Thermodynamics and plate tectonics in Bataille’s solar economy


In the following text I revise Land’s (1992) Bataillean thermodynamic model and offer an update by taking into consideration the energy of geological processes such as the convecting heat in the mantle that drives earth’s tectonic plates.

The starting point is Georges Bataille solar economy model from The Accursed Share (AS) (1949). It proposes a general or solar economy, or an economic theory of excess— a radically different view on economics. Instead of departing from lack and scarcity of resources, it abstracts to the most empirically concrete fact in order to enunciate his political economy: the abundant solar radiation on earth. The sun’s free-flowing energy floods the closed system of the earth. The powerful place of the sun in Bataille’s thought is justified in terms of the cosmically expanded energy ecology that floods the earth.

Consider the processes of life on earth, the way it has evolved since the Proterozoic: from prokaryotic cells and multi-layered microbial mat colonies, to the Cambrian life explosion, the rise of the reptiles during the Mesozoic, and finally to the moment where apes begin to speculate about life’s exuberant development and its relation to the nearest star. Periods of exuberant growth punctuated by brief moments of mass decay and extinction.

Bataille claims that the source of life’s exuberant development is solar energy. “The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy – wealth – without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving” [1] . Solar energy into earth, into a closed, finite system. Bataille distinguishes the spatial limits of the ‘closed system’: the terrestrial biosphere, as well as the energetic flood in the surface. Two parameters that quickly come to oppose each other as life overflows with the unlimited gift of the sun in a limited space of the earth.

Solar Economy

The main input of energy comes from solar radiation, by far the most important source of energy for life on earth; a superabundance of energy on the surface of the globe. Solar economy is founded upon the principle that radiation of the sun is distinguished unilaterally as something that loses itself without reckoning, without counterpart. It is because the sun squanders itself upon us without return that “‘the sum of energy produced is always superior to that which was necessary to its production’ since ‘we are ultimately nothing but an effect of the sun’” [2]. There is an energetic surplus, more than life can absorb; solar radiance and its expansive effect on life on earth adds pressure to its environment:

“The immediate limitation, for each individual or each group, is given by the other individuals or other groups. But the terrestrial sphere (to be exact, the biosphere), which corresponds to the space available to life, is the only real limit. The individual or group can be reduced by another individual or another group, but the total volume of living nature is not changed; in short, it is the size of the terrestrial space that limits overall growth” [3].

Living matter receives this energy and accumulates it within the limits given by the space that is available to it. Upon reaching limits, the impossibility of continuing growth makes way for real excess and squander. The primordial task of life is not to produce or survive, but to consume the clogging floods of energy pouring down upon it. Proliferation of life is tied inevitably to the fate of all biological processes: death.

Thermodynamics of Earth System

The AS solar economy constructs a spatially limited, closed system. This model is analyzed by Nick Land (1992) who lays down a thermodynamic outline of Bataille’s solar economy. Two main interactions are observed:

Production refers to solar energy input on earth; one of the main sources of entropy.

Consumption is understood by Bataille in a dual sense:

  • Productive consumption is meant to refer to the multiple forms in which energy is absorbed, most dramatically by life in its extension, development and growth. It can be equated with an organization of entropy: the measure of transition of different forms of heat-energy.
  • Nonproductive expenditure is one which doesn’t have an end beyond itself. It trends strongly towards the result of a “circuit of cosmic energy” [4]. It can be thought of as negative entropy, a measure of the organization of matter in movement. An energetic resource in organized systems that can use chance [5]. A transferable quantity can be spontaneously exchanged among the elements of the system, or to a subsystem, or from an organized environment to elements of a system.

The second law of thermodynamics states that earth’s biosphere system tends to increasing disorder, or entropy. It denotes irreversible change in state over time, a perpetual degradation of energy or dissipation of difference. Entropy is the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth and life is the struggle for capturing it. Needless to say, solar energy is pivotal for the functioning of life processes, i.e., the water cycle, etc. Simply put, “the energy produced is superior to the energy necessary to its production” [6].

Entropy in a system leads to a point of irreversible change with two outcomes: one in the form of evolution, the other in that of the dissipation of energy, and evolution towards disorder. Time implies degradation and death but also organization and ever-increasing complexity. Self-organizing structures occur everywhere in nature. A hurricane, for example, is a self-organizing system powered by the steady stream of energy coming in from the sun, which drives the winds and draws rain-water from oceans. Or consider a living cell. It’s a self-organizing system that survives by taking in energy in the form of food and excreting energy in the form of heat and waste. When the energy that floods the earth proliferates, nature finds ways of temporarily organizing and developing patterns [7].

Negentropy is the energetic resource between the vanishing of an order and the onset of a new one. It is the surplus energy that overflows the state of matter and leads to squander. “Death [is regarded], first as a negation [of life], then – in a sudden reversal – as the profound truth of that movement of which life is the manifestation” [8]. Although death’s inexorability constantly opens space for life’s reproduction, periods of limitless loss, of massive waste of life can be found in earth’s history. Death as a loss of energy shall be understood in relation to its dynamic with life as energy.

Accursed Geology

The continents, oceans and atmosphere are not only affected by the sun’s rays, but also by gravity, the magnetic field surrounding the earth and by earth’s internal dynamics. The myriad active processes in earth subjects matter to constant change. Any object’s abstract identity, gradually or suddenly, it surely is overcome. The history of transformation of organic and inorganic matter on earth is geology. On the surface, mechanical changes (denudation, folding), chemical changes (weathering, erosion), interior mechanical forces (pressure), and heat (from radiogenic sources and mantle convection) constantly undermine any appearance of stability in nature.

Perhaps the most defining of these life processes is plate tectonics, an earth’s science theory that describes the large-scale motion of lithospheric tectonic plates. The model builds on the concept of continental drift, an idea developed during the first decades of the 20th century. The main idea behind plate tectonics is that continents are pushed by giant volcanoes under the ocean. Like a conveyor belt, oceans spread and cause continents to move and collide into each other. As a consequence, under some conditions, giant mountain ranges will form (think of the Himalayas), under other conditions, continents can subduct one into the other, returning crustal material into the mantle for recycling. This implies that earth’s surface and oceans has been in motion through all of their history (~2.5 billion years).

Understanding the underlying framework of Bataille’s general or solar economy requires engaging with the infrastructure of the closed, biosphere system. This infrastructure is the earth’s crust, where all oceans and land masses (and forms of life) are supported. It’s a crust with a very uneven surface, containing huge mountain ranges on its land mass, and underwater ranges in the deep oceans. The crust is made up of ten major plates which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. However, along the edges of these plates “faults” are situated, where volcanic activity and earthquakes are concentrated. The continents are fixed into these plates and move as the plates themselves move

At the border of these plates, deep in the ocean, underwater volcanoes spew out molten rock from the bowels of the earth, creating new ocean floor. An example of one is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which forms the boundary between four of the earth’s plates. The sea bed spreads away from the ridge like a conveyer belt, carrying with it huge rafts of continental crust. These underwater volcanoes transform enormous amounts of energy from the earth into heat. There are an estimated 430 active volcanoes at present. This means that the earth’s crust (lithosphere) is being continually changed and renewed; new lithosphere is constantly being created by the intrusion and extrusion of magma at the mid-ocean ridges through the partial melting of the mantle (asthenosphere). This creation of new crust at these underwater volcanic fault zones pushes the old floor apart and the continental plates with it. This new lithosphere spreads away from the mid-ocean ridges as more material is added, and eventually, the very expansion of the ocean floor leads to it submerging into the earth’s interior (plate subduction).

Beneath the continents, in the earth’s mantle, a very slow creeping motion of molten silicate is caused by convection currents, it carries heat from the interior to the planet’s surface. This constant subterranean turmoil, called mantle convection, allows the colossal earth’s heat to circulate in the form of molten rock, this produces new volcanic activity which repeats the process. On the surface, these subduction zones are marked by island arcs, mountain ranges and volcanoes, earthquakes and deep ocean trenches. Plate tectonics maintains the balance between new and old, in order for new crust to arise, old one must subduct into the mantle of the earth, feeding the crust-recycling process of plate tectonics.

Plate Tectonics as Cosmic Sacrifice?

Bataille never got to know about the ways sea-beds spread apart on the Atlantic Ocean floor, their discovery in the late 1960s was a few years after his death. But, the basic orientation of his solar or general economy in relation to the knowledge about earth processes is essentially correct: a materialist consideration of the actual natural development of growth and its inevitable decay. The cosmic movement of energy can and is captured and absorbed for productive forces, but, eventually, “like a river into the sea, it is bound to escape and be lost” (nonproductive expenditure) [9].

This consideration of Bataille’s solar economy only confirms the nonproductive expenditure of earth’s forces. Many earth processes of global significance, in both solid and fluid earth, have this same effect of redistributing energy away from localities of high energy concentration towards places of lower energy concentration. The net effect is a more dispersed spatial distribution of energy. For example, along with hurricanes and other mid-latitude storms, ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream also redistribute heat energy from the warmer tropics across higher latitudes; so does the global atmospheric circulation, most notably the Hadley cells; likewise, volcanism is an effective way of transferring thermal energy from the hot interior of the planet to the cooler exterior; so is the hydrothermal venting at mid-ocean ridges, on land the geysers and hot springs on land.

This understanding of earth as a dynamic entity gave late XX century geology a materialist and scientific basis. The great success of plate tectonics theory is that it integrates indeed all natural phenomena, overturning the conservative conceptions of the scientific orthodoxy based upon formal logic. Earth science’s basic idea is that everything on earth is in constant movement, changes can be explosive or gradual [10]. Bataille echoes this in his “Materialism” essay claiming that materialists cannot think of matter as something ideal, of physical phenomena as artificially isolated. “When the word materialism is used, it is time to designate the direct interpretation, excluding all idealism, of raw phenomena, and not a system founded on the fragmentary elements of an ideological analysis, elaborated under the sign of religious relations” [11].

Explaining the solar economy system in thermodynamic terms is something that goes beyond my abilities. Far from a finished, clean cut exposition, this is a hasty attempt to single the manifold processes of the earth system into the binary of energetic input (entropy) and its overflow (negentropy). A basic outline would summarize that the energy inputs are solar and terrestrial radiogenic; dual sources of entropy. Both sustain the life processes on earth (water cycle, tectonic cycle and mantle convection): upon abundant energy, life thrives, reaching highly complex states, multiple processes interpenetrate each other. Energy and matter find a way to interact and change, building up gradually. Death is continually clearing space, opening up for the proliferation of new life.

Death, waste and chaos manifest in nature in several degrees of intensity, (from violent depredation in the wild to mass extinctions). Waste is the fluidification between production and consumption. This lack of identity resounds with accursed share— “… real life know nothing of purely productive expenditure; … it knows nothing of purely nonproductive expenditure either.” [12]. In this sense, plate tectonics seem to be also underlain by this impersonal, cosmic perennial process that arises out of physical, chemical and mechanical phenomena. Plate tectonics suggests an expansion of life under a continuous self destruction via subduction and a simultaneous overflowing of life from volcanic activity (a way to dissipate the earth’s mantle radiogenic heat) and building mountain ranges.

The accursed share undermines oppositions by connecting them through the turbulence of general economy. It doesn’t settle into a binary opposition; this nonlogical difference is central to understanding of the accursed share. The history of life’s proliferation on earth is one and the same with the history of mass extinctions— an example of nonproductive expenditure. Although the sudden destruction and death of species that had succeeded over long periods of gradual growth, does serve the function of clearing space for species diversification and for the development of new niches. These geologically brief catastrophic periods can be understood as a way of dissipating excess energy gained through long periods of gradual growth from a system; a negentropy— the accursed share.

The very notion that matter tends to some absolute state of equilibrium runs counter to nature itself. It’s a lifeless, abstract view of the universe. At present, the universe is very far from being in any sort of equilibrium, and there is not the slightest indication either that such a state ever existed in the past, or will do so in the future. The second law of thermodynamics asserts that all of nature is on a one-way ticket to disorder and decay. Yet this does not square with the general patterns we observe in nature [13].

Bataille’s solar or general economy is an economy of difference derived from earth’s gift of solar energy. It pays attention specifically to a particular play of forces; it is never an abstract universal, but it is always tracing the excess of this play of forces, and it can never be reduced to the empirical description of this play of forces. This is an economy of difference where difference doesn’t settle into a stable structure of opposition. Such overflow of energy has been absorbed and transformed by life, proliferating. Life’s quite literal explosivity is “reduced to a compensations for the destructions that are brought about” [14]. The accursed share, as the becoming of nature in perpetual motion; the effect of a particular play of forces having a finite existence which results from the negentropy that a system cannot control.


[1] (AS1, 28)

[2] (TA, 23)

[3] (AS1, 29)

[4] (AS1, 26)

[5] (TA, 26)

[6] (AS1, 23)

[7] (RR1, 173-174)

[8] (AS1, 34-35)

[9] (AS, 23)

[10] (RR2, 18)

[11] (VE, 16)

[12] (AS, 12)

[13] (RR1, 172-174)

[14] (AS, 33)


[AS1] Bataille, G., 1967 (2013), “The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Volume 1: Consumption” Zone Books. p. 198

[RR1] Woods, A., Grant, T., 2002, “Reason in Revolt: Dialectical Philosophy and Modern Science, Vol. 1” Algora Publishing, p. 257

[RR2] Woods, A., Grant, T., 2003, “Reason in Revolt: Dialectical Philosophy and Modern Science, Vol. 2” Algora Publishing, p. 236

[VE] Bataille, G., 1985, “Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939” trans. Stoekl, A., Lovitt, C.R., Leslie, D.M. Jr., University of Minnesota Press, p. 173

[TA] Land, N., 1992, “The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and virulent nihilism (an essay in atheistic religion)”. Routledge, p. 166

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