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What did Lotka really say? A critical reassessment of the “maximum power principle”


  • Sciubba, Enrico


This paper presents a critical discussion of the so-called “maximum power principle”, often quoted in studies about the energy balance of living systems and also known in the emergy literature as “maximum em-power principle”. Several authors consider this principle highly relevant and some even proposed it as a “fourth law of thermodynamics”. A critical analysis of the original source, namely Alfred Lotka's 1921–22 papers, conducted both in an historical perspective (the connection between Lotka's writings and the ongoing debate at his time) and in a more modern context, leads to a more detailed and less biased assessment. It turns out that in spite of Lotka's very anticipatory and incredibly sharp vision of the possible interconnections between the second law of thermodynamics and evolutionism, doubts arise about the general applicability of his “maximum power principle”. From an accurate analysis of his writings, it can be concluded that: (a) Lotka explicitly and consistently addressed the “optimal use” of the flow of exergy (available energy), and therefore the quantity defined as “em-power” is an incorrect interpretation of Lotka's constrained maximum power principle; (b) “Lotka's principle” can be reformulated within Ziegler's “maximum entropy production” or Prigogine “minimum entropy generation” paradigm only under two different respective sets of rather stringent additional conditions which Lotka was probably already aware of but never explicitly stated.

Suggested Citation

  • Sciubba, Enrico, 2011. "What did Lotka really say? A critical reassessment of the “maximum power principle”," Ecological Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 222(8), pages 1347-1353.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:ecomod:v:222:y:2011:i:8:p:1347-1353
    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2011.02.002

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Sciubba, Enrico & Ulgiati, Sergio, 2005. "Emergy and exergy analyses: Complementary methods or irreducible ideological options?," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 30(10), pages 1953-1988.
    2. Lucia, Umberto, 2007. "Irreversible entropy variation and the problem of the trend to equilibrium," Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Elsevier, vol. 376(C), pages 289-292.
    3. Sciubba, Enrico, 2010. "On the Second-Law inconsistency of Emergy Analysis," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 35(9), pages 3696-3706.
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    Cited by:

    1. Victor Court, 2018. "Energy Capture, Technological Change, and Economic Growth: An Evolutionary Perspective," Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, Springer, vol. 3(3), pages 1-27, September.
    2. Victor Court, 2019. "An Estimation of Different Minimum Exergy Return Ratios Required for Society," Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, Springer, vol. 4(3), pages 1-13, September.
    3. Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten, 2018. "The Case for a New Discipline: Technosphere Science," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 149(C), pages 212-225.
    4. Sciubba, Enrico & Zullo, Federico, 2014. "An exergy-based analysis of the co-evolution of different species sharing common resources," Ecological Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 273(C), pages 277-283.
    5. Kaan Ozgun & Ian Weir & Debra Cushing, 2015. "Optimal Electricity Distribution Framework for Public Space: Assessing Renewable Energy Proposals for Freshkills Park, New York City," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 7(4), pages 1-21, March.
    6. Lucia, Umberto & Sciubba, Enrico, 2013. "From Lotka to the entropy generation approach," Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Elsevier, vol. 392(17), pages 3634-3639.

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