the physics of sustainability: on zero entropy systems

max entropy

My 2002 book stressed “closing the loops”, and we’ve since learned much about how this can be done.

In one key moment, physicist Mae-Wan Ho half-accidentally discovered that “living organisms appear like a dynamic liquid-crystal-display”. This must mean, reasoned Ho, that living organisms are highly organized, and "coherent energy is being mobilized and transformed in the organisms”.

Ho set out to reformulate the thermodynamics for living systems, based on this core principle, which has “large implications for ecosystems, food, health and economies."

Most important, our "maximum entropy" model is precisely wrong. We need a "zero-entropy" model of sustainable systems.

zero entropyHos "thermodynamics of organized complexity" is based on “a nested dynamical structure" that "enables the organism to maintain its organization and simultaneously achieve energy transfer at maximum efficiency.”

This fractal structure of cycles within cycles “enables the activities to be coupled, or linked together, so that those yielding energy can transfer the energy directly to those requiring energy, and the direction can be reversed when the need arises”, says Ho, and she proceeds to show how this can work in a Dream Farm.

We need to think of farms (and other elements of our human support system) as "molecular energy machines", says Ho.

“In the old paradigm (see ‘dominant model’ above), organisms are predominantly seen to compete for resources and for space. This system grows relentlessly, swallowing up the earth’s resources, laying waste to everything in its path, like a hurricane. There is no closed cycle to hold resources within, to build up stable organised social or ecological structures.”

In the new paradigm (see ’sustainable model’ above), , “organisms in a naturally bio-diverse ecosystem maximize the reciprocal, symbiotic relationships that benefit all the species. The dynamically closed cycle of the zero-entropy mode, enables stable organized social or ecological structures to build up, and to grow and develop in a balanced way.”

In Ho’s ‘closed loop” design, “the farm can perpetuate itself quite successfully and sustainably, or it can grow by engaging more cycles. So you can add fish, algae, poultry, worms, mushrooms, etc., turning the "waste" from one cycle to resource for another”, noting that “productivity and biodiversity always go together in a sustainable system”.

Says Ho, “the different life cycles are essentially holding the energy for the whole system, and by way of reciprocity, recycling the energy within the system.”

And here’s the key insight:

“Once it is recognized that coherent energy is stored within the system, it follows that energy can be recycled, contrary to the conventional wisdom that regards only materials as capable of being recycled.”

It turns out, says Ho, that “industrial monoculture is the least energy efficient in terms of output per unit of input, and often less productive in absolute terms despite high external inputs, because it does not close the cycle, it does not have the biodiversity and reciprocity to hold the energy within and ends up generating a lot of waste and entropy and depleting the soil.”

BTW, Ho notes that the ‘carrying capacity’ of ‘zero entropy’ farming is 7 people per acre, compared with 1.5 acres per person in industrial farming.

…Reason enough to re-invent our farming model, methinks.

Bottom line: contrary to what we’ve been taught, waste is not a problem. It’s a solution! It’s how we close the loops…And we need lots more practice thinking this way.

republished from 13apr09

Published by Ken on May 2nd, 2010 tagged Sustainability Science, Systems Thinking

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