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The Next President’s Inaugural Speech (If Only…)

by Brent Blackwelder, Head Speechwriter

Once upon a time the United States was a global pioneer of democracy and justice. The founders of this great nation articulated a noble vision of inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Times have changed. We have emerged from this presidential campaign with an ignoble vision of alienating wrongs — venom, vitriol, and the pursuit of pettiness. The campaign, including my campaign, dodged the most important issue of our era: coming to grips with the ecological reality confronting life on this planet. Today I pledge to make our nation once again the leader in solving economic, environmental, and social crises.

We have built a global economy that refuses to recognize ecological limits to growth. Repeated financial collapses, mushrooming corruption, and rampant speculation have characterized the last twenty years. We will blaze a new trail over the next twenty years; we will take bold steps to confront the failed global economy. Better late than never, we will face the issues of climate change and population growth that we have been avoiding for political expedience.

Modern industrial societies, with the United States leading the way, are emitting so much pollution that we have endangered the stability of earth’s climate and jeopardized the survival of over one quarter of the planet’s species. Our global population of over seven billion needs access to goods and services, but almost a billion are already struggling to obtain the bare necessities. Our civilization is using natural resources much faster than the earth can regenerate them. Scientists explain that we would need one and a half earths to keep consuming at our current rate. We can do better.

Our goal is to create a true-cost economy, a sustainable economy that gives everyone a fair chance. No more cheater economics and no more casino economics. We will put the cheaters in jail and close down the Wall Street casinos.

We will challenge the zealous pursuit of economic growth as the solution to the all problems. Much of our so-called economic growth has cost us far more than it has been worth. We have ruthless growth that benefits a few at the top but does nothing for most Americans. We have futureless growth that destroys resources, such as water and farmland, that will be needed by our children and grandchildren. Our economy should line up with our family values. We tell our children to save for the future. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers and judge the quality of their lives based on quarterly financial reports.

We will fund family planning so that the 250 million women worldwide who want such services can get them. All U.S. foreign aid will be screened to ensure that women will be better off as a result of the assistance.

While America has been sleeping, other nations have stepped into leadership roles:

  • Iceland has become the leader in empowerment of women; women hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly half the seats in parliament.
  • Bhutan has become the leader in measuring progress; this small Himalayan nation has committed itself to maximizing gross national happiness rather than gross national product.
  • Costa Rica and Sweden are leading the way in climate stabilization by instituting carbon taxes.
  • Germany, a nation with unexceptional wind and solar potential, has became the world’s largest generator of electricity in both categories.
  • Several European nations are taking the lead on jobs, shifting to shorter work weeks to relieve unemployment and enable citizens to spend time as they choose.

It’s encouraging to see other nations stepping up, but the United States need to get in the game. We can no longer stand still and watch other nations pass by on the way to a sustainable twenty-first-century economy.

Your odds of being struck by a meteorite are better than your odds of hearing a speech like this from one of these candidates.

Instead of rehashing the vicious debate over the deficit, I will move to implement a Robin Hood tax of just half of one percent on financial transactions. This simple and fair tax would yield billions in revenue and prevent Wall Street gamblers from playing with our money. We can have prosperity without growth.

We will adopt a four-day work week. There is no winner in a rat race. We will share the work, so that everyone can have a job, and we will trade the high productivity of our workers for a time dividend — meaning more time spent with our families and less time spent at the office.

Instead of fighting wars over oil, our military will prevent wars by helping to engineer the transition to clean energy. The military is already far ahead of the public and politicians in recognizing the threat of climate disruption. For example, the U.S. Army is working to get its bases off the electric grid and onto renewable energy. We will accelerate efforts like these and apply them across the nation.

We have only to look at the history of our nation to find inspirational leadership. The United States led in stewardship of the land with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first, in 1872. Faced with mounting pollution in the 1960s, we responded to the challenge. Congress launched the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and assumed global leadership in reducing pollution by passing clean air and water laws. Other countries replicated our laws.

Now, even though most citizens are aware of profound economic and environmental problems at home and abroad, the United States has been a drag, not a leader. Instead of excuses and gridlock, we will take responsibility for our actions. My administration will put aside pessimistic notions of what we can’t do and focus on what we can do.

I am not proposing an unachievable agenda for the American people, but rather a solid plan to build on our past triumphs and cooperate with today’s leading countries, regions, cities, and towns that have begun the quest for an economy with a future. We will systematically transform the United States from the biggest consumer to the biggest conserver. We will take up the challenge of leadership so that we can once again pursue the noble vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Economics as if the Laws of Thermodynamics Mattered

by David Jones

There is no wealth but life. –John Ruskin

Have you ever considered the question: what is life? If we are aiming for a new economic system that will preserve and enhance life, rather than the current system, which more often than not seems to destroy and degrade life, perhaps we should consider what life is and how it is made possible. I recall learning about “living things” in high school biology classes, but always found the definitions of these “living things” to be somewhat vague. Let me try a physicist’s definition then, which might feel unfamiliar at first. A living thing is a kind of low-entropy-maintenance machine: a configuration of differentiated parts that succeeds in performing complex, interdependent functions for a prolonged period of time.

Having used the word “entropy” in the previous sentence, I should try to explain what it is. All living and non-living things (and hence all human economies, whether or not economists pay attention to the fact!) obey the laws of thermodynamics. The second law, in particular, introduces the concept of entropy and the idea that the entropy of a closed system must either remain constant or increase, but never fall. Entropy is a measure of how “special” a particular arrangement of parts is — the lower the entropy, the more “special” the arrangement. Life is “special.”

To illustrate this concept of “specialness,” imagine first a set of red and blue gas molecules, fifty of each say, bouncing around in a room. Which is more likely: (A) that all 50 red molecules will be in one half of the room and all 50 blue in the other half, or (B) that some roughly even mixture of red and blues will be present in both halves? Scenario B, is the less “special” and more likely one, but why? The answer is that there are many ways of arranging the molecules to have “some roughly even mixture” of red and blue — a great many pairs of molecules can be swapped between the halves without making a difference. However, with the perfect red and blue split, if any molecule is swapped with a partner in the other half of the room, then each half gets “contaminated” with one molecule of the “wrong” color — such a swap does make a difference. Hence what we see tends to be an equal mixture of each color, just because there are vastly many more ways of seeing an equal mixture.

Now I can state the notion of entropy precisely — the entropy of such a set of molecules is a number that is large when there are many ways of swapping pairs of molecules and getting the same overall state, and small when there are few ways of swapping them and getting the same overall state. Explicitly, an entropy S is given by Boltzmann’s entropy law:

S = k log W

Here k = 1.38 x 10−23 joule/kelvin (Boltzmann’s constant), W is the number of ways of swapping the components of a state (say red and blue molecules) without making an overall difference to that state and log W means “the natural logarithm of W” — the power you have to raise Euler’s number (e = 2.718) to in order to get W (for example if W is equal to e then log W is equal to 1, because e to the power 1 is e).

Boltzmann's tomb, with his famous entropy law above the bust

That little equation of Boltzmann’s explains a huge number of phenomena. For example, why do hot things tend to get colder and cold things hotter? Easy — bring a hot thing and a cold thing into contact and it’s like the red and blue molecules all over again — there are many, many more ways for hot molecules and cold ones to get mixed together equally than for them to stay separated into a hot part and a cold part. So the temperature equalizes.

Another example: why do balls bounce lower and lower, but never start bouncing higher and higher? Easy — after they’re done falling, ball molecules are moving more, on average, than floor ones. During each bounce, there are more ways of sharing out this motion randomly amongst the ball and floor than there are of keeping all the faster molecules in the ball and all the slower molecules in the floor. So this sharing out is what happens, and the ball eventually stops bouncing. The opposite case — a ball spontaneously bouncing higher and higher — never happens in practice because it is so unlikely. That’s how you can tell a film is being played backwards; everything that happens is so unlikely that it is never seen to happen in practice. These examples demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics: the total entropy always increases and never decreases because of how incredibly unlikely a decrease is.

What about life and entropy? A living thing has a very low entropy compared to its surroundings, because there are not many ways of swapping its constituent parts and leaving it in an invariant state. For example, swapping molecules between your heart and brain wouldn’t leave you in “an invariant state” — it would kill you! In fact, coming into thermodynamic equilibrium with your surroundings is also known as being dead!

Next question: how is life able to maintain this low-entropy state, in apparent defiance of the second law? Well, life is part of the Earth-sun system. We can regard this as “a closed system” to a very good approximation — a vast ocean of space separates it from other systems. But the Earth alone (plus moon, of course!) is not “a closed system.” The sun — a nuclear fusion reactor — provides the Earth with a constant input of low-entropy “organized” energy in the form of high-intensity photons (particles of light). Plants use this energy to make food which animals (including humans) eat, keeping the low-entropy-maintenance machinery of life running.

The Earth-sun (plus moon) system, of which the human economy is a sub-system

Save for a few ocean vent ecosystems, this low-entropy input from the sun makes all life on Earth possible, and hence all human economies (again, whether or not economists pay attention to the fact!). When we humans burn reserves of oil and coal laid down over millennia in a geological eye-blink, we are liberating the low-entropy energy captured from ancient sunlight and buried deep underground.

The second law of thermodynamics has profound implications for our economic systems. A constant stream of low-entropy energy from the sun is required to maintain life’s organized state. Without this “entropy gradient” the machinery of life would soon wind down, like the bouncing balls or mixing molecules did. So in order to prolong life on Earth, we should try to use this vital low-entropy input as efficiently as possible, to recycle it through all sectors of the economy. We should certainly not waste it and assume that we will be able to increase our use of it more and more and more, forever.

Unfortunately, most mainstream economists don’t seem to have heard of the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this isn’t really their fault, since it’s not in their textbooks. But it should be. It governs all life and all systems on Earth, including the economy. As our leaders in business and government race to implement misguided economic models that are not founded upon the laws of thermodynamics, and as nation after nation refuses to question the pursuit of never-ending economic growth, we draw closer to a fate that will end in tears for the human race. I worry that the tears have already begun falling.

David A. Jones is a PhD student in theoretical physics at Southampton University in the UK. He writes frequently for the Positive Money blog.