X Welcome to International Affairs Forum

International Affairs Forum a platform to encourage a more complete understanding of the world's opinions on international relations and economics. It presents a cross-section of all-partisan mainstream content, from left to right and across the world.

By reading International Affairs Forum, not only explore pieces you agree with but pieces you don't agree with. Read the other side, challenge yourself, analyze, and share pieces with others. Most importantly, analyze the issues and discuss them civilly with others.

And, yes, send us your essay or editorial! Students are encouraged to participate.

Please enter and join the many International Affairs Forum participants who seek a better path toward addressing world issues.
Wed. June 29, 2022
Get Published   |   About Us   |   Support Us   | Login   | Join Mailing List
International Affairs Forum
IAF Editorials
Some Applications of Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics Thinking to Current Geopolitical Issues
Comments (0)

By Jack Pearce

In recent decades, there has been a development of several related concepts, some under the category of thermodynamics, which may be applied, to some degree, to the current geopolitical scene.

One is the perception of organization in this universe as ordered energy flows. This perspective can be characterized as ‘‘non equilibrium thermodynamics”.[1] Probably the foremost and broadest scale explicant of this way of looking at the universe is cosmologist Eric Chaisson, now at Harvard. One of his  signature books is ‘Cosmic Evolution’[2].

Chaisson quantifies energy flows, and relates them to structures, at stellar, galactic, planetary, and even life levels. He relates complexity, at each of these levels, to ‘energy rate densities’.  Somewhat surprisingly, he points out that energy rate densities in life forms exceeds those of cosmic structures such as suns. He also identifies energy rate densities of different types of life organization, such as plants and animals, and even the structure of industrial human activities, such as cities, airplanes, etc.

On separate but related themes, explorations of concepts such as ‘hierarchy theory’ and ‘emergence’ have shown that all structures at the scale humans perceive are in a sense hierarchic. Simple atoms make up complex, heavy atoms, atoms make up complex elements often described as molecules and chemical species, molecular structures make up, or are involved in, life structures, single cells make up multicellular organisms, both single cells, at their level,  and multicellular organisations make up what we tend to call social systems, and so forth. (e.g. in currently visible human terms, cities are clumped in States, or provinces,  states in an United States, ‘nation states’ around the world in the United Nations; or at lower levels franchisees under franchisors, etc,) In this framework, each level of aggregation is seen as a system of relationships, and a differentiated unit at that level joins with other elements, or systems, in a set of stabilized relationships to form the next level of hierarchy.

All these ordered systems involve -- or more accurately consist of -- stabilized energy flows, or, equivalently, stable systems of relationships, in energy flows. A condensed public summary of this perspective, with citations,  is available. 

Insights which arise in this perspective include that all organization is combinatorial -- combinations of elements. Relatedly,  ‘emergent’ effects of any combination of elements upon other combinations which it encounters are the effects of the organization as a whole as distinguished from the effects of its components might have were they not bound in their particular organization. That is, all organized systems are identified and in effect measured, or given meaning,  by other systems in terms of the relationships system-to-system, so to speak.

This is an highly  condensed overview, but one can get  further, and somewhat complementary, clues concerning the stream of thought by looking at some of the work involved in the International Big History Association, including some of its leading members such as Fred Spier[3] and David Christian. This Association traces cosmic evolution from its origins through human historical processes, in a variety of ways and from a variety of perspectives. The Association is recently formed, and its work is evolving in form and content.

Another architectural insight has been offered by Mark Buchanan, in his book ‘Ubiquity’[4], to the effect that, as far as he could identify, all phenomena seemed to fall on ‘power law’, or log normal, statistical distributions[5] -- wars, city sizes, wealth distributions, earthquakes, etc.   This author has suggested that this is because all ordered phenomena consist of, or arise from, correlational processes, and such correlational processes produce this sort of statistical distribution.

Lastly, for initial introduction, a set of theories, or concepts, called ‘maximum entropy production’ (MEP) suggests, in general layman’s conceptualization, that given a differential (e.g. heat, or temperature, differential), it will be dissipated by all available means, and at situation-quantifiable rates, with common statistical signatures.[6] 

Now to human societies, and the relationships between them. Each society is a group, and a group of groups. For each of these groups to have sustained coherence, its constituents must have stable inter-se relationships, or systems of relationships. But for any given group or set of groups to coexist with others, rather than devouring or being devoured by others, they must work out modi vivendi, so to speak. They must somehow establish complementarities, or symbiotic relationships, or at least non-lethal sets of relationships.  Each and all must have an energy basis -- a flow of energy into and through the stable system of relationships.

In large scale agricultural society examples, all ‘empires’ are hierarchic, in the sense of being made up by a coordinating mechanism which maintains relationships between component elements.

In analysing any given society, or set of them, we have to follow the energy flows. Karl Marx’s thesis that societies are structured by their means of production translates into the view that any given society, or set of them, will have institutions (regular patterns of activity embodying  energy flows) which feed off of,  embody and maintain the energetics of the system.

‘Agricultural’ societies can be seen as group-organized means of harvesting the photosynthetic capture of energy by plants,  plus the energy of other-animal harvesters of the plants (‘livestock’). ‘Industrial’ societies maintain the plant and animal harvesting base, but have taken flight, so to speak, by capturing stored and concentrated energy of the residues of past eons of plant life on earth.

Since this cache of stored plant energy is finite and its boundaries are visible, it increasingly appears that if the multibillion human complex thus created is to be maintained in some form, over decades and centuries, humans will have to move to reliance on artifactual photosynthesis (AKA ’solar energy’), supplemented by wind energy, tapping the energy of breakdowns of heavy, complex atoms (nuclear energy), and perhaps some trace additions of current and earth-stored biological photosynthesis. Perhaps the best references for the data and analysis underlying this perspective are an international review of renewable energy sources,   and a conceptually elegant report by Sandia Laboratory personnel.   

We currently tend to call this a ‘renewable’ energy society.  But it can be seen as a larger scale, current  technological, or artifactual, or human-mediated, direct harvesting of sunlight, bypassing the biological processes of other organisms, past and present. In addition there seems a likelihood of harvesting of the differentials created by differentials in sunlight on the Earth’s surface (wind energy), with limited additional sourcing.

We tend to think of this all as a human created and engineered mastering of energy flows. But let us try to look at it from the Universe’s point of view, were the Universe  to bother itself, apart from creating ourselves, to have one. From a thermodynamics perspective, from Chaisson on down, one can consider that life itself was created as a means of channelling energy flows to reduce differentials caused by universal ordering, as proposed by Santa Fe Institute researchers.   Derivatively, all our institutions, being driven by energy differentials and flows, and ourselves, can be seen as expressions of thermodynamic forces.  We are, from such a point of view,  but the enablers of Chaisson’s energy density rate functions.[7] 

Lest this expression be interpreted as a whimsy to attract attention, I will use it to make suggestions about how current and future societies may tend to work out.

Let us consider the turbulent Middle East. Also we can consider the Soviet Union, and nearby Euro-asian areas. 

Assuming no system-wide catastrophic breakdown, the stored plant energy potentials of these areas have been and will continue to be tapped. Pipelines will be built. Streams of oil tankers will continue.

This does not mean that there will not be intrastate and interstate maneuvering about where, when, and at what rate. Water flows downhill. But humans  make dams, channels, irrigation projects, etc. And we humans do a lot of squabbling about how to create and divide up participation in reservoirs and flow systems over and outside political boundaries. Elinor Ostrom was given a Nobel prize for her careful and extensive work on how such situations, particularly those involving economic ‘commons’,  have been successfully managed. Her prescriptions are worth careful attention.

The fractured and fractious political organizations of the Persian Gulf area have been, to some extent,  and are likely gradually to be shaped to allow these energy concentrations to be distributed, or, to use MEP logic, dissipated. If democracies cannot reliably be constructed, autocracies and dynasties will have to conform themselves to these requirements. If they cannot do so, then possibly ‘trusteeships’ might be constructed by the world’s hydrocarbon thirsty and consuming polities. The political entities in the area will be monitored for efficiency and stability. This may lead to assistance, if possible; reshaping if necessary: both from outside their boundaries, and, possibly to a lesser degree, from within.[8] 

Though thinly populated in many of its parts, Russia will, from its vast  and central position on the Eurasian land mass, continue to feed gas into the highly organized energy transformation and use systems of Europe, and perhaps also China. It will also continue to be a source of other resources. (There may be some question whether the Easternmost portion of Russia remains European oriented, or becomes Sinified to such an extent as to lead to rearrangement of the State identification and administration.)

Around the globe the hydrocarbon potentials available from fracturing rocks will also continue to be developed, geographically unevenly but widely, on and adjacent to several continents. The phasing will be partially gated over time by relative efficiencies as between the hydrocarbon pools of the Middle East, Venezuela, and Canada, and ‘shale’ systems elsewhere. And the extent and rate of rock mining for hydrocarbons may be affected by the efficiencies of emerging photovoltaics based energy systems. But the techniques and tools are in hand, so to speak, in use, and expansible at current and sufficiently rewarded EROEI (energy return on energy investment) ratios.

Two factors seem likely to limit, or  boundary, these extractions from the energy concentrations of life’s past, other than exhaustion. One is the possibility that the atmospheric temperature effects of the gaseous emissions from freeing up all these hydrocarbons -- particularly carbon dioxide -- will so disrupt the organic processes of current life as to arrest the whole process. The other is, as noted,  the apparent potential of tapping the vastly larger solar energy flux of Earth to entrain larger energy flows with lesser disruption of current life patterns. 

The first potential limitation has engendered much attention, but limited current effect, other than to lead to some effort to manage replacement of hydrocarbon mining by tapping the global solar energy flux  -- ‘renewable energy’ technologies, including the ancillary and necessary technologies to make solar energy universal, convenient, and supportive of at least the current level of human activity.

Efforts to coordinate limitations on ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions may slow the rate of increase, but seem far short of capping or reducing such emissions in immediately upcoming decades.

The salient geopolitical consequences of this projected transition to artifactual solar energy are interesting in a number of respects, prominently two.

First, artifactual solar energy capture, like biological, is inherently geographically extensive. The capture systems may be on the whole more southerly (take note, Northern Europe), and less co-located with water (but still dependent on some water to keep the needed biological support mechanisms in place). Whether this leads to massive territory wars like those of the agricultural era remains to be seen.  We had best hope not, and strive to avoid them, for urgent reason.

The scope, efficiency and sustainability of this artifactual photosynthetic system seems likely to depend upon a complex web of interconnected resource, processing, and exchange systems implemented by humans, as distinguished from self sustaining (if we do not too much interfere) plants, ocean oxygen emitters, and generally the vast web of biological processes which we call Nature. The combinatorics of this system, globally employed, will be complex, subtle and demanding -- of us.

In other words, whatever the array of geographically defined governance systems, if the systems for replacement of ‘fossil’ energy support for humans are to be realized, humans are going to have to construct and durably maintain large, and probably at best global, cooperation systems.

We may characterize these systems in economic, social, institutional, and other terms. But if we are going to get, for example,  silicon, lithium, iron, copper, aluminum, etc. from where they are first found, and do all the intricate dances of transporting them, cunningly shaping them into microscopically toleranced formats, in large volume and at large scale, covering them with sand made into glass (or not), and have them harvest energy for decades, we have to have sophisticated coordinating mechanisms (including markets, and thus also including financial markets).  And if humans seek a sustainable future of abundance of the sort many humans now enjoy, we can’t be blundering about periodically, or widely, destroying parts of such interconnected systems at will or impulse (read, if you wish, ISIL). 

Lastly, for the moment, the imperative for hierarchical construction suggests that central coordinating functions, like those now embodied by the United Nations, will continue to evolve.

I have suggested that the above general directions, or tendencies, emerge from a consideration of order building, non equilibrium thermodynamic forces.  However, I cannot assure my fellow humans that life on Earth, and our human part of it,  must necessarily realize all the potentials one can envisage.  Life, and order building in it, works in probabilistic increments. Over several billions of years, Earthlife has advanced as a whole in mass and complexity, it now appears, but also suffered some catastrophic setbacks in the process.[9]

Whether our species of language and tool wielding ape will be able to achieve and maintain  -- over centuries -- global integration at high levels of energy-fed activity, with current or better levels of individual welfare, is thus very much an open question.  We have no good reason to think that an Abrahamic God, or other general Universal Governor, has decreed success for our hopeful projections of organizational potentials of human life on this Earth at this time.  We are on our own, in an evolutionary adventure.  In Star Wars terms, the force(s) may be with us, but  guarantees are not on order.      

This leads to questions about what those concerned with ‘diplomacy’, or forms of facilitating international concert, may need to focus on in order  to foster the needed, but far from guaranteed,  international coherence. A sister publication to this International Affairs Forum, Modern Diplomacy, is oriented to this topic, and published an earlier version of this article. 

In a prior post in this publication, I attempted an outline of some major themes, or focal points. In very brief summary, I suggested that we be aware of the central importance of energy flows and hierarchical ordering tendencies, mentioned here, that participants will be required to focus on arrangements which yield sustained mutual benefit to the participating parties (in current parlance, ‘win-win’ solutions), that there need to be monitoring of and controls on parasitism of the coordinated system by the coordinators, or ‘elites’ in the systems, that sound, objective knowledge systems of the sort developed in the sciences, and published through ‘free speech’ and ‘free presses’, be maintained,  and that there is a need for continuity in systems (as massive breakdowns in an highly industrialized world  may be very difficult, if not impossible, fully to repair).

Some of these suggestions relate to a need to prevent ossified, myopic national and international structures evolving, milked unproductively by national and international elites, stifling the growth potentials of the global human (and life) community.

I also pointed out that however much we wish completely to equalize welfare results for all participants globally, the prevalence of ‘power laws’ in the Universe counsels that we will never be able to do so. The operational possibility to be sought is that the various elements of the system be better off than if there were no system. (The philosopher John Rawls addressed this criterion in a way when he suggested that one approve or disapprove of a given system as if one did not know where one would fit in it.)  A refinement of this concept is that an optimal system is one in which no one can be made more well off without making someone else less well off.  But this logic does not, strictly, imply that in all circumstances complete equality applies as to all system participants.

On the global scene, both State and non-state actors seek to encourage successful and sustainable global integration. Some current organizations target selected international objectives from time to time, such as, but not limited to, Citizens for Global Solutions, and other organizations seek to create a global ‘parliament’ to parallel and inform the United Nations, promote  a global ‘rule of law’ at the UN level and non governmental organization level, promote economic freedom, protect  human rights, as by  indexing State performance in human rights protection, and inhibit corruption in various polities by indexing State success in doing so. This is only a very limited sketch of such organizations. Please feel free to point up others in any comments on this essay.

The concepts I suggest here provide some support for the specifics of such efforts. Given my  background as an attorney, I suggest that the ‘rule of law’ can be justified as an universal requirement by appeal to the basic nature of ordered processes -- that is, that there be regularity and thus predictability in component processes -- and the requirement that participating elements, such as ‘elites’, do not advantage themselves at the expense of the regularity and efficiency of the whole (the generic word for this is ‘corruption’). This basis goes deeper than others conventionally offered.   

I would also note that ‘human rights’ activities can be justified, perhaps somewhat undramatically and colorlessly, by the requirement that participating human elements in social groups, such as States, be accorded those nutrients and potentials for action which allow them to function with some equilibrium and effect.  

How well are such efforts succeeding? In the IA Forum piece, this author, perhaps parochially,  attempted to rate the performance of his own native country, the United States, in meeting these criteria, or requirements. Readers of this article are invited to correct this rating, and self-evaluate the conformance of their own polities by these criteria, if so inclined.

The effort reflected in this paper to re-conceptualize some of traditional ‘statecraft’ has resulted in a limited and general set of suggested approaches. Broader efforts can be undertaken.  Having had some connection with the US State Department and its education program for its foreign service officers, this author has proposed that such institutions might consider fostering research organizations (in a loose parallel to the US Defense Department’s DARPA) to probe analytically the theoretical and practical underpinnings of State construction and interaction.







[1] Though the term ‘non equilibrium thermodynamics’ is well established  now, it is something of a misnomer. The term was meant to distinguish between, on the one hand, a state in which there is no addition to, or subtraction of energy from, a defined system, and that system equilibrated into a lowest energy (some would say most random) state, from, on the other, a defined state which had energy flows into it -- a state with energy dynamics. However, there can be equilibria in states embodying energy flow throughs. In this essay I will use the now-standard terminology, notwithstanding this caveat.

[2] Cosmic Evolution, Eric Chaisson, Harvard, 2001


[3] Big History and the History of Humanity, Spier, Wiley-Blackwell Press, 2011.

[4] Ubiquity, Mark Buchanan, Random House, 2001

[5] Power laws’ can be seen, roughly, as those exhibiting straight line curves on logarithmic axes. For somewhat more technical definitions, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_law.

[6] See, e.g. Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics and the Production of Entropy, Kleidon and Lorenz eds, Springer, 2005.

[7] To help visualize this, one can see human actors, having a degree of ‘agency’, or internal processes to shape their actions, and a need to maintain their own energy flows, as seeking out the thermodynamic potentials of their circumstances. They can find and gear themselves to feed on the potential energy flows in a given situation, opportunities for energy minimizing, or efficient, processes, and the like.

[8] It follows from the logic of ‘emergent’ characteristics of relationships between composites that it probably will be difficult for one tightly bound system to reshape the interior workings of another, without forcibly shattering and reshaping in detail and by force (initially at least) the internal structure of the other. The Greeks and Romans apparently did some such reshaping, but not invariably and not completely. The Americans  found in the Middle East, notably iraq, that ‘propping up’ a new regime was not as easy as it appeared beforehand to the American Administration of George W. Bush.  The same held, earlier, for other American Administrations, as to Vietnam.   On two recent occasions -- South Africa and Myanmar -- economic ‘sanctions’ -- withholding of market access and finance by entities external to a nation-state -- arguably have had some effect on that State’s internal organization.

[9] See ‘Revolutions That Made the Earth’, Lenton & Watson, Oxford, 2011.


Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of a section of the United States Justice Department Antitrust Division responsible for liaison with other Executive Branch agencies, regulatory bodies, and Congressional bodies as to actions which would impact upon competition in the US economy, Assistant General Counsel to the US Agency for International Development, and Deputy General Counsel at a White House Office of Consumer Affairs. He has conducted an antitrust oriented legal practice in Washington DC, and also served on the Boards of Directors of business and civic organizations located in the Washington area.

This article first appeared in Modern Diplomacy.


Comments in Chronological order (0 total comments)

Report Abuse
Contact Us | About Us | Support Us | Terms & Conditions Twitter Facebook Get Alerts Get Published

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2022