Natural laws, like the laws of thermodynamics, govern us all, and we ignore them at our peril. Nowhere is this more consequential, at the moment, than in dealing with climate change.
Energy, in any form, is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics says energy cannot be created nor destroyed and that the amount of energy in the universe is a constant. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that all any physical systems trend towards disorder (entropy).
The universe can be seen as comprised of two basic systems: those that dissipate energy and order and those that aggregate energy and thus create order. The sun is one energy system that dissipates order, and our earth is one where order is created. After nearly four billion years of evolution on our planet, human consciousness emerged and we must do everything we can to use that consciousness to make sense of the natural world.
American inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller was fond of saying, “the problem with our planet is that it did not come with an instruction manual.” While seemingly true, one could also make the case that nature is the “manual” to follow. Nature is the innate bulwark of disorder. Nature’s abundance, diversity, redundancy, and resilience are exemplary of a profound aggregation of systemic order.
The shift from learning about Nature to learning from Nature, an important and meaningful shift, is a recent development. People are increasingly finding themselves as apprentice to the master as seen in natural systems, organisms, and processes.
Jeffrey Karp, co-director of the Center for Regenerative Therapeutics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told the Washington Post that “evolution is the best problem-solver…often in technology, we encounter barriers that appear to be insurmountable, but sometimes answers can be found in the most obvious place: nature itself.” From new adhesives and innovative tests to synthetic materials with new mechanical properties and new photovoltaic techniques, nature offers an abundance of inspiration. Science writer Janine Benyus is also a proponent of learning from nature, arguing that “nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with…animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth.” Energy is a major component of many natural processes and, when faced with challenges in the global energy transition, we must continue to seek inspiration from this valuable source.
If humans should strive to contain entropy as much as possible, this has important hints for current human behavior. The use of petroleum, a substance billions of years in the making, is one key example. Petroleum is basically ancient sunlight, captured in the form of biomass, that has been subsumed into the earth’s crust where complex geological processes have transformed the biomass into oil, a valuable global capital asset.
Burning petroleum for fuel is not containing entropy; it is accelerating entropy, rapidly turning this valuable asset into a waste product with deleterious and disruptive effects on global climatic systems. Having said this, petroleum fuels are also miraculous. Their capability to do work is profoundly seductive. A tank the size of a small suitcase containing eighteen gallons of gasoline can move a five-thousand-pound car with seven passengers on board over four hundred miles in six hours—not to mention heating homes and powering the countless small engines that mow lawns, till the soil, and trim trees.
When considering the future, here’s the rub: the chemical compounds contained in petroleum are so profoundly unique and valuable, burning any of it at all is highly questionable given the potential other uses of petroleum. In fact, petroleum and its chemical compounds are currently used in many everyday consumer products, including: plastics and synthetic materials, cosmetics, paint, and numerous household products. What a tragedy it would be if by the time petroleum’s complex enduring value to the earth is realized, we find that we have already burned enough of it to do lasting damage to the biosphere.
Buckminster Fuller also said, “there is no such thing as pollution, only misplaced elements in quantity and location.” Carbon is not inherently the enemy. Carbon is one of the building blocks of nature, one of the essential components of living things. The critical issue here is balance.
Too much of anything in the wrong place causes systemic and cascading problems in the biosphere. The increase in atmospheric carbon caused by the burning of fossil fuels is the current environmental conundrum we are struggling with as a global community and this struggle will continue, perhaps for centuries, while adapting to the changes has already become a key issue. We need to deal with the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms. Navigating the global energy transition is fraught with challenges and we must make sure that we are implementing best practices that are sustainable, benefit people around the world for generations to come, and target the underlying causes of our climate and energy issues. In our efforts, let’s not forget the wisdom that nature has to offer.
Peter Dean is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.