How Work Overheats The Earth

Image of thermodynamics via Granta Magazine

In physics, ‘work’ is the energy transferred to (or from) an object. Not all energy can be transferred to an object, some is necessarily lost as heat. If we keep doubling the work we do every generation (a 2.3% growth rate), the waste heat boils the oceans in 400 years. Work is thus not something to mindlessly maximize. It’s something that has to be kept in careful balance with the object we live on, ie the planet.

In common language, work is what humans do ‘for a living’ and as Anna Mercury says — citing Blink 182 — ‘work sucks’. It’s not just that work sucks the energy out of you, it sucks energy and resources out of the planet. Mercury says We don’t need to keep toiling to producing more. In fact, less toil, less work, less production and less consumption are the only way we’re going to continue surviving on this planet.” As Mercury goes on, “To fight global warming, we really need to chill.”

She continues:

In the past few years, various environmental movements have begun rallying people around the slogan, “Do Nothing for the Climate.” The idea is simple: we are killing our planet because we are doing too much. We are working too much, buying too much, producing too much, extracting too much, traveling too much, making too much, and overall, doing too much. The best thing we can do for our planet is to slow down and do less. Consume less and share more.

These are very important points. There is obviously some work that needs to be done, but capitalism seems to have incentives ass-backwards. Under capitalism, raising children or caring for elders is worthless, growing food and making things is brought as close to slave labor as possible, essential workers are overworked and underpaid, and the most highly compensated people are rent-seeking shareholders and bankers. Simply not doing anything and not destroying the environment is, oxymoronically, considered a waste. As the Buddha said:

Viewing the non-essential as the essential and the essential as the non-essential they, nourished on false thinking, do not arrive at the essential.

Thus we do not ‘invest’ in the work we most need and investors run wild doing useless stuff. These messed up incentives necessarily produce huge amounts of waste heat, because it’s mostly wasted work. It’s no wonder we find ourselves on our asses after a few centuries of mercantile rule, even before the second law of thermodynamics kicks in.

Waste Heat

The core reason for global warming is the sheer amount of work and energy we’re dumping into the system. Fossil fuels are solar energy stored over millions of years that we’re converting into work (and heat) in a few centuries. This necessarily changes the internal energy of the system. Hence, global warming.

One important point here is that this problem is deeper than fossil fuels. It has to do with our whole philosophy of constantly doing more and more work. As physicist Tom Murphy says,

One key aspect of this thermal radiation scenario is that it does not depend on the form of power source. It could in principle be fossil fuels, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, or some form of energy we have not yet realized and may not even have named! Whatever it is, it will have to obey thermodynamics. Thus, thermodynamics puts a time limit on energy growth on this planet.

The only slight exception is solar, but even that has physical limits. If we keep growing exponentially (ie, doubling every generation), we run out of land for solar panels in 250 years. If we cover the oceans with panels and magically max out efficiency, we get… only 400 years. Physics is a bitch.

You can check the math here, via Murphy.

This is in many ways the central physical problem of climate collapse. As long we insist on being more productive and working harder the planet we’re riding will collapse and die. But capitalism has no concept of working ‘enough’ and everybody is expected to work 40 (or more) hours a week regardless of what they’re doing. And every company is expected to keep growing every quarter. ‘Green’ capitalism is trying to ‘solve’ this problem by switching energy sources when it really needs to switch philosophies. But this it cannot do.

Following The Infernal Science

We also cannot ‘follow the science’ out of this because that is precisely the shovel that got us into this hole. Science is obsessed with publishing more and discovering more and then using those discoveries for the military and mercantile classes above all. Only later (when it’s too late) do you get scientists feeling bad about it, but the problem is deeper than them. The problem is them also. It’s a deep philosophical rot. That’s why the climate is far too important to leave to climate scientists.

You don’t have to consider climate as something complicated that only ‘climate scientists’ can understand. The first and second law of thermodynamics are common sense. Work takes energy and makes you sweat, and that makes the room hot. Lighting shit on fire makes it hot. If you understand these basic principles, you already understand a lot.

What we call progress out of a ‘state of nature’, has actually been qualitatively shit. If you look at the fossil record, everybody’s teeth and bones go to pot after agriculture and even children got turned into machines with industrialization. As Mercury writes:

Since the dawn of agriculture, when human societies shifted to far more labor-intensive means of providing for themselves, we’ve been battling with the exhaustive amount of work we’re told is required for our survival. With the Industrial Revolution came the mechanization of production and the social expectation that humans would work like machines, an impossible expectation that organized labor has been struggling against ever since.

These qualitatively worse systems enable quantitatively more humans and corporations (our actual overlords). Mo money, mo problems, as Biggie said. As Mase added, “Now, who’s hot, who not?” We are now definitely hot, because of the sheer amount of work and energy we’ve applied into our contained ecosystem. It has to heat up. You don’t need a PhD for this, you can use the Khan Academy.

Work-Life Balance

This is why we need to take the concept of work literally and stop. We need a literal work-life balance, between the work we do and the lifeforms on this planet. What Chinese people call tang ping, or ‘lying flat’, what Westerners call ‘quiet quitting’, and what Sri Lankans seem to do as second nature. We need to stop working so much. This is true on a personal as well as social level because it’s so deeply true, as underlying physics and philosophy.

Spending 40–80 hours a week away from our lives is not something we naturally want to do. Hunter-gatherers don’t work nearly this much. As Marx said, every labor-saving technology is used to strain even more work from labor, to funnel more profit to the rent-seekers on top. And then these people take private jets to meet each other, to ultimately do what? They’re not even happy. The whole unhappy charade just leads to the heat death of the planet. We won’t leave anything more than a tiny shit-stain in the fossil record if we don’t slow our roll and stop hot boxing the planet.

The Ruling Mercantile Class

Human culture, however, has a faux moral sense that hard work is important, but this misses the point of ‘working for what?’ Work can be raising a child, caring for an elder, planting a tree, just sitting under a tree and breathing. It’s perverse that we define ourselves by how useful we are to one class of people, the capitalists, and consider the family and community something shameful that you do on your own time. This should be the center of life, not what you squeeze in when you get a break.

The far more ancient truth is that you can have the dignity of work, ie follow your dharma, without it all being for the benefit of the mercantile class. More advanced civilizations relegated merchants to a lesser status because they were vulgar and annoying. We are ruled by them, with predictable results. As the saying goes, what does it profit a man to gain the world, and lose his own soul? You lose both in the end. You work so hard to make a better life for your children and grandchildren and — in the wastefulness of it all — actually incinerate them.

It’s not that other ways are possible. Other ways used to be the default. We’re the anomaly, as you can see from the climatic correction. I’ve seen a more sensible ‘economy’ when I went to Nilambe monastery. There, you do not have to pay, you meditate in the morning, do unpaid, ‘menial’, work around the grounds, and eat what people donate. Work is still done, but it’s not so wasteful. The system is kept in balance. Or I’ve seen it in villages where people are poor and simply can’t produce as much waste. These are not lifestyles this capitalist culture wants (except as a vacation), but given that this culture is overflowing its Petri dish right now, it’s where our ancestors are going to end up.

Please note, however, this is not a call to planet saving action. It’s too little, too late. We should have killed those mercantile fuckers when they got off the boats 400 years ago, it’s far too late now. Corporations are the greed of the mercantile class made incarnate, and they’ve been running the show for centuries now. The motion of human beings and corporations is now as complicated uncontrollable as the movement of the planets. We can observe it, but do little to stop it. Of course everyone has their dharma (duty) to do, but our collective karma is that we’re just fucked. This is the Kali Yuga and it just has to play out. If you’re asking what you do personally, all I can say is do your dharma and try not to let Shiva’s foot hit you on the way out.

To return to the physics example, all of us carbon-based lifeforms are like gas in a piston. We get all excited and move around and that just increases the heat in the system. Then we apply fossil fuels or ‘renewables’ to the system and that only heats it up even more. Now the planetary piston is fuel-injected and supercharged. As the economic engine compresses us into cities and corporations, the system inexorably heats up. We can’t keep going like this, but at the same time we can’t stop. The thing is just going to blow a gasket, turn into scrap metal, and our kids are going to have to get out and walk.

We’re aware the work sucks and that that it sucks the life out of the planet, but we need to get back to the idea that the Buddha espoused 2,500 years ago. The walker of the middle path talked about right livelihood. This was not about a lack of effort or doing nothing but right effort and doing the right thing (which might be nothing). This is a philosophical concept buried deep under modern science and narrow western philosophy, but it’s there in a lot of philosophies, and also your heart. We don’t naturally like this system and we don’t like working so much. We are sensing the deeper truth, such that even pop-punk bands get it. Whatever we rebuild will have to be built around this more natural conception of work, or we’ll lose even more of the natural world. If we want to stop heating the world, at the most basic level, we have to chill out.