Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Asymptotic Economics

If we want to have a good idea as to how to detect alien home worlds, or see alien starships, there are many good questions to ask. Questions might be: How much thermal radiation would either emit; what kind of industrial products would be in the atmosphere; or will there be a light signature? These are what might be called direct observational questions. One of the ideas that this blog is predicated on is that we can learn much about the answers to these questions by trying to figure out what an alien civilization would be doing. This requires understanding the life of the alien population, the way they would live, what would determine the actions they take and so on. But perhaps some questions are too far afield.

Economics might seem to be one of the farthest afield. Economics is all about capital and labor, trade, currency, production and consumption and so on. What could this have to do with direct observational questions? Plenty.

Before discussing that, let’s realize that economics on an alien planet, with an advanced civilization, is nothing like economics back on Earth. In physics we are lucky as both we and they have the same laws of physics, and we know some of them. Not so in economics.

If an alien civilization lasts for millennia, and it must in order to do substantial amounts of star-faring, it is going to have to be calm and efficient. There is every reason that it would and could be. Knowledge of how to organize society will be a science by some time early on in their history, and it might not be used immediately, but it will be used. To live millennia requires the re-use of resources, and that implies the efficient use of them. Waste, which to them would mean a failure to properly recycle materials, would be abhorred. They have a planet to live on, and maintaining it for hundreds of generations of life means to maintain it in a stable condition, meaning not that nothing ever changes, but that the changes are small and cyclic. Things come back to where they were with minimal losses. It is true that recycling, even in a very careful society with strong social codes for it, will not be 100%, and some supplies will be necessary to maintain the civilization, but these will be minimal.

The value of materials to the society will of course be great, but it will not be determined on the basis of the usage. It would be based on the attrition that occurs during usage and during recycling. Suppose fluorine and gold are both used and in the same quantities, but that gold recycles, according to the scheme by which it is used, at 99.999% and fluorine, only 99.9%. The usage of fluorine is 100 times the usage of gold, and to maintain the same amounts of both of them, 100 times as much fluorine has to be found and brought into the cities as gold. The demand is multiplied by the inverse of the recycling rate. Supply of one may be quite different from the other, depending on original supplies and depletion to date, so we cannot say what the ratio of value between gold and fluorine would be, but that values are determined by factors that we hardly consider here on earth.

The value of labor to society will be quite different in a civilization that has learned artificial intelligence, robotics, synthetic genetics, and massive amounts of calculation, and has in its records engineering plans and designs for everything, completely debugged. Capital will have been substituted for human labor, so a question would be, what do members of the society do with their time? How do they spend their lives? This might affect the predilection for space travel, if it were not already written in the memes of the society.

How fast are they using up the resources on their planet? Do they have an ocean from which any scarce elements can be extracted, or does the costs of this exceed its value? In other words, does building and maintaining an ocean water distillery use up more resources than it will provide? In a long-term society, things are better expressed in rates. Does the consumption of materials to maintain a sea-water distillery exceed the output of whatever few materials need to be extracted? So, at least for this question, economics plays a large role, but engineering economics rather than any other type.

Resource requirements might also induce them to use interplanetary shipping to bring in some scarce resources, ones the planet has few of or has been depleted of. How would the society decide if it wanted to do this? With resources declining, they do not have the usual opportunity that is discussed here on Earth in economics classes, substitution. They have already substituted and are down, after enough millennia, to where substitution is no longer an option. They are all substituted already. They have a choice of emigrating, going extinct, or using interplanetary shipping. This assumes they have some planets in their solar system which are useful for resource extraction. Emigration is a huge cost, and extinction violates their fundamental memes, so they have to do interplanetary shipping.

There are other reasons why they would be forced to migrate, and some of these are stellar death or evolution, galactic perils of many kinds, planetary tectonic upheavals, and perhaps others not envisioned here. If they are forced to migrate on an earlier time scale than resource exhaustion on their home planet, they will not enter a phase of interplanetary shipping by necessity. It may be that interplanetary shipping is less costly than some other way of obtaining certain resources from their own planet, so it would be done anyway.

We don’t have any good estimates of forced migration times, nor of planetary resource exhaustion times, so we cannot compare them. These might be calculated when we have some more decades of science, perhaps by the time we are able to better observe exo-planets in our vicinity. If it turns out that interplanetary shipping is a necessity in most cases, this might be an observable for us. Note that if some material is needed from some moon, let’s hypothesize, it won’t be done in a rate to match its usage, but instead at a much lower rate of its usage divided by the recycling rate. If it is used 200 times on average before it dissipates below a recoverable limit, 1/200 of the usage rate is all that would be required in shipping. Still, there may be enough ships that some signature is detectable.

There are more economics issues that might impact what we will detect, or even if they would come to our solar system. These need to be explored, and include consumption decisions and energy and perhaps more. It looks like another post will be needed.

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