Thursday 10 January 2013

Perpetual motion and poverty

Perpetual motion engines are a figment of some people's imagination. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that. Every now and then one comes across a truly elaborate contraption, as if the builder had intended to push the moment of reckoning as far as possible into the future (examples). No matter; the total energy in a closed system is constant.

Yet the laws of physics are not restricted to mechanical, electrical or chemical devices, they apply to nature in general. It is here one gets the impression the rules about energy-in and energy-out are sometimes quietly forgotten.

Take the phenomenon of poverty. There are some who believe it can be abolished if only the right policies were applied. Others simply don't care. It also means different things to different societies (compare Australia with Nigeria for example), but more of this later.

What follows is a view that brings the principle of finite energy to the issue.

To set the scene, let's consider a simple mechanical device first. Suppose our 'engine', a system, consists of three subsystems which need energy to operate. Let's call them A, B, and C. If each subsystem (a wheel, a lever, or whatever) needs 100 energy units to work, and if A performs its complete function within 1 time unit t, B does it within 2 time units, and C needs 4, the total power for the system can be expressed through the following equation:

This applies to the ideal case where waste (for example, in the form of friction) does not occur. Since P equals energy over time (E/t), the amount of energy this particular system needs is 42.86 energy units:

leading to 

Yet wastage does exist; the technical term is entropy. Let's call it x, and so the new equation is as follows:

and using our previous performance values it becomes

If x = 0.2, so that the performance of each subsystem is now of t - x duration, the result is

Since we expressed the entire system's operation as a ratio of time, then with wastage included the total amount of energy needed has increased if the duration should remain the same as in the first example.

Use anything you like for A, B, and C and the relationships between energy and performance are the same.

We can turn this around and say, if the supply of energy to a given system is fixed, and if one of its modules experiences a shortfall caused by wastage or demand or anything unforeseen, then the performance of the affected module will have decreased.

Society can be seen as a system (one of the advantages of the Otoom model). There are subsystems and sub-subsystems and so on, and they can be identified in terms of energy needed, their respective performance, and also their wastage.

Overall the energy is fixed too, although a complex dynamic system allows temporary measures to be taken so that it may appear to the members as if more energy is there for the taking. Yet, as the Law of Thermodynamics states, the total energy in a closed system is constant and entropy is being produced. In the end, human activity systems are part of a closed system.

While the subsystems etc are mutually interdependent, they are also semi-autonomous because humans entertain choices and act on them. Therefore a shortfall somewhere (which, after all, is inevitable) becomes subject to compensatory measures due to our competitive and assertive nature.

Which module, and so who will be left with the effects of the resultant shortage becomes a function of those members' particular inability to overcome the pressures from the rest.

The end result is poverty - manifest through the lack of means to attract more energy per se. Since most societies use money as a means to express the value of goods and services, in practical terms poverty means less money compared to the rest. What qualities (in the positive as well as the negative sense) play a role during the process of energy and performance distribution depends on the overall values a society has at any given time.

For example (somewhat simplified but not unrealistic), artists become less valued in times of war compared to members of the military. When peace returns the situation can be reversed: soldiers descend the social ladder, artists ascend.

The rather harsh conclusion is that poverty is here to stay; first and foremost not for reasons of ethics, politics or some ideology, but because reality says so.

Political leaders will hardly admit as much but, on the other hand, facing reality usually leads to solutions that may not be ideal but are still better in relative terms. The main issue under the circumstances would be a realistic differentiation of values that are desirable in a modern society. Traditional attitudes formed by religion, their secular ideological counterparts, and temporary fashions are not necessarily the rational arbiters of contributive aspects within a population. Haphazard allocations of finite resources exacerbate the potential failures in a system exposed to the vagaries of nature.

In a general sense the welfare safety net established in the West provides unemployment benefits to those out of work. Regardless of the reasons for the predicament (to precisely identify those would require additional resources anyway) the unemployed are not completely deprived of resources. However, there is a variety of causes for being essentially unemployable, and even a relatively generous welfare system such as Australia’s does not address the incidence of poverty should such a condition eventuate beyond the scope of a particular individual. Although resources would be needed for the system to become fairer, when considering the wider picture they should have a higher priority than many other expenditures entertained today. As it is, the innate potential of that demographic is lost to society.

In any case, whatever path a society takes, the laws of physics will always have the last word.