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Economic Sustainability: Ultimately about Energy

The recent global financial crisis has raised widespread concern for the sustainability of the global economy and much has been written concerning the negative impacts of economic development on natural ecosystems and civil societies. Unfortunately, few viable alternatives to the prevailing economic paradigms have been suggested for consideration. Those that have been are typically little more than suggestions for fine tuning capitalist or socialist economies.

In his new book The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, John Ikerd addresses the basic principles and concepts essential to economic sustainability. Some of these concepts are capitalist, some are socialistic, and others are general principles validated by philosophy or common sense. What results is a synthesis: something that is neither capitalist nor socialist but fundamentally different. In part seven, he outlines the basic principles driving economies and what they mean for sustainability.
The Basic Nature of Energy

Economic sustainability ultimately depends on the sustainable use of energy. Meeting the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future will require widespread understanding and acceptance of the basic nature of energy.

All physical things that are of use to people – food, lodging, clothing, transportation, – require energy to make and energy to use. In fact, all material things are simply concentrated forms of energy. In addition, all useful human activities – working, managing, thinking, creating, – also require energy, The Essentials of Economic Sustainabilityspecifically biological energy. About one-fifth of the total energy used by the human body is required just to fuel the brain.

Things have economic value only if they are functional or useful to people, and all things that are useful to people are derived from energy. Economies are not capable of creating anything of value; they simply facilitate the process of extracting useful energy from natural and human resources. Economic sustainability is ultimately about energy.
Entropy And The Economy

According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Thus, sustainability might seem inevitable. However, each time energy is used to do anything useful, some portion of its usefulness is lost. This is the second law of thermodynamics – the law of entropy.

The loss of usefulness to entropy is inevitable and unavoidable. Whenever energy is used to do something useful, which physicists call work, it invariably changes in form. Specifically, it changes from more-concentrated, more-organized forms to less-concentrated, less-organized forms, as when gasoline is ignited in the engine of an automobile.


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