Friday, September 9, 2016

Post-Scarcity Alien Civilizations

The process by which an alien civilization approaches scarcity can be quite diverse. The aliens could tap all the resources of their solar system. They could reduce their population, early in the history of their civilization, and postpone the onset of scarcity problems, perhaps out to a million years. They would adopt re-cycling techniques and perfect them, changing their mode of living to accommodate them. They would use their scientific knowledge for substitution of materials, minimizing the impact of the first to become scarce ones. But after all that is done, the inevitable scarcity of materials final hits.

One choice is simply to allow the civilization to become extinct. What was once a civilization at the peak of culture, understanding the universe, providing well for its members, becomes zero. Their philosophical understanding may make this an acceptable solution. Another choice is to save enough materials to perform a star flight to the nearest inhabitable world, and start all over again. The population could not move, but the culture could, and the starship could transport the knowledge and the DNA coding from their home planet to the new home planet. This still leaves the question of what the members of the civilization could do once scarcity had become so serious that the civilization could not be sustained.

Energy use per capita is one hallmark of an advanced civilization. Fusion plants seem to be the only way to raise this ratio up high and keep it up for millennia and millennia. But fusion plants, no matter how cleverly engineered, need materials, and sooner or later some critical material is going to be unavailable. Seawater extraction can provide some materials, but not all, and presumably, one of the critical materials for a fusion plant is going to run out. If their uranium and thorium resources have not been used up yet, fission power might provide a substitute for another long period, but this will also come to an end. Someday, the lights go out.

This day will probably have been predicted a huge time in advance, and so the alien society would have thought through their response to it. One response is to cease making aliens, i.e. voluntary extinction. But another is to return to relying on their sun’s power, as captured on the planet by photosynthesis, wind and water circulation. Living with a much lower level of energy per capita would be forced upon them. Likewise, materials would be short, and some would be too difficult to obtain under these circumstances. They would have an inventory list of what is available, and what is not.

One large question would be how much science could they preserve. Would there be electricity, coming from some hydroelectric source or some other source ultimately arising from solar flux? Would there be enough metal to make the generators and power lines? Initially, this might be the situation, and then a reduced standard of living could be obtained for some residual population. The lower their choice of population numbers, the longer this intermediate stage could prevail.

Long ago, during the initial phases of the civilization, they would have mastered robotics and genetics, and these would have changed their civilization thoroughly. Robotics would appear to have a higher requirement for materials, and might be lost first, but would it be possible to maintain the genetic transformations and inventions from the past under a reduced-power and limited-materials situation?

Genetics requires some equipment able to read DNA code and to modify it, as well as to gestate organisms. Gestation might be arranged for biologically, but reading DNA code seems to be implacable in its demand for computation. Can high levels of computation be arranged for using only materials which would last the lifetime of the star? We are still beginning to explore this area, so the answer eludes us, but if they could, then they might be able to lose only one of the two revolutionary pillars of their advanced society, robotics, and still rely upon genetics to accomplish whatever was possible with it.

This question lies at the heart of their status. Would they be able to maintain the genetic constitution of their species, or would it descend over millennia to some lower level, whatever level was maintainable using more elementary processes? If genetic manipulation could be maintained, then they could at the least, keep their species near the optimum in all the attributes they chose, such as health, strength, longevity, intelligence, and anything else on their list.

Hand in hand with this would be the maintenance of the creatures and organisms that they had designed for their civilization, such as intellos to perform the work of the society, biological factories to produce many items for their civilization, and means of generating both nutrition and fuel.

This choice, genetics or no genetics, might control whether they could continue to live in large cities. The arcologies that probably would exist at the highest state of their civilization might not be maintainable, without many of the needed resources, but still population could live in cities rather than be forced to be dispersed over the landscape in agricultural occupations. With genetics, they might still continue to make biological organisms able to extract some materials from the oceans or even other sources, ameliorating the scarcity that demolished the earlier level of civilization.

The lifetime of these reduced-level civilizations might be much longer than that of the higher-level ones. One estimate of the possible duration of a higher-level civilization was a million years, if everything was done to prolong it. With reduced-level civilizations, it might be tens or hundreds of times as long. If this is the case, it means that any star-traveler is likely to find civilizations in this situation, rather than the higher-level ones. The ratio might be a hundred to one.

If the Milky Way is able to originate life on many planets, and there are no obstacles permanently blocking the life from eventually evolving and developing into civilizations, this might be the predominant scene on a solo world, an alien civilization with an incredible history but a somewhat commonplace present. If that is the situation, all the easy options for colonization might be taken.

No comments:

Post a Comment