Is Civilization Sustainable?

Is our technological civilization sustainable?

We live in an extremely complex structure of interlocking processes. In raw and quasi-raw materials, we need steel; plastics of many forms; aluminum; glass in many shapes; many different, esoteric minerals for electronics; raw petroleum; others. Were we to lose even one of these catagories of raw or quasi-raw materials, our technological civilization would come to a halt.

Were we to lose one or more of the fundamental raw materials, it is possible–given time, organization, and the will–that we could recover, say by developing the technology for a massive recycling of previously mined or manufactured materials. It is, however, unlikely that we would ever be able to open the now-deep and now-rare mines and wells to once again have access to the basic raw materials.

In addition to raw and quasi-raw materials, over the past centuries we have developed a variety of “soft” systems which are equally vital to today’s technological civilization: Transportation systems; economic systems (currency, capital, trading); communication systems; peace-making and -keeping systems (to keep war from turning civilization into rubble); political systems; others. Should any one of these disparate social systems fail, our technological civilization would likely follow.

The question is: Can we (–and, if so, how can we–) sustain the underpinnings of technological civilization into the indefinate future; say, to have a specific goal, for the next thousand years?

Well, if we run out of raw materials, we could just mine the asteroids!

I don’t think that’s really a feasible idea. It requires a rather large industrial base in the outer solar system, and sending significant amounts of raw materials would require a lot of reaction mass.

However, I don’t think we have a problem really. Once we have fusion we can basically get the raw metals, etc out of rocks without having to worry about silly things like ‘ore’ - Just vapourive the rock and sort out the details. As for organic chemicals, I think with sufficiently advanced biotech we’ll be able to synthesise that pretty soon.

Civilisations infrastructure is a scale free network (See new scientist for a decent explanation), so it’s pretty resilient to random failure. War, taking out the various hubs of communications, etc would be a problem though.

I think, barring a really major war, we’ll do ok. Give us another 400-600 years and we’ll have a singularity. After which all bets are off :slight_smile:

Q: Is our technological civilization sustainable?
A: Maybe. Maybe not.

Um, that’s not necessarily true.

In 1970, the Club of Rome offered a computer model which basically predicted the end of the world as we know it, based upon then-current estimates of raw material reserves and consumption.

What their model ignored is substitution among different raw materials in general and the price system in particular. It also used overly-restrictive estimates of supply. In short, it reflected the sort of thinking displayed in the OP.

Here’s a table from Nordhaus (1974)



			       Ultimately Recoverable
	Crustal Abundance/		Resources /
	Consumption		Consumption
Copper 	2.42E+08		340
Iron	1.82E+09		2657
Alum.        3.85E+10		68066


The above is in years. Ultimately Recoverable resources consist of 0.01% of total availability to a depth of 1 kilometer underground.

So there is some scope for optimism over the next couple of hundred years at least. But will growth in consumption of various raw materials exceed our ability to substitute away from scarcer ones? It’s a good question. It’s a big question. It’s a question that has probably not been given sufficient attention. It is a somewhat different question than the one posed in the OP.

Side note: Worrying about running out of resources is currently out of fashion. Today’s worriers typically focus their attention on the possibility of running out of environment.

The thing is, these raw materials typcially don’t just disappear after we’re done using them. They are still there. You mine iron ore, turn it into steel and make a car out of it. You drive the car for 20 years and then junk it. The steel in the car isn’t thrown away, it is recycled. So we have giant stocks of materials available for future generations, it’s just that they are currently being used in a variety of products.

Even when things are thrown away, they aren’t thrown away forever…they are stuck in a landfill somewhere. If you want to recover the resources, simply mine the landfills.

Huh? Sea Sorbust got banned? How’d this happen?

Google doesn’t know what Sea Sorbust is and neither do I.

Sea Sorbust is the OP for this thread. I did a search, but can’t figure out why he was banned. (Granted I wasn’t trying that hard, but nothing leapt out at me)

On second thought, perhaps Civilization is in trouble. I mean, Sid Meier’s original Civilization was brilliant, a totally new type of game. Civilization 2 built on that success, and essentially completed the game. But Civilization 3 isn’t that great an improvement on Civ 2. I mean, the animated units are nice, but so what? Civ 3 is in many ways just a graphical improvement on Civ 2. Yes, there are some good gameplay improvements…diplomacy, AI, trading…but these are not really major improvements. So I believe that perhaps the Civilization series is not sustainable. Is anyone holding their breath for Civ 4? What is needed is an entirely new game, not another graphical improvment.