Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?

A contribution to discussion on energy commodification and decommodification, by David Schwartzman

Larry Lohmann’s “And if Energy Itself is Unjust?” is a very interesting article, and it is nice to see thermodynamics revisited in the context of the capitalist physical and political economy. But this article deserves critique.

Illuminating how the science of thermodynamics was born and how energy manifests itself in the context of capitalist economy, as Lohmann does, should not make this science in itself a necessary ideological servant of this economy.

Lohmann’s invocation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially its second law of entropy is pure hybridism, the appropriation of a science into ideological metaphors, following the example of Bruno Latour’s hybridism, so clearly unpacked by Andreas Malm’s 2019 paper “Against Hybridism” (Historical Materialism 27.2 : 156–187). As Malm says:

particularly in our rapidly warming world – we need to sift out the social components from the natural, if we wish to understand the crises and retain the possibility of intervening in them.  

Since there is no scientific explanation of its thermodynamic reference, I take Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy gradients” as a metaphor for the generation of waste and destruction of ecosystems as a result of extraction and creation of technological infrastructure such as solar panels.

The caption on the figure Solar Photovoltaic Resource in the US reads:

The US as energy. Each colour indicates the theoretical potential for profitable annexation of territory on which materials violently extracted from sacrifice zones can be employed to accelerate conversion of light to other forms of energy, speeding up the flattening of entropy slopes.

But only a small fraction of the US land area, indeed world land area, mainly using existing rooftops, will be needed to create a photovoltaic energy capacity, along with wind farms sited in the ocean, to not only replace fossil fuels but even surpass their energy supplies. (See, e.g., the discussion in the Supplements of our paper “Can the 1.5 ℃ warming target be met in a global transition to 100% renewable energy?”.)

Indeed, the renewable energy transition includes real challenges of extractive industries especially mining which must be confronted, but in a full global transition terminating fossil fuels, it is the only path to having any chance of avoiding climate catastrophe, defined as breaching the 1.5 degree C warming limit, with horrors much worse than we now witness.

While entropy as a metaphor has its positive value, in Lohmann’s case highlighting the destruction accompanying the creation of renewable energy supplies, and likewise for Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism (2011), not going beyond this metaphor with an analysis relying on the science of thermodynamics will not make clear the critical implications of the second law to a renewable energy transition. In particular, we should recognize the potential of this renewable energy transition to reverse Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy slopes”, by making possible industrial ecologies and efficient recycling of metals virtually terminating extractive industries. 

This potential can only be realized in a simultaneous transition to a post-capitalist world, in a global Green New Deal driven by class struggle led by the transnational working class and its allies, particularly indigenous communities most impacted by extractivism. And this potential can only be realized with demilitarization of the global economy, freeing up vast quantities of metals needed for the transition to renewable energy and a truly green physical infrastructure derived from the dismantling of the fossil fuel/military industrial complex.

Tapping into a small fraction of the incoming solar flux will make this self-organization of global infrastructure and restoration of global ecosystems possible. An ecosocialist path will decommodify energy, creating a global solar commons. As defined in the second law of thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of the loss of energy available to do work, thermodynamic work, not to be conflated with the work derived from the appropriation of labour power in a capitalist economy producing surplus value.

The production of energy from burning fossil fuels, as well as nuclear fission, generates an incremental heat flux from the Earth’s surface, unlike – to a good first approximation – the tapping of solar radiation to do work. The latter outcome is non-incremental because the interaction of low entropy visible light with the low albedo relatively dark Earth’s surface generates a corresponding flux of high entropy heat (infrared radiation) whether work is done for human civilization or not, with this heat flux escaping to space.

In addition, burning fossil fuels is a prime source of anthropogenic carbon emissions to the atmosphere driving global warming, which is amplified by the melting of high albedo sea ice and surface snow at high latitudes. Hence, global solar power will then pay its “entropic debt” to space as non-incremental waste heat, without driving us to tipping points towards even more catastrophic climate change than has happened over the past few decades. For a fuller discussion see my 1996 paper “Solar Communism” (Science & Society 60 (3): 307–31), and my 2008 paper “The Limits to Entropy: Continuing Misuse of Thermodynamics in Environmental and Marxist Theory” (Science & Society 72 (1): 43-62). Also relevant is my 2021 book, The Global Solar Commons. 5 January, 2022.

□ David W. Schwartzman writes on solar energy. He is Professor Emeritus, Howard University (USA), and a member of the Green Party of the USA and other community organisations. His writing is available on the Solar Utopia and The Earth is Not for Sale web sites

■ See also: Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity, by Simon Pirani

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