Dissipative structures exist as conduits to maximize the flow of energy in nature. Those structures that are best adapted to derive an energy profit beyond their operating and maintenance needs, are able to reproduce most and dominate in the competition for resources and energy. Within the same niche, those most successful at growing and reproducing will eventually prevail. Cooperation (amongst cells) may enable a structure that is more successful than the same group of cells existing independently.
Human technological cells (factories, parent companies) will likewise try to profit and plow money back in to new growth until they have pushed others from their particular niche. Some populations (corporations) expand while other contract in numbers due to differences in profitability.
The energy that human technological civilization is most rapidly converting to entropy in their races to profit and expansion will soon be gone, converted to lots of conduits (factory cells, infrastructure), waste gases and heat. In its expected course defined by the maximum power principle it will eat everything as quickly as possible and then the extant conduits will stop growing, die and deteriorate.
There is a comparison to made with plants regarding the metabolic changes resulting from steadily decreasing levels of light used for photosynthesis. The primary producers of the ecosystem are roughly equivalent to the primary producers of the technosystem, which would include producers of natural gas, coal and oil. We can and do pretend that the fossil fuels will always be there on a daily basis like the sun. This is a mistake. The sun does rise regularly and provide an input of energy to the ecosystem’s primary producers. Almost the entirety of the herbivores and carnivores feed upon the ample production of the plants and single- celled autotrophs. Anything reducing that productive capacity would necessarily reverberate throughout the ecosystem, resulting in species extinction, less complexity and perhaps collapse of the trophic levels above.
What if the amount of light available to plants steadily fell just as fossil fuel primary production will steadily fall? What would happen to the primary production? Can a plant starve? In the graph below you can see a steady increase in photosynthesis (red line) up to about 2,000 foot-candles of light intensity and then additional light input does not increase the photosynthetic rate. The green part of the graph represents photosynthesis greater than respiration, or production above a resting metabolic rate. All of that green area feeds both the growth and reproduction of the plant and the food requirements for the entire remainder of the ecosystem. Leafs can be grazed upon without harming the tree which is more than able to compensate. But at a certain “compensation point” light intensity is only enough to enable the plant to meet is respiratory needs. If light energy were allowed to fall this low, there would be no production for the remainder of the ecosystem and if the light level fell even further respiration needs would overwhelm photosynthesis and the plant would begin to lose dry matter and begin to starve to death. Plants can be starved of sunlight for a while and make use of stored energy reserves.
By necessity, as the light intensity diminishes, the amount of food produced for the overlying ecosystem is proportionally reduced and one would expect a collapse in populations and perhaps extinctions and elimination of trophic levels. The technosystem also relies upon net energy made available by fossil fuel producers. At a peak of net energy production, equivalent to 2000 foot-candles in the plant system, primary production is at its greatest allowing for maximum technomass and complexity in the overlying technosystem. Because 2,000 foot-candles of sunlight have been showing up daily on the planet for billions of years, the photosynthesis based system eventually reaches maturity.
Since the human system has a limited pool of energy, it will not eventually stabilize at a high level of production like the plants. Instead the flow of energy will diminish, equivalent to a falling flow of photons in the plant example, and the amount of energy supporting the technosystem will slide backwards leaving bankruptcy, abandoned infrastructure and many human RNA out of work. The light intensity in foot-candles can be thought of as EROEI. In the plant example, at a foot-candle level of about 400, respiration exceeds photosynthesis and not only is there no growth, there is no longer an ecosystem. The plant makes only enough to keep the plant alive. This would be like fossil fuel corporations making only enough to support themselves, leaving nothing for the remainder of the technosystem. Eventually, when the flow of energy gets low enough, the plant or fossil fuel extracting primary producer starves and dies (yellow area).
This energy pyramid can represent both the ecosystem and the technosystem. In the technological system, most consumers will go extinct as the net energy from primary producers falls. Most of civilization will collapse long before primary producer EROEI goes to zero. The plants have no such problem as they are assured 2000 foot-candles of flow per day which allows for enough production to support the pyramid of life above them. However, the human technological fiasco will likely damage plant primary production greatly even though 2000 foot-candles will be incoming daily (ocean acidification, soil erosion, rapid climate change.) Humans think the fossil fuel sun will be out again tomorrow and they can use their ingenuity to “fix” the ecosystem. Arrogance and hubris.
The Pyramid of Life gives way to the “Pyramid of Skulls” – Painting by Paul Cezanne.
We can only speculate as to where we are on this primary production energy flow curve. If 2000 foot-candles (techno-equivalent) was the peak, are we now moving backwards and starving the technosystem, the technological pyramid of life, of what it needs to survive? How much bankruptcy (extinction) and unemployment will we endure before hitting the compensation point? There is already rumbling from the human RNA within the cells and our primary producers cannot turn a profit or produce the required amount of net energy to support the entire technosystem. Instead of a gentle slide back down the energy curve, we may experience something more like a shark-fin curve, popularized by Ugo Bardi. At a rapid level of descent we will find it difficult to reintegrate ourselves as the “static” apex predator in a damaged and hobbled natural ecosystem.