Under All is the Energy

The National Association of Realtors has a tag line which reads “Under All is the Land”, which they use to exemplify how real estate is fundamental to society. As a former Realtor who is also passionate about energy, I’ve always wanted to correct them. Their phrase is catchy, but it’s wrong.

The growth of society – of humanity in fact – is one of thermodynamics, not land. Matter itself condenses out of pure energy to form quarks, and then atoms, which use atomic energies to go on to form molecules, which then form dirt, cells, stardust, and you and I. We are made of energy.

Our ability to form a society – in fact, our ability to create order out of the universe at all – is based on our ability to apply energy to a local situation. By doing so we get to reverse ‘entropy’ – nature’s built in tendency to cause things to decay and tend towards disorder.

Want to clean your room and put everything back in its place? To instill this order you need to expend energy (work at it) for it to happen. Want to put nitrogen together with hydrogen to form anhydrous ammonia (artificial fertilizer) to feed the world? You need to add energy, in this case via the ‘Haber-Bosch’ process that has allowed us to feed billions more people than the earth could support naturally. Want to organize a tribe or a nation? Want to create a comfortable lifestyle? It all requires you to expend energy to create ‘Order’.

Some people think about life in terms of philosophy or religion. Others think it’s about information or computation. I think of it in terms of thermodynamics. And as the saying goes, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. You need to expend energy to create.

The universe is tending towards disorder. We create structure only by applying energy. That’s why our energy future is SO important to us!

This ability to apply energy to create order is one of the cornerstones of humanity. I like to think that it started when we learned to control fire. In the early days it just kept us warm. Then it created storable nutrition that could be carried a long distance (cooked meat). Soon it was producing steam for an engine. Now we are collecting and applying solar ‘fire’ to further structure our living environment through Photovoltaics.

Everything we do requires the expenditure of energy. Moving, thinking, being. The complex adaptive system that we call human life itself exists between the low energy state of Stasis and the high energy state of Chaos. We exist in the thin intermediate layer between them called ‘complexity’. Take away too much energy and we die and turn into static matter. Add too much energy and we boil away into a chaotic mess. Balance is the key.

Sometimes I think everyone needs to understand Thermodynamics more. As intimidated as I was about the subject in college, I’ve become very comfortable with its effects as I’ve grown up and associated it with life. Only if we understand how important energy is to us can we hope to find a harmony, a balance in nature. Because under all is the energy.