Thursday, September 24, 2009
Corollaries to the second law of thermodynamics
Posted by benrosen at September 24, 2009 09:14 AM
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- The best argument for death is children.
- More specifically, in a putative stable future society abritrary able to extend life and actually serious about sustainable management of resources, there are two natural (and rational) political parties:
- The above is a specific case, assuming discrete individuals and a constant average consumption per individual, of a more general trade-off. The tradeoff is equally well exemplified by "Few of Us in Mansions" vs. "Many of Us in Tents", low vs. high sampling rate and resolution in simulations, etc.
- (How egalitarian the distribution of resources is actually matters little for our purposes here -- though inegalitarian distribution of resources has a way of distracting from this tradeoff, giving it at least the appearance of being provisionally irrelevant.)
- The most general formulation: "there are many defensible answers to the question 'what should be the granularity of individual sentient existence?'"
Maybe we start out at high granularity and move to a single instance. At which point She decides to start everything over again.
Die like the moon, or die like the banana?
Malthusian catastrophes have uniformly proven to be wrong. "Life", whatever that means (DNA, memory?), will never be eternal even if aging is controlled because of catastrophic accidents. But population adjusts by war (you left that out), technology and extension of living grounds.
But why limit ourselves to a "stable" society? Isn't this the whole point that we've been told over and over again (at least by manned space proponents) that we are species that wants to explore and expand our footprint? This also gets around the catastrophic accidents issue - or at least gets around the danger of the entire annihilation of the species. But then the trends seem to be for a 10-11 Billion peak population sometime this century, followed by slow decline (with lots of potential for spikes or pits of course due to natural or man-made occurences)...
It is true that immortality is not actually possible to achieve, but it's certainly possible as a direction. Maybe Breeding vs. Immortality would be better names.
War is not left out; for the purposes of this conversation (since we are standing outside of culture at the Archimedian point of arbitrary leverage...) we can consider it one of the options available to those who wish to have more and shorter-lived individuals.
Malthusian catastrophes have probably overtaken plenty of populations -- Jared Diamond makes good arguments in Collapse for, for instance, Easter Island, the Mayans, Greenland, etc., having fallen victims to nonsustainable growth in constrained areas. That there has never been a global modern Malthusian collapse does not mean there won't be one at some point -- arguably we have avoided one thus far by "a continuing series of miracles", as the phrase goes about Israel. We have had several uninterrupted centuries of globalization and technological advance during which there has been lots of low-hanging fruit. Malthus, too, "only has to win once."
As for why, Levi, we limit ourselves to a "stable" society, the ultimate reason is in the title -- the second law of thermodynamics. Even assuming Golden Age SF miracles of FTL, utopian social orgnization, etc., eventually entropy gets you. There are lots of reasons, however, to presume the border is a lot nearer than that.
Assuming no FTL, the limit case is that we convert our living space into a sphere of pure optimized computronium, or whatever, whose radius is expanding at lightspeed. Malthus's spectre still applies in that scenario: the available living space is still expanding geometrically, while the potential for new individuals is exponential. At any given moment there is a 2/3-pi-r-cubed volume of intelligence within the sphere competing to breed into the new lands emerging at the 4-pi-r-squared surface area; we have a cube-square-law problem.
In the near term, of course, the picture is a good deal less optimistic; we are in a highly livable little oasis surrounded by a vast wasteland unbelievably inimical to life. Manned space flight is in fact no kind of answer at all to population growth, and in the near term it is also no kind of security for "survival of the species". The gap between going to the moon as tourists, carrying our air and food with us, versus surviving there an apocalypse that would overtake the earth, is like the difference between watching the Olympics on TV and winning a gold medal yourself.
10-11 billion peak population followed by slow decline is fine, but is assumes a very modest increase in potential life expectancy. I think classic SF, for cultural and narrative-technical reasons, underestimates the plasticity of humanity as much as it overestimates the practicality of space settlement. Star Trek's vision of people with hundred-year lifespans jetting about the galaxy with free energy is wrong in both directions. I expect we are likely to get potentially thousand-year-lifespans long before we can produce a viable wholly independent offworld settlement.
Sorry, I meant: "Maybe Breeding vs. Longevity would be better names."
Bruce Sterling covered some similar territory in terms of breeding vs. immortality in his novel Schismatrix.
Therein the two groups were the "Mechanists" and "Shapers". The Mechanists focus on mechanical replacements for life, surviving for hundreds of years but their humanity is 'attenuated' over time. The Shapers focus on genetic engineering, breeding; if a Shaper is true to their ideals, they'll die much younger, but they're told it's a much more beautiful life.
Sterling's "Holy Fire" touches on the "series of miracles" with regard to life extension technology, as a ninety year old gets a new lease on life.
I remember Schismatrix as being the better book between the two, if anyone has the desire to read one of them.
The colony in Greenland died out because the earth went through a cooling period. It caused increased stress and deaths everywhere in Europe. The history is that PEOPLE are better of when things are warmer.
I think you have to attend to the first and second derivatives of temperature as well. People may be better off when things are warmer, though I believe it depends a lot on where you get your food -- cold oceans are more productive. (The Viking colony on Greenland, according to Jared Diamond, had a taboo against eating fish, and during the period in which they died out the Inuit to the north of them were flourishing.)
But even if it's true in the aggregate that warmer is better, things changing quickly is disruptive, particularly to a delicately balanced system. It may not matter much in the abstract where the coastlines are. It does matter if millions of inhabitants of coastal cities find their homes under water over the course of decades rather than centuries.