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Western Civilization, Seen from 2150 AD, Part 2


As I noted last week, a small roll of pages recently showed up at my door. They appeared to have been ripped from a history book entitled 2000–2150 AD: The Emergence of Modernity. I am completing my transcription of them today, verbatim. Make of it what you will.

The Death of Scarcity

Wants can be infinitely imagined by clever creatures such as ourselves, but nowadays a basic dividing line between wants and needs is acknowledged. This was not the case during the premodern period, when cravings for ever more were not only habitual but neurotic.

Premoderns were actually addicted to scarcity. Without it, they didn’t know how to find a mate, for example. Showing oneself worthy (especially on the part of males) involved demonstrations that one could thrive in conditions of scarcity better than one’s competitors. Under this assumption, the gathering of more and more goods made them a more and more worthy mate.

And so, when technology began to end scarcity in the late 1900s, most people were simply unable to see it. Most rejected it reflexively, and many ridiculed those who persisted in their claims that scarcity was being overcome.

Little by little, however, people accepted raw, scientific facts, such as the fact that North Americans were growing only half the wheat they could, simply because there weren’t enough people to eat it all. Likewise corn: When the crops became too large, bribed politicians forced oil refiners to add ethanol to gasoline (ethanol being made from corn).

By 2030, the death of scarcity was apparent to a significant minority. But it took almost another two generations before most people were convinced. Again, this was because scarcity had been a foundational concept to them. Conditions of scarcity had been the fundamental justification for governments, war, jobs, mating, and so on. All those psychological dependencies had to be replaced, and that took time.

By 2080, it was almost universally accepted that scarcity, save for narrow areas or short seasons, had been surpassed. Replacements for the old strategies, however, remained in flux for a long time. And while they may remain in flux indefinitely, they have reached some base level of stability in our time.

The Voyagers and the End of the Old World

The final end of the old world – the event that ensured it could not return – is broadly held to be the ability of humans to leave Earth. The old systems survived on their ability to extort money from fenced-in subjects. Once those subjects could leave for the further reaches of the solar system, however, no more money and obedience could be extorted from them.

At its core, the reason for this is simple mathematics. Space is a territory that expands exponentially, as a cube of the distance. The numbers look like this:

  • At one million miles distance, coercive government requires 4,189,000,000 billion cubic miles of dominance.

  • At two million miles it requires 33,510,000,000 billion cubic miles of dominance.

  • At three million miles it requires 113,098,000,000 billion cubic miles of dominance.

  • At four million miles it requires s 268,083,000,000 billion cubic miles of dominance.

And so, those who left moved beyond the state’s ability to exert force upon them.

All of our early moon colonies, as you must know, were founded by independent commercial ventures, not governments. The first few were under the domination of governments and agreed to enforce their legal orders, but as time went on, such orders were taken less and less seriously.

Bounty hunters thrived for a handful of years, but once a bounty hunter found him or herself returning to their government employers bound in chains (as they generally did), they demanded higher salaries for further engagements. This soon became a losing venture for the governments, who were, after all, starved for money due to the abandonment of government currency and the use of encrypted commerce.

Once Mars bases became practical (2070), and especially as asteroid mining became practical (2100), there were simply too many locations – at far too great distances – to dominate. This meant that the colonies became free, but it meant much more than that. The image of the state as the indomitable, the unchallengeable, the unquestionable, had failed. The mighty states had become barbarians who no longer inspired terror. They could be ignored and they were ignored.

The Age of Transition

Our world is always in a state of transition, but the century and a half between 2000 and 2150 AD were remarkable in that they swept away traditions and systems that had held since the Bronze Age.

It took time for our ancestors to adjust to the modern age they were creating, much as our eyes must adjust when walking from a darkened building into bright sunlight. Even when positioned in the light, it took them some time before they could see very well. That’s why conditions didn’t fully stabilize till 2150 or so.

The great drivers of the change of course were technology and evolution.

While governments always cycled between dominance and dissolution, technology accumulated. By 1968 it had advanced far enough to send humans to the moon. Governments halted the advance at that point, but within two generations technological advances put the moon within the range of groups who lacked (or eschewed) the power of coercion. And likewise in virtually every area of technology, continuing no less in our day.

Human evolution, it is now widely held, continued all through the age of dominating hierarchies. People slowly became more creative, less cruel, and less willing to justify constraint. But this evolution was restrained, because new ways of living – ways that might afford evolution some scope – were violently forbidden.

Once the dominance of states fell away, however, those qualities flowed into human life more rapidly than people expected. They had in fact been contained, much as are pressurized gasses. Finally, though, the containment vessels cracked and opened.


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Paul Rosenberg

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  • Gayle Washburn

    Very comforting…

  • http://www.jesus-on-taxes.com/ Ned Netterville

    Paul, I love your optimism. It is very realistic. Your two final paragraphs are delightful.

    One notation: “When the crops became too large, bribed politicians forced oil refiners
    to add ethanol to gasoline (ethanol being made from corn).”

    The corn crop at the time of the pernicious ethanol legislation wasn’t so overly abundant that the legislation didn’t cause some poor people in foreign lands who depended on cheap American corn to go hungry, because the ethanol mandate drove up the price of corn beyond their humble means.

  • Lewis Austin

    This encouraging vision depends on abundant cheap energy, and that technological breakthrough hasn’t happened yet and isn’t inevitable.

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