Balancing Acts: Thermodynamics, Tariffs & Peacemaking

tom bEditor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.

by Tom Beutel

May 2019

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

(Genesis 2:15, NIV)

It is perhaps a tribute to human creativity or, more likely, a commentary on human nature, that people have tried for centuries to construct a perpetual motion machine – a device that will work indefinitely without any energy input.  There have been many attempts to design and construct such a machine, including one in the 12th century by the Indian mathematician, Bhaskara. A Norman Rockwell cover of the October 1920 Popular Science shows a perplexed inventor with his attempt at a device resembling Bhaskara “overbalanced wheel.” (

Based on the laws of thermodynamics, there are two impediments to the creation of a perpetual motion machine. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. One can be converted into the other, but neither can actually be created or destroyed. We can supply energy to a machine to produce something, but in simplest terms the energy supplied is being converted to the machine’s product. It is not possible to make a machine that will produce something – either matter or energy – with no matter or energy being supplied to it.

The consequences of the First Law of Thermodynamics may seem fairly obvious. However, the Second Law presents further problems. It states that an isolated system (one with no external input) tends to “run down” or become disordered. This means that not only can we not make a machine to create something from nothing (First Law), we cannot even make a machine which keeps running not making anything. Without input it will eventually run down.

Given the scripture quoted from Genesis 2:15 above it would seem that it was God’s plan for things to work this way. For the Garden to flourish and to keep it from degenerating into disorder humans were tasked to “work it and take care of it.” This was from the very beginning, before the “fall.”

While most of us have probably never thought about perpetual motion machines, we often “buy into” the idea behind them – in crude terms to “get something for nothing” or at least to get something for as little as possible. The one-time Walmart slogan “Always the low price, always” embodies this idea. It seems to be our nature as humans to strive to get as much as we can with as little input or effort as possible, to always get a “deal.” However, as the laws of thermodynamics and Genesis 2:15 show, this is neither possible, nor God’s way.

This is where tariffs come in. While I don’t think tariffs are the best way to solve our trade problems with China, and I’m not inclined to agree with or support President Trump, he has a point. If we want to increase manufacturing in the US – to create jobs and to have increased manufacturing capacity, both of which have benefits for us – we need to be willing to “input” into the system.

One means of inputting into the system is to be willing to pay the higher prices that goods would cost if they were produced here. Cheaper labor is, after all, one of the main reasons companies outsource production. While tariffs increase the cost of goods artificially, they may be one way to encourage companies to relocate in the US. But, this will only work if consumers are willing (and able) to pay higher prices. Manufacturing and its related jobs and capacity (the system) will not keep running without paying higher prices (input).

The issue at stake here is the issue of sustainability. Our economic, social and other systems – like physical systems or machines – are sustainable only with input, in particular our input.

Another way of looking at the problem is one of “paying the price.” In writing about fair trade in the past, this column has put forth the principle that everything has an inherent cost and that someone has to pay that cost. The example we have used is that of fair trade coffee. There is a cost to producing a cup of coffee. Traditional supply and distribution processes for coffee result in cheap coffee for the consumer at the expense of the grower, typically a developing-world small farmer. The farmer “pays the cost” or at least some of the cost of my cup of coffee so that I can get it cheaply. The result may be that the farmer does not have enough to support his family or send his children to school. I am trying to get the coffee  production “machine” to produce output (my cup of coffee) for little input (cheaper price). This is not sustainable, especially for the grower.

One possible solution is to get coffee through a fair trade organization such as Equal Exchange –  where farmers are guaranteed a fair price and other benefits. My cup of coffee will typically cost more this way, but I am “paying the price” which provides sustainability for the farmer and his family.

Another example is that of “simple living” life-styles. While the idea is a good one on the surface – not accumulating a lot of stuff, not taking more than one’s fair share of resources, not wasting energy, etc. – often we make choices that are unsustainable. For example, I may choose to get most of my clothing at a thrift store, not because I have to, but to avoid spending money on new clothes and to “reuse” items with wear left in them. Unless I am also giving items to the thrift store (or “inputting” in some other way) I am trying to get “output” with giving “input” or at least a minimal input (cheap prices).

This is not a strategy that everyone could use to live simply. I may be able to get my clothes at the thrift store, but if everyone tried to do so there would not be enough clothes to go around. Ultimately, the thrift store will run out of items; the system will “run down.” The laws of thermodynamics applied to lifestyles say that we need to be contributing (inputting), not just taking from, for the system to keep  working.

Living in a way that is truly sustainable, one which gives as well as gets, which contributes as well as takes, is a part of what it means to be a peacemaker. As we have said many times peace as shalom incorporates the ideas of overall well-being and right relationships with others. Expecting to get more for less does not produce well-being or right relationships. It is unsustainable. As peacemakers we need to be willing to pay the price to “keep things running.”

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