My personal mission is to accelerate the transition to renewable energy so we can make this world a happier place. I have many wonderful fellow travellers that share this goal but are being bamboozled by entropy pessimism which puts them on the wrong side of the techno wars that we have to win. This post is for them.
Entropy Pessimism versus Endless Solar Power
I recently learned about the fascinating world of entropy pessimism and it’s following ecological economics and the degrowth movement. In a row of twitter spats, I learned that most of them still ascribe to the original ideas of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (the major proponent of entropy pessimism and founder of ecological economics). In a nutshell, entropy pessimists believe that human use of energy will automatically degrade our ecosystem because the energy in our ecosystem is limited. This is evidently wrong since the earth has an influx of energy from the sun that’s 10 thousand times bigger than what humans currently need. And there’s infinitely more if we would e.g. use solar panels in space. So energy is definitely not the problem. (Actually, Georgescu realized this mistake himself but instead of saying this clearly he invented the fourth law of thermodynamics to make up for it. Bad move because that’s nonsense too.)
Underlying the pseudoscience, Georgescu had a very valid point: it’s hard to use material without degrading and without polluting the ecology that supports life on earth. And this is exactly what humans are doing: degrading and polluting. We are behaving like hooligans and it’s beyond time we stop our utterly irresponsible behaviour.
But it’s not a given that using more energy leads to more degradation and pollution. Actually, life on earth is proof of the fact that you can create more complex ecosystems (having lower entropy!) by adding energy from the sun. Once you understand that, you also understand that the problem is not our use of energy per se but the fact that we are using that energy to degrade and pollute instead of creating and cleaning up. Energy is not our enemy, it’s our friend! Which brings us to the techno wars.
Entropy pessimism often leads to techno pessimism that can be summed up as: “Our use of technology has gotten us into this mess so we must decrease the problem by decreasing our use of technology.” However, this is thinking on the same intellectual level as “Humans have gotten us into this problem so we must decrease the number of humans” or “capitalism/markets have gotten us into this mess so let’s end capitalism”. This kind of thinking is intellectually lazy and utterly unhelpful.
Any cursory examination will teach that not all technology is created equal. You could be reading this on a smartphone while using a server in a data centre. But if we ran everything on solar power and upcycled the waste using some more energy, there would be no degradation. Of course, the damage is not zero yet, but it’s already insignificantly less, compared to the degradation and pollution caused by running power plants on biomass or by eating beef. (That biomass and beef still have ecofriendly connotations for some people is a constant surprise to me.)
My point is: we don’t need less technology, we need cleaner technology. Degrowthers are right to claim that we are still degrading and polluting every year but if they took the time to study new technologies they would see that it already delivers the goods at a fraction of the degradation and pollution and that the quick implementation of this tech is a good thing. Innovation might not be a panacea but it’s definitely our friend. It might not be easy to make people adopt clean technology but from everything I’ve seen, it’s a lot easier than making people give up technology altogether.
And although it’s not trivial to implement, it’s absolutely possible to use more and more energy and create more and more wealth without degrading the environment. The entropy pessimism that seemed to foreclose that possibility is busted.
Can you help this pragmatic Dutchman out?
The Dutch have been accused of sidestepping ideological problems by adopting pragmatic solutions. Whether it’s weed, sex, weapons or healthcare, we usually adopt the cheapest option without bothering to settle the ideological discussion. So maybe I’m missing something. But to me, it is strange that the otherwise often bright and charming people in the degrowth movement seem so torn on technological innovation and cleantech. I know things are bad and getting worse but is it so bad to have hope and technology that could work? Can’t we end our techno wars and try for a little entropy optimism?
About this column:
In a weekly column, alternately written by Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. The six columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So that Tomorrow will be Good. Here all previous episodes.
Picture from Wikipedia: Machine-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. As a result of continued opposition to mechanisation, the Frame-Breaking Act 1812 made the death penalty available.