Articulating a Spirituality of Ecological Hope #2

Posted December 14th, 2009 in Zine 5 Comments »

Vol. 1, No. 2 – December 2009


I. Thermodynamics and Everyday Life, Parts I & II – Prof. Michael J. Swedish

II. Faith, Ecology, and Economy


[Editor’s introduction: why on a website entitled Spirituality and Ecological Hope should we care about the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics? Well, the main reason is this: we are subject to them. Indeed, I have found few more compelling explanations for why our industrial and post-industrial expansion across the globe cannot go on like this any longer, how it is that we have gone beyond the planet’s limits, because these limits are, in part, the laws of physics at work. We cannot change them, no matter how hard we try. The attempt to live beyond the limits of these laws is leading us towards some pretty serious crises, as described on this website.

Cosmic microwave fluctuations from remnant glow of Big Bang - NASA image

Cosmic microwave fluctuations from remnant glow of Big Bang - NASA image

One fundamental aspect of this crisis has to do with energy. The laws of physics tell us that ever since the Big Bang there is only a certain amount of energy in the universe. That amount remains stable, never increases or decreases. However, humans can change energy – from energy that is useful to energy that becomes useless waste, burned up, as it were, no longer available for use. One example is the pile of ashes left after burning wood in your fireplace. Same amount of energy in what’s left, but no longer usable to burn and create warmth.

This is what we are doing with fossil fuels – taking potential or useful energy buried in the earth over millions and millions of years, burning them to support our industrial and technological way of life, and turning it into waste, as, for example, the CO2 that is causing the atmosphere to heat up.

Now, some innovative thinkers are bringing these laws into other parts of our lives, not just physical energy, but also the energy of empires, economies based on consumption of stuff, endless war, the causes of social unrest and destabilization or fragmentation of once cohesive societies. I ‘get’ this, but turn to scientific and technical experts to help explain it. I am fortunate to have in my family a brother who can do this. Prof. Michael Swedish is a mechanical engineer at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, specializing in heat transfer and energy systems. He has taken to teaching a session on the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics to his students. I went to one of his lectures, took five pages of notes, and was excited that I understood what he was saying!! So, I invited him to contribute to the website with essays that can help us understand why the Laws of Thermodynamics matter to our lives. The following two essays are his first contributions.]

I. Thermodynamics and Everyday Life: Part 1

Written by: Professor Michael J. Swedish, Milwaukee School of Engineering

Michael Swedish

Michael Swedish

What do the Laws of Thermodynamics tell us about the way we live our lives?

The First Law of Thermodynamics talks about energy, that amorphous stuff that is scattered throughout the universe. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it does come in different forms, which is a good thing for us because we can invent machines to convert energy from one form to another as we wish (converting the chemical energy in gasoline to kinetic energy of motion of an automobile, for example).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics speaks of exergy, a strange word that means ‘useful energy,’ or usefulness. While the First Law says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, the Second Law says that energy can be degraded, that is, made less useful. In fact, the Second Law says that it is inevitable that energy will be degraded. This has to do with the concept of efficiency; no process is 100% efficient. Further, once energy has lost its usefulness, has been ‘degraded,’ that usefulness cannot return spontaneously. Exergy is destroyed in any real process, and cannot be created.

Our sun - NASA photo

Our sun - NASA photo

Now, useful energy (exergy) comes to us from three sources. One is the sun, which bathes this planet with useful energy. Another source is a leftover from the formation of our planet, its hot core. It is from this second source that we get high-intensity geothermal energy. The third source is the exergy locked in the elements themselves, directly connected to the stars. These last two sources provide a relatively minor contribution to our inventory of useful energy (or at least we haven’t yet learned to tap them in large amounts), so let’s focus on the first: useful solar energy.

Natural systems can concentrate exergy. Plants do it by photosynthesis, as they convert solar energy to sugars. The folding of earth over eons has further concentrated the exergy of former plant material into what we know of as coal, oil, and natural gas (fossil fuels). Why are these fuels valuable to us? Precisely because they are highly concentrated sources of exergy.

When humans started tinkering with fire, it didn’t take them long to discover that they could do more than cook meat and scare away animals. They found that they could make ‘useful’ things, for example by smelting ores to make refined metals. At first they used wood and peat for their fires, materials that had stored solar exergy that had reached earth in the recent past. But humans are very clever; they were constantly thinking of new and ingenious things to do with concentrated exergy. Since they can’t create exergy, they needed to find new supplies. Eventually they uncovered (quite literally) the storehouse of solar exergy that the planet had accumulated over millions of years: the fossil fuels. Next in line was the exergy contained in very heavy elements (nuclear fission) or in very light elements (nuclear fusion).

Here’s the problem. As we utilize exergy, useful energy, we degrade that energy until very little of it is useful. This is serious business. There is a finite amount of concentrated exergy, and a finite rate at which exergy arrives from the sun. But there’s more. According to the First Law, the degraded energy is still around. This is essentially ‘junk.’ Whether it is CO2, rusting cars, or old cell phones, the leftovers keep accumulating as long as we keep doing things.

Natural systems, over time, balance all of these processes. Right now, they are out of balance. We are doing too many things, and doing them too inefficiently. We are using up tens of millions of years worth of accumulated exergy, and dumping the waste. The earth will reach a balance point again, a new equilibrium. Where will we fit into this balance?


Thermodynamics and Everyday Life: Part 2

The Solar Still

By: Professor Michael J. Swedish, Milwaukee School of Engineering

Faroe Islands - by user Bjarki S, Wikipedia

Faroe Islands - by user Bjarki S, Wikipedia

This past summer [2009] I spent time in the Faroe Islands, 300 miles north of Scotland in the North Atlantic. While there, I was witness to one of the great miracles of the natural world: the generation of fresh water. From atop one of the 2,000 foot peaks, I could watch as water was evaporated off the ocean’s surface, the moist air rose and drifted over the land, cooled, and the water condensed into droplets that fell on my head, forming freshets that cascaded down the hillside.

The oceans are salty because liquid water dissolves minerals. As long as sufficient water leaves as runoff, the body of water will remain fresh. The Great Lakes discharge water through the St. Lawrence River, a massive flow of liquid water. This is why the Great Lakes remain fresh. If a body of water loses mass only by evaporation, then the salt content will increase. The oceans, as well as inland lakes like Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea, are of this sort.

Fog over St Johns River FL by Moni3 - Wikimedia Commons

Fog over St Johns River FL by Moni3 - Wikimedia Commons

Evaporation transfers only pure water to the air. Any dissolved minerals are left behind. This process is called distillation. In nature, the distillation of fresh water is solar-powered. Rising warm air over the ocean (or lake) carries water vapor-laden air upwards, away from the liquid surface. This humid air is replaced at the surface by drier air, so that the process continues. If the lift of the warm humid air is great enough, the air will cool, the water vapor will condense, and the liquid will fall as rain or snow.

Of all the liquid or solid surface water that exists on the planet, only about 5% has a low enough salt content to be called “fresh”. Half of this is locked in ice caps, mainly in Greenland and Antarctica. It is one of the ironies of life on this planet that although very little of the water is fresh, almost all plants and animals require fresh water. It is clear that clean fresh water is a precious commodity, it is highly “useful”, and therefore valuable.

In nature, fresh water is stored in one of three ways: snow pack/glaciers, underground aquifers, and lakes. Each of these has the ability to level out the supply of fresh water to account for seasonal and weather-related variations in rainfall. Snow pack melts in the Spring. Groundwater is replenished when surface water percolates down into the earth. Lakes will retain water, for a while, during dry spells.

Historically, humans have not treated fresh water with respect. Flowing waters have been used to carry away all manner of waste. In some parts of the world, even today, the same river that is used as a sewer is also used to supply drinking water. The earth, of course, is finite, and all of this waste has ended up somewhere. Nature has the ability to purify waste in water, up to a point.

US high plains aquifer is being depleted at a rapid rate - USGS map, May 2007

US high plains aquifer is being depleted at a rapid rate - USGS map, May 2007

54% of global fresh water is currently appropriated by humans, including aquifers, and this percentage is increasing. Worse than that, in a situation that is very similar to that of fossil fuels, humans are using stored reserves of fresh water faster than nature can replenish them. At some point, the competition between human and non-human users of water (plants and other animals) will become critical. So far, at least in this country, we have made the choice to continue to make fresh water available to other living things. As fresh water becomes less abundant, will we continue to make that choice?

There is some good news on this front. Humans have been extremely wasteful in their use of fresh water. There are many opportunities to reduce human consumption. Some examples: matching agriculture to the water resources available, using drip irrigation techniques, planting natural foliage that is evolved to tolerate the wet and dry cycles of the environment. Fresh water is renewed by nature. With all of the room for improvement, it should be possible to match the planet’s use of fresh water with the rate at which it is renewed.


Faith, Ecology, and Economy

Last May I had the privilege of participating in a first-time gathering in Washington DC, the Faith, Ecology and Economy Forum. Some 65 representatives of religious and environmental groups met to exchange resources and experience, knowledge and information about the ecological crisis facing the planet. From this forum emerged an effort to articulate a common platform of concerns and commitments about the new life we must learn to live if we are to get through this great transition – from one mode of life to another, one that this precious planet can support with abundance and beauty. The statement below is the result of this effort:

A Call to Integrate Faith, Ecology and the Global Economy

Introduction by Kathy McNeely, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns: Let’s face it, while many people in North America talk about sustainability some of them secretly believe that the whole world should and could look like New York City. Sustainability is a buzz word inserted into radio and television ads boasting to us of the virtues of energy, fertilizer, seed, car, you-name-it companies and their “sustainable” products. The illusion is cast that it will be easy, that great change is not necessary – as if someone merely has to say the magic words and we will all become more responsible towards Earth and its limits.

If we continue to base our economy on unlimited growth we will certainly destroy Earth. In the North we are already living in such a way that it would require 4 more planet Earth’s to survive. As Earth cries out in agony and people continue to writhe under the continuing economic crisis our faith calls us to bring together what we had thought were the separate issues of economy, global warming and moral and religious cosmology. A Call to Integrate Faith, Ecology and the Global Economyis an invitation for organizations, communities and individuals to commit to working towards a new way of being in the world. Take a look and consider signing on.

Earth's atmosphere from space - NASA photo

Earth's atmosphere from space - NASA photo

As hope-filled people, we stand in awe of Earth’s goodness and its capacity to provide abundant life for all God’s creation. We recognize our interconnection with Earth — with air, water, land, plants and other creatures. We recognize the dignity of the human person as an individual and as part of a community. We embrace our power and responsibility to create a human economy that fits within Earth’s ecological boundaries, more authentically serves human needs and builds community.

We envision:

  • A new economic model that embodies social and ecological values bound by Earth’s biophysical limits.
  • A sufficiency-based economy where all people, regardless of gender, race or other characteristics, equitably share access to Earth’s gifts that nourish and sustain them: nutritious food, clean water, suitable shelter; where “development” is measured by a society’s success in increasing human well being while preserving ecological balance rather than by its gross domestic product.
  • A just global distribution of resources, knowledge and technology such that well-being flourishes in communities of less industrialized nations that have experienced “underdevelopment” – and “de-growth,” or downsizing occurs in communities in industrialized nations that use a disproportionate share of Earth’s resources.
  • A world where all have secure, meaningful, and ecologically responsible livelihoods and where human activity, based on cooperation, promotes ecological regeneration, the preservation of beauty and the restoration of previous damage.
  • A “closed loop” real economy where recycling and reuse are maximized.
  • People with sufficient resources, opportunities, freedom, and time to care for one another, engage in civic life, expand their creativity, and deepen their spirituality.
  • Communities living in peace with sufficient public resources and freely shared knowledge to ensure health and wholeness for Earth and all its inhabitants.
  • Governance that is participatory and transparent, through which policy decisions are made as locally as possible, consistent with the reality that every locality is part of a global society.

Yet we witness:

  • The destructive power of a growth-driven economic model that ignores Earth’s limits and its need to rest and regenerate.
  • The valuing of money and material goods more than humans and ecosystems.
  • The inherent violence of an economy that grows along with the wealth of a few individuals and corporations while the natural world and human well being – the clearest signs of God’s bounty – suffer and deteriorate.
  • The use of international financial institutions, corporate lobbying and marketing, think tanks, major media and military force to secure the wealth and power of a small part of society while a great many others, especially women and people of color are often excluded.
  • “Free trade” and economic globalization that increase ecological depletion and leave masses of people vulnerable through deeper poverty and insufficient access to food, water, education and health care.
  • The loss of people, cultures, species and traditional knowledge forced aside as our lives are dominated by a world view that seeks economic growth regardless of the consequences;
  • Soul-deadening over-consumption and the endless quest for “more” that paralyzes far too many people in wealthier societies.

We also witness the sheer increase in throughput of material and energy in the economy due to expanding consumer demand and economic growth that contribute to climate change, species extinctions, loss of biodiversity, depletion of freshwater and other resources, ocean dead zones, topsoil degradation, deforestation, dying coral reefs and the decimation of ocean fish stocks.

NASA photo

NASA photo

We stand firm in our commitment to a new way of life and a different economy, based on the integrity and dignity of all creation, the common good, ecological health and resilience, sufficiency, equality, solidarity, caring for the most vulnerable and impoverished, and decision-making at the most local level possible. This will require innumerable inter-related changes; among them, the four that follow will serve to guide our work:

1) Paradigm Shift in Mindset and Values: A shift from an ethic of exploitation to an ethic of right relationship is essential for individuals and for society. This will entail change from a focus on material goods to holistic well-being; from excess to sufficiency; from exclusion to inclusion; from competition to cooperation; from pursuing privilege to serving the common good; from the pre-eminence of humanity to the reverence for all life.

Toward this end we will be guided by the wisdom of our sacred scriptures and religious traditions, especially Sabbath traditions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and the inclusive table of Jesus, which

  • provides enough for everyone, with no one storing up more than is needed;
  • cares for the widow, orphan, stranger and traveler;
  • honors a weekly Sabbath, providing rest and human restraint from busy, frenetic economic activities;
  • allows the land to rest every seven years;
  • decrees a Jubilee every 50 years, when slaves are freed, debts cancelled and families have their land restored to them; and
  • models the breaking of bread, by creating strong communities built on care for one another.

2) Public policies for an Economy of Right Relationship: Starting from the deep recognition that the economy must fit within Earth’s limits – where resources are not used faster than they can be regenerated and wastes are not deposited faster than they can be safely assimilated. Policies must change to move toward a steady state economy in overdeveloped industrial countries and sustainable development in impoverished countries. Current institutions and rules must change so that individuals, communities and whole societies can participate equitably in the economy and share in Earth’s bounty. Financial institutions should embrace the principle of subsidiarity, allowing decisions to be made at the most local level possible. Priority should be given to policies that distribute wealth widely and decentralize economic power.

Toward this end we will seek to understand more fully what transformations are required to attain economic right relationship. We will promote a serious reorientation of the global economy away from growth and toward human development. We will pursue changes in laws, policies, international agreements, and institutions to create a more durable, resilient and fair economy. We will examine our lifestyles and decrease consumption. We will advocate for sustainable levels of resource use and safe quantities of waste production, including equitably assigned reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

refugees of desertification in Horn of Africa

environmental refugees, Horn of Africa

3) An Economy of Thriving and Resilient Communities: In living the new paradigm and strengthening its hold on society we will shift from a perception of ourselves as independent individuals to ourselves as interdependent members of thriving communities. All have something to contribute as we give and receive gifts and talents among neighbors through barter systems, cooperatives and worker-owned businesses. Community-based investment and economic development will help individuals to deepen their connection with the place where they live and will keep resources circulating locally. This will build community assets and strengthen social ties. We will embrace subsidiarity – decisions will be made at the local level by the very people whose lives are impacted most.

Toward this end we will learn more from the sustainable community-level examples known well by indigenous peoples and already functioning in our local communities in the United States and around the world, spread those ideas, participate in them ourselves and express our solidarity by supporting their efforts.

4) Return of Corporations to their proper place in society: In order to achieve the changes described above, it is clear that we must decrease the amount of influence that corporations wield in government and society in general. The reigning forces in our world should serve the interests of the common good, rather than the private interests of a wealthy few. Corporations should be accountable not only to shareholders, but also to, their workers, regulatory bodies, the communities in which they are embedded, and the natural world.

Toward this end we will study the history and design of the corporation to better understand its proper role in a just world. We will declare a separation of corporation and state and work for initiatives to decrease corporate influence in government, the media and our lives. We will work to stop reckless financial practices that exploit natural resources and people. We will help cultivate financial institutions that respect Earth’s limits and ensure economic participation with dignity for all people.

Our call to others: Grounded in our faith and speaking from our core principles and values, we call on people of good will to join us in re-examining the false panacea of a development model dependent on over-consumption. We seek a new understanding of the proper place for humans in the created world and right relationships within the human community and between the human and Earth communities. We place our hope in God’s grace and the human capacity to face all these challenges with innovation, faithfulness, and creativity and to ensure the common good so that all living things might flourish.

November 12, 2009

Endorsements as of November 30, 2009:

Adorers of the Blood of Christ, United States Region
Bartimaeus Cooperative
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Center of Concern
Collaborative Center for Justice
Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
Congregation of Divine Providence, Leadership Council
Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes – Fond du Lac, WI
Congregation of the Humility of Mary
Daughters of Charity, St. Louis, Provincial Council
Dominican Sisters, Grand Rapids, MI
Dominicans of Sinsinawa Leadership
Franciscan Action Network
Franciscan Sisters and Associates of Little Falls, Minnesota
Franciscan Sisters of Allegany
Holy Cross International Justice Office
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Loretto Community
Loretto Earth Network
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Medical Mission Sisters Alliance for Justice
Medical Mission Sisters, Sector North India
Mercy International Association
NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
PLANT (Partners for the Land and Agricultural Needs of Traditional Peoples)
Presentation Peace and Justice Center
Provincial Council of School Sisters of Notre Dame—Milwaukee Province
Racine Dominican Sisters
ROAR (Religious Orders Along the River)
ROW (Religious on Water)
School Sisters of Notre Dame Shalom North America Coordinating Committee
School Sisters of St. Francis, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – International & U.S. Province Leadership Teams
Servants of Mary (Servite Sisters), Ladysmith, WI
Sisters of Charity Federation
Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Leadership Council
Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Central Leadership
Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul
Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine Leadership Team
Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community Justice Office
Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross – USA Province
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Justice and Peace Network
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, US National Team
Sisters of Providence
St. Mary-of-the-Woods, IN Leadership Team
Sisters of Providence, Holyoke, MA Leadership Team
Sisters of St Joseph of Chambery/West Hartford, Justice and Peace Committee
Sisters of St. Francis leadership team, Tiffin, Ohio
Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa Leadership Team
Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, Iowa Leadership
Sisters of St. Francis, Savannah, MO
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, Leadership Team
Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis Leadership
Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres District USA
Sisters of the Divine Compassion
Sisters of the Divine Savior, North American Province Leadership Team
Sisters of the Holy Cross- Congregation Justice Committee
Sisters of the Holy Family, Fremont, California
Sisters of the Presentation – Dubuque Leadership Team
Spirituality and Ecological Hope
St. Joseph of Cluny, Province of USA and Canada
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland
Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union, Central Province

Photo: ISS astronauts

Photo: ISS astronauts


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses

  1. D.Bheemeswar

    It is very refreshing article. After reading what i understand is that in the name of economy, comfort we are miss-utilizing the materials at the cost of environment. Now majority of the people are habituated for these comforts by somehow earn more and more business. Finally putting others and also environment to end of extinction. Also created deference’s among people by by region,religion and race.

  2. Graham Game

    Thank you for a superb article. It is heartening to see it supported by so many illustrious organizations & communities. I wonder if there should be some kind of performance targets/commitments/measure for these organizations based on the principles. I was thinking maybe carbon reduction commitments etc.

  3. Margaret

    I will be sure your reply is passed on. The forum will continue to meet and develop program together. I think your point a good one, as we struggle to create a concrete policy agenda out of these principles, or at least to look at policy in the context of these principles to determine which ones move us forward quickly enough.

    I, too, am greatly heartened by the sharpening of awareness and commitment among faith communities of all sorts.

    But what heartens me even more is the commitment to work towards creating the necessary ‘new way of life’ that can bring us back into a reverent and humble relationship with the life systems of our planet. Ultimately, our survival depends on that. Policies will follow that movement if we can get in gear. This kind of leadership is essential to helping create that groundswell.

  4. Spirituality and Ecological Hope » mega-drought in our near future

    […] days ago, my brother, who teaches at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (the one who wrote on the Laws of Thermodynamics for this website), sent me a link to an article at MSNBC describing a new study conducted by the […]