and the more freedom of action; although, for particular societies, this also depends on the social organisation. In economies of high inequality, large groups of people are likely to be powerless and poor with little energy available to them. EREI ratios of one or less are disastrous for complex civilisations, because it implies all the energy available is being used to produce less replacement energy.

The ‘external’ Sun is the basis for continuing life and any “interesting” planetary functioning. Without the Sun, the system would run down. Earth does not form a closed system because of the input from the Sun.

I have heard people say that “entropy will kill us anyway in the long run”, therefore we should do nothing about climate change. But they rarely say: “we don’t need to be employed because of entropy, or we don’t need wealth, we don’t need energy etc…” So this argument is rather selective.

Eventually we will all die, and the solar system will end; but this is probably not a basis for not caring about the near future. As long as the sun shines at roughly its current rate Life will continue. For current day humans, this ultimate end is not an immediate worry, or even a distant worry. It will not affect us, or our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren. It will occur in billions of years.

While it is not formally part of the entropy theory, we can extrapolate and say that any long-term directed use of energy to produce what the users consider to be order will produce disorder as well, because of the effects of dissipation of energy. Disorder or randomness is not unimportant to the system’s ability to function, or its ability to fall apart. Without generation of entropy nothing happens.

In macro terms, this means we cannot ignore the production of waste and pollution if we want to keep the system functioning. This means we cannot ignore the destruction of ecological sources of energy through energy usage (ie the destruction of ecologies, of food, the capacity for chemical conversion of waste into useful products for the ecology, and so on). These ecological systems provide energetic resilience, or systemic stability (within bounds). Without them, the system is more likely to become unstable. So we always have to look at the whole system in order to understand the effects of the parts of that system.

Most of these sources of energetic resilience are currently ‘free’ – or, more accurately, provided by the planetary system without human effort. Destruction of the natural ecology, destroys the processes of conversion of waste into resources, and the resilience of the system. This ongoing destruction, through social ordering, opens the possibility of a general transition to new and unfamiliar, disruptive stabilities or instabilities, which humans will find costly in all senses of the word. It will require a lot of energy usage for humans to compensate for the loss of these systems, and that will produce more pollution, and it will possibly take energy away from other necessary activities.

The problem with fossil fuels, despite their extraordinarily high Energy return on Energy investment, is that they increase disorder through pollution, and climate change, and they poison the systems they are used within. This is not strictly entropic, but it is comparable, as it disrupts the energetic resilience of systems.

If we counted destruction of energetic resilience as a problem, we would be expending more energy to solve the problem, whatever else we do. We might even abandon fossil fuels. There is also the possibility we are losing high EREI fossil fuel extraction anyway: people do not extract oil from tar sands if oil is easily, and cheaply, available elsewhere. Likewise, people do not frack, if gas is easily, and cheaply, available elsewhere – unless there are other incentives such as government subsidies, or economic distortions such as Ponzi type loan schemes.

Money is a sign of energy. Easily available money can enable the appearance of human organised energy, and activity. However, currency depends upon social power. If social power and monetary accounting is used to ignore real energy deficits, the destruction of energetic resilience, or increases in disorders, then we are headed for lower EREIs and probably for intensified disaster.

Monetary cost and profit can also distract from significant problems such as the noticeable entropic or disorderly effects of our ‘movement’, such as when we overgraze land, overfish waters, or stick poisons in rivers because it’s easy. In some cities the amount of heat produced as a side effect of air conditioning (cooling) is supposed to be noticeable, but in general that does not seem to be a problem.

One of the problems for decarbonisation projects is that those energy substitutes for fossil fuels, which are easily available, do not have as high EREI. They require more energy to build (in the short term) and are often built through heavily polluting processes. It may also be the case that the lower EREI means that less energy is freely available, lowering the ease of transition at the very moment we require freely available energy to build that transition. However, the consequences of delaying the change, get worse with every delay. This is not an easy process, but it is essential.

But if we did not have a civilisation that was based on ignoring the basic nature of energy, and the energetic production of entropy in the form of disruptions and dissipations of production through pollution and ecological destruction, then we could be better off to make the transition and to plan realistically for life afterwards….