How Our Planet Works

David Galbraith
3 min readAug 1


The earth has to produce more waste than the energy it consumes from the sun. Life must consume more energy and waste even more and intelligent life must consume and waste more still.

Consumption and waste aren’t things to reduce, but to manage. The key tenets of much of environmental politics are based on the wrong world-view of reduced energy consumption and waste.

The sun rains down hot, white packets of light, which drives the weather which moves liquid water to a gas which turns back to a liquid, as rain; the light powers plants which turn the rain into sugar and oxygen and animals which turn oxygen and sugar back to carbon dioxide and water. The structures of the weather, plants, life and civilization store energy and therefore create more waste, according to the laws of physics. As a result more packets of light than came from the sun are re-radiated into space as colder infra-red.

The earth is an open system with effectively infinite energy resources from the suns rays.

The hot sun rains photons onto a cold bare planet in cold space, with no life or atmosphere.

It warms the planet, which gives off heat that is less hot than the suns rays.

This heat is in the form of black body radiation — ie at all colors but in amounts given by its temperature.

Conservation of energy means that the heat given off is the same as the heat input from the sun (more photons of less energy or less with more energy).

The second law of thermodynamics means that the energy must be less usable than the suns rays, so less energy per unit (so it’s more photons with less energy i.e lower temperature).

So the lifeless, atmosphere-less earth wastes more photons into space than it consumes.

On the earth there is life, which has to consume energy to persist. The more life, the more energy consumption.

The life has to produce more waste (unusable) energy than it consumes to preserve the Second Law.

The more complex and structured the life form, the lower entropy it is, so to preserve the Second Law and create a net increase in entropy it has to compensate for this and produce even more waste energy than if life didn’t exist.

So the living earth must produce more waste than a lifeless planet.

This compensation includes the ordered byproducts of life, from sea shells to skyscrapers. They all increase the rate of production of waste to exist and persist.

So the earth with intelligent life and its knowledge and civilisation produce more waste than other types of life form.

Life means the earth wastes even more energy and without an atmosphere, the existence of life would mean the temperature of the heat re-radiated out into space by the earth would be less (higher entropy to compensate for the lower entropy of living systems’ structures).

But of course there is an atmosphere that traps some of the waste photons from the earth and creates a buffer of waste energy (not the photons that are incident) before it is re-radiated out into space. So the temperature of the radiation that is eventually emitted is higher because of the atmosphere. Like a bath being filled and drained at the same time, at a steady state, the size of the buffer and the increased temperature remain constant.

The atmosphere is effectively high entropy, but it contains the dissipative structures of the weather and these are often simple open systems like hurricanes. Like life, they have cycles, consume lower entropy energy and output higher entropy energy through the transfer of sea water to water vapor. And like life, the structures of the weather are lower entropy and therefore their mere existence increases the rate of production of waste energy.

So the earth is an open system that consumes (low entropy) energy and re-radiates it into space (higher entropy), living things’ bodies and weather structures are low entropy and therefore increase the rate of consumption of energy and production of waste. Some of this low entropy structure is temporarily trapped on earth (e.g. fossil fuels) and some of the higher entropy waste is temporarily trapped in the atmosphere (greenhouse gases). From this logic, it follows that using fossil energy sources will increase the temperature but that waste and energy consumption are an essential part of life and not evil per se. What is wrong is not consumption or waste, but consumption that destabilizes open systems like the weather, that are as fragile as living organisms.

We are killing the weather, but we still need to feed it with energy.