It looks like this article is about science, but it is actually about economy and politics. This connection might seem surprising, but you are going to see it in a moment. Actually, it is about if or how we will survive.
Put a pot of water on the stove and put on the fire. If there are any small particles (of limescale, for example) in the water you may observe that the water is rising in one or several places, then moves sideways and then sinks down again. It forms what is called “convection cells”. A pattern forms, partially ordered, partially random. The animation shows what is happening in a schematic way.
The formation of such a pattern is a simple example of what is called a “dissipative system”. What does this term, coined by the Nobel Prize winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, mean? You might guess by now what is the answer to the question in the title. And yes, all of these are examples of dissipative systems. So what is that and what is the significance of this concept?
The pattern in the pot forms as soon as the fire is put on, or the cooling of the surface starts. Put off the fire, and the process will come to a standstill. The ordered pattern of water flowing up and down will disappear. So this process requires a permanent influx of energy. If you look at the other things listed in the initial question, you will see they have this in common. A plant needs light, a human being food providing “calories”, i.e. energy. The same is true for an ecosystem as a whole. And it also is true for civilizations. Switch off all our power stations and stop delivering fuel to gas stations, and our civilization would collapse within a few days. Stop eating, and you will starve. Put a plant into darkness, and it will die.
The second similarity is that these systems have some order. In the pattern in the pot, many molecules in the water stream together up in the same direction, then outward from a center, then down, then towards the center and then up again. They move in the same way, so their movements are ordered. There will be some irregularity as well, but there is a high degree of order.
Order can also be seen in the other examples. Organisms like plants and humans as well as civilizations are systems that have some order. The order is maintained as long as you put in energy. Stop “feeding” the system and the order will collapse.
This is different from the static order of a crystal.
Here, the atoms are ordered in a regular pattern and no energy is needed to maintain it.
Dissipative systems, on the other hand, are dynamic ordered systems. Further examples include ecosystems, ocean curents and weather systems (think of satellite images of hurricanes with their spiral pattern, for example).
Now, why are such systems called “dissipative”? You probably know that energy can change its form but it cannot be destroyed. If energy is constantly fed into such a system and the system maintains its structure, the energy should come out somehow again. Now, why is the system not simply reusing the same energy again and again.
The answer is that the system constantly creates disorder. You can think of this as the information about all the little events that happen inside it. The laws of nature do not allow for this information to be destroyed. It is imprinted into the structure of the system (think of information being stored on a hard disk, changing its structure). But the system tries to maintain its ordered structure. If the disorder (the information, also called “entropy” by physicists and chemists) accumulates inside it, this would destroy the order. Therefore, the energy leaves the system again in a form that is less ordered than the energy that has entered. A plant, for example, receives light that is concentrated in a narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum and that comes in the form of nearly parallel sun rays. The energy leaves the plant in the form of heat radiation, smeard out over a large spectrum and in all directions. This unordered radiation takes the excess disorder away, thus allowing the plant to maintain its ordered structure. The ordered energy is “dissipated” into an unordered form. (Think of the computer hard disk again. Formatting it means you put it into an ordered state again, where all the magnetic particles in it are aligned and all the information is lost. This produces heat (e.e. disordered energy) that the computer’s fan has to dissipate).
So dissipative systems do not just need energy, they need it in an ordered form. They need something to dump their excess disorder to in order to maintain their ordered structure. Take the supply of ordered energy away and the disorder will destroy the system. The system dies.
If the system has a limited reserve of ordered energy (low entropy energy) that it can use, then it will die as soon as this reserve is finished. For example, if you have a limited amount of food and no way to get more, you will eat that food and then you will starve.
If a culture or part of it breaks down, what remains are ruins, rests of systems no longer maintained, with accumulating disorder. The original dynamic order disappears.
The same is true for our civilization or economy as a whole. It is a dissipative system. It currently lives mainly of a limited supply of fossil fuels. When this is finished, it will collapse, unless we find another source of low entropy energy. The problem is that our civilization works in a way that it is permanently growing and needs to grow in order to work well. A simple calculation shows that this way, any reserve, no matter how large it is, will get used up in a limited time.
We can switch to renewable energies which means that most of our energy will come from the sun, directly, by using solar power stations (see picture) or indirectly, e.g. by using wind. In a similar way, most of the energy that ecosystems use comes from the sun). The amount of energy that can be gained per time from the sun is large, but limited.
This means that it is not possible for our civilization to grow indefinitely. Actually, if our economy grows, the amount of entropy produced will grow and that means we need more low-entropy energy (e.g. electricity) to get rid of the entropy. There is a limit. The theories of many economists ignore these limits but th limits are real and they are limits of physics. The laws of nature limit the possible size of our world economy.
Most of us rely on this civilization for our survival. If our civilization collapses, most of us will die, just like the flow pattern in the pot dies down if you switch off the fire. Politicians and economists are still telling us we need more economic growth to solve our problems. But the world economy is already larger than what the limited resources or Earth can sustain in the long run. The world economy is subsidized from limited resources. It is like taking money from your savings and pretending that is an income. Once the money is finished, you are in trouble. We are currently using up the limited resources and that is what keeps our economy running on this high level. We are eating up our capital. We are using up our fossil fuels, our ecosystems, our biodiversity, our soils and groundwater, our ores, and the capacity of Earth to absorb our waists, including our waste gasses.
The water in the pot is not heated by a solar cooker; it is heated by the gas in a gas bottle. When the bottle is finished, the party is over.
(The pictures are from