The Arrow of Time

9 min readFeb 12, 2024
Photo by Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash

The circular economy and an endless recycling of materials is an absurd proposal, and not only from a technical perspective; the very idea of a “sustainable” high tech society is in a direct conflict with the laws of physics.

After reviewing the technical reasons behind energy & resource cannibalism, as well as their combined effect on our prosperity, now I invite you to put on an even wider angle lens. Without further ado, let me introduce the subject matter of today’s post: entropy. ‘Wait, entro-what?! What does this mumbo-jumbo has to do with our dreams of a green economy centered around the endless recycling of products?’ Let me explain.

In general entropy is a measure of disorder or randomness. A sophisticated object like a computer chip, or a living organism like a flowering plant, has very low entropy (or minimal chaos) to it, while the same microchip left to disintegrate in the bottom of a landfill, or that plant thrown out to the compost heap, on the other hand, displays an increasingly higher and higher level of entropy.

The same is true for energy. Enriched uranium and petroleum are both sources of concentrated, high density energy, unlike diluted, lukewarm waste heat emanating from an engine, or dissipated through a cooling tower. You see, by using energy we are not destroying it, we simply harness its capacity to work. We take a concentrated low entropy energy source, utilize it to our purpose, and let it dissipate as heat. In this process energy becomes ever more diluted and dispersed, and thus its entropy increases. The more of our high grade energy has been transformed into waste heat in a system, the higher the level of entropy rises.

It goes without saying that things tend to fall apart, rust and rot away with time. In other words: entropy slowly increases with every passing day, even without our ‘help’. In fact, it is the increase of entropy alone which gives time its direction. This observation is so universal that it has earned its own place in physics, and is called the second law of thermodynamics. (Here is a really good video explaining the concept.)

Then what about new life, or for that matter manufacturing? Aren’t these processes supposed to decrease entropy by creating a highly structured, well organized system like a beautiful pine tree or a nice and shiny solar panel? Indeed, both of these processes convert highly random, unorganized matter into a recognizable organism or object. However they do so by tapping into a steady flow of low entropy, high density energy, helping them to achieve their goals. Like sunlight, converting CO2 and water into sugars, or the heat from burning coal melting iron (1).

Here is the rub, though: lowering entropy, or getting rid of chaos and replacing it with order, comes with creating much more entropy and disorder elsewhere. Mining, the topic I addressed last week, serves as a perfect example here. In order to make a golden ring weighing 5 grams, the mine producing the precious metal has to dig up and haul 5,000,000 grams (or 5 tons!) of ore to the surface. (For reference: imagine a pile of stones the size of a pick-up truck.) Then these rocks must be crushed into a fine dust, and mixed with a similar amount of water and aggressive chemicals to leach out all the 5 grams of gold. So in order to get that little piece of low entropy material on your finger, the industry had to produce and leave behind a tailing the size of a garden pool full of toxic chemicals, finely ground rocks and muddy water… Not to mention the plumes of diesel smoke and CO2 mixed into the atmosphere during the process, or the energy needed to deliver that gold to a smelter, getting it melted and shaped into a ring.

The same goes to mining and enriching Uranium, making solar panels or drilling for oil. All technologies, be them extractive or manufacturing in nature, increase entropy on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than the product they make represent. In fact, as rich resources deplete with time we are forced to tap into ever lower grade ores and reservoirs, leaving ever higher entropy behind for the same amount of products produced.

So while we could argue that this or that technology increases entropy to a higher or lower extent, will this really matter in the end, when as the result of these activities freshwater reservoirs get depleted or contaminated, or the air and soil get polluted beyond tolerance?

Ore bodies and fossil fuel deposits all took an immense amount of time, energy and raw materials to form, which can only be grasped on a truly geological timescale. It took the destruction of continents and the deaths of many living organisms to have what we have today, something which could only be characterized as the biggest one time bonanza in the history of a planet.

The concept of entropy also explains why we have so little high grade resources, and so much uneconomic to produce raw materials. Things tend to get more diluted, dispersed and well mixed over time — thanks to plate tectonics and rock weathering — ultimately all due to the relentless increase in entropy. So while there is an immense amount of Uranium on Earth, most of it has been already dissolved in seawater, or was already finely dispersed in Earth’s crust.

Why don’t we filter the necessary raw materials from seawater then? Well, should we embark on this fool’s errand, it would take the filtering of a billion water molecules to find 3 Uranium atoms. Good luck with that. (And while at it, we would also need to figure out where would we get the energy to do that, and if the electricity generated in a nuclear reactor could provide a sensible return.)

Concentration of Uranium, where ppm stands for part per million. Source

Once you get the concept of entropy, the increase in chaos of a system, and the role technology plays in it, both climate change and resource depletion get a new meaning. It is the concept of entropy what unifies everything we do to this planet: we deplete all the low entropy, high value resources and turn them into high entropy (well diluted) pollution and waste heat. That’s all to it. Coal reserves down, CO2 up. Levels of rare metals and other mineral ores down, toxic waste up.

The increase in entropy is not something we can choose to avoid. All technology does is turning low entropy materials and energy into high entropy waste, on a scale orders of magnitude greater than what the end product represents. This is why it is impossible to get rid of what economists call ‘externalities’ — a direct physical consequence of technology use.

So, can recycling and “renewables” save the day, the economy, or at least the climate? Those who paid attention so far are now shouting at the top of their lungs: no! Of course not. Viewed through the lens of physics, recycling is just another material transformation, inevitably increasing entropy and thus the pollution load of the environment, by releasing toxic fumes, contaminated waste water, and using up a tremendous amount of energy — only to turn all of it into waste heat. Besides, it also uses a limited resource: the amount of stuff already in circulation. Something, which could only shrink with every round of recycling.

You see, entropy is the reason why it is a much better idea to reuse and repurpose a product instead of recycling it, and why the idea of a circular economy powered by “renewables” directly violates the second law of thermodynamics. Since according to this law, overall entropy must increase with every round of recycling, we will always lose a certain percentage of the material (much like “the devil’s cut”), and a tremendous amount of energy in the process — none of which can be replaced by using “renewable” energy. Thus the only question remaining is this: ‘Which one will run out first: the high quality energy needed to do recycling, or the material left to be recycled?’ Based on the data I see, my strong sense is, that we will run out of the necessary high quality energy first, and more than 90% of our material wealth will be left to rust in place. Taken to its logical conclusion, and fast forward a million years, the relentless increase in entropy will eventually turn all our high tech infrastructure into a thin sliver of rock strata, covered with an immense amount of sediment. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We are living in truly pivotal times. A sea change in material and energy use is coming, something, which will wash away our current lifestyle completely, yet it will take decades to fully unfold. Combined with all the negative side effects of increased entropy, like an accelerating climate change, the accumulation of toxic chemicals, or a rapid degradation of our ecosystems, humanity is facing its biggest challenge yet. And what do we get? Magical thinking and proclamations, flying face-first against the laws of thermodynamics.

So far in the battle between physics and platitudes, physics always came out having the upper hand. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. So as energy and material cannibalism keeps eating away more of our resources available for economic use at an accelerating pace, instead of a surge in recycling I expect to see an uptick in repurposing and reusing existing stuff to the point where they eventually will be discarded. A policy mandating manufacturers to design for repairability, durability and simplicity would thus go much further than platitudes about recycled material content and reduced CO2 footprints… But who am I to tell? Profits will be chased, power clung onto, and cans kicked down the road. Until it is simply no longer possible.

On a personal level, for the 99.9% of society this means getting used to the idea that new items and energy will become increasingly unaffordable. Learning a trick or two on how to conserve both, or how to repurpose stuff thus seems to be a much better approach, than waiting for the first electric car made from 100% recycled material to hit the market. And while the future is ripe with uncertainty, one thing seems to be sure: those people and communities who manage to become increasingly self-reliant and resourceful in the years ahead will clearly have a distinct advantage.

Until next time,



(1) Notice the difference in the quality of energy needed for organic matter to grow, versus making a solar panel for example. While life has evolved to use the low density gentle energy of sunlight, most of our high tech stuff requires high heat (well above 1000°C), a form of concentrated energy which would evaporate all life in seconds. This high energy density provided at a low cost is the reason why fossil fuels are still being used today. As their energetic cost of recovery increases, however, it will make most technologies simply unviable, including nuclear, “renewables”, hydrogen and fusion, too. Notice how high energy density correlates with the rapid increase in entropy: while it took life billions of years to transform the surface of the planet using sunlight alone, by using fossil fuels we ‘achieved’ a similar increase in entropy in a matter of centuries, if not decades. Thus should we find an energy source with an even higher energy density, we would use it to destroy whatever is left of this planet in a matter of decades.

Also, here is another great conversation on the subject from Nate Hagens.

Thank you for reading The Honest Sorcerer. If you would like to support my work, please subscribe for free and consider leaving a tip. Every donation counts, no matter how small. Thank you in advance!




A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: