by Bruce Dunlavy              (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

There are laws, and there are Laws. In the world of human interaction, laws are made and enforced by society in order to encourage certain activities and discourage others. These laws are administered by people, and thus their reach is incomplete and their implementation imperfect.

In the world of science and engineering, Laws exist independent of the desires of those who are bound by them. They apply to all and there is no getting around them, no escaping their effects. The Law of Gravity, for example, is not something a clever crook can evade, and its reach extends to the edges of the universe. While it is true that airplanes, rockets to the Moon – or a person climbing stairs – can overcome the effects of gravity to some extent, nothing can overcome the Law of Gravity.

Among the most famous Laws are those of thermodynamics (Greek thermos, heat + dynamikos, powerful). There are four of these Laws, but only three have been around over 150 years, and the other – known as the “Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics” – was created later as a fundamental prequel to the other three. It is not a concept unique to thermodynamics, as it was adapted from Euclidian geometry. It is the first of Euclid’s Five Common Notions, and will not be addressed here.

The other three are the rules which apply to the energy in a closed system, by which is meant a theoretical physical arrangement in which matter and energy do not enter or leave across the system’s boundaries.

Although the Laws of Thermodynamics are appropriately used only by those well-schooled and trained in understanding their principles, they can be explained in language accessible to most people.

The First Law states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only changed from one form into another. If you burn wood, you get heat but you lose wood. In order to get something, you have to give up an equivalent amount of something else. In everyday lingo, this is usually rendered as “You can’t get ahead.”

The Second Law is that the processes described in the First Law are always inefficient, and there is an inescapable loss of heat. In short, “You can’t break even.”

The Third Law stipulates that a process cannot reach a state of no activity – no exchange of heat – without reaching the unattainable absolute zero. It is usually rendered as “You can’t get out of the game.”

I spent most of my working career in the field of environmental regulation. Over the last fifty years the environment has become one of the most widely considered issues in society, and it is clear that the three Laws of thermodynamics outlined above have counterparts in the world of environmental control.

These similar Laws find their greatest use in trying to determine what is to be done about waste. Much of the discussion in environmental issues centers on the production and disposal of waste. Often, it is easy to understand. If I want to drive my car, I will have to accept that some air pollution will result from the waste generated by powering my car. There’s no getting around that.

Where the options kick in is when the waste can be collected or directed into a landfill, smokestack, watercourse, etc. Then interests begin to compete over the where and when of it all. The term NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is well known. It has a corollary among politicians, too – NIMTOFF or NIMTOO (Not In My Term Of Office). That landfill or hazardous waste disposal site or factory smokestack has to be as far away from me as is humanly possible, and preferably not exist at all.

As the saying goes in the trash business, “Everybody wants us to pick up the garbage, but nobody wants us to put it back down.” Despite such stories as that of the refuse-carrying barge that floated around the Eastern USA for months, eventually the garbage has to go somewhere. We can no longer just throw things away. There is no more “away” to throw things to.

Here are what I consider to be the environmental equivalents of the Laws of Thermodynamics:

First Law of the Environment: Everything pollutes.
From the first existence of the first organism, waste has been created. There is waste being created in your body right now and there is no way to avoid it. Additional waste is being created constantly, somewhere else, in order for you to be housed, fed, and warmed. All that waste has to go someplace.

Second Law of the Environment: You can’t make nothing out of something.
Once waste has been created, you cannot make it disappear. You must either put it someplace or turn it into some other kind of waste. Not everything can be recycled, and nothing can be recycled indefinitely. In addition, the very act of recycling creates some sort of waste in its processes. For example, water is recycled over and over in long-occupancy spacecraft, but it takes some energy to turn urine into potable water, and there is always some amount of waste that cannot be – or will not be – recycled. There is no way to create a waste and then turn it into a not-waste.

The Third Law of the Environment, commonly called the Law of Conservation of Filth: In order for something to become clean, something else must become dirty; and it is possible to get everything dirty without getting anything clean.
A wastewater treatment plant does a very good job of taking in sewage and industrial wastes and making them cleaner, but the result is liquid effluent which must be directed to a receiving stream or river. The effluent may be 99 percent cleaned up, but that one percent creates a lot of new water pollution.

In addition, tons of solids are removed from the incoming wastewater. When I worked in such a plant, the removed solids were burned, creating air pollution, and the ashes spread on the adjacent flood plain, where they eventually washed back into the river. We took in water pollution and turned it into air pollution, yielding land pollution that eventually became water pollution again. And all that took a lot of work and energy.

The point here is that we must accept that we are all responsible for contributing to the degradation of the planet. Some bear more responsibility than others because of the sheer amount of pollution and greenhouse gases produced by, say, the burning of fossil fuels in power plants. Nevertheless, it behooves each of us to understand our own contributions (combined with those of our fellow residents of this planet) and determine how best to reduce them.

There are Laws, but they must be addressed with laws. The Laws are nature’s creations, and the laws are not. They are human creations, and as such they are written, enacted, and implemented in a political process. If we want to avoid watching the Second Law of Thermodynamics turn our planet and our society from order into chaos, we must use our political influence to effect and affect the creation of laws.