• Caroline von Schilling University of Northern British Columbia
  • Debra Straussfogel


entropy debt, open systems, theory of dissipative structures, energy throughput, complexity, sustainability, environmental degradation, conceptual framework


The thermodynamic laws governing open systems necessitate a cost to system complexity. The cost of system complexity represents an energetic debt in the system’s surroundings called ‘entropy debt’. This research begins with the premise that municipalities can be understood as complex, open systems and as dissipative structures. They garner energy (i.e. 'energy throughput') from their surroundings to build internal 'system complexity' such as social order, infrastructure, and communication networks. Regarding natural resources, the entropy debt of community complexity is the impact communities have on their natural environment – defined in this research as ‘community entropy debt’. Environmental impact is problematic when it compromises the ecological integrity of the natural resources upon which communities rely. Given the necessary relationship between energy throughputs, in the form of natural resources such as food, fiber, and fuel, and community complexity, maintaining ecological integrity is paramount to community sustainability. Yet, despite community dependence on the natural environment, air, water, and terrestrial pollution and loss of sensitive ecosystems continue. This research asks, how can an open systems conceptual framework highlight the energetic-entropic relationship between the system complexity of municipalities and the natural environment? How can such a conceptual framework effectively be operationalized and applied to municipalities? Finally, what can an analysis of the conceptual framework parameters reveal about systemic drivers of anthropogenic environmental degradation? First, this research views five British Columbia municipalities through the conceptual lens of the theory of dissipative structures. Second, this research abstracts from the conceptual framework an analogical model comprised of these inextricably linked parameters: 'energy throughput', 'system complexity', and 'entropy debt', to which the corresponding dimensions of municipalities and the natural environment are mapped. Third, this research identifies and applies surrogate measures for each parameter and then compares the data for each municipality. This paper introduces the research and highlights some of the preliminary data.



How to Cite

von Schilling, C., & Straussfogel, D. (2009). ENTROPY DEBT: A LINK TO SUSTAINABILITY?. Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2009, Brisbane, Australia, 1(1). Retrieved from https://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings53rd/article/view/1302