Why Ouroboros is not enough: Exergy, “The Matrix”, and a real meaning for sustainability

While the Ouroboros is a neat way of summarizing sustainability, it lacks one feature – compliance with the second law of thermodynamics. If you had a universe consisting on one world-snake, eating itself, with each cycle of consumption, there would be less usable energy (free energy) for the worm to re-create itself. With time, there would be none, and the world-worm would die.

While most people don’t have much trouble understanding the first law of thermodynamics (energy is not created or destroyed), the second eludes them, as it did the designers of the Ouroboros. The ancients apparently believed that a decline in one place in the universe would be matched by growth elsewhere, keeping everything constant. This also ties in with ideas of an eternal world – Aristotle, for example, believed that the Earth and cosmos had existed forever, and would exist forever. Growth and change was an illusion – over the long run, growth was balanced by decay, and decay was balanced by growth.

But the truth is more complex.

What appears to be balanced growth and decay is actually possible only when there is a constant source of ‘outside’ energy, and ‘waste’ energy is constantly taken away. In other words, sustainable cycles are not truly closed – they always have inputs and output. A closed loop winds down, since energy moves from useful “exergy” form to less useful “waste” energy. This accumulates until all energy is in a form that can’t power the cycle, and it stops dead.

This also means that nothing is actually sustainable forever. The universe is such a closed system, with no inputs or outputs. With time, even the entire universe spirals down to ‘heat death’ in which the amount of useful energy approaches zero. In other words, the universe itself is unsustainable.

The problems the public has grasping this are seen everywhere, but one (irritating) example is the world described for “The Matrix” series of movies. In these movies, the following history is assumed:

  1. War between humans and (oppressed) machines, with machines run by solar power
  2. Humans block out the sun, eliminating input energy
  3. Machines begin to ‘vampire’ power from humans
  4. Since there is no sunlight, any food is grown with artificial lights – presumably using energy vampired from the humans
  5. Some of the energy is used to create the false reality of ‘The Matrix’. Other energy is used to run the machines.
  6. Food is fed back to the humans, and body mass comes from recycled dead human bodies (energy as well?)
  7. There is not outside energy source, due to the clouds completely blocking the sun

The description of “The Matrix” world is therefore a classic Ouroboros, with waste (dead humans and energy from humans) being eaten for the next cycle. Millions of people accepted this science fiction idea, without ever questioning if it was actually possible. In fact, it is completely impossible, which makes the “Matrix” one of the worst ideas ever portrayed as a science fiction future. In fact, if we tried to make an Ouroboros Matrix world, it would look like this:

The Matrix movie world drawn as an Ouroboros Loop
'The Matrix movie world drawn as an Ouroboros Loop

However, in a real system, we would not get a true Ouroboros – instead, there would be energy lost via heat and inefficiency at several points in the cycle. The cycle is fundamentally unsustainable.

The Real 'Matrix' Ouroboros, showing energy losses
The Real 'Matrix' Ouroboros, showing energy losses

Why attack an old movie? The reason is that the movie audience (remember, they are supposed to be voters who can make choices about environmental issues) accepted the description of the world cycle of ‘The Matrix’ without questioning. In tests with my students over several years, it is rare that a student spots the flaw in the idea, and realizes that any real attempt to ‘vampire’ power from humans would grind to a halt almost energy. The energy given back to the pod-humans would always be less than was extracted, so it would run down like a mechanical watch.

Also, we have to consider that legions of writers, artists, and others created these movies, and commentary by philosophers and others never mentions that the world of ‘The Matrix’ is unsustainable. In other words, it is impossible, not for ‘technology’ reasons, but because it misunderstands sustainability. But artists, writers, producers, moviegoers, and beard-scratchers alike don’t get it.

In reality, nothing is sustainable forever. This is where most of the confusion regarding ‘green’ comes from. Rather than take baby steps to sustainability, the public typically embraces ‘magic’ technologies (e.g. “hydrogen economy”, photovoltaics) that seems to promise a purely sustainable world. But because of the second law of thermodynamics, ‘sustainability’ is only valid in a specific scope of space and time. We might have ‘sustainable’ practices on Earth, but the Ouroboros is an illusion – allowed by the constant flow of energy from the sun, and the constant loss of this energy as lower-use energy (heat) to space.

Any formulation of sustainable virtual design will require that we are realistic. Sustainability is not an absolute, it is relative to the space and time it is measured in. If we want to quantify sustainability, we must also define the range over which we are defining sustainability.

Given the uncritical acceptance of ‘The Matrix’ movies, plus the ‘eternal’ interpretation of the Ouroboros cycle, there is clearly some learning to do.

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