Pseudoscientific materials and thermoeconomics

The Shycocan Corp. took out a full-page jacket ad in the Times of India on June 22 – the same day The Telegraph (UK) had a story about GBP 2,900 handbags by Gucci that exist only online, in some videogame. The Shycocan product’s science is questionable, at best, though its manufacturers have disagreed vehemently with this assessment. (Anusha Krishnan wrote a fantastic article for The Wire Science on this topic). The Gucci ‘product’ is capitalism redigesting its own bile, I suppose – a way to create value out of thin air. This is neither new nor particularly exotic: I have paid not inconsiderable sums of money in the past for perks inside videogames, often after paying for the games themselves. But thinking about both products led me to a topic called thermoeconomics.

This may be too fine a point but the consumerism implicit in both the pixel-handbags and Shycocan and other medical devices of unproven efficacy has a significant thermodynamic cost. While pixel-handbags may represent a minor offense, so to speak, in the larger scheme of things, their close cousins, the non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of the cryptocurrency universe, are egregiously energy-intensive. (More on this here.) NFTs represent an extreme case of converting energy into monetary value, bringing into sharp focus the relationships between economics and thermodynamics that we often ignore because they are too muted.

Free energy, entropy and information are three of the many significant concepts at the intersection of economics and thermodynamics. Free energy is the energy available to perform useful work. Entropy is energy that is disorderly and can’t be used to perform useful work. Information, a form of negative entropy, and the other two concepts taken together are better illustrated by the following excerpt, from this paper:

Consider, as an example, the process of converting a set of raw materials, such as iron ore, coke, limestone and so forth, into a finished product—a piece of machinery of some kind. At each stage the organization (information content) of the materials embodied in the product is increased (the entropy is decreased), while global entropy is increased through the production of waste materials and heat. For example:

Extraction activities start with the mining of ores, followed by concentration or benefication. All of these steps increase local order in the material being processed, but only by using (dissipating) large quantities of available work derived from burning fuel, wearing out machines and discarding gauge and tailings.

Metallurgical reduction processes mostly involve the endothermic chemical reactions to separate minerals into the desired element and unwanted impurities such as slag, CO2 and sulfur oxides. Again, available work in the form of coal, oil or natural gas is used up to a much greater extent than is embodied in metal, and there is a physical wear and tear on machines, furnaces and so forth, which must be discarded eventually.

Petroleum refining involves fractionating the crude oil, cracking heavier fractions, and polymerizing, alkylating or reforming lighter ones. These processes require available work, typically 10% or so of the heating value of the petroleum itself. Petrochemical feedstocks such as olefins or alcohols are obtained by means of further endo- thermic conversion processes. Inorganic chemical processes begin by endothermic reduction of commonplace salts such as chlorides, fluorides or carbonates into their components. Again, available work (from electricity or fuel) is dissipated in each step.

Fabrication involves the forming of materials into parts with desirable forms and shapes. The information content, or orderliness, of the product is increased, but only by further expending available work.

Assembly and construction involves the linking of components into complex subsystems and systems. The orderliness of the product continues to increase, but still more available work is used up in the processes. The simultaneous buildup of local order and global entropy during a materials processing sequence is illustrated in figure 4. Some, but not all of the orderliness of the manufactured product is recoverable as thermodynamically available work: Plastic or paper products, for example, can be burned as fuel in a boiler to recover their residual heating value and con- vert some of that to work again. Using scrap instead of iron ore in the manufacture of steel or recycled aluminum instead of bauxite makes use of some of the work expended in the initial refining of the ore.

Some years ago, I read an article about a debate between a physicist and an economist; I’m unable to find the link now. The physicist says infinite economic growth is impossible because the laws of thermodynamics forbid it. Eventually, we will run out of free energy and entropy will become more abundant, and creating new objects will exact very high, and increasing, resource costs. The economist counters that what a person values doesn’t have to be encoded as objects – that older things can re-acquire new value or become more valuable, or that we will be able to develop virtual objects whose value doesn’t incur the same costs that their physical counterparts do.

This in turn recalls the concept of eco-economic decoupling – the idea that we can continue and/or expand economic activity without increasing environmental stresses and pollution at the same time. Is this possible? Are we en route to achieving it?

The Solar System – taken to be the limit of Earth’s extended neighbourhood – is very large but still finite, and the laws of thermodynamics stipulate that it can thus contain a finite amount of energy. What is the maximum number of dollars we can extract through economic activities using this energy? A pro-consumerist brigade believes absolute eco-economic decoupling is possible; at least one of its subscribers, a Michael Liebreich, has written that in fact infinite growth is possible. But NFTs suggest we are not at all moving in the right direction – nor does any product that extracts a significant thermodynamic cost with incommensurate returns (and not just economic ones). Pseudoscientific hardware – by which I mean machines and devices that claim to do something but have no evidence to show for it – belongs in the same category.

This may not be a productive way to think of problematic entities right now, but it is still interesting to consider that, given we have a finite amount of free energy, and that increasing the efficiency with which we use it is closely tied to humankind’s climate crisis, pseudoscientific hardware can be said to have a climate cost. In fact, the extant severity of the climate crisis already means that even if we had an infinite amount of free energy, thermodynamic efficiency is more important right now. I already think of flygskam in this way, for example: airplane travel is not pseudoscientific, but it can be irrational given its significant carbon footprint, and the privileged among us need to undertake it only with good reason. (I don’t agree with the idea the way Greta Thunberg does, but that’s a different article.)

To quote physicist Tom Murphy:

Let me restate that important point. No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years. A word of warning: that power plant is going to run a little warm. Thermodynamics require that if we generated sun-comparable power on Earth, the surface of the Earth—being smaller than that of the sun—would have to be hotter than the surface of the sun! …

The purpose of this exploration is to point out the absurdity that results from the assumption that we can continue growing our use of energy—even if doing so more modestly than the last 350 years have seen. This analysis is an easy target for criticism, given the tunnel-vision of its premise. I would enjoy shredding it myself. Chiefly, continued energy growth will likely be unnecessary if the human population stabilizes. At least the 2.9% energy growth rate we have experienced should ease off as the world saturates with people. But let’s not overlook the key point: continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes. The foregoing analysis offers a cute way to demonstrate this point. I have found it to be a compelling argument that snaps people into appreciating the genuine limits to indefinite growth.

And … And Then There’s Physics:

As I understand it, we can’t have economic activity that simply doesn’t have any impact on the environment, but we can choose to commit resources to minimising this impact (i.e., use some of the available energy to avoid increasing entropy, as Liebreich suggests). However, this would seem to have a cost and it seems to me that we mostly spend our time convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t yet pay this cost, or shouldn’t pay too much now because people in the future will be richer. So, my issue isn’t that I think we can’t continue to grow our economies while decoupling economic activity from environmental impact, I just think that we won’t.

A final point: information is considered negative entropy because it describes certainty – something we know that allows us to organise materials in such a way as to minimise disorder. However, what we consider to be useful information, thanks to capitalism, nationalism (it is not for nothing that Shycocan’s front-page ad ends with a “Jai Hind”), etc., has become all wonky, and all forms of commercialised pseudoscience are good examples of this.