Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Great Filter – Scarcity

If there already is a possible Great Filter that arises from affluence, how can there also be one that arises from scarcity? The affluence Great Filter, nicknamed in this blog the Happy Life Great Filter, comes about because no desire for stellar travel might arise in a population that has everything it wants, including diversions. By diversions we do not mean entertainment alone, but everything ranging up to meaningful work for those who desire it, and down to dissipation in any manner desired. Novelty for those who desire novelty, and stability for those who wish to avoid it. Solitude for those who seek it and companionship and crowds for those who want to flee from it. In other words, the alien society has managed to solve its problems and that of all its members. Its worries are behind it. It may have taken millennia for this state to be achieved, but it has. It didn’t need star travel to achieve the Happy Life, and the Happy Life doesn’t need star travel. We have seen how this might be burst by a threatening event, such as the evolution of the home star affecting the planet's habitability, but other than through extreme duress, it perseveres and nobody goes to other stars.

The other side of this occurs if Asymptotic Technology lets an alien civilization down. Despite centuries of diligent investigation into the secrets of nature, culminating with an understanding that the accumulated knowledge is complete and they know it is complete, is it possible that the alien society simply cannot afford to go star-cruising? Do not forget that Asymptotic Technology includes a knowledge of robotics, so they know how to build whatever interesting robots they want to. They know genetics completely, and not just genetics, but genetic engineering, genetic design, genetic everything, and they can grow anything they want to by prescribing its DNA (or whatever code this particular planet happened to come up with as a basis for life). They can have viruses, bacteria, plants, and anything else their form of life allows to live. They understand geology. They understand mining. They understand astronomy. They understand psychology. They have the whole thing done. How could an alien civilization have all this know-how and still have scarcity so badly they can’t get out of their own solar system? Perhaps they can’t even get off their planet.

How could this happen? It’s all in one word. Resources. Knowledge alone doesn’t make a space ship. You probably need a wide variety of things, such as metals, rare earths, maybe noble gases, and who knows what else. Maybe their planet doesn’t have much of these, at least in any accessible way. The first situation is that the planet doesn’t have much metal. Maybe it’s mostly silicon or something else. At this point in Earth’s investigations of our local galaxy, we don’t know much about the possible composition of exo-planets. Perhaps we live on a lucky one where there are metals laying around the upper layer of crust just about everywhere, and just about all of them. Lots of other things, too. Earth is a veritable cornucopia of minerals. We are so used to having it all that it is not easy to think of a planet where they have almost nothing. But perhaps most of the habitable and inhabited planets in our galaxy have not been so fortunate. Perhaps they have minerals of all sorts, but they are all miles down below granite. Perhaps they were formed in a metals-poor region, and metals, in the astronomer’s sense of any element past helium, weren’t very abundant.

Exactly how did we get these beautiful deposits of minerals here on Earth? Geological processes sorted them out. The Earth and probably all planets formed of some fairly uniform mixture, and on Earth the circulation of the mantle, the thermal gradients, and whatever else was required sorted them out and brought the results up near the surface, so we human beings could dig them up. Maybe all other planets did not have these processes, and so even if they have all the minerals we have, there are no concentrated ore deposits and the poor aliens who live on them don’t ever get to see an iron plate or a copper wire. This is the Scarcity Great Filter.

There are other ways in which this could occur. If you were a lot older than you are, by a few billion years, you would remember Snowball Earth, which was a period when the Earth was covered by ice. Maybe some planets are not exactly in the middle of their habitable zone, but on the edge, and they have only a few areas not perpetually covered in ice. After a while, life might form and lead to intelligent aliens who hate where they live. They can’t mine much of the planet’s resources as it is frozen, and glacier mining doesn’t yield anything but water. On the other edge of the habitable zone are aliens who are living on the poles because the tropics are uninhabitable, and they never get to go there, and never get to seek resources there.

There could be total loser worlds, which are formed in metal poor regions, and which have no geological processes going to sort out even the few heavier elements they do have, and which are mostly buried under ice. Could aliens live on such a place? How does life form? If we knew the second answer, we would know the first. At this point in our self-education, we cannot rule out that the formation of life, or even of intelligent life, isn't all that hard. Maybe it takes a long time, but maybe it always happens.

So here we have the Scarcity Great Filter in a few words. On most worlds, there are no huge supplies of every kind of mineral for the inhabitants to use; instead, there are almost none. Those of the civilizations on this type of planet who have pursued knowledge in the hope of saving themselves from hunger or freezing may have carried that pursuit to the bitter end. They know that their planet just is not going to be kind to them, and there is nothing they can do about it. They lead a life of scarcity, and they cannot build starships and visit Earth to see how the lucky civilization lives. They are stuck. If many or most of the civilized planets in our galaxy are in this situation, it is the Scarcity Great Filter which rules the galaxy, and which will continue to do so. Planets don’t develop minerals they don’t already have.

So, we might be the only ones who can afford to get away and visit others. Dropping in on other civilizations might not be as appreciated as we would think. Jealousy and envy might prompt them to do things we would rather they did not.

What about planets which don’t quite qualify for the Scarcity Great Filter? They just have enough minerals to get by, and to afford to build one star ship. Maybe a few. What are they going to do with them? Obviously, they are going to try to find and settle on a better planet, one where all the buildings are not covered with graffiti saying “This planet sucks.” So another motivation for a star ship is to get away. They just want to move someplace where they have some minerals, or there isn’t ice everywhere. This would be the culmination of their civilization’s goals. “We gotta get out of here.”

These are civilizations that aren’t going to be building signaling systems to tell the rest of the galaxy they are here. They are going to be concentrating on generating a better life for future generations by having those future generations on a planet a bit more in the center of its habitable zone, around a nice metal-rich star where the planets are also metal-rich. What we might see is a small number of ships on a one-way trip somewhere nice. The signature of this might be similar to the emigration train of starships leaving a doomed planet behind. Perhaps they’ll come here.

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