During the 19th century, new insights into the concept of irreversibility were developed with the founding of thermodynamics. It turned out, that an understanding of time irreversibility requires a thermodynamic underpinning. In the second half of the 20th century, the physical chemist Ilya Prigogine discovered ground-breaking insights regarding irreversibility in self-organising systems, such as biological plants. The economist Georgescu-Roegen introduced the physical concept of irreversibility into Ecological Economics. Mainstream Economics has a flawed view of temporal irreversibility in production theory since it neglects important thermodynamic considerations, for instance it generally assumes that all goods can be substituted by others.

Ecological Economics argues that a thermodynamic understanding of irreversibility is necessary to adequately analyse the interplay between nature and economy. For ease of understanding, let us assume that time is reversible. Accordingly, time has the same status as a spatial variable; hence time can move in two directions, into the past and into the future. Thus, its direction is not uniquely defined, and past and future can be treated symmetrically. However, as soon as we experience real time, we note that we are only able to move in one direction, namely from the present to the future, for we cannot return to the past. So, a good definition of irreversibility is: A process is irreversible if it is not possible to reverse it.

Thermodynamic irreversibility restricts economic actions in time (Georgescu-Roegen 1971). Only those actions are possible that are not restricted by the two laws of thermodynamics. Hence, thermodynamic irreversibility is a constraint for economic action.

A practical example of irreversibility is the burning of a piece of coal. Once burned, you can never turn it back into coal.

Key Contributers: Stefan BaumgärtnerJ.L.R. ProopsArmin Schmutzler