Thursday, November 22, 2007

Why Capitalism Isn't Sustainable - Part 1 of 2

Touch Base Article June 2007 issue


There are two key forces that drive everything in the physical world. First, energy flows ‘downhill’ – energy flows from hot to cold, from concentrated to dilute, from ‘humanly useful’ to ‘waste heat’ (how human-needs-centric the north-western world’s zeitgeist is!).

Secondly, entropy – or disorder – flows ‘uphill’ – from order (low entropy) to disorder (high entropy).

Back at the end of the nineteenth century, a group of people – called ‘thermodynamicists’: those interested in the science of thermodynamics – discerned these driving forces, while one of them, Josiah Willard Gibbs was one of them who saw that these two driving forces could be brought together in one concept – that of ‘Free Energy’.

Thus, the arithmetic of ‘Gibbs Free Energy’.

Now, this has nothing to do with perpetual motion machines, or free-for-ever electricity -but, rather, the thermodynamicists were able to show that these fantasies were/are, well, fantasies. By contrast these ideas put on firm footing the forces with which – notice my prescriptive ‘not of this zeitgeist’ certainty! – human beings must be conformable.

So, what’s this got to do with the lives of Canadian immigrants and globally-minded Canadians?

Well, actually, everything.

The life support system of all Canadians – food, air, water, warmth, cooling, shelter and clothing* - are the products of application of the laws of chemistry: including the laws of thermodynamics.

Thus, I’m going to assert – in the hope of reasoned rebuttal – that (so-called) wealth creation is the consequence of the following word equation (the arrow is read as ‘goes to give’):

Raw Materials + Energy --> ‘Wealth’ + ‘Pollution’

(Think, from your own experience, about any wealth creation process – domestic or industrial.)

Now, not only is the global north-west’s life support system (its/our, so-called, ‘economic’ system) one that is, not only, wasteful of human lives, dreams, training, education, and hope, it is mightily wasteful of the well-being of the ‘rest of’ the creation/commonweal.

Since the global north-west runs on the – fantasy - notion that money must make its maximum money return in the shortest possible time, then the equation above is driven at maximum speed – to generate maximum pollution. More pollution - as we know from our day-to-day experience - than the creation/commonweal can cope with.

And, hence, global (and local!) climate change.

Now, while the second law of thermodynamics tells us that every change results in an overall increase in the entropy – disorder – of the universe, a more subtle understanding of thermodynamics – particularly of Gibbs Free Energy – tell us that localized sub-systems – life forms (you, me, a tree) can create local order and concentrate energy locally (think ‘tree’ or your cooked dinner) – but only at the expense of disorder elsewhere (think ‘your’ kitchen after dinner preparation).

Now, the significance for Canadians of all this is the very geographical and climatic marginality of Canada – and of Canada’s part in the global financial ‘economic’ sub-system that is driving all this mayhem-creation.

More anon.


*ie our ‘selfish needs’ – the needs necessary to sustain our-selves as individuals – as compared with our social needs: see the Four Needs essay in the papers section at



(Created 28 May 2007 - three typos corrected. 22 November 2007)

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