About....... thermodynamics and ecology


The emergence of self-organizing structures provides an avenue for dissipation that otherwise would not exist. In this way the emergence of order and organization paradoxically increases the overall disorder, from the perspective of the bigger system in which the self-organizing structure is embedded. Thus the second law, in the form "that the overall direction of thermodynamic processes is toward equilibrium", is respected by the emergence of self-organization and life. In fact the emergence of life hastens the progression to equilibrium.

So if we state the second law a little more strongly, "nature endeavours to find pathways which hasten the progression to equilibrium", then the emergence of self-organizing (dissipative) systems necessarily follows.

It is this realization which gives rise to our corollary to second law of thermodynamics (Kay and Schneider):

The more exergy there is, the greater the propensity, that is the more likely it is, that a self-organizing dissipative system will emerge to take advantage of the exergy. For biology, the more exergy accessible, the more likely some organism will make use of the opportunity.

This reinterpretation of the second law reconciles the second law with the biology. Life is to be expected! If the appropriate mix of exergy, materials, and information exist in an appropriate physical environment, life will emerge.

The implications of the reinterpreted second law are explored in the following papers:


The Infography has cited this as "one of the most excellent sources of information" about the subject of "Thermodynamics -- Ecological".

   Schneider, E.D, Kay, J.J., 1994, "Life as a Manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics", Mathematical and Computer Modelling, Vol 19, No. 6-8, pp.25-48. Also available in pdf format

   Schneider, E.D, Kay, J.J., 1994 "Complexity and Thermodynamics: Towards a New Ecology", Futures 24 (6) pp.626-647, August 1994

   Schneider, E.D, Kay, J.J., 1995, "Order from Disorder: The Thermodynamics of Complexity in Biology", in Michael P. Murphy, Luke A.J. O'Neill (ed), "What is Life: The Next Fifty Years. Reflections on the Future of Biology", Cambridge University Press, pp. 161-172

   Kay. J. 2000. "Ecosystems as Self-organizing Holarchic Open Systems : Narratives and the Second Law of Thermodynamics" in Sven Erik Jorgensen, Felix Muller (eds), Handbook of Ecosystems Theories and Management, CRC Press - Lewis Publishers. pp 135-160

   Fraser, R., Kay, J.J., 2002. "Exergy Analysis of Eco-Systems: Establishing a Role for the Thermal Remote Sensing" in D. Quattrochi and J. Luvall (eds) Thermal Remote sensing in Land Surface Processes, Taylor & Francis Publishers (UPDATED 1 August 2001)

   Kay, J.J., 1991. "A Non-equilibrium Thermodynamic Framework for Discussing Ecosystem Integrity", Environmental Management, Vol 15, No.4, pp.483-495

   Kay, J.J., Schneider, E.D., 1992. "Thermodynamics and Measures of Ecosystem Integrity" in Ecological Indicators, Volume 1, D.H. McKenzie, D.E. Hyatt, V.J. Mc Donald (eds.), Proceedings of the International Symposium on Ecological Indicators, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Elsevier, pp.159-182.

   Kay. J., Regier, H., 1999. "An Ecosystem Approach to Erie's Ecology" in M. Munawar, T.Edsall, I.F. Munawar, (eds), International Symposium. The State of Lake Erie (SOLE) - Past, Present and Future. A tribute to Drs. Joe Leach & Henry Regier, Backhuys Academic Publishers, Netherlands, pp.511-533

   Kay, J, Allen, T., Fraser, R., Luvall, J., Ulanowicz, R., 2001. "Can we use energy based indicators to characterize and measure the status of ecosystems, human, disturbed and natural?" in in Ulgiati, S., Brown, M.T., Giampietro, M., Herendeen, R., Mayumi, K., (eds) Proceedings of the international workshop: Advances in Energy Studies: exploring supplies, constraints and strategies, Porto Venere, Italy, 23-27 May, 2000 pp 121-133.

   Kay, J., 2002, "On Complexity Theory, Exergy and Industrial Ecology: Some Implications for Construction Ecology" in Kibert, C., Sendzimir, J. (eds), Guy, B., Construction Ecology: Nature as a Basis for Green Buildings, Spon Press, pp.72-107.

   "About the thermodynamics of ecosystems and surface temperature." presented at the course on Ecosystem theory-application in environmental management of aquatic systems, at The Royal Danish School of Pharmacy, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2 June, 2000.

   A short talk on thermodynamics of ecosystems March 2000

And the one that started it all:

Kay, J.J., 1984 Self-Organization in Living systems, Ph.D. Thesis, Systems Design Engineering, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 458p.

Other sources

The Infography: "Thermodynamics -- Ecological".

In addition to the authors mentioned on the above site:
Robert Ulanowicz

Mario Giampietro:
Special Issues on Societal Metabolism: Blending New Insights from Complex System Thinking with Old Insights from Biophysical Analyses of the Economic Process.
Population and Environment, Volume 22 (2), November, 2000.
Volume 22 (3), January 2001.

T.F.H. Allen:
Allen, T. F. H.; Tainter, J. A., and Hoekstra, T. W. Supply-Side Sustainability. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 1999; 16:403-427.
Allen, T. F. H.; Tainter, J. A.; Pires, C., and Hoekstra, T. W. Dragnet Ecology"Just the Facts, Ma'am": The Privilege of Science in a Postmodern World. BioScience. 2001; 51(6):475-485.

Bas Kooijman and his work on Dynamic Energy Budget


   A word of warning:
Many, many publications in the biological literature use the term entropy and exergy and the second law of thermodynamics in ways which are quite incorrect and very misleading. In fact I would have to say that the majority of such articles suffer from flawed thermodynamics! Corning has written a decent overview of this problem:

Corning, Peter and Kline, Stephen. Thermodynamics, Information and Life Revisited, Part 1: "To Be or Entropy". Systems Research and Behavioural Science. 1998; 15:273-295.


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Last updated 20 March 2002.