Friday, September 18, 2015

Closed Cities with Ecological Feedback

The difficulty of maintaining a closed city with recycling of all materials has been discussed in previous posts. The difficulty is reminiscent of designing a command economy, which is one in which all necessary consumption goods are ordered by a central planner, who is responsible for ensuring that all production components, from trained workers to facilities to transportation to raw materials to tools to whatever else you can think of, are present in the right numbers or amounts. This proved to be a difficult task for those nations on Earth which tried it, as it is not inherently robust to disruptions. There are delays of all types in the various manufacturing and other processes, and storage questions, and transportation route and traffic issues, and many more things. It is a computational nightmare, and the data to manage the command economy may not be present. Bad values for data may represent disruptions, as can environmental events such as weather incidents or fluctuations.

The market economy is touted as an antidote to the need for centralized planning. In this, decentralized planning occurs everywhere in the economy, as individual actors make decisions to optimize their own benefits, and in so doing, there are neighbor effects. Those managing transportation try to maximize their profits, which means providing transportation that is needed to other actors in the market economy. In place of a centralized planner who attempts to predict the transportation needs of all actors in the society, the decentralized planner operates with a shorter span of interest and perhaps a faster response time, along with a quantitative measure to tell him/her/it how well he/she/it is succeeding in matching the needs of the other actors. Further division of any task into competing actors makes the response of the whole economy just that much more precise and quick.

A market economy may be a theoretical impossibility, or alternatively, approximations to it may occur, but this is not the point. The point is that decentralizing decisions in a complex system subject to fluctuations of all kinds makes it more efficient and productive. The same occurs with an ecology instead of an economy. There are virtually infinite examples of ecologies on a natural planet such as Earth, and none of them operate with some centralized control system and network. They all possess numerous actors, competing individually and across tasks, who make near instantaneous decisions on how to maximize two things, survival of individuals and reproduction of the next generations. There is no reason why an alien civilization would not use these concepts to build a more efficient and resilient closed city.

Recycling is a combination of an ecology and an economy. In a closed city, air, for example, is recycled. In the atmosphere of a whole primitive planet, creatures of one type use some component and make another, while creatures of another type use the second component and make the first. At least one of these must have an energy source to power the process. On Earth, plants absorb photons and carbon dioxide and make oxygen, while animals use oxygen and make carbon dioxide. Aliens may breathe methane instead of oxygen, but the principle is the same. Numbers change to respond to imbalances, righting the imbalance. In a closed city, if there were some creatures that counterbalanced the aliens’ use of some component of the atmosphere, and could increase or decrease their numbers in inverse proportion to the availability of that component, there would be some island of stability. In such a system, too rapid a change cannot be accommodated in the same time scale, and there has to be a surfeit of energy resources to allow the system to be responsive.

The alien closed city would not have to use the same creatures as occurred in their home world’s natural environment. Instead, they could genetically create creatures which provided the same response to imbalance as occurred in nature, but perhaps quicker and with less use of energy. While evolution produces masterpieces, there is no guarantee that intelligent design could not produce something better, according to whatever standard was chosen. There could be a simplification of the types of creatures needed for the ecological portion of the closed city systems, or even a diversification if the feedback loops worked better that way.

The other portion of the closed city system, the economical part, could mimic the market economy that was discussed above. If some material was growing short, some pricing could respond to that so that the use of it was reduced. Of course the whole system would operate near equilibrium at all times, but fluctuations could be dealt with in such a manner. This implies that the alien civilization lives in an economic system of some sort, at least one in which citizen consumption behavior could be modified by cost factors. In a previous post, such an economy was discussed as relying on energy as a unit of currency, as most factors in the economic part of the closed city systems can be translated into energy units.

On the production side, it was proposed that some master computer serves to regulate production and distribution. Having a single computer or network performing this activity does not mean that feedback loops cannot be built in. If copper was becoming more scarce, the needs of infrastructure would be met first, but then the use of copper in consumer goods might be discouraged by the alteration of the price, in such as way as it would reflect increased energy costs in obtaining new supplies, either from local mining or from interplanetary sources, including of course the possibility of extracting it from low grade sources such as oceans.

While we cannot predict or estimate how an alien civilization would be structured, at least it is possible to hypothesize some arrangements that might be a solution to the problem of long-term management of the cities in which the aliens live. These arrangements would likely be diverse, with some materials being subjected to biological feedback loops and others being subject to economic feedback loops. All of them would be set up under the direction of the alien governance, but once set up, they should operate long term, until some disruption was so large that the feedback loops could not respond sufficiently to allow the city to fully function as before. Some of these have been discussed as planetary perils, but lesser ones might require some more drastic response than relying on the feedback loops, and, with their high degree of omniscience, there would be plans for such incidents and various type of preparation.

Another feedback loop that would likely be present in the alien civilization is the ability to, over the time scale of generations, alter the population. This would allow the civilization to get through a difficult time after certain incidents had happened. Other options may also exist.

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