Wednesday, December 30, 2009

ET stay home

An interesting take on the Fermi Paradox -- maybe the aliens aren't obvious because they're growing much, much slower than we assume:
Which, finally, leads me to my Sort-Of-Best-Unheralded-Scientific-Paper of 2009. It's called THE SUSTAINABILITY SOLUTION TO THE FERMI PARADOX. Its authors, J. Haqq-Misra & S. Baum, have been quite creative in merging SETI with our new environmental concerns.

Their answer to the Fermi Dilemma is simple. Civilizations, even extraterrestrial ones, can't grow without limits. Instead of using the question the Fermi Paradox raises to infer that we are the only intelligent species in the galaxy, Haqq-Misra & Baum use it to infer that these civilizations have learned a lesson which we are just starting to grasp. You have to pace yourself. You have to live within your means. Exponential growth is not likely to be sustainable.
You can read the whole article here, and I'd recommend it for those with some time to kill.

I'd like to point out one part of the article that I'm not sure is actually well-grounded:
However, a closer look at human civilization suggests two problems with this assumption. First, where human populations are exponentially expansive, they often—perhaps always—do so unsustainably, i.e. in a way that leads to an eventual end to the exponential expansion. Second, not all human populations are exponentially expansive, such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert [5]. These slower-growth human populations are without question intelligent. Indeed, global human population growth is currently slowing, and humanity as a whole may be transitioning towards a slower-growth, sustainable development pattern. A slower-growth humanity would even remain capable of space colonization.
Of course, projections of human populations peaking sometime between 2050-2075 relies on a number of assumptions coming true: a general move towards greater wealth among the world's poor, the spread of education for women, the spread of basic sanitation, etc. But the demographic transition that wealthy societies have gone through isn't an iron law by any means, and I'd draw your attention to the increasing efforts by western countries to boost the incumbent birthrate, e.g. in France most successfully.

I yammer about the dangers of explaining everything and everyone through the lens of economics, but you could crudely explain the demographic transition by noting that, as a society westernizes, children go from being an asset to being a liability -- they go from being a source of income to being a substantial expense. This, in combination with the right of women to choose, naturally reduces the birth rate. (We can see also that, while this isn't exactly romantic, it is verified by the most successful remedy to date: paying women to have more kids.)

The question for me in relation to this article is whether the costs associated with child-rearing would naturally be continued in a spacefaring civilization. I tend to assume they wouldn't, especially if you assume a large population in O'neill colonies in the asteroid belt or Lagrange points throughout the solar system. I think any extrapolation of the trends we're seeing technologically today would reasonably lead you to conclude that if (BIG IF) we get past the immediate problems of ecological, material, and energetic overshoot -- and having a self-sustaining spacefaring society would imply we have -- there's a lot of reason to think that having kids will become cheaper, not more expensive.

A few assumptions, before we continue: Humans survive the next century without a civilization-level collapse, and technology continues to progress in ways that we understand (no singularity.) Instead, we see a gradual decline in the costs of access to orbit, a continuing increase in the capacity of manufacturing, and continuing decline in the costs of information and electronics. Throw in some mundane AIs (software that can understand basic human language and logic, but not intelligent enough to be a threat) with some basic domestic robots, and I think you quickly have a situation in which most of the early, susbtantial costs of child-rearing have shrunk dramatically.

Health care: for the early years, providing basic sanitation and ample food really does most of the work. (Dear parents: yes, your doctor is valuable. No, don't stop going -- and please vaccinate. My point is only that rapid population growth is possible without these things.) Moreover, we're increasingly coming to the conclusion in parts of the west that the vast majority of primary medicine can be done in the near-absence of MDs. Ontario has a nurse practitioner program that is showing a lot of success at much lower costs than the apparently-chimerical goal of guaranteeing a family MD for everyone. There's no reason to suspect that, as far as basic health care is concerned, even isolated space colonies will lack for decent health results.

Education: here, combine two trends -- the move towards open-source software and documents with increasingly intelligent computing and cheap electronics, and I think you can easily imagine some kind of cheap electronic tutor capable of handling the basics of actual education. Human presence will be limited to crowd control, if we insist on keeping kids in dedicated buildings for the purposes of education, but there are good arguments for not doing so.

Material well-being: There's no real breakthrough necessary here -- simply the abundance of energy and materials in the inner solar system, sufficient to sustain a population of several trillion at least. This number is much larger if you assume technologies like the ability to turn raw carbon in to diamond, allowing a much larger number of super-massive space colonies. In short, there's plenty of room for growth.

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that there's no guarantee that a spacefaring society would continue the demographic transition that western countries have, and I think a few good reasons for believing the reverse. And none of this identifies cultural factors: a continued concern of being outbred by brown people (for example) or the natural frontier mentality of manifest destiny, the need to fill the empty corners of our universe with more people.

It's a relatively small quibble to an excellent article, and I really enjoyed it -- especially the repeated point that slow-growth societies, though not "modern" to our eyes, are of course quite intelligent. One could further note that for the vast majority of human history we have been "slow-growth" societies, with the last few centuries being the real aberration. If human society does survive the next century, it's quite likely that exponential growth will be looked back upon as a mental disease.

(Thanks to Liam, via email, for the link.)

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