Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Impermanence of Collapse

If you want to understand alien civilizations, it is necessary to learn to think in scales of thousands of years. Averaged over that time, progress is continuous. There may be fluctuations up and down, but the long-term trendline continues in one direction: toward asymptotic technology and the solution of all problems that might have plagued an alien civilization in its formative years.

There are only a few possible exceptions to this trend. One has been mentioned very many times here, and it is scarcity. Once resources really and truly become scarce, there is literally nothing that can be done to maintain an alien civilization at a high level of technology. Other than scarcity, there are two positive feedback loops serve as engines to make sure continued long-term growth happens. One is the engine of evolution, and if something happens to the gene pool before it becomes well-controlled, such as idiocracy during a time when competitive fitness was irrelevant because of universal abundance, when the pendulum swings back and evolution again begins to function, the climb back to intelligence will resume and will reach its previous peak. The same factors that created mutations before will create more, and the same pressures for selection that happened before will exist again.

The second engine is intelligence. Recall that intelligence, as defined here, means problem-solving ability, not test-taking ability. Some catastrophes do not cast an alien civilization back into the era of pre-industrial time, but instead simply wreck the existing infrastructure and governance, leaving the population to face the hazards of coping with much less available resources for advancing the civilization. These represent problems, and those aliens with the ability to solve them will rise up to solve them. Perhaps there are one or a few generations in which recovery is the mode, before civilization is restarted, but it will and it will regain the previous level of technology and then pass beyond it.

Are there any catastrophes that could actually lead to collapse so devastating, that aliens could not overcome them in time? We are not talking about perils, such as where the planet's crust opens up and massive volcanism goes on for millennia. Another example would be a rogue planet that comes close enough to the alien's home planet to disturb its orbit. These are rightly called perils, and they can mean the end of civilization and the extinction of the species. Catastrophes are a lesser order of problems, and are not caused by external events in which the aliens play no role. Catastrophes are something that is self-inflicted, as the term is used here.

Let's consider the worst catastrophe on Earth we can imagine and see if it is survivable. That would likely be nuclear war, in which nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage units are the principal targets. For the purpose of discussion, let's also not rule such things out as impossible to portray in any realistic scenario, but just assume the alien world is much more fractious and is still in a stage lacking intelligence sufficient to forestall such catastrophes. They just do it.

There may be mass casualties from the attacks themselves, but the catastrophe's greatest effect will be the spread of radiation both in the vicinity of the detonations, which include reactor sites and fuel storage sites, and also into the atmosphere, where it will be spread gradually over all the surface of the Earth. Back when we lived in the Cold War period, there was a lot of writing about such a nuclear war, but it did not entail deliberate targeting of radioactive materials everywhere on the planet where they could be found. In the scenarios of that era, cities were targeted, resulting in a rapid destruction of a sizable fraction of the population. Back then, the cities targeted were not all cities, but just those of the two opposing camps. In the alien world scenarios, which is as crazy as we can make it, cities are not the targets, but radioactive storage sites. We would also have to assume that they have located them in many areas around the land areas of their planet, and for a reason that is as opaque for them as it is for us, these materials are not recycled, but stored just as they were when they first came out of the early generation nuclear power plants. They are also not impervious to nuclear attack. In later eras, not recycling spent fuel would be laughable, but we will assume they did not, still have it, and are yet in such a situation.

That means, for a period of several years, radioactive materials are deposited all over the world. Radioactive materials as they come from a first or second generation reactor are a mix of materials with different lifetimes and radioactive emissions. The most intense radiation is necessarily that which happens first, and when that disappears because of its lifetime being exceeded a few times over, the next one becomes the dominant one. Lethal radiation might exist for a short period, but carcinogenic radiation could last for millennia. The atmosphere on the alien planet might be homogeneous, unlike ours, and apply a uniform coating.

What survival response is possible? Unless there are areas that do not receive the blanketing of radioactive materials, higher order life would not be able to reproduce properly and would die off within a few generations. If we also assume there were many storage sites and each had much in the way of highly radioactive materials, life would be set far back. Life in the sea would not be exempt, but the dilution of radioactivity in the oceans might put the threshold for life somewhat higher. Radiation has a much shorter path length in water than in air, so the effect of radioactivity would be correspondingly less, and the dilution by depth would also be very large. It seems reasonable to expect that ocean life could continue to exist at a more advanced stage than on land, where perhaps the alien equivalent of insects might survive, as their very high breeding rate might overcome the radioactive effects of increased mutation of progeny genes. Perhaps simple plant life would survive for the same reason. Aliens could not survive underground for the period of time needed for radioactivity to clear from the planet, nor underwater, unless they had made very extensive plans beforehand. So, life would need to re-evolve, setting intelligence back perhaps a good fraction of a billion years.

There does not seem to be any other catastrophe which is a widespread and as permanent as this one, so it should be reasonable to say that, aside from a crazy nuclear war, targeted to seek self-extinction, alien civilizations would only suffer delays of some generations. Thus, except for a suicide pact, extinction is not reasonable, and even a resumption of progress is to be expected. There would be only a short period of existence of the alien civilization where such a self-extinction scenario would be possible, so by and large, a conclusion can be tentatively offered, that once an alien civilization passes the industrial grand transition, it is on its way to asymptotic technology and the potential for star travel.

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