Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Two Kinds of Scarcity

A previous post talked about a possible Great Filter from scarcity, and another about how it could deepen into exhaustion, leading to a halt to technology progress. There were several possible causes for this type of scarcity, resource scarcity, including the lack of metals on the planet, impossibility of accessing most of the surface due to ice cover, and certainly others. In a sense, you could say that planets are born with a certain amount of useful resources, some more than others, and it is a race to asymptotic technology against impending scarcity. Scarcity curtails technology’s advance, and technology’s advance is what opens up substitution and the use of other materials and fuels, which could end scarcity for some long period.

It is like a walk across a barren desert, carrying water. If there is enough water, the walker can get across the desert before it runs out, and if not, he/she never reaches the water sources on the other side. Whether the walk is successful or fatal depends on the width of the desert, the speed of the walker, the consumption rate of the water, and of course the amount of water carried. For an alien civilization, the walk is the march toward advanced technology, and failure is not necessarily immediate extinction, but a final state on a plateau planet.

This type of scarcity comes in many flavors, one for each material that is crucial to the productivity of society or the development of technology. If the society exhausts the most-critical material, its living standard plummets, and there may be no support possible for the advance of technology. If scientific research depends on some material that runs out, that area of science cannot go forward. Different areas of science affect other ones, so an early exhaustion and the termination of scientific advances in one area might mean whole areas remain unexplored and so asymptotic technology is not reached across the board, but only in certain areas. This would appear to be highly unlikely, but not impossible, as science is a tiny consumer of resources. Perhaps one example would be a planet with no uranium resources or an old planet where they have decayed before life originated. Then the nuclear branch of physics might never get going, and any power sources from it never developed. This technology barrier could clearly affect society and certainly would affect star travel. However, the civilization outside of technology development would have no need of this resource at their state of technology; other energy sources would be used. Thus, it is possible for resource scarcity to impact technology development directly, rather than through the process of the civilization growing short of some resource, losing productivity, and not providing enough support to maintain the advance of technology.

Recall that the advance of technology is predicated on many factors being available, one being individuals trained in critical and creative thinking, educated to the current level of technology, and given sufficient support to perform their investigations. As technology goes further and further, individual advances require, on the average, more support. The critical mass of individuals needed for scientific advance increases. The size of experimental setups grows, as does the need for ancillary resources, such as computation. So, when scarcity delivers a body blow to the civilization, technology and its practitioners might get cut off, so that resources can be delivered to sustaining the population at their accustomed living standards. This should be referred to as the prioritization of technology development.

The above discussion is an excellent preamble to the discussion of the second type of scarcity. This is the scarcity of produced goods, in other words, consumable goods. In a reasonably level alien civilization, this is easily explained. Technology development has a priority, and in good times, it gets the resources it needs to both maintain the subset of population involved in it, and not just maintain in the sense of providing bread and butter to them, but of maintaining the numbers and quality of researchers and engineers involved in the development of new technology. The choice of what priority to give technology development depends on many factors in the alien civilization, but there is one overriding factor that effects the immediate decision on what resources to devote to this area. That is the difficulty the society has in maintaining the living standards of the population of alien citizens.

In a stable or gradually improving situation, the diversion of resources into technology development might be expected to follow the same pattern, stability or gradual increase in total amount, perhaps with the same fraction being sent that way. In a declining situation, the opposite result might happen, and depending on the rate of decline, it might happen quickly, over the period of a generation or so.

Decision-makers might well know that the productivity of the civilization depends largely on the level of technology that is available to all those involved in producing products or services for the civilization. Whether it is infrastructure for transportation or disease prevention or energy production or resource extraction, all of this is improved by technology, and decision-makers would have to be very uninformed to be unaware of this. However, they do not necessarily make decisions, and this includes the prioritization of resources for technology development, following this knowledge. It is based on many factors, of which the history of technology development and its effects on the productivity of the civilization is only one. Another one is the need to sustain the population. If something happens, not related to technology, that reduces the ability of the civilization to sustain its population, then resources might be diverted from the former path of technology development to population sustenance. Large changes in productivity might require more sudden changes in the support for technology, or there could be some finer tuning of the support, so that general advances were not supported, while those which have immediate effects on sustenance would be. This would hamper the long-term achievement of asymptotic technology, but it is a decision made on the basis of weighing current needs versus long-term goals. No requirement exists for long-term goals when sustenance problems are immediate.

There are many factors that could influence sustenance and the maintenance of existing living standards, and problems in some of these could result in the second type of scarcity situation developing. Since this would, at least temporarily, derail the progress being made toward star travel capability, they should be explored, probably on an equal footing with the other type of scarcity. There may even by a hidden Great Filter here.

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