Entropy: A Revelation

14 min readFeb 19, 2024
Photo by The Cleveland Museum of Art on Unsplash

I had an epiphany after writing my latest post on the topic of entropy. You know, that moment when suddenly everything falls into place and something hidden reveals itself. During one of my long walks the concept of entropy was somehow recombined in my head with the idea of energy and mineral blindness, the destiny of civilizations, and the arrow of time. Who knows, you might also discover something in the end. With that said, treat the following lightly: a kind of a thought experiment or a hypothesis in need for exact data to back it up, either proving or disproving this unified concept. So, researchers in search for a research idea, grand theorists, and fellow collapsniks, off we go!

Last week I introduced you the concept of entropy or the rate of randomness / disorder of a system. The same idea could be equally well applied to objects — like a highly structured computer chip — or energy itself (referring to its capacity to do work). In a nutshell: the higher the level of entropy is, the more disorganized and diluted matter is, and the more energy has been converted into useless waste heat (something unable to do more work).

Naturally, disorder tends to increase with time: things tend to rust and rot away, and heat tends to dissipate. However, clever humans have found ways to concentrate (and thereby lower the entropy of) raw materials and energy, to make useful products like a car. Little wins like this came at a huge cost though. Mining pits and tailings were left behind, CO2 has been emitted from smelters and manufacturing plants, and a lot of oil was burned during transportation and the end-use of the product (emitting yet another batch of climate harming molecules). The cost of manufacturing and using cars was an overall increase of entropy in the Earth system; by orders of magnitude greater than the little decrease achieved by a vehicle.

Going one step further we could also view mineral and energy resources themselves through the same lens. In this case having a low entropy, highly structured, high value resource means owning a mine producing high grade ores, requiring very little energy to extract and refine into metal objects. On the other hand, having a high entropy mineral resource means operating a huge open pit mine producing an ore with 0.1% metal content, where tiny metallic particles are evenly dispersed in hard to crash, heavy rocks. Extracting such a poor resource requires huge amounts of energy — to do all that blasting, hauling, milling, leaching and smelting — just to get the same amount of metal as described above. In conclusion: a high entropy mineral ore requires low entropy, dense energy inputs, and leaves behind a huge overall increase in chaos (toxic tailings, rock dust, huge craters etc.).

The same qualification applies to energy. A low entropy energy resource means having a dense, powerful fuel, requiring little energy inputs to get, and can be easily converted into useful work. In this sense hydrocarbons are the closest we got so far to this ideal low entropy (pure) energy resource. Oil requires (or at least used to require) very little energy input to get, can be refined into a range of fuels possessing huge energy densities, and is capable of moving megatons of cargo around the world. On the other hand, “renewables” represent a very diffuse, unconcentrated energy source, requiring vast arrays of wind turbines and solar panels to harvest, besides taking up a lot of materials and energy to create and maintain. The same goes to all manufactured or synthetic propellants: liquefied gas, bio-fuels, ammonia and hydrogen. (The creation of such power sources takes up as much as a third or even half of the energy from which they are derived from, and thus represent a net loss in terms of energy return on investment.)

So much for the recap, and now the idea. Let’s combine these two factors — the entropy of raw materials, especially metal ores, and the entropy of our primary energy source — into one unified model. The reason: I wanted to show you how these two often overlooked factors interact with one another, and how they create vastly different outcomes in various combinations. Also, and this was my moment of epiphany, this model has shed some light on an untold aspect of the history of our species in general, and on the story of western industrial civilization in particular.

Take a look at the chart above, with the entropy (or dispersedness) of mineral resources on the X-axis, and the entropy (diffuseness) of energy on the Y. Now, let’s divide the chart into four distinct segments, and see what realms the various combination of resources result in.

  1. “The Pristine Land” (low entropy minerals, high entropy energy). Imagine a true promise land, with (mostly) intact nature, gold nuggets lying around in shallow riverbeds, with the prime energy resource being only the Sun and the wind. No one has thought of, or has the means to burn fossil fuels or access any even lower entropy fuels. Humanity has thrived in this place for hundreds of thousands of years, using only truly renewable natural wealth like wood, and only a minimal amount of non-renewable mineral resources. As an ideal example, the state of the North American continent before colonization comes to mind here.
  2. “The Star Trek Future” (low entropy minerals, low entropy energy). This is the ideal place to build a high tech, high energy civilization, with humanity building cities orbiting the Earth, and sending star-ships to colonize the entire galaxy. Energy is coming from a dense and seemingly unlimited source. Raw materials are abundant and easy to get.
  3. “The Mordor Economy” (high entropy minerals, low entropy energy). Using Nate Hagen’s terminology (itself borrowed from Tolkein’s universe), in this combination of resources we have an abundant and dense energy source; with which we can rob Earth from all of it’s easy to get minerals. This results in a depleting world, where we eventually blow and dig up everything, from lush forests to the seafloor, in search for ever lower grade ores, while releasing immense amounts of pollution during the process (read: unleashing even higher entropy). Sounds familiar?
  4. “The Empty Quarter” (high entropy minerals, high entropy energy). Welcome to the Rub-al-Khali desert, the last and most depleted quadrant of the chart. There are no more cheap and easy to get resources, no more ‘free’ high density energy. Nothing but a tormented landscape, and the waste heat emanating from our central star, trapped by a heavily polluted atmosphere.

Notice also the arrow of time, depicted as a pale blue line pointing from low entropy materials and energy towards an ever increasing randomness and chaos to the system. This is the natural inclination of this little playing field we have here, where things left to gravitate towards with time. Should civilization be abandoned and left to rot, for example, all pure metals would corrode and pulverize into dust. All energy would dissipate and be turned into waste heat. This is the normal flow of things, which we are fighting tooth and nail to reverse. By doing so, however, we are just accelerating this trend, as you will see below.

Now, if you plot the past 600 years of our species’ history — and western industrial civilization in particular — on the chart above, you will notice something reminiscent of a distinct pattern. (Note, that this is the point where our little scientific hypothesis needs to be injected with exact data. Based on first principles thinking though, and on the second law of thermodynamics, I have a strong hunch that we should be seeing something like this in the picture below. With that said, at this point I think it’s more important to understand the basic concept, than to get lost in the weeds discussing how exactly entropy should be measured.)

1450 AD: Western Civilization (confined largely to the European continent back then) has already used up its best mineral resources and metal ores. Yet, there are still quite many good-enough gold and other mines operating on the continent: all powered by human and animal labor alone. Our civilization’s primary energy source is the Sun: providing the heat and light to grow crops, feeding the workers and their draft animals. Wind, also generated by the gentle heat released by our central star, is used to mill seeds into flour, and to move ships across the sea. Although the land is far from being pristine, it is still in a way better shape than today.

1650 AD: Following the arrival of settlers and conquistadors onto the shores of the Americas, a new pristine land of wealth and resources was opened up for exploitation. This new discovery has lowered the overall (average) entropy of mineral resources by a considerable amount, and thereby ushered in a previously unprecedented expansion of western civilization.

1850 AD: Using steam engines and locomotives humanity has finally found a way to harness the dense energy of fossilized, concentrated sunshine: coal. The industrial revolution, started on the back of still abundant mineral resources and the power of low entropy fossil fuels, catapulted western civilization into an age of high tech, towards the “Star Trek Future”.

1950 AD: With the power of oil, an even more dense and pure fuel than coal, and its low cost of extraction (taking up only 1–3% of the total energy produced) economic growth and scientific development accelerated to its highest pace in recorded history. Although the best mineral deposits have already started to deplete, there were still ample amount of resources left to build rockets, jet planes, nuclear reactors and more.

2025 AD: Although oil production is still growing (or at least stagnating) more and more of its energy now have to be recycled into drilling new wells, producing much less oil than the old low cost ones. After peak net energy from oil arrives, though, energy cannibalism will start to show its teeth: taking away an ever growing share of non-oil energy production to produce essential fuels like diesel. Mineral resources are also in a dire shape: most mines producing metals other than aluminum and iron are now processing ore grades well below 5% — and in some cases below 1% — further exacerbating energy and resource cannibalism. Meanwhile all this frantic digging and burning has released a tremendous amount of pollution, pushing the Earth-system out of balance. Humanity is clearly on an unsustainable track. How was that metaphor with holes and digging…?

The question poses itself: where to now from here? What future awaits? The Mordor Economy? The Empty Quarter? Or is there a way back to the promise land of low entropy energy and materials?

Let’s review the different scenarios and see what are the possibilities of each coming through. What would it take to break away from our current, unsustainable trajectory? What would be the consequences of doing so? Is there a price to pay? But first, before we do that, let me remind you of an important detail. There is no place for a stable equilibrium, or “steady state” on this map for a mineral based civilization.

No matter how slow we burn them, or how many times we try to recycle everything, all dense high quality metal resources are destined to slowly turn into dust. According to the second law of thermodynamics every material and energy conversion comes at a cost, and at least a small fraction of material and energy gets lost, forever. (Remember, we are on a heavily tilted playing field with a strong inclination towards the Empty Quarter.) Even with a world class 90% recycle rate for literally every single critical material, we would be squandering our vast amount of wealth in a couple of centuries at best. (In practice we would be running out of hard to recover critical metals much sooner than that.)

So far only life based (biological) solutions stood the test of time, and managed to escape their fate. The reason is simple: there are plenty of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen atoms — the essential building blocks of all living organisms — as well as mild sunshine to keep them circulating. Anything more than that would require high heat, and much rarer metals; neither of which are as abundant as we would like them to be.

With that in mind, now let’s see where we are headed, and what potential futures are in store for us.

  1. Our current trajectory. Our civilization is still powered by oil. Without it, there would be no agriculture, mining, or long distance transport, as all of these activities require a dense, low entropy fuel. Heavy batteries, or hydrogen simply do not cut it. As most of my readers already know, we have a huge problem though. We are about to pass a civilizational tipping point in 2025, due to an exponential rise in the energy demand of producing oil liquids (representing a 15.5% of the energy production of oil liquids today, and projected to reach a proportion equivalent to half of the gross energy output by 2050 (Delannoy et al. 2021)). In our model, this translates into a marked uptick in the trajectory for the blue dot towards depletion, and an overall increase in entropy for energy resources. Combined with the same effect from mining minerals, we are clearly headed towards “The Empty Quarter” (mostly due to the same principles as with oil: an ever growing energy demand driven by falling ore grades). Should we get there, it would lead to a gradual collapse of modern technologies, and with it our entire way of life. “Renewables” are facing the same problem: both fossil fuels and mined minerals are essential to their making — both of which are soon to be on the decline. Not to mention the fact, that we hope to be mining ever scarcer resources with a much dispersed, high entropy energy source (sunlight). How does that two add up?
  2. “The Mordor Economy.” Now, we are on fantasy land, and not only by name. There are a number of rather unlikely things which must come to pass in order to avoid the sorry state of our affairs described above. First, we would need to extend low energy cost oil production, somehow sidestepping the exponential increase outlined by Delannoy et al. in 2021. Let’s say by finding another super-major oil field… Again, I don’t believe that this is a realistic expectation… But hey, we are Frodo and Co., and we are about to bring the ring home! In the meantime someone, somewhere has to find another low cost, high density energy source… (And no, hydrogen will not cut it as it takes much more energy to create than that it returns to the economy.) Should we somehow still manage to do that, and had the oil till that solution is scaled up to global proportions, then we could go on mining ever poorer, and poorer, and poorer, and poorer resources... Till we dig up the entire planet, and run out of arable land, or rather: kill the biosphere and cook ourselves soft in the process. Then we will be stuck on a overly warm, wet rock flying in space. Once again, “The Mordor Economy” has no stable equilibrium. It will keep shifting towards an ever greater and greater destruction as even the poorest resources get depleted; ultimately compromising energy production itself, needed to maintain mining. Remember: there is no mining without energy, and there is no energy without mining. On a finite planet, sooner or later something got to give.
  3. Energy miracle. OK, we need to think big. In order to turn this rather unimpressive trajectory around, we must find a truly super dense, ultra low entropy energy source in abundance… Oh, and we also need to couple it with a propulsion technology capable of carrying ultra-large space ships across the solar system. (Just as a reference, a space mission flying three people to the Moon burned as much energy as it was released by a small nuclear bomb.) Only then will we become able to escape the planet, and do mining and increasing entropy on other planets like Mars, building space cities, and all the rest. Our current technology based on rocket fuel is simply incapable to do that: hurtling cargo ships capable to move thousands of people, or ten thousand tons of ore across space is simply above and beyond our current technical realm of possibilities. And again, we need something fast, as net energy from oil is just about to peak this decade, and mineral resources are also depleting fast. Again, there can be something out there that I’m currently not aware of, but so far I haven’t seen anything remotely capable. (And no, fusion will not cut it.)

If you are like me, you might ask: was there any other way? Could we have somehow sidestepped entropy? What if we never started an industrial revolution? Well, without the widespread adaption of coal, we would have cut down all the forests in Europe, farmed and tilled all the land and extracted every resource we could lay our hands on till now. Without the discovery of the Americas, and the invention of steam engines, Western civilization would have crumbled, and would have found itself in The Empty Quarter already. Following the arrow of time and the inclination of the playing field, we would’ve already performed an elegant “sidestep” from quadrant #1 directly to #4. For a historical reference look no further than the (once) Fertile Crescent (aka Middle-East or West Asia), and see with your own eyes what thousands of years of civilization did to it, even with animal and human muscle power alone. So no, slow burn is not a solution to entropy. As the late eighteenth century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand wrote well before the invention of the steam engine:

“Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them.”

OK, this civilization is toast, but what will come after this one is over? How will future humans fit into this model? What could come about a thousand or ten thousand years down the line? Ironically, what I see as a clear path forward is: acceptance. Coming into terms with the fact the that the timeframe to build a mineral based civilization is limited, and if it cannot escape the planet to start an interstellar empire in time, then it is “doomed” to return to normalcy. That being: living within the boundaries of a single planet, and entirely off of a flow of renewable resources (wood, grains, fruits, animals etc.) There is simply no other way.

Once even the memory of this high tech civilization is gone, and those who survive its fall has returned to a lifestyle not seen since the Neolithic age, only then can the slow regeneration of Earth’s resource base begin. Following the large wave of extinction we have so carelessly started, and once the climate has found its new equilibrium (hopefully still within a habitable range), life may start to heal and recover. New species and ecosystems may emerge. Volcanoes, plate tectonics may create and bring new ore bodies close to the surface, which our distant ancestors (or another “clever” species) would be able to mine…

Will they make the same mistake as we did, and restart this circle of destruction? Only time will tell.

Until next time,


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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/