Post Scarcity


Post scarcity is a hypothetical form of economy or society, in which things such as goods, services and information are free, or practically free. This would be due to an abundance of fundamental resources (matter, energy and intelligence), in conjunction with sophisticated automated systems capable of converting raw materials into finished goods, allowing manufacturing to be as easy as duplicating software.

Scarcity is the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited human needs and wants, in a world of limited resources. It states that society has insufficient productive resources to fulfill all human wants and needs. Alternatively, scarcity implies that not all of society’s goals can be pursued at the same time; trade-offs are made of one good against others. As such, the term post-scarcity economics may be somewhat paradoxical. To quote a 1932 essay by Lionel Robbins, economics is ‘the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.’

Although some argue that already there exists enough energy, raw materials and biological resources to provide a comfortable lifestyle for every person on Earth, this would generally not be termed a ‘post-scarcity society’ unless the production of goods was sufficiently automated that virtually no labor was required by anyone (it is usually assumed there would still be plenty of voluntary creative labor, such as a writer creating a novel, a software engineer working on open-source software, or an editor creating or modifying some types of wiki pages and other user-generated content).

There are some exceptions to this use of the term. For example, Anthony Giddens, uses ‘post-scarcity’ to refer to a set of trends he sees in modern industrialized nations, such as an increased focus on ‘life politics’ and a decreased focus on productivity and economic growth.

Most Marxists envision later phases of a worldwide communist society as a form of post-scarcity society.

Most visions of post-scarcity societies assume the existence of new technologies which make it much easier for society to produce nearly all goods in great abundance, given raw materials and energy. More speculative forms of nanotechnology (such as molecular assemblers or nanofactories) raise the possibility of devices that can automatically manufacture any specified goods given the correct instructions and the necessary raw materials and energy. Even before that level of technology can be achieved, fab labs and advanced industrial automation might be able to produce most physical goods that people desire, with a minimal amount of human labor required.

As for the raw materials and energy needed as input for such automated production systems, self-replicating automated mining plants set loose in the asteroid belt or other areas of space with huge amounts of untapped raw materials could cause the prices of these materials to plummet. New power sources such as fusion power or solar power satellites could do the same for energy, especially if the power plants/power satellites could themselves be constructed in a highly automated way, so their number would be limited only by raw materials and energy.

Traditionally, creators have used (and continue to use) raw materials to instantiate their works: a painter might use oil and canvas, a sculptor might work in clay, an architect might draft designs in pen and ink. Such work would result in a single copy (or ‘artifact’). While mass reproduction of such works (‘impressions’) — by processes such as printmaking or photocopying — is possible and common, such reproduction still incurs appreciable costs (for example for the paper used, and for the physical distribution of the copy).

Where the artifact can be captured digitally, copies have minimal reproduction costs. The same painter could create an original work with graphics software; the sculptor might use rapid prototyping, direct digital manufacturing, and 3D printing; the architect CAD/CAM tools. Most of the ‘cost’ in such works is in paying for the original design and development — for the creators’ expertise and for their tools (though these also do not wear out the same way physical tools do). While the creators of such works must still labor to create the design matrix, there are virtually no raw-materials required to recreate the work once completed.

This negligible-cost reproduction raises the question, ‘How much should one pay for something that can be copied near-indefinitely at minimal expense?’ Does a purchaser have the right to reproduce their own copy as much as they can afford to? Some people believe the purchaser does not or should not have any rights to copy or transfer ownership, and use Digital Rights Management to try to enforce this view. Others instead feel that information should be freely distributed (e.g. copyleft), and that DRM measures are attempts to restore prior business models’ viability by inducing artificial scarcity.

Many advocates of open source software and Free software attempt to collaboratively create open-source software programs which are intended to offer similar capabilities to their proprietary software competitors, but with the source code made public and permission granted for users to freely copy the software. Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project which designed the Free software GNU operating system, and co-founder of the free software movement, has explicitly cited the eventual creation of a post-scarcity society as one of his motivations: ‘In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.’

Market economies or planned economies may be unnecessary in a post-scarcity age, though gift or exchange economies may take their place once the scarcity driving earlier types of economy disappears. Post-scarcity societies might also have their market economies limited to the exchange of energy and resources, or of other scarce or even non-material things, such as status or reputation (a ‘Whuffie’ in fiction), real estate, or skills and expertise.

Many science-fiction variants also imagine the very concept of ownership to weaken or disappear, as people lose attachment to all but sentimental-value items, knowing that they will always be able to receive or create replacements. Monetary systems in consequence also cease to be a factor. Many stories depict these changes as a positive advancement, freeing humanity from both toil and greed. Others posit that handing production and most other services over to machines and computers will stunt the spirit of humanity, or even lead to a loss of control over humanity’s own fate (e.g., Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands’).

Some things will remain rare even in a post-scarcity society. There is a practical limit to the number of people who can live in any specific, ‘in-demand’ locale. However, hypothetical machines such as a nanofactory are envisioned as being able to produce any real-world artifact, and some fictions even envision the physical creation of new living space (orbitals or ringworlds) to reduce this scarcity. This would likely further reduce (though not fully abolish) the value of an ‘original’ item or a specific locale to live in. Engineers have suggested megascale structures such as an Alderson disk or Dyson sphere to provide abundant living space and energy.

Population growth, if it continues long enough, may also lead to unavoidable scarcity. Exponential growth in human population has the capacity to overwhelm any finite supply of resources, even the entire known universe, in a remarkably short time. For example, if the human population could continue to grow indefinitely at its 1994 rate, in 1,900 years the mass of the human population would equal the mass of Earth, and in 6000 years the mass of the human population would equal the estimated mass of the observable universe.

Although this would imply the invention of faster than light travel, necessary for humanity to spread throughout the universe as fast as population growth, even at lower growth rates these levels would still be reached in readily imaginable times. It is therefore difficult to conceive of a credible post scarcity scenario which does not also imply zero population growth or relatively low population growth, even though possible future technologies such as self-replicating spacecraft could theoretically maintain exponential growth far beyond earth’s carrying capacity.

At present, the total fertility rate is high in poor countries with poor health infrastructure, but it tends to drop to replacement levels or lower once a nation reaches a per capita income of roughly $10,000. In fact, virtually every wealthy nation currently has a total fertility rate that is below replacement levels, implying a coming population decline for the west. Due to the decline in fertility that tends to accompany wealth (of the 233 countries listed by the CIA for fertility, 100 have fertility rates below replacement rates), human population is expected to stabilize at near 9 billion by 2050.

One of the earliest treatments of a transition to a post-scarcity society occurs in ‘Pandora’s Million’ by George O. Smith, in which the development of a ‘matter duplicator’ that can replicate almost any scannable object causes an economic collapse, and a return to a barter economy for the only remaining scarce resource: Skilled human labor. Chaos ensues until the inventors of the matter duplicator discover a substance that explodes when scanned by the duplicator beam. This new substance, ‘Identium,’ serves as a new medium of exchange for skilled labor, in a post-scarcity society otherwise primarily devoted to the pursuit of leisure, science, art, the occasional lawsuit, and the sale and exchange of ‘Certified Uniques’ — objects whose chain of provenance can legally establish that they have never been scanned by a duplicator beam.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’ trilogy describes the beginning development of a highly automated society whose economy was to be based on caloric input/output and had only a few materials valued based on their scarcity. However, the inherent problems of such a system (such as its remaining capitalist elements or the difficulty in fixing the worth of academic work) are not resolved within the timeframe depicted in the trilogy.

An intermediate step to a post-scarcity society is shown in Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age,’ where fabricator technology allows the growth of any item that one has design plans for – however, the poor receive a lesser amount of energy and resources per day to use, and thus have to wait longer for their items to be fabricated. Also, their items tend to be smaller, as they have no access to large-scale fabricators. This system, fueled by a centrally-distributed matter ‘feed’ is eventually replaced by the protean ‘seed,’ which is able to take in raw materials from its environment to develop into whatever its program dictates. No longer bound to the aristocratically-controlled feeds, the society moves to a post-scarcity economy.

James P. Hogan has written several works where post-scarcity plays a major role. ‘Voyage from Yesteryear’ details the society of the ‘Chironians,’ embryo colonists of Alpha Centauri who have adopted such a lifestyle. ‘Cradle of Saturn’ and its sequel ‘The Anguished Dawn’ is mostly told from the perspective of the ‘Kronians,’ a pseudo-religion who colonize Saturn’s largest satellite in the process of developing such a society. Both stories are driven by the difficulties of changing an existing economic paradigm, and postulate that a fresh start may be necessary to overcome old thinking about money and possessions.

Rudy Rucker also dealt with this jarring transition in ‘Realware’ in which humans receive an alien device that can instantiate any consumer product they have seen. This leads to a breakdown of the market, with stores blacking out their windows in a vain attempt to prevent people from ‘copying’ their products. Still, people who do buy the products find them instantly copied once out on the streets.

Iain M. Banks’ ‘The Culture’ stories center around an advanced spacefaring civilization that has used artificial intelligences to provide extremely abundant (and in daily practice unlimited) amounts of goods and services using advanced technology, describing a fully post scarcity society, which also attempts to influence other galactic societies towards the advanced cultural stage that freedom from greed and material need has allowed it. As Banks puts it in a 1994 article, ‘nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilization in its manufacturing processes, with human labor restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.’

John C. Wright’s novel ‘The Golden Age’ deals with a future voluntary libertarian society spanning the solar system called the Golden Oecumene. Due to technology, nearly everyone is immortal and tremendously wealthy except those living outside society due to exile or by choice. The Sophotechs, a superior line of computer intelligences, do most of the work, research, and simulations required by the society. Throughout the book the main character, Phaethon, has to face off against a technologically superior and unknown enemy while also dealing with a post-scarcity society which is afraid of death and instability more than anything else and does not believe his plight.

There have also been fully dystopian science fiction societies where all people’s physical needs are provided for by machines, but this causes humans to become overly docile, uncreative and incurious. Examples include E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops,’ Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano,’ Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel ‘The City and the Stars.’ ‘Riders of the Purple Wage,’ Philip José Farmer’s dystopian 1967 science fiction novella also explores some ramifications of a future wherein technology allows everyone’s desires to be met. David Weber’s ‘Honor Harrington’ saga has the example of the People’s Republic of Haven, in which each citizen is due a Basic Living Stipend. With most of their population ‘on the dole,’ productivity and their economy collapse.

In Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague,’ resources and luxuries are so common, that the poor must bear the burden of consuming and disposing of the bounty, as well as working at meaningless jobs to produce more meaningless plenty; the rich, conversely, are allowed to live simple but comfortable lifestyles. In Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Cyberiad,’ a central motif is unbounded progress of technology. In ‘The Highest Possible Level of Development’ civilization, the inhabitants have become passive, and the visitors have to shoo away machines trying to comfort them. In H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine,’ the Time Traveller speculates that mankind had been ‘armed with a perfected science’ which reduced all dangers in nature, epitomized by the quote: ‘Strength is the outcome of need.’ The 2008 Pixar film ‘WALL-E’ also depicts what appears to be a post-scarcity dystopia, albeit humorously imagined.

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