Civilization and The Entropy Law: Nothing Lasts Forever

Civilization and The Entropy Law: Nothing Lasts Forever

The following are several telling quotes from the book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail,  by William Opuls.

This is a very important book for citizens of our American Great Civilization to understand and act upon.


When coal is burned to produce electricity, only about 35 percent of the energy in the coal is converted into electrical energy. The rest becomes waste heat, various gases (such as carbon dioxide), various chemicals (such as sulfuric acid), particulates, and ash. And even the electricity dissipates into the environment as waste heat once it had done its work. From the physicist’s point of view, the books are balanced—there is just as much matter and energy in the overall system as before—but what remains is significantly lower in quality. The upshot is that for every unit of good that man creates using this particular technology, he  manufactures two units of bad and even the good is ephemeral.”

Kindle location 514-520


“technological improvements actually increase thermodynamic costs. Take the substitution of the automobile for the horse. To make a horse requires a modest investment in pasture, water, and fodder for he two to three years it takes from conception until the horse can work. But to make a car requires not only many direct inputs—steel, copper fuel, water, chemicals, and so forth—but also many indirect ones such as a factory and labor force as well as the matter and energy needed to sustain them. To use a technical term, the “embodied energy” in the car is many times that in the horse. In addition, the thermodynamic cost of operating the car is greater. A horse needs only a modicum of hay, water and oats procured locally without to much difficulty. But the auto requires oil wells, refineries, tankers, gasoline stations, mechanics shops, and so on—that is, a myriad of direct inputs that are difficult and expensive to procure, as well as a host of indirect costs. So the substitution of auto for horse may have brought many advantages, but at a heavy thermodynamic price.”

Kindle Location 531-541


Civilization is trapped in a thermodynamic vicious circle from which escape is well nigh impossible. The greater a civilization becomes, the more the citizens produce and consume—but the more they produce and consume, the larger the increase in entropy. The longer economic development continues, the more depletion, decay, degradation, and disorder accumulate in the system as a whole, even if it brings a host of  short-term benefits. Depending on a variety of factors—the quantity and quality of available resources, the degree of technological and managerial skill, and so forth—the process can continue for some time but not indefinitely. At some point, just as in the ecological realm, a civilization exhausts its thermodynamic “credit” and begins to implode.”

Kindle Location 617-623


While nothing lasts forever, it would be good if humankind could learn to extend the ride. To do so would require a gigantic exercise in self-control and sacrifice for long-term gain and good.

Short of the occurrence of some science-based technological miracle, there is little reason for optimism.

VTM, 9/29/13

P.S. Another important corollary of the Entropy Law is something that I call Social Entropy. On the bright side, it would seem that there are things that a civilization could to control social entropy. Please see below:

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4 Responses to “Civilization and The Entropy Law: Nothing Lasts Forever”

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