“Within a finite period of time past, the earth must have been, and within a finite period of time to come the earth must again be, unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted, unless operations have been, or are to be performed, which are impossible under the laws to which the known operations going on at present in the material world are subject.”

— “On the Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy”, William Thompson (1852)

A common textbook definition of entropy is the incremental disorder in a particular system. Similar to the textbook definition of energy, this doesn’t really help us much from a practical standpoint. Recall that to properly understand energy in a modern context, it helps to view energy usage from the lens of achieving energetic order. Though the entropy of the universe as a whole is always increasing, we can “reduce” entropy in one system by deliberately “accelerating” entropy in another.

Humans have an extraordinary ability to increase energetic order in one system by doing “work” on such system, at the expense of increasing entropy in another system. If our ancestors left it up to entropy during the Ice Age, they all would have died in the cold. It took work to set up shelter, hunt for food, make clothing, and consume the adequate calories to survive. As a result, animals had to be killed, land had to be disrupted, and fire had to be burned in order to achieve this.

300,000 years later, we’re now witnessing the large-scale byproduct of entropy as a result of mankind’s “work”. Forests have been cleared, oceans have been polluted, air quality in many cities have gone to shit, and entire species of animals have gone extinct. Does that mean we should stop our pursuit of energetic order? No, because history has taught us that we’re never going to decrease our demand for energy. The best thing we can do is contain or properly redirect the entropy we’re emitting elsewhere. Part of this involves innovating on the processes and technologies to extract and purify energy. Carbon capture devices for power plants is one example.

Another solution is using more “dense” forms of clean energy, such as nuclear. Consider that wind farms can require up to 360 times more land to produce the same amount of power as a nuclear facility. Why is nuclear so efficient? Because the “work” put into enriched uranium is the result of exploding stars billions of years ago plus the engineering genius of mankind. Solving for this balance of meeting ever-increasing energy demands without destroying ourselves in the process is perhaps our greatest challenge of the 21st century.


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