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Entropy production delusion

It is common in knowledgeable circles to talk about the development of civilization in terms of entropy discussion. The term 'entropy...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The confusing mix of tangible and intangible energy

The article "The Physics of Energy and the Environment" by Gael Tverberg highlights the widespread lack of understanding of the difference between tangible, physical energy and intangible, intellectual energy. This difference and the consequential impact on natural operations and the operations of civilization need to be understood in order to make sound decisions about how to cope with the difficult times ahead.
Physical energy flows can be measured, so are tangible. The measuring device depends on the form of the energy flow which may be electricity, flowing water, heated material, etc. Physical energy flows have always been governed by natural laws. Some of these laws, such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, have been recognised by scientists and engineers for centuries. However, the fact that natural laws always govern physical energy flows and the development of the associated materialistic systems is a fundamental principle that is often not taken into account in discussions of operations. The fact that energy is always a property of materials is not recognised.  The irreversibility of physical energy flows and of the destructive operation of friction on material in motion always occurs: just like the passing of time. Energy flow can do positive work while the associated friction does negative work.
Intellectual energy flows are intangible because they cannot be measured. They are the flow of information in seeds that leads to and governs  the usage of physical energy flow and usage of materials in the development of all system from people to trees, to bees, to skyscrapers.  They are the decisions made by people about issues, tangible and intangible, they have some understanding of.
The failure of people to differentiate between the tangible and intangible is not confined to energy. Friction between individuals may involve an intangible play of words or a tangible exchange of blows. But friction is a factor in all tangible motion that is not sufficiently recognised by society at large although engineers do take it into account to a degree. Motorists curse the wear and tear of their car tyres without realizing that the car can only be propelled by friction between the tyres and the road surface. Ice skaters have more understanding of the impact of friction. Birds do not understand that friction enables their wings to generate lift: they just fly as do aicraft. 'power', 'force' are also terms describing how natural forces operate on systems made of materials that have been purloined by society to describe the unconstrained decisions made by people. There is growing recognition that the intangible financial and tangible material (the infrastructure) 'wealth' of civilization comes at the irredeemable cost of destroying tangible natural material wealth (the envionment and the crustal store of materials, including the fossil fuels). The increase in the wealth of civilization is a delusion becausethe divestemnt of natural wealth is not taken into account. 
It is quite likely that intangible economies will collapse in the near future because of the unsustainable growth of (financial) debt. But that is a different issue to the tangible operation of the vast exisiting physical infrastructure which will continue to age due to the effect of friction despite using up the crustal stores of materials for its operation and maintenance. An intangible financial collapse will affect the decisions made by a lot of people about what tangible operations (such as driving their cars or flying away on a tourist trip or for business meetings) they will have to cut back on. But that will do no more than slow the inevitable demise of the physical structure of industrialized civilization.

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