Saturday, August 8, 2015

Exhaustion as a Form of Scarcity

One potential Great Filter that was discussed in this blog was Scarcity. Scarcity can occur in the pathway to star travel in many locations. There could be a scarcity of chemical sources of energy in the oceans of a particular planet, and that would lead to a delay in the onset of self-replicating chemicals. Scarcity is not absence. Absence would be a brick wall that life could not get through, and it would be stopped where the brick wall was, and a plateau planet is what we would have. As an example, think of a planet where the water was a bit more than on Earth, and there were no islands or continents, only an ocean. Under the assumption that land is necessary for the evolution of intelligent life, which is somewhat contentious, this would be a brick wall. Scarcity would be, in an analogous location, that only one mountain on this particular planet ever got high enough to poke through the water surface and reach the atmosphere.

What scarcity does is delay. If you think of the various steps on the pathway to intelligent life, the evolution side of the pathway to the stars, you would note they are all probabilistic events. Some mutation, or in the early stages, some chemical combination, had to happen, or perhaps two had to happen simultaneously. When there is scarcity, winning the lottery at each of these steps takes longer. If you are playing roulette, betting one chip each time, it may take you a long time to have your first win. If you bet ten chips on ten different locations, it would take you about one-tenth as long. So it is with scarcity. If there are a thousand mudflats on a planet, having a creature evolve the ability to walk might take a million years. If there are only ten mudflats on the planet with almost all ocean, it would take a hundred times as long.

Earth may have suffered through some steps of scarcity, although it is a hard call to make now, since our knowledge of the exact processes of evolution is minimal, and we do not even know the origin of our own form of life on our own planet yet. But if it was something that occurred around undersea vents, for example, having only one of them at a time would be a scarcity event, as opposed to a planet which was more tectonically active, and had ten on the average. Other things go fast, and one of Earth’s examples is chlorophyll, which is a difficult chemical to synthesize, much less evolve. But it did start to occur here, and in a hundred million years had not only evolved to be widespread, it had changed the composition of the atmosphere from something like Venus’ is now, CO2 and N2, over to mostly O2.

The other end of the pathway to the stars, starting when there have been intelligent creatures evolved and moving into the development of a civilization, science, and all that, also has scarcity issues. The same planet with the sole island, after all the billions of years that it took it to develop intelligent life, will still be slowed down by scarcity, as the population of intelligent life would be very limited, and social development would be slow as well. Few scientists would arise, and the probability of a Sir Francis Bacon making the transition to scientific thinking would be much lower.

This end of the pathway to the stars has a second kind of scarcity. There may have been abundances of everything needed to progress in social development, and build an infrastructure and eventually starships, but it was exhausted by the civilization using it up and not recognizing the problem soon enough, or not being able to stop consuming at too high a rate. There are many materials that an advanced civilization requires, and the types change with the stage of technology that the civilization has achieved. To name a few, there are energy sources, starting with combustibles, moving to fossil fuel if the planet has any, moving to nuclear power. There are food sources, such as soil, wild animals on land and in waters, plant or animal varieties for breeding, and fertilizer if needed and used. There are building materials. There are water sources, if the intelligent creatures use them. There are materials used for technology, and for the development of technology. A lack of copper ores in the upper surface layer of whatever islands or continents existed would interfere with development of communications and other services. And so on.

An alien society that uses materials like these of all types will eventually have to turn to recycling, perhaps substance by substance, as the costs of obtaining virgin materials grows larger. Some uses prior to a recycling decision being implemented on large scale in the society might leave tappable waste deposits for reuse at a later stage of society, but probably most will be dispersed in a way that involves large costs to recover them.

It is not hard to envision a scenario on an alien planet where some critical resource is being used, and the availability of the resource is such that it can be used up to near completion, following which costs grow very rapidly. There is a sort of momentum to society, meaning that to transform the structure of an alien civilization from using virgin materials to recycling materials will take a period of time, and if the usage rate is high enough, the resources could be brought to near exhaustion. They would, perhaps inadvertently, pushed themselves from an abundant planet to a scarcity planet, without ever having left the ground. This type of situation could arise if the technology change was very rapid, more than social change, and population growth was large. Resource usage is proportional to population in a general sense. Thus, by speeding along on the trajectory to asymptotic technology, the train jumps the track as it was going too fast. They find themselves having needs across society which exceeds what they can satisfy by recycling the amount of materials that are left. While the scenario can be constructed that would do this, no details would be possible without hypothesizing some sort of planet and its resource contents. We do not know enough about exo-planet formation to go that far.

It should be noted that the basic fuel to supply the alien civilization with energy is not recyclable. It would be possible to have shortages due to the social momentum of using it in this area as well, and it would not be remediable by recycling, only by the development of more advanced energy sources, of which there are only a few. Here indeed is the momentum question clearly being stated: can the alien civilization change its energy source over to a new one fast enough, given the approach to exhaustion in the old one. This involves both the development of new power stations or ways of transforming the fuel into usable power, and the construction and utilization of them. There are probably many stages of development and testing involved.

Exhaustion is possible in a dynamic sense during the rise of an alien civilization to a near-final state, either in materials or basic energy fuel. Whether this is a roadblock that can be bypassed, given time, or a brick wall, depends probably on the degree and type of exhaustion that afflicts the alien planet and its citizens. It should be considered a Great Filter, or perhaps a variety of the scarcity one.

No comments:

Post a Comment