Why are some people relentlessly against recycling

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994): Entropy

Guest contribution by Marc Hieronimus

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (NGR) was born in Romania in 1906. As early as 1930 he received his doctorate in statistics from the Sorbonne as a mathematician. After two years in London he became a professor in Bucharest, but soon went to Harvard for two more years, where his meeting with Joseph Schumpeter moved him to change his subject. From the end of the 1930s to the beginning of 1948 he worked as an economist in Romania again, but was then forced to emigrate to the USA, where he held an economics professorship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville from 1949 to 1976. It was only towards the end of his university career that his three great books, Analytical Economics (1966), The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) and Energy and Economic Myths (collection of articles, 1976) appeared. Against the background of the emerging environmental movements of the 1960s, the Meadows Report of 1972 (“The Limits to Growth”) and the 1973/74 energy crisis, his writings gained a great deal of attention and were translated into French in particular, which is why NGR is one of the most popular in this language area most important precursor of the Décroissance is understood. Although - or because? At the time of his death in 1994, he was as good as forgotten at the time of his death in 1994 his theses lead the entire western economy to absurdity in a scientifically sound manner and implicitly predict its imminent end.

Old hat: the limits to growth

It makes sense to every elementary school child, the wise men of all times whistled it from the roofs, it has almost become the running gag of the environmentalist: Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible "only when the last tree is cleared" and so on. In view of the gloomy and progressive destruction of natural resources and nature, unaffected by “green” election successes, today everyone in their right mind should be aware of the economic madness of our short-lived times, and perhaps it is even so. But, as the Italians say, there is a sea between saying and acting. Even Bernard Charbonneau and Jaques Ellul wondered in the face of the obvious how difficult it is to induce even insightful people to make the necessary radical change. The human tendency towards conformism is one thing: everyone acts like the others. Then of course we have (read: of course and “second-natural”) the ever-growing media spectacle with its latest forms of smartphone and subway screen, which makes system-critical or actually any transcendent thoughts almost impossible. And last but not least, due to a lack of well-founded contradiction, economics has developed over the decades into a secret "science", which every bachelor student prays down in its principles, but its formulations and applications can no longer be seen through by its actors, and so should be it too: there is nothing to see, go ahead, the experts will take care of everything. Economics stands there like a hermetic block, which, if not with the discredited theoretical instruments of Marxism, it would be best to blow it up from the inside. Well, this bomb has been ticking at the NGR's work for around fifty years. What does he say?


The explosiveness of the NGR's theses lies in their scientific indisputability. Interestingly, large parts of economic theory have little to do with the real world. Vilfredo Pareto z. B. is known for his comparison that the seafarer relies on geographical knowledge for his job and does not need to know anything about the biology of the seas. Although economics apparently speaks realistically of markets, prices, equilibria, etc., the material conditions on which they are based play no role in it. Because the market doesn't happen on paper, but in one real world, there is definitely a connection. The captain can theoretically sail across dead seas (such as the dead sea, which is not very busy), without worrying about the biological connections under his keel, but mankind has been on the self-reproducing nature and not since the end of the Stone Age at the latest -reproductive raw materials, and only as long as they are available, can it continue to live. Without the sea, the ship also sits on dry land and all nautical science is useless knowledge. NGR v. a. as mechanistic. Basically, in the neoclassical economy that has prevailed to this day, as in Newtonian physics, every process is reversible. Yes, especially at the moment of the "Carnot’s Revolution", the neoclassical with its rule-based thinking experienced the formulation that has been inoculated into students to this day.

Nicolas Sadi Carnot dealt with the efficiency of steam engines as early as 1824 and thus laid the foundation for heat theory, which was then further developed by Clausius, Helmholtz, Boltzmann and others. The theorems of thermodynamics can be roughly simplified as follows:

  • Energy is retained.
  • Processes have a direction; the entropy cannot decrease.
  • The absolute zero point (-273.15 ° Celsius, 0 ° Kelvin) cannot be reached.

The concept of entropy is only partially accessible to the layman. In the seventies it was only able to spread as a kind of buzzword because it was not understood enough. In the physical sense, it describes the availability of energy. Even after the steam engine has been working or the ice cube has melted, the energy balance is exactly the same, but the amount of available energy is much lower or zero. The theoretically possible way back is not possible or at best extremely improbable without external energy input; Carnot's food for thought was the everyday, but extremely far-reaching observation that heat (energy) always flows from the heat to the cold pole and therefore has a direction.

It is now first of all to NGR to have brought the matter problem into thermodynamics. Some speak of a fourth principle of thermodynamics, which (again roughly simplified) says that matter tends to chaos. A chunk of gold remains undisputed, if not forever, then for millions of years a chunk of gold; Rocks fly through space that were formed when unicellular organisms were still moving on Earth, and are almost unchanged to this day. But coins or car tires wear out and nothing and no one can restore them to their original state from the same material. And that applies to everything we take in our hands, because it is well known that there is always a little loss. Let's forget recycling, “cradle to cradle” and the whole idea of ​​raw material cycles: Even for a standstill in human economic activity, for zero or negative growth, we always need new raw materials to be extracted from the earth, which will not and then never in the next century at the latest more are available.

And that is his second merit, namely the anchoring of the entropy idea in economics: growth or even just continuing to do business as usual is impossible for scientific, material, existential reasons. Unlike Marx, whom he valued as an economist, NGR was not concerned with freedom and justice. His writings, but also his curriculum vitae, show him to be a completely apolitical thinker in this regard. But that only makes him more uncomfortable. With the mathematician's dry calculation he proves irrefutably and (at least in his two later books) easily understandable that industrialized humanity is on a self-destructive wrong track. All raw materials that humans have extracted from the earth since the discovery of the first metals is irretrievably lost. A few hundred pounds of it may still be slumbering in museums or graves, but when the average German buys something today - the fourth smartphone, the sixth car, or just the plastic-wrapped ingredients for his dinner - he automatically draws from the finite supply of raw materials . What happens when these end? NGR sums it up as follows:

The race of economic development that is the hallmark of modern civilization leaves no doubt about man’s lack of foresight. It is only because of his biological nature (his inherited instincts) that one cares for the fate of only some of his immediate descendants, generally not beyond his great-grandchildren. And there is neither cynicism nor pessimism in believing that, even if made aware of the entropic problem of the human species, mankind would not be willing to give up its present luxuries in order to ease the life of those humans who will live ten thousand or even one thousand years from now. Once one expanded his biological powers by means of industrial artifacts, he became ipso facto not only dependent on a very scarce source of life support but also addicted to industrial luxuries. It is as if the human species were determined to have a short but exciting life. Let the less ambitious species have a long but uneventful existence.


The models of neoclassical as well as Marxist economics prove to be useless in describing agriculture; Economics emerged as a science in the cities and, before the NGR, paid little attention to the country. In the development of the communist countries in particular, he shows that Marx's predictions did not come true. Villages have been able to exist for centuries without history because they were “uneconomical” from today's perspective: They included the entire population in the (agricultural) economic processes, although mathematically only a fraction of the people would have been necessary for the same income. Today, economists calculate with every small business that it will go under if it does not optimize its processes, that is to say: to get the most out of the smallest possible number of employees. The rural population - until the beginning of the 19th century. more than 90% - was able to hold on structurally, precisely because it was not geared towards increasing efficiency and was not forced to do so, except in times of crisis.

Against this background, the communist and capitalist industrialization of agriculture in the 20th century is nothing short of devastating. Most of the people of Europe lived for centuries, in a more abstract way even millennia without drastic changes in the fields and everything that the unmanaged or hardly managed forests, meadows and bodies of water produced. What the containment of early capitalism and the pull and push factors of high capitalism were unable to do, was done by the fertilizer and machine industry, or ultimately only capitalism, in another volte after the Second World War at the latest, namely partly the depopulation, partly the urbanization of the Landes at the price of our complete alienation from nature and the basis of our existence, namely agriculture. Livestock and vegetable growing are now “sectors” such as industry and services, only economically far less important.

Industrial agriculture, which is now incorrectly described as “conventional” and which our transnational corporations and the more or less democratically elected governments have been implementing worldwide for decades with the crudest financial and military means, is known to be ecologically unsustainable in the medium and long term. Here, too, NGR was extremely clairvoyant. Species extinction and soil destruction by chemical fertilizers and agricultural toxins were not yet his topic, other authors such as Annie Francé-Harrar can be rediscovered. NGR thought on a much larger scale of entropy and resource occurrence. Agriculture, which has been practiced since the last ice age over 10,000 years ago, ran smoothly: it fed animals and people who returned their excretions as fertilizer to the fields that were still managed sustainably at the time. By making ourselves and the “backward” countries dependent on tractors, gasoline, chemically produced fertilizers and so-called pesticides through to genetically modified plants, navigation devices, pollination drones, etc., we will soon put the nutrition of the human species on the clay feet of the people limited supply of raw materials that can only be used once. The agro-industry and the relevant (more and more financed by it) sciences advertise their work as a solution to the food issue, leading straight into the abyss of gigantic famines and raw material wars.

Exosomatic evolution and bioeconomy

Long before the transition to agriculture and animal husbandry, humans have been using "exosomatic" aids, ie tools that do not belong to their body. This development, which distinguishes him from all other earthly living beings, had and still has considerable consequences. First, NGR sees any social conflict anchored in it, which is not a small thing, because there are no wars with animals: "The periodic killing of a great part of the drones by the bees is a natural, biological action, not a civil war."

Second, and above all, we are dependent on our prostheses and thus on materials that are only available for a limited time. A permanent shortage of metals would sooner or later mean the end of transport, communication and almost all of today's magic - at least in their current form. A stagnation of the flow of energy would immediately lead to famine in all major cities on earth. But both will come. The lesson from these considerations is obvious: if only the sun provides permanent energy and only renewable raw materials are permanently available, the only way to secure the future of the human species in its current form is to completely abandon petroleum, metal and everything in general Available. Is that possible? NGR has given some thought to this as well. First of all, the economist states that market mechanisms cannot solve the energy and raw material question; there must be legal regulations. He prefers his bioeconomic minimum program:

It would be foolish to propose a complete renunciation of the industrial comfort of the exosomatic evolution. Mankind will not return to the cave or, rather, to the tree.

What he then proposes is utopian enough: abandon the production of weapons; Raising the standard of living in the underdeveloped countries, lowering ours to a level that is not luxurious, but only adequate; Reduction of the world population to a number which, according to today's terms, is "biological", i. H. can be fed without chemistry; Avoidance and, if necessary, prohibition of all waste of energy; Avoidance of "gadgets" of all kinds, NGR is bothered by v. a. on large cars; Abolition of fashion, especially in interior design; Manufacture of durable and repairable goods; and finally - deceleration:

We must come to realize that an important prerequisite for a good life is a substantial amount of leisure spent in an intelligent manner.

Many anti-capitalists who are used to discussions may yawn again and again at this point: Of course we are doing wrong, efficiency is not the only purpose or purposeful thinking is only correct if the goals are determined in advance. And doesn't the list of capitalist and, more recently, so-called “neoliberal” ravages and crimes speak for itself? Do we still have to prove that almost all applied economics at least lead to misery, war and environmental destruction? All of this is known. But NGR was one of "them"; H. one of those people who today like to be blamed all too generally for all the evils of capitalism. As a respected, well-educated economist who argued socially and, last but not least, from the natural sciences, he was a polluter, indeed a revolutionary, at a time, the sixties, when movements against the mega-machine were forming in most of the "advanced" countries, But the most important means of criticism (in addition to natural romance and sheer fear) were still the industry and growth-friendly writings of Marxism.

Reception and collection

At the height of its fashion wave, the term entropy has been applied to everything from communication and psychology to political science to art and has thus been partially robbed of its immense importance for the progress of human history. But NGR is too disruptive and long too well known to be buried under a mountain range of shallow entropy. The attempts to somehow take over this man, who is not just uncomfortable but sweeps away the entire basis of the economy, are thus numerous; Even the EU has been researching the possibilities of the bioeconomy for several years with the aim of (as should now have become clear: impossible) "sustainable growth".How is NGR collected? One suppresses the core of his thinking (irretrievability of raw materials, the inappropriateness of Western economic recipes in other cultures), takes a term of his further thoughts (bioeconomy, entropy) for his own project (green business as usual) and sells the whole thing as original NGR. This is how you kill two birds with one stone: the critic is not only defused, but has also become a sales argument for your own cause. Even a superficial reading of some of his works is enough to expose the hocus-pocus of green, "sustainable" growth.

The simplest and most effective way of defusing his theses is of course to keep them quiet. The case of Jeremy Rifkins should be mentioned here as an example. His 1980 book Entropy is adamant; The then barely 35-year-old publicist describes the effects of our entropy acceleration so well-read and well-founded that NGR was persuaded to add an afterword to it. In his later bestsellers on the Internet as a means of expanding democracy, equality and awareness, or on hydrogen as an energy carrier, however, the “professional visionary” Rifkin seems to have literally forgotten everything about entropy or repressed it with a view to zeitgeist and royalties. Only the post-growth movement continues to venerate NGR as one of the great thought leaders of the long-overdue shift in consciousness.

And once again the feeling becomes a little more certain that the most important books no longer have to be written, just read ...

Continue reading

In addition to his three main works mentioned above and the epilogue to Rifkin's Entropy, the articles Bioeconomy and Entropy in Degrowth are for those interested. Handbook for a new era recommended (Ed .: Giacomo D’Alisa / Federico Demaria / Giorgos Kallis, Munich: Oekom 2016).


Many thanks to our guest author Marc Hieronimus, who originally wrote this article for the Lichtwolf - magazine despite philosophy (issue 64).

More from Marc Hieronimus on his personal website and on postwachsen.de, the blog about less.

Finally, many thanks to Valérie Paquereau for the illustration (Copyright 2018).