Energy flows: volcanoes, grounded flights and thermodynamics

21 04 2010

If anyone wanted evidence of how delicate, precarious and interdependent our systems are, they only need to look to the events of the past few days.  I was speaking at a conference in Istanbul on Thursday 15th on Creating Sustainable Value, due to fly back to the UK in the afternoon. It hadn’t been an easy choice to fly out to the conference in the first place, another example of the constant dilemma of wanting to raise awareness and responsiveness to the challenges of the 21st century, (environmental, social, economic, geopolitical, fill in the blank with your global crisis of choice) on the one hand, and not wanting to expend the carbon getting there on the other.

However, given the conference’s theme was one so close to my heart – organisational identity – the choice to attend eventually won out.  A four hour flight and too much carbon later, and I found myself in a very pleasant hotel in central Istanbul, a protected enclave from the externalities of water scarcity and desertification that a trip out of the city makes increasingly apparent.

As I delivered my presentation I already knew that I wasn’t going to get home that day. I waxed lyrical on the podium about the interconnectedness of our global civilization, and how a volcano in Iceland could prevent me getting home from Istanbul to the UK. It was an ideal rhetorical device to open my session on organisational identity and sustainability, and the need to re-formulate our often-unquestioned assumptions about the fundamental context within which we operate, our organisational purpose, values and the expressions of such. What I didn’t know at that point was that it would take me another five days to get home.

It’s easy to forget, or should I say deny, the mind-bending complexity of our global systems as they exist at the so-called ‘edge of chaos’. David Korowicz has made this point powerfully and profoundly with his paper Tipping Point. He points crucially to how our whole society, economy, indeed our entire global civilization, is actually a thermodynamic system of energy flows, and as such we are inescapably dependent on energy to service our complex social infrastructure.

We might like to think that we exist outside of and above ‘nature’, that we have been clever enough to create systems that exist in a supra-reality, disconnected and protected from our physical environment, even to the point that it becomes superfluous to our needs.  But ultimately, says Korowicz, we are a physical complex adaptive system, and therefore subject to all the same laws of thermodynamics as any other physical complex system. This means that the inevitable tendency towards entropy – disintegration – can only be countered by a constant inflow of energy. And we have engineered a global civilization that requires ever increasing amounts of energy to support ever increasing complexity, most of which is in the form of fossil fuels, ancient solar energy that was captured and laid down in the Earth’s crust millions of years’ ago.

The current aviation chaos is testament to how central this energy is to our civilization, and how taken-for-granted it is. There is no alternative to oil in the foreseeable future in the amounts we require to sustain the pace and scale of our international and interconnected societies. Going faster, moving further from equilibrium, requires more energy. And, says, Korowicz, that is inherently unsustainable. If we haven’t hit peak oil yet, it is likely we will do in the next 10-15 years.

Getting home from Istanbul by plane takes about four hours plus a car trip either end. Going overland (still by car or train, alternative but slower oil-dependent transport systems) would take at least 3 days and there’s still the Channel to negotiate.  On foot… well images of medieval pilgrimages of months and years come to mind.

As it was, in my case, it took a four hour flight to Madrid, then overland in buses, trains and cars.  Still two days and still dependent on a cross-continental flight.

So the wake-up call isn’t just about the immediate impact of stranded travellers; flowers and food perishing before reaching their destinations; the huge cost to the economy.  We are pretty good at dealing with these short-term crises generally speaking.  The wake-up call is about the fragility and systemic nature of our oil-dependent global systems, and the insidious – because it’s uncertain, creeping and therefore out-of-awareness – impact of peak oil.

Alexandra Stubbings

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