Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was born in Romania in 1906 and lived until 1994. Although he obtained a PhD in mathematical statistics, he familiarized himself with the new field of economics during a stay at Harvard University. In 1948, he fled Romania’s Communist regime and returned to the US to teach at Vanderbilt University, where he published many studies in economic science.
Georgescu-Roegen is important to our discussion, because he made a connection between the two fundamental laws of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy and increase in entropy) and the economic process. He describes all this in his seminal book, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, published in 1971. The book is not always easy to read, but that doesn’t detract from the power of his conclusions. He tells us that the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that the world has a limited entropy budget. It’s like a bucket that holds only 10 liters of water: once it’s full, you can no longer collect water and you have to work with what you’ve got.
Georgescu-Roegen stated that the entropy law applies to everything we do, and that with every action that degrades energy (it is never really “used up”) entropy is produced, leaving a smaller entropy budget for future generations. In other words, he made us aware of the entropic constraint on all economic activity. It can be shown (see my book, Chapter 5) that even by recycling (for instance, glass bottles), we cannot go back to the original situation without lowering the quality of the natural resources that we consume. The entropy law simply prevents us from creating a kind of perpetual cycle that would miraculously restore natural resources.
Georgescu-Roegen’s main complaint about economists is that they ignore this fact, and assume that everything in the economic process is cyclic in nature, and that in any case technology will provide us with solutions. However, it can be shown that often each new technology tends to accelerate the entropy production even more.
Here’s a simple example: More and more people hop on a plane to go on vacation or make a quick weekend visit to friends and relatives 1000 km away. Well, the burning of the aircraft’s fuel causes a tremendous increase in entropy, and that will never be reversed. Another example: cars allow us to live further away from work, but force us to spend lots of time in traffic jams while burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.
The message here is that if we want to save our planet for future generations, then we must be very responsible in the way we exploit non-renewable natural resources. There is simply no escape from the Second Law!