Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sustainable Alien Civilizations

We need to figure out what sustainable means for an alien civilization. The motivation for considering it in this blog is that it has become clear that resource exhaustion is a likely cause of the non-presence of alien visitors here on Earth, if everything else worked out right. By everything else, we mean that there were lots of solo planets, evolution proceeds smoothing on most of them leading to an intelligent species, the species doesn’t kill itself off but develops a civilization, and that civilization proceeds to develop technology all the way up to the limit of asymptotic technology. Then everything else also means that star travel can be done without any insuperable physical problems.

In this ultra-optimisitic view of the development of life in the galaxy, it is resource exhaustion that gets all these civilizations. They run out of first one resource, then another, and so on, until they have virtually nothing left. The alien species in each instance is intelligent, in fact, very intelligent as they have manipulated their own genome to produce intelligence in the highest degree possible for all members of the civilization, and then figured out how to best train their young members to use this intelligence. So they can do the best possible job of managing their decline from a very capable civilization, possessing the ability to travel to another star’s solar system, all the way down, down, down to a civilization that has no resources other than those which are renewed, one way or another, by normal planetary and solar phenomena.

It’s not feasible to ship civilization-sized resource packages from an exo-planet back to the home solar system, so the only materials they have are the ones on their own planet, plus some rare ones which might be worth bringing down from some other body in their own solar system. This interplanetary transport would be accomplished until resource shortages made it too expensive to maintain. Then the inhabitants of the planet fall back to using what is on their own planet. These transitions are not instantaneous. If they are routing fifteen materials back from some asteroids, and scarcity continues to compress the civilization like a vise gradually closing, they might have to drop a few at first, and then later, perhaps after a century or more, drop a few more, and then finally all of them.

Substitutions will go the same way, perhaps starting with only one subsutitution, for example one of the rare earths is gone and they have to use the second best. Fast-forward in time, and others are going. The final stages are when the most plentiful resources become too scarce, meaning to expensive to harvest, and they are down to what the planet naturally provides.

What exactly would sustainable mean to them? During the ending of their society’s technological ability, it would mean using what is available at that time. When there is still scrap metal around, from an abandoned city for example, using metal is sustainable. When it disappears, it is not.

The final stage of sustainable means using biological resources in all their complexity. Genetic manipulation will disappear along with the resources needed to produce the equipment to do it, so evolution or rather mutation will begin the inexorable changes that it does. So, if the alien species maintains its intelligence through one means or another, or at least some fraction of it, they could make use of whatever plant and animal resources that inhabit the planet, in its oceans if there are any, and on land. We on Earth are very familiar a version of this level of living standard, as we have grown through this stage on our way to where we are now.

Now the alien species is in the grip of the biology of the planet. If they are living, based on the biological resources of their own brand of nature, evolution will adapt them to it, and as the biome changes, so would they. We might have a hard time imagining the far side of technology, but it does include evolution returning to power.

Another thing which does occur is an analog of erosion. Knowledge cannot be preserved perfectly. A book might last a thousand years, or less in a situation where there is no technology to preserve it from the environment, but it will eventually crumble. Copies must be made. Will the copying organization have their own interests? Will there be an interest in eliminating it? Possibly. Knowledge is also subject to errors and omissions accumulating, which is the erosion mentioned. Unless it is renewed, as for example practical techniques would be, it slips away over the generations. That means history will evaporate, except for recent history. Does it take ten generations or twenty or fifty before the final version of the history cannot be recognized as the initial version? The number is not important, in the time scale of many hundreds of generations.

Technologically advanced civilizations are a blip in time on those planets which can produce them. And such a civilization would surely realize, early in its climb to asymptotic technology, what its future was. As their technology became more and more developed, they might even have a good handle on when scarcity would hit them, and how it would. Perhaps they would take some measures, to forestall the inevitable, such as reducing their population. Perhaps they would not care about the timing of the inevitable descent. Perhaps this knowledge of their own future would change their perspective on star travel.

So far it is not known here on Earth, not by a long shot, if it Is possible to set up a viable colony on another planet. The resource requirements may be far too high to do it, or there may be a way to accomplish it. Since we are already leaning, in this post, way over on the side of optimism, let’s suppose for the sake of discussion that it is. Now imagine a world, full of glorious cities, plenty of power, resources, and everything desirable, technology at its peak, and the members of this civilization all know the species has a kind of death sentence. Slipping back into evolution in a sustainable living style is not the same as extinction, but evolution will change their species into something else, and then something else again, if it doesn’t eliminate it. How do they respond? Do they say, let’s go and start some colonies on distant planets around distant stars, and ship our history to them so we won’t be forgotten? Then someone would add, and then when they hit the scarcity slope, maybe they will go someplace else and if we’re lucky, they will bring along those old history records from this old planet. Somebody else might ask how many future aliens on the other planet would care about those records, and bother to look at them, much less preserve them on the next step outwards. Is the number zero? Or a negligible number?

What is the point of preserving history, another might ask? It doesn’t do them any good, as asymptotic technology overwhelms history. There is nothing useful in our history that hasn’t already been extracted. It wouldn’t even be much of an amusement to learn about, as asymptotic entertainment could produce more interesting ones at the drop of a hat.

Can they come up with any reason at all, that would stand up to scrutiny, which would indicate a reason for them to build star ships and go start a colony or two? If not, that’s the reason they aren’t here, even in the most optimistic scenario that can be conceived, barring magic.

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