Monday, August 24, 2015

Recycling in Alien Civilizations

No alien civilization can endure for millennia or especially a million years without extremely effective recycling. In the early days of a civilization, when it is in the process of developing technology, resources may be abundant, and there does not have to be even a thought of recycling, It starts to become a mandatory choice when the costs of finding new sources of materials exceeds the costs of recycling. This would happen at different times for different materials.

One part of recycling that develops in primitive cultures involves the food chain. The basics of food chain recycling are the same as with any other materials. Energy comes in and transforms non-useful materials into useful ones, composed of the elements or molecules involved with nutrition for the type of alien that comprises the civilization. The primitive culture can learn to recycle wastes from photosynthetic organisms and consumers of them into materials for the photosynthetic organisms to grow with. On Earth, that was mulch and manure being used as fertilizer.

Another part of recycling also develops in primitive cultures. A tool which has a broken part is disassembled and rebuild with a new piece replacing the broken part. Energy is used to rebuilt the tool. On Earth, an example might be a stone age culture with axes. An ax handle breaks and is replaced.

A third part of recycling arises in slightly more advanced cultures. A metal-using culture would learn to refashion metals of certain kinds. On Earth, perhaps the first was gold. A piece of gold jewelry that was unwanted could be melted down to make some new piece.

The fourth part of recycling comes at a bit more advanced point. Biological parts are replaced, and an early example is the grafting of trees, where a rootstock is used from a hardy survivor variety and is coupled with a branch of a more prolific or more useful variety.

Thinking through these aspects of recycling on a society-wide basis shows that recycling becomes more and more prevalent as the society progresses, both from the ability to recycle which is generated by the advance of technology and also from the need to recycle, which comes from the scarcity of some resources. The same divisions hold as society advances. There are two arenas, the biological and the mechanical, and two methods, parts replacement and materials reuse. These four divisions become somewhat entwined, but serve as a clear set of definitions nonetheless.

One could even say that recycling began with chemotrophs, with chemoheterotrophs recycling chemoautotrophs by eating them. The organic materials that were part of the organisms that directly fed on the chemical energy present in the environment were recycled into other organisms that were incapable of absorbing the chemical energy themselves, but could digest in some way the organic structure of those that could. So recycling can be said to have predated civilization by a billion years or two.

The ability of an alien civilization to survive on a single planet is governed by its ability to maintain a resource flow that sustains it. For all the basic materials that are being recycled in an alien city, there is a nominal loss rate. Some energy expense is needed to replenish these losses. This is independent of the energy flows within the city. This exterior energy flow is needed to locate the resources, to mine them or otherwise extract them, and to process them to the point of purity where they can be introduced into the city to replace the losses there. The energy needs to be obtained, ultimately, from the basis energy source of the alien civilization, which is likely to be fusion.

An important question for understanding the long-term survival of an alien civilization is what is the energy consumption for resource introduction, as compared to that for the sustenance of the city. In other words, if you looked at the energy being used in the alien civilization, what fraction is being used to obtain materials to replace losses, and what is used for the city and other miscellaneous uses in the city, such as transportation between cities? When the resource introduction fraction of energy use becomes large compared to the rest, which is used to maintain the living standards of the population, the civilization is approaching scarcity.

This approach to understanding the possible longevity of an alien civilization is done material by material. One could ask how much energy, as far as it can be divided, is needed for each material. Sometimes, several materials are obtained conjointly, so the calculations may be a bit messy. Even so, the basic idea of looking at individual materials in recycling and replacement shows something new. As the society ages, the differential costs of different materials changes, and so, instead of the city being essentially unchanged over the course of millennia, economics would indicate that some substitution of materials would be necessary. Which materials depends on two factors: the irremovable losses of individual materials and the energy cost of replacing them.

Besides uncovering this source of gradual change within alien cities, another becomes apparent. As some materials become relatively more scarce and more expensive, measured in energy required to replace them, the details of recycling might change. This would be a subtle change for citizens, and possibly a very slow one, but it would be a change. So, in order to endure for many millennia, recycling patterns and usage patterns would shift to maintain the most economic usage.

With the knowledge of how much resources existed on their planet, these changes could be anticipated, and long before there was any exorbitant increase in energy costs to replace some material, it could be substituted out for a more common one. If ocean extraction is used for some materials, land mining could be replaced with ocean extraction as the costs became favorable for this.

If the alien civilization lives in a solar system where there are resource supplies on other planets, the civilization could arrange for certain supplies to be retrieved from other planets, provided the costs were reasonable. Thus, the changes in the alien society forced by resource limitations might also lead it to become more interplanetary in its activities. Again, this would be a slow change, but it is a more profound change that simply switching from mining to ocean extraction.

It was not entirely correct to say that alien civilizations could last for many millennia or millions of yeas without changes. If economics, actually energy consumption, is used to determine social behavior and the arrangements in the city, there would be some changes resulting form material losses. These changes do not seem to be substantial enough to cause major social change, but it will be worth exploring in the future.

1 comment:

  1. From years we have found some good works and attempts from ancestors. But in terms of recycling in alien civilization I am sure this would be the first ever step; well we are not completely aware of different situations that arise due to recycling in civilization. As we know recycling in products would be beneficial but recycling in civilization is really wondering for everyone.