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Le Chatelier’s Principle

This is one of the key principles we teach in General Chemistry. It is a very simple concept but with profound implications. “If a chemical system at equilibrium is stressed in some way away from equilibrium, the system will shift in such a way to relieve the stress and restore equilibrium.”

In other words, some chemical reactions reach a point at which the original reactants are forming products at the same rate that the products are reverting back to the reactants, so the net concentrations of each reactant or product remains constant. If you stress the system by changing the temperature, or by adding/removing one of the components of the system, the reaction will adjust to a new equilibrium with different concentrations than it had originally, but still constant once equilibrium is reached.

This principle is true of any dynamic system with equilibrium points, not just chemical ones.

The drought in Texas has stressed the equilibrium of the ecosystem, with the personally relevant effect of driving hot and thirsty fire ants from outside to inside my house, disturbing my personal equilibrium.
My reaction was to hire a pest control firm to kill the ants already in the house and create a barrier to prevent/discourage them from seeking shelter in my house. What will the ants do? Find someone else’s house or go deeper into the soil or die. As long as they are out of the house, it isn’t my problem.

In England, students have been rioting because of tuition changes for college. There, the equilibrium was that in a socialist state, schooling was free, and the students had been trained to expect that. When they started being charged for school, one new equilibrium point could have been to pay the tuition and have ownership of their studies. Instead, they have sought to regain the former equilibrium state through destructive protests. What will be the new equilibrium point? We’ll see. But there is definitely stress.

In Chile, there is great social unrest and students have been on strike for several months, with the tacit approval of faculty and administration. This has resulted in repeated tear gas attacks on universities by the national police. Again, stress has destroyed a system at equilibrium and the system is attempting to find a new one.

Normally, an entity’s financial situation should be one of equilibrium where what comes in is on average greater than or equal to what goes out. When this equilibrium is grossly stressed with more going out than coming in over a long period of time or by a significant amount, if equilibrium is ever reached, it looks nothing like the original system. Therein lies the danger of using a fiat currency that is only tied to real income and expenditures by people’s faith in it. Le Chatelier’s Prinicple is not descriptive of such a system, and so there is little cause for hope that a new equilibrium will be reached, short of complete consumption of the original resources. The global financial crisis seems to have reached or gone past this tipping point. The system can no longer adjust to the stress based solely on its own composition, but requires outside intervention of adding more real capital and taking away the vast excess spending.

Not every stress has an equilibrium as a silver lining, but many do. Yet even when equilibrium is not an option, the ability to adapt to stressful situations and find a type of normalcy is an amazing one that most life forms have, and in a way, to me, testifies of God’s love and wisdom by His building that in us hardwired. And that is a cause for hope.

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress.” 2 Timothy 3:1


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