Economy and Entropy

Human Intervention in the Material and Energetic Equilibrium of the Biosphere

An Article in the Compendium of Market-Based Social-Ecological Economics

Key issues in view of the neoliberal crisis:
How can we guarantee employment and fair income?
How can we protect the environment effectively?
How should we shape the economic globalization?
What should the economic sciences contribute?
What must be the vital tasks of economic policy?
How can we legitimize economic policy democratically?

Click here for the list of all articles: Compendium
Click here for the German-language version: Wirtschaft und Entropie

Table of Contents

  1. Overview
  2. The Physical Law
  3. The Biological Evolution
  4. The Anthropogenic Hazard
  5. What’s to be Done?
    > Prevention of the Material Entropy
    > Prevention of the Energetic Entropy

1. Overview

The natural biological order is existentially endangered since man with his industrial processes intervenes with the material and energetic equilibrium of the biosphere. The key to averting this threat lies in the fastest possible material conversion of as many processes and products as possible to renewable (compostable) resources and the permanent recycling of indispensable non-renewable resources or their direct reuse, as well as in the energetic conversion to all forms of solar or geothermal energy (renewable energies).

2. The Physical Law

EntropieThe 2nd law of thermodynamics, which is also called the law of entropy, states that in a closed thermodynamic system, i.e. in a system without inflow and outflow of energy, the disorder is constantly increasing. Both matter and energy are seized by disorder: the matter by mixing different substances evenly until finally a homogeneous and therefore biologically useless mixture is formed, and the thermal energy by flowing from the warmer to the colder areas until finally a uniform and also biologically useless energy level is reached throughout the system. Entropy is the measure of the degree of this disorder, or in other words, of the degree of material and energetic mixture. The accruement of entropy in a closed system is inevitable and irreversible.

3. The Biological Evolution

The biological evolution on Earth is, by contrast, a process in which no entropy is created, but a state of order, which is owed to the energetic equilibrium of the inflow of solar energy and the outflow (radiation losses) of residual heat into space. The earth is therefore an energetically open system. The energy inflow from the sun causes an overcompensation of the biological entropy production and thus enables a permanent and ever more complex biological order – including human life. The equilibrium that prevails in the biosphere is known as a dynamic equilibrium because both the natural material cycles and the energy flows are constantly in flux, but are also brought back to equilibrium at all times.

4. The Anthropogenic Hazard

The biological order has only been endangered since man has excessively intervened in the material and energetic equilibrium of the biosphere, including the earthly atmosphere responsible for energy exchange and water circulation, i.e. since anthropogenic entropy can no longer be compensated by the biological, chemical and physical processes of the biosphere. The threshold has been crossed sometime during the second half of the 20th century as a result of industrialization, which is since reflected in climate change and in the dramatic decline in biodiversity. The earthly entropy increase due to human activities can be seen as a measure of the degree of global environmental degradation.

5. What’s to be Done?

Prevention of the Material Entropy

The necessary measures are listed quickly, but that says nothing about the high hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to achieve them:

Non-renewable (finite) resources such as minerals are to be replaced as far as possible by local, regional and national renewable resources. This means that consumer goods such as textiles should be designed such that they can be composted without residue at the end of their useful life, i.e. returned to the biological cycle. Indispensable non-renewable resources that cannot be replaced by renewable ones, such as metals used in technical consumer goods, must be recycled repeatedly in closed cycles. To avoid quality losses during recycling (down-cycling), consumer goods must be planned and produced from the outset in such a way that all materials used can be cleanly separated from each other and recycled at the end of the life cycle of goods with the least possible effort.

Today, most durable consumer goods are still produced such that many of the substances they contain end up in landfills either directly or after downcycling. For example, the rare metals contained in mobile phones are not separated because the technical processes are lacking or the effort is too great. The same applies to non-durable consumer goods: for example, newsprint, which is not suitable for composting because of its toxic color components, therefore it’s reused several times today until its fibre structure has become so coarse that in the end it can only be processed into toilet paper. This may sound harmless, but in this way newspaper printers »dispose« of the toxic ink components of their paper indirectly by way of waste water, the toxic components of which end up in landfills or incinerators (so-called thermal utilization) and from there leak into groundwater or the atmosphere.

Renewable resources must not be used beyond their natural regenerative capacity, otherwise they will be exhausted, in the worst case even permanently and irrevocably, for example if certain plants are exterminated or soils become infertile due to salt input. One of the most important and versatile renewable resources is wood, which can rot or be burned at the end of its industrial life cycle and whose regeneration can be ensured through appropriate reforestation. As with all renewable resources, the CO2 balance of wood is also balanced if its regeneration is ensured, i.e. the amount of CO2 that escapes into the atmosphere during rotting or combustion is bound back into the renewable wood if appropriate reforestation is carried out.

Pioneers of the industrial introduction of optimal biological and technical material cycles in joint projects with manufacturers are Michael Braungart[1] and William McDonough[2]. They call their method Cradle to Cradle design concept. The term is intended to express that the substances are »born« again and again with each cycle and can be reused without loss.

Prevention of the Energetic Entropy

First of all, a warning is needed to avoid the seemingly tempting false path of continuing to invest in nuclear energy in order to use it as an »interim solution« on the road to renewable energies. In contrast to decentralized renewable energies, which only cause technical costs, the nuclear energy can only be generated centrally and is considerably more expensive and actually not competitive for a whole series of reasons. Because this is the case, the construction and operation of nuclear power have to be subsidized through puclic funds:

In addition to technical costs, nuclear energy incurs high costs not only for energy distribution (power lines), but also for fuel, operation and disposal, because the entire process chain is associated with uncontrollable, incalculable and uninsurable risks: These include the risk of core meltdown, unsafe final disposal of radioactive waste, uranium mining that poses a health and environmental hazard, and the ever-increasing CO2 emissions, which are caused by increasingly expensive mining and processing of uranium ores due to dwindling and unproductive deposits. According to a study by the British Oxford Research Group[3], CO2 emissions from nuclear energy in 2007 were already between 84 and 122 grams per kilowatt hour and would reach the level of 385 grams of modern gas-fired power plants by 2050. This refutes the last argument of the nuclear lobby.

The key to averting the existential threat to the biological order that is existential for the entire earthly life lies rather in the immediate and comprehensive conversion of all man-made processes to the use of solar energy in all its available forms as well as geothermal energy:

  1. Solar electricity/photovoltaics)
  2. Solar thermal energy
  3. Hydroelectric energy
  4. Wind energy
  5. Tidal/wave energy
  6. Biogas/biowaste
  7. Geothermal energy

Consistent conversion assumed, even the industrially accumulated entropy can be reversed by means of solar energy in the long run, for example by (1) recovering the raw materials contained in the stored waste with appropriate technical methods and (2) chemically neutralizing the excess carbon dioxide of the atmosphere.

Since the behaviour of complex systems in the case of exogenous disturbances can be chaotic and the lost biological diversity can basically not be recovered, the question remains as to how long it will be possible to return the biosphere to a state of equilibrium that is permanently stable and conducive to terrestrial life.

For a more detailed description of the interrelations and dependencies between the human economy and its natural basis, I recommend the article Economy and Biosphere.

For a better understanding of the overall context, I recommend the article Ten Imperatives to Secure Our Future.

Click here for the German-language version: Wirtschaft und Entropie.


  1. Michael Braungart:
  2. William McDonough:
  3. Oxford Research Group:
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