Towards the Sociology of the Universe, part 2
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2. Towards the Sociology of a Universal Society
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
18 December 2010
In approaching the theme of mankind and the universe, it is useful to begin with a fact that all can agree upon, namely that present-day human civilisation is undergoing a phase of dramatic growth.
This fact can be demonstrated over a range of indicators, notably population size, per capita wealth, technological capabilities, and global consumption of energy and of other key natural resources such as metals and fresh water.
Barring catastrophe, it will certainly continue for at least another half century as developing countries such as China, India and Brazil continue to catch up with the West. And as we shall argue further below, it could continue for a timescale of thousands of years yet.
The significance of this fact of unprecedented industrial growth can hardly be overstated, because as a result our civilisation is constantly taking on new forms which have never been seen before. Nor is it the result of a programme of planned growth instigated or controlled by any particular government, company or other institution within society, but is rather a system-level phenomenon, one arising from the dynamics of the social system as a whole, given a democratic capitalist economy and favourable conditions of a supportive culture and wide resource base.
Its origins may be found in Europe roughly half a millennium ago with the development of printing, gunpowder, financial and stock markets, global exploration and trade, and it has much accelerated since the development of steam power and electricity in the 19th century.
The question therefore arises as to what the outcome of this period of growth may be. Since present-day industrial civilisation is, so far as we know, the first of its kind to appear, the precedent of other high-growth industrial societies cannot be used, and we must resort to speculation based on general principles.
Broadly speaking, two distinct patterns of growth are seen in nature. One is represented by the luminosity of a giant star which undergoes a supernova explosion. In the course of that explosion its brilliance increases by many orders of magnitude, but in doing so it consumes the star’s limited fuel supply. The brightness of the star therefore grows until it reaches a peak and then goes into decline as the star gradually fades into obscurity. This is an example of growth which is not sustained.
The other pattern of growth is exemplified by a human foetus growing in its mother’s belly. After a while a baby is born, the child continues to grow for a while, and eventually settles down as an adult. Growth in this case has the character of a transition from one long-lived stable state to another, more highly developed one: from two adults to three.
Our question therefore becomes: is human civilisation in its current phase of unprecedented growth a supernova, or is it a baby (with Earth’s biosphere as the mother)?
Obviously, we do not yet know. But we do know of a burst of growth in our past, around 10,000 years ago, which took our species from a plateau of development as a nomadic tribal society to another plateau, with higher levels of population, technology and complexity of social organisation, via the neolithic agricultural revolution. So let us ask: is there a possible future end-point for our industrial growth, another higher stable state which we could possibly reach?
Clearly, there is. Abundant energy and material resources exist in our own and other planetary systems which are capable of sustainably supporting populations and economies many orders of magnitude greater than is possible on Earth alone. But these resources are not at present claimed by any living creatures.
Why has life not already spread in profusion throughout the Galaxy? Because the resources are almost everywhere unevenly distributed. Only on Earth have gravity, sunlight, rocks, water and so on come together in the correct proportions for long enough for living cells to develop spontaneously from the non-living chemical substrate, and to evolve higher forms of life, including ourselves.
In this situation, it is reasonable to speculate that some form of life may eventually appear which is capable of reorganising at least some of the unused matter in planetary systems into configurations suitable for abodes of habitation. There is a clear analogy with the colonisation of the land surface on Earth 400 million years ago. Such a species would have to be a highly technological one, and our own species is clearly developing in this direction. This is not to say that the human race will necessarily colonise space in this way, but only that we might.
There are thus two plausible end-points to our current phase of growth: collapse back to a pre-industrial level (the supernova burns out), or continued growth taking us onto a sustainable level of technological maturity (the baby grows up).
The difference between these two future courses is immense. In terms of population, the carrying capacity of Earth for human populations is greater than the current 6 or 7 billion, but not very much so, perhaps a few tens of billions (depending on the technologies available). Any retreat to medieval levels of technology would cut this figure by a factor of ten, probably down to less than a billion.
But the carrying capacity of the Solar System is at least a million times greater than that of a high-tech Earth, and that of the Galaxy at least a billion times greater again than that of the Solar System. The present-day situation of human society is therefore that it finds itself at a cross-roads of unparalleled significance.
If growth is not maintained, then, unless they can reignite that growth phase, our descendants are forever restricted to planet Earth. But must they necessarily fall back to a medieval or even more primitive level? Could industrial civilisation survive for a while in a zero-growth phase at around its present-day level of development, and if so, for how long?
In any discussion of mankind and space, this is a key question which must be addressed. Certainly, pre-industrial civilisations have survived with little change over millennial timespans, but to what extent does industrial technology change this picture? And what about million-year timespans?
The only types of industrial civilisation we have observed so far have been that based on capitalist economics, and that based on socialism, in which a political ideology takes over the role of capital. Capitalist societies would seem to be expansionary in their very nature: they are defined by the self-multiplying power of capital. But could a socialist society, one with a suitable ideology which was sufficiently severely imposed, preserve zero growth indefinitely?
I think not, because societies evolve in an unpredictable manner. Governments which have tried to maintain control in, say, Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) or Soviet Russia (1917-1989) have failed in their goals of stability (Japan) or planned growth (Russia), and modern liberal democracy works by limiting its ambitions and ceding much power to the economy at large. Even a global dictatorship, which unlike those two historical examples would by definition not face competition from abroad, would, I think, be unable to control all the disruptive political, technological and economic forces emerging unpredictably worldwide over centuries and millennia.
The result would then be either the breakout of a new phase of growth, or decline and collapse. In view of the likelihood of long-term adverse climate change (whether triggered by industrial pollution, or asteroid impact, or an outbreak of super-vulcanism, or the return of ice-age conditions, or solar variations), and in addition the persistent threat of global high-tech conflict (whether spreading destruction by nuclear weapons, or computer viruses, or genetically engineered organisms, or microscopic or macroscopic robots), decline would be the more plausible outcome.
Nevertheless, the question as to how long a global zero-growth industrial civilisation could survive in a stable state on one planet is an interesting one, though not one that is likely to attract unbiased analysis by modern sociology.
What, however, if growth is maintained? Surely Earth will become overburdened and that growth will lead to environmental and social collapse?
The point here is that, while the resources of Earth are limited, those of the Solar System are very much greater. Growth in population sizes and in the usage of energy and raw materials may therefore continue for a number of centuries into the future, provided that two conditions are met:
Is this not equivalent to saying that Earth must settle down with a zero-growth society before space development begins? No, so long as the terrestrial and extraterrestrial economies are linked. While this remains true, it will be possible for investors on Earth to invest capital in extraterrestrial development, and receive dividends back from that development. While most Earth-dwelling people will remain on the mother planet, there will also be flows of people, goods and ideas between Earth and her colonies, which must also have a profound economic effect.
A net inflow of value to Earth is in any case necessary in order that terrestrial investment in outer space does not merely produce inflation in the home economy. But that inflow need not be of material goods, and is more likely to consist of energy (solar power delivered on microwaves or lasers) and information (software and product development).
But surely ultimately the limits of the Solar System will be reached, and the interplanetary civilisation have to settle down as a zero-growth society? Yes, granted. But this differs from a zero-growth planet Earth due to the immense size of the Solar System, which is larger than Earth by between four and six orders of magnitude, depending how far out one wants to go – to the distance of Mars, say, or to the Oort comet cloud far beyond Pluto.
An interplanetary industrial civilisation is secure for the long term in a way that a monoplanetary one is not, because it is too large to form a unity, either politically or environmentally, and because it is forced to adapt to a wide range of hostile environmental conditions.
It will therefore be secure against any conceivable environmental or military disaster, because such a disaster can only affect a single planet, or at most a limited region of the system. Climate change or world war on Earth has no effect on Mars, and vice versa. And with the majority of the population in orbiting artificial space colonies, even a major change in solar luminosity could be tolerated (though such a change is not expected to have a noticeable effect for hundreds of millions of years yet).
With interplanetary civilisation, the social system as a whole can tolerate decline and collapse in particular locations, because they can then be recolonised from outside. Once humanity achieves interstellar status, this security factor is clearly vastly enhanced.
However, in order for interplanetary growth to occur in the first place, an economic mechanism must be in place to drive it. The most suitable economic mechanism that has been demonstrated so far is capitalism. Its need for continuous expansion makes it highly appropriate as an economic system for a society colonising its local planetary system.
It is not clear whether an economic system based on ideology could perform this function of capitalism. If the ideology was growth-oriented, then it would have no reason to conflict with the existing capitalist order, but would rather work in concert with it. But in the more plausible case that it was oriented towards social stability and economic stagnation, particularly in view of the environmentalist, anti-growth or anti-consumerist agendas it might very likely serve, then it would not want to promote disruptive new technologies such as those of access to space. The idea of a socially just socialist society (if such a hypothetical entity is possible) expanding into space is therefore a questionable one.
If Earth remained divided among competing centres of power, then they might make the leap to interplanetary capability even without the driving force of capitalist economics. However, the competitive Moon-race of the 1960s showed, firstly, that if one competitor drops out, the other may well lose interest to the point of abandoning capabilities developed for that competition, and secondly, that an ideologically based collectivist society is unlikely to make a good showing in the technologies required. Economic growth, however, has a vested interest in preserving and extending gains made.
Given that the opportunities for growth in space are so large, it seems unlikely that the present burst of growth will reach a plateau until space has been colonised. There is in fact an inconsistency about the idea of an industrial civilisation which does not move beyond its home planet – like a lone tree in the middle of a fertile plain. Such a tree will either die off, or it will naturally reproduce until it has engendered a whole forest, in which a far greater variety of life is possible than on the unsheltered plain.
Similarly, a persistent industrial civilisation on one planet will naturally tend to populate its local planetary system, because the unique feature of industrialism is its applicability to a wide range of environments, not only earthlike ones.
We here refer to an interplanetary civilisation as a “universal society”, because is it capable of making a home for itself anywhere in the astronomical universe. Some comments on the sociology of such a society follow.
There exists a historically brief period of a few centuries in which a civilisation at our current level of development may take one of two very different paths: it may successfully complete the transformation from a low-tech (pre-industrial) to a high-tech (fully industrial) society, or it may fall back onto a low-tech level.
Finding a stable state inbetween these two levels seems unlikely: the dynamics of growth tend towards completing the process, while the limits to growth on Earth tend towards rendering the intermediate phase of a unified globalised society insecure.
The world’s energy limits are, however, not as imminent as was believed in the latter part of the 20th century. The feared peak and subsequent decline in fossil fuel production has been greatly postponed by new discoveries and new extraction technologies for shale oil and gas and for methane hydrates. Meanwhile the decade-long flatlining of global temperature estimates has led to the end of the climate mania and of the extremist anti-growth movement that grew up around it. While the limits to growth on Earth remain, they are of a long-term nature, and will allow global civilisation an adequate breathing-space to develop into a high-tech one.
A high-tech society possesses by definition the technologies required for access to and use of the resources of its local planetary system, and therefore experiences an incentive to become an interplanetary society.
Since technologies for safe, economic and sustainable interplanetary travel and habitation are quite hard for a monoglobal civilisation to master, a successful transition to multiglobal range is by no means a foregone conclusion. But since the reward in terms of access to new territorial, material and power resources is so great, the impact of this social decision-point on the subsequent history of the species is of unparalleled significance.
Ultimately the jump to interplanetary status is necessary, not only for the long-term growth of civilisation, but also for its long-term survival.
This latter point follows from the fact that society is fundamentally ungovernable and its future development therefore unpredictable. This is a basic concept of cybernetics: a complex system cannot be fully controlled by a less complex one, for example, by a subsystem of itself such as a government.
Thus wars or other destructive expressions of internal conflict cannot be ruled out, and long-term stability therefore requires an overall society spread out over a volume of space which is large in relation to the transport technologies available. In this scenario, competing centres of power are sufficiently widely spaced as to be capable of only weak interaction with one another. This condition is satisfied by pre-industrial societies on one planet, but industrial societies with planet-wide transport and communications need to be spread out on an interplanetary scale.
It also follows from the fact that planetary environments are ungovernable (though proponents of terraforming would disagree, they presuppose a spacefaring civilisation in any case). In the face of environmental change, pre-industrial societies on one planet have survival prospects no better than those of any other land-dwelling species. An industrial society on one planet may imagine that it can control its environment (as was widely believed on Earth during the climate mania), but in practice this is questionable.
It must be clear that a society which houses a large fraction of its population, food production, industrial activity and so on in artificial protective structures spread widely throughout the Solar System has achieved a vastly greater level of security and long-term sustainability than one ensconced on a single planet alone and dependent upon the stability of the natural environmental conditions found there.
Distribution of wealth
Because of the arithmetic realities of the multiplication of capital, if an economy is growing, the gap between the richest and poorest members of society must inevitably increase as the average per-capita wealth increases. This will certainly be the case in a society engaged in interplanetary growth.
But poor as well as rich have benefited from historically recent revolutions in terrestrial food production, transport, communications, medicine, military technologies and so on. In other words, while social inequalities widen in a growing economy, all levels of society enjoy some benefit, because its total available wealth is increasing faster than the personal wealth of its richest members.
This is a necessary outcome of sustainable growth because of the concomitant demands of a growing economy for a more highly educated and motivated workforce in order to function at a higher technological level, and for growing mass markets of consumers with increasing discretionary spending powers.
The demand for a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, expressed by some social commentators, is therefore only consistent with either a contracting economy, or one run by a tyrannical ideological elite, as demonstrated for example in the case of the Soviet Union.
Under capitalism, social benefit is primarily expressed in monetary terms, and society is stratified economically, with richer classes nearer the top of the social scale and poorer classes nearer the bottom.
Under the socialist mode of society, the central function of capital – deciding the allocation of resources – is performed by political ideology. Social benefit is now primarily expressed in terms of ideological capital, being the level of influence, official or unofficial, which an individual enjoys within the institutions, such as in the Soviet Union the Communist Party, which express, teach and propagate that ideology.
The rich in such a system are therefore the ideologically rich: those who rise to prominence in the political process and occupy official posts in the Party apparatus; while the poor are those who merely dutifully consume the Party propaganda. The poorest are those who disagree with or actively resist the ruling ideology, and who end up marginalised or criminalised as a result.
In view of historical precedents such as the Soviet Union, it is highly unlikely that any realistic socialist society represents an advance over capitalist society in terms of the well-being of the majority of its members (as judged by those members). It is not known whether any third option exists that is compatible with industrialism; however, it is highly plausible that new options will appear in due course, given continued technological development and corresponding social change.
Recent history suggests that politically driven attempts at creating a socially just society put all its members, except those at the very top of the Party hierarchy, at a considerable material disadvantage to corresponding members of capitalist societies. One reason for this is that democratic capitalist institutions tend to be flexible and thus capable of responding to changing circumstances, while ideology tends to resist change even in changing circumstances.
It must also be clear that any beneficial changes to the modern global liberal democratic market capitalist order can only come about in an incremental fashion, as argued in the social philosophy of Karl Popper (in his book The Open Society and its Enemies). Violent political revolution would, judging by historical precedents, be so destructive that it cannot be contemplated except with extreme horror.
Incremental changes in technology, for example the recent introduction of the internet, allow the institutions of democratic capitalism to evolve in ways which are unpredictable but generally beneficial to most groups in society. As civilisation continues to change under the influence of new technologies of computing, medicine and transport, particularly space transport, the democratic capitalist system will naturally also change.
Considering the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by the peoples of developed countries compared with their forebears of a few generations ago, it is reasonable to look forward to continued incremental social evolution with optimism concerning the nature of future society, while setting impractical utopian dreams aside.
Towards a zero-growth economy
Because of astronomical realities, civilisation in any one planetary system must inevitably arrive at a zero-growth society in terms of its flows of material and energy resources.
The scope for economic growth through software and nanotech development, leading to further gains in information processing power and in the efficiency of material processes, is not so sharply limited. Clearly this kind of growth can continue long after a planetary system has been fully populated, but perhaps in the long run, after some thousands of years, growth here too may trend towards zero.
The ultimate carrying capacity of the asteroid belt has been estimated in the region of at least 10 million billion people at the current average level of per-capita energy consumption (John S. Lewis, Mining the Sky, Addison-Wesley, 1996, p.196). For the Solar System as a whole, larger populations are conceivable, depending on what assumptions one starts from.
Human civilisation thus has an opportunity for considerable further growth in the Solar System, but that growth has a material limit.
Civilisation in one planetary system is effectively economically isolated from those in other systems, due to the immense distances between the stars, in which even information transmitted at the speed of light takes from years to millennia or even longer to be received.
The nature of an interplanetary civilisation, its institutions and cultural norms, are impossible to predict at this early stage. So we can say that the society which will one day face the need to change from a capitalist society to a zero-growth society will be quite different from our own.
The challenge that we face here and now is a different one, that of ramping down material growth on Earth at the same time as ramping it up in space. This can be done without requiring an overhaul of the economic system, because while material growth on Earth is slowing, growth in terms of product efficiency and information processing may continue.
Modern industrial society is unsustainable in the same sense as the swelling belly of a pregnant woman: it is not itself a stable state, but is rather a relatively brief phase of rapid transition between one stable state and another.
This is clearly seen in the case of energy consumption. Fossil fuels are not in themselves a viable long-term energy source. But they do provide a brief but essential intermediate growth stage, lasting only a few centuries, between a sustainable low-power society based on human and animal muscle power, wind and running water, and a sustainable high-power society based most probably on some mix of natural and artificial nuclear fusion (the former of these in the guise of large-scale solar power collection in space).
In the case of a pregnant woman, we immediately understand that her growth will not continue forever, nor will it kill her, because we have seen women give birth many times before. In the case of our industrial civilisation, it is hard to understand where it is going precisely because our case is (to the best of our knowledge) the first time it has ever happened (analogous to the first time a bacterial cell ever divided, unknown billions of years ago).
The realisation that our current societal and economic growth has the potential to raise our species up onto a stable high-tech, interplanetary, long-term sustainable level of development provides a context for all the social problems caused by industrialisation. Within the broader context of our astronautical evolution, all the sufferings of our current, transitional stage may be understood as the growing pains of a new order of life.
Without that context all the wars, pollution, damage to other species and general waste of lives throughout history can appear as no more than a random, competitive striving for transitory personal happiness which in the end is doomed to oblivion.
Escapism or development
Some social commentators have expressed the view that personal space exploration (space tourism) is no more than escapism, while others regard it as a natural process of economic development. “Escapism” implies that the activity in question is frivolous and irrelevant to society; “development” implies a contrasting view that it can be a source of valuable and constructive economic activity. The task of sociology (defined as the scientific study of social systems) is to study the relative strength and the divergent consequences of these contrasting valuations.
If significant numbers of people wish to experience spaceflight personally (which market surveys have indicated some support for), and if developers can get the ticket price down to a level which those people can afford (which designers of reusable spaceplanes believe is technically possible), then the result will be an economic growth pattern analogous to that of air passenger transport, in which rising traffic volumes cause and are caused by falling ticket prices in a self-stoking cycle of market and technology development.
The sociological consequences of this will include growing numbers of well-paid jobs dependent on the industry, growing social awareness and acceptance of the opportunities for extraterrestrial enterprise and growth open to human civilisation, and a growing sense of planetary rather than merely national identity.
If the reduction in the cost of getting into space after a few decades of growth is large enough to create a mass market for this service (at a level of say around a million passengers per year – about one thousandth of the traffic level of present-day terrestrial commercial air transport), one of the consequences may well be that space solar power becomes economically competitive with dwindling fossil fuel supplies. This could enable an orderly transition from a short-term energy source to a long-term, low-pollution one, with incalculable consequences for the sustainability of industrial society on Earth.
It would also result in a decline of the view that space tourism was frivolous escapism, and a general view instead that it was a normal leisure activity comparable with ocean cruising and with adventure holidays to remote terrestrial locations.
If, however, for whatever reason a large-scale space tourism industry does not appear, perhaps in conjunction with widespread public denigration of it as escapism, then the sociological consequences are likely to be different. The cost of getting into space in the context of a low volume of traffic will remain high. Manned spaceflight will therefore remain the preserve of government employees on missions of government exploration for prestige, science and spinoff. The introduction of large-scale space solar power is less likely to happen, and the oppportunities for extraterrestrial growth may fail to be realised. The view that space tourism is frivolous escapism will very likely remain widespread.
The success or failure of this one industry would therefore appear to be a key sociological question. If it is a success, it is likely to catalyse further economic use of space; if it is a failure, it is likely to leave those uses blocked off by the barrier of high costs. In the former case, human society will continue to grow; in the latter case a future of stagnation, leading to decline and ultimate collapse, seems more probable.
The nature of the cross-roads at which humanity finds itself in the 21st century is that of a choice between a future of stagnation and ultimate decline, whether gradually or violently, on Earth alone, versus a future of almost unlimited scope for growth, creativity and diversification on a galactic scale.
Which direction humanity takes is dependent, not upon the choices of individuals or even particular groups, but upon the resultant activity of society as a whole. Like the prior evolution of a planetary biosphere, this is a system-level phenomenon emerging from the complex internal dynamics of the social organism.
While it remains true that one individual, one group or one country may have a decisive effect at some crucial moment, it is in the nature of such complex systems that such a “butterfly effect” cannot be proved to have happened. It is, however, still of great interest to analyse the broader processes of social evolution in the attempt to understand them better.
Access to space is uniquely a function of the civilisation which grew out of medieval Europe. It has emerged as one consequence of the belief in human material progress, the interest in science, the aptitude for technology, the cosmopolitan humanitarianism, the rejection of arbitrary authority and superstition, the dynamic capitalist economics and the practical democratic political system characteristic of that civilisation.
Even if humanity does not spread life and society out into the wider universe, and the universal society remains for us a dream, the fact that the cosmos is still young suggests that one day another intelligent species will arise elsewhere in this or another galaxy, and will make that transition, with incalculable consequences for the future evolution of life in the universe.