The post-scarcity age
is an anticipated period where due to advancing technology, efficient use of natural resources and co-operation there should exist a great abundance of the material items that everyone needs, achieved with a minimal impact to the environment.
Many fictional visions of post scarcity involve as yet undeveloped technologies but the reality is that global material abundance can be produced with current technologies. Food is one example, where there is more than enough produced for everyone on the planet , but politics, economics and logistics prevent fair distribution. The bottom line is that in the fundamental resources of this planet there exists many orders of magnitude more energy, raw material and biological resources than humanity requires, it is a matter of developing systems that use and distribute them more efficiently.
By employing open collaborative design, digital manufacturing and advanced automation in combination, everything we need should be trivial to fabricate and distribute — from the basics like clean water, good quality food, medicine and suitable housing, to increasingly essential material goods such as vehicles, computers and mobile phones – all the way up to purely luxury items. Decentralizing production of these things will also allow more equal access to them and sidestep many of the issues involved in distributing them. These methods could overcome nearly all significant scarcity that persists due to the economic framework we have inherited from previous eras. This isn't to say what is proposed here will happen, but that it could happen – it is feasible from a physical and technological viewpoint. It is a matter of spreading the knowledge that these things are possible and enough people choosing to work towards it.
The means for a post-scarcity society
- Do we really have the resources for this kind of society?
Civilisation boils down to four fundamentals: material, energy, information and intelligence – none of which are in short supply. It is the current inefficient methods of use (and re-use) and perceived economic restrictions that make it appear that there are significant limitations to these resources.
Specifically, using currently existing technology...
- We can provide abundant clean water for everyone on Earth.
- We can produce enough food to feed at least 80 billion people without harming the environment
- We can meet our energy needs at least ten times over using clean, renewable energy
- We can build cheap, high-quality houses in a day or two, providing shelter for the billion people currently living in slums
- We can build technology of any complexity from free open-source designs and digitally fabricate them for the price of raw materials. (And these raw materials are themselves extremely abundant.) With every year that goes by, the methods of fabrication become more decentralized (see: Fab Labs) and the open-source designs become better, making this a more attractive option.
- We can spread cheap, mobile Internet access to everyone on Earth, allowing them to connect to the world's informational and educational resources. Through open collaboration, this can network vast amounts of human intelligence, which can greatly accelerate scientific and technological progress.
- We can make free educational materials available on the Internet, providing free education of unprecedented quality to everyone on Earth
- We can organize the World's medical knowledge, so that people have access to the highest-quality medical information and advice at all times.
How do we create an infrastructure advanced enough to provide all of this? See the open collaborative design and advanced automation pages.
How do we get from here to there?
In a sentence: by increasing the amount and quality of physical goods (through automation) via freely available open-source channels, until it makes no sense for anyone to rely on anything else.
The transition beyond our current institutions to post-scarcity, due to social and political reasons, may though be harder than actually developing the technologies required to support a technological post-scarcity.
However some form of true post-scarcity - perhaps regulated at the personal consumption level unless agreed at a community/regional level for larger projects - where all people on Earth do not have to work for pay, or any kind of exchange, and have a very high standard of living does appear possible on the face of it. The Earth's crust contains quintillions of tonnes of useful elements; energy is plentiful (solar, geothermal, nuclear) and automation of everything significant including the fabrication of other automated systems is likely to be within mankind's capabilities. Open-source design and engineering would be the development model.
Potential routes to transition to post-scarcity
Here are three methods of how, it might be possible to transition from our current economy to a post-scarcity (there may be others of course):
1) Advanced digital fabrication and closed-loop operations on a local scale - think of a very advanced version of Open Source Ecology who are operating at a small farm-scale.
2) Let industry compete to zero-cost (or infinitesimally small cost) through automation. The companies could be helped along by employing some open-source systems in their operations (and even contributing to OS projects) to reduce their costs in non-core areas. With companies in all industries eventually doing this to help them compete, the non-core areas from each industry may eventually all overlap, joining together to provide a complete alternative open-source infrastructure.
3) Intentional duplication of all key infrastructure, manufacturing and services to eventually create a parallel automated open-source economy by open-source advocates - much as was done in the software world, developing C compilers, operating system kernels, graphical desktops, IDEs and key applications. It took a while to get that all in place but eventually it got to a stage where Linux could be a primary OS for developers and geeks (about 10 years), and now it is perfectly usable for normal computer users (after about 20 years).
Power, control and jobs
A common argument is that existing people / companies / systems wouldn't let it happen - however it is simply another form of competition. In the same way, having established companies around doesn't stop startup companies from forming and operating either. Incumbents can certainly make things difficult, but they are unlikely to be able to stop it happening altogether. If it is open-source and free (or lower cost than a commercial alternative) then the commercial producers and distributors may have a hard time competing if the goods or services from the open-source producers are of a similar (or even slightly lower) quality. You could argue that open-source networks and organisations operating at cost (and driving it towards zero) during the transition period are perhaps the ultimate example of effective market economics at work.
As an example, Microsoft couldn't stop Linux being developed and used globally often in direct competition with their consumer and business software (although they tried hard). There is estimated to be around 33 million computers  running a Linux-based operating system (including the Android mobile phone OS), and those are just the machines that are browsing the web. This figure probably doesn't include the millions of server computers which run Linux, and is in fact the dominant OS in that sector with about 60% of machines running some flavour of it.
Open-source hardware is still very nascent, but an interesting example in the physical (rather than software) world is the open-source RepRap machine, where it and its derivatives now make up a majority share of new FDM 3D printers, according to Dr. Adrian Bowyer, an academic at the University of Bath and founder of the project.
Human progress since the enlightenment has been rapid and continually disruptive to the apparent status-quo. This is still very much the case today, and near-future mass-scale open-source products and services are a continuation of this. The buggy-whip manufacturers will always complain about disruptive change of course, but consumers will be getting greater choice for less and less cost. How jobs will be affected though with advancing automation is another issue altogether.
Interestingly as the average person's earning potential perhaps goes down as automation increases, the more easily and cheaply people will be able to get goods and services from automated open-source systems, so it may balance to a certain degree. One extrapolated end-point is that as people's earning potential gradually falls to zero over time, all significant product and service costs will also be tending towards zero. Another (rather pessimistic) alternative scenario, is that as automation increases, fewer and fewer people are able to afford the products produced by the dominant companies. This seems unlikely as commercial entities wouldn't be able to survive if there were too few customers in that market, so they might as well end up giving things away by the time all significant production is done 100% by machine, because what does it matter if all the companies costs were followinng the same path too? However if the companies didn't do that, it wouldn't matter anyway as the open-source providers would take their place. This seems to be inevitable barring some kind of governmental intervention. None of this would happen overnight so society would have adjust, as it always has done. This is why we don't still live in the stone age.
At a personal level
Imagine a world where you can grow all your own food in a fully automated greenhouse. Your water falls freely from the sky or wells up from the earth and is filtered and cleaned automatically. Any time you want a new device or product, you can find a design online, perhaps customise it, and fabricate it locally or have it delivered using an efficient automated delivery service. And your children have access to the best education ever conceived, for free and you have access to abundant free energy. What need will you have then to you engage with the monetary economy?
The way to bring about a global post-scarcity economy is to help add to the commonly-held resources of mankind. Learn how to grow your own food and give the seeds and the exact method of growing away for free on the Internet. Contribute to open-source educational materials. Study whatever you're passionate about and think how you can use it to add value.
Social change doesn't come by decree from the politicians' halls. It always comes from the bottom up, from the young vibrant minds who see clearly and say, "I can see a better way to do things". Many grass-roots and open-source type projects are making a real difference in the world right now, so join an existing one or you could inspire others and start your own.
The universal commons is the store of information freely available to mankind. It is all about information, and information-management is now the key determinant of success in food production and medical care — and digital fabrication will make information the only non-trivial ingredient in physical goods. This trend towards information-rich activities is important because sharing information is non zero-sum, meaning that I can give it to you without diminishing my own supply. If information determines the production of other resources, and that information is free along with abundant material and energy, then global abundance should be possible. Advanced digital fabrication and universal access to information are expected to improve by several orders of magnitude over the course of the next few decades...
What does this mean for people and society?
It could provide the resources for bringing a high quality of life to those that are not currently fortunate enough to have the amenities and services of 'developed' nations. Worthy projects that really ought to happen, can happen – and in fact this applies just as much to advanced nations where there is still plenty of inequality and missed opportunities. It will not only provide everyone with the basic necessities for a decent life but give maximum opportunity for people and societies to live and prosper how they might like to.
This means different things to different people. For some it enables a life enhanced by advanced technology, able to do new things they have never been able to before, and for others it means almost the exact opposite - allowing them to lead a more basic rural life perhaps with a smallholding , more in touch with nature and older ways of living. But they can do this without worrying about a bad year in terms of yield from the land or medical care because of the advanced infrastructure in the background that they can call upon if required.
Post-scarcity almost by definition implies 'post-economic' as economics is based on scarcity. A post-scarcity society means that the basic necessities of living (and plenty more) will be available for everyone who requires it. There may well still be markets for certain items that have purposefully not been made publicly available or are rare, but for many people this will be irrelevant. It will be a choice and not a necessity to enter that market. The important point here is that for the first time the general population will be able to live comfortably without having to owe anyone else their time.
People will not have to suffer drudgery and what amounts to wage slavery during the best years of their lives. Unfortunately a large proportion of people today in both white and blue collar jobs would really rather be doing something else than the jobs they are employed to do. They feel perhaps that what they are doing is not directly relevant to their lives or is not particularly interesting and feel they are simply a cog with little control in a larger machine. Currently they have to do it to afford food, shelter and goods. A post-scarcity society enables them to have the time and space to work on things that are important to them, and to learn the skills needed to reach their goals and have room to be more creative.
One scarce resource today for people is time. In a post-scarcity culture, not having to spend the best part of the day working for a living also frees people up to spend more time with each other - something that is vital for a proper community. Both for friendship and mentoring the next generation.
However some people feel that increasing automation is a threat. A threat to their livelihoods, a threat to humanity's pride even. The reality is that automation is likely to provide in scenarios where people would prefer not to do that job. It leaves people free to be creative and industrious in activities that they want to be part of and allows for greater variety than the average working life offers today. Open design will enable people to be involved in the creation or customisation of the goods they want in a way not seen before and reverses the trend of people simply being passive consumers. Creativity is something that can give huge satisfaction to people but if not fulfilled can cause great frustration and dissatisfaction. It enables an individual to have more control over their environment and life.
There is widespread concern about an 'overpopulation problem'. Let us be clear about what is meant by 'overpopulation'. It is not a problem for a lot of people to be alive. It is a problem if there are too many people for given resources to go around. So the important question is, "Is the human population likely to outstrip available resources?"
According to the US Census Bureau, the world population as of September 14th 2010 is 6,868,683,892. This number is growing; the UN's upper prediction is 10.6 billion for 2050. After that, the UN expects the population to begin to fall.
Let us assume population continues to rise beyond 2050 and reaches 40 billion, well beyond any UN estimate. Would we be overpopulated then, in relation to available resources? —
- Food. Without expanding farmland, we could grow enough food for 80 billion people using low-tech permaculture techniques only.
- Water. Our planet has about 1260 quintillion liters of water. This means that 40 billion people using 200 liters a day each would use, over the course of a year, less than 0.00025% of the world's water.
- Energy. The world used 15 terawatts of energy in 2008. If rising population and increasing technology increased this 100-fold to 1500 terawatts, we would still only need to convert less than 0.9% of the sunlight that falls on Earth. It is highly likely that we will have fusion reactors and space-based solar panels before our energy needs come anywhere near this level.
- Land. The planet's surface (including oceans) is about 510 million square kilometers. According to Wikipedia, one-eighth of this, 63,750,000km2, is habitable land. For a population of 40 billion people, this is 1593.75m2 habitable land per person, equivalent to a average population density of 628 people per km2. This is comparable to a fairly densely populated country like Taiwan.
Doing more with less
100 years ago, 8000 square meters of land was needed to grow food for a person. It can now be done on a few hundred square meters. Why? Because human intelligence has figured out how to extract more resources from a fixed amount of material. The effect of human intelligence is always to enable us to do more with less : better solar cells can make more electricity from less sunlight, we can make a more powerful computer chip using less material than a few years ago, and more efficient vehicles can travel the same journeys with much less petrol.
Human intelligence is the key that unlocks all other resources. As Robert Anton Wilson has said, "You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn't identified wheat as edible." The greater the population, the greater the store of human intelligence. A large population that is well networked and educated will concoct and communicate all kinds of technological solutions that enable us to do more with the resources we have. And so, paradoxically, an increased population can mean that we have more resources to go around.
There is ultimately an upper limit on the amount of people this planet can accomodate (though, as we have shown, the limit is not very limiting). Colonising space can be thought of as the ultimate solution to any question of overpopulation. Gerard K. O'Neill wrote a classic essay called The Colonization of Space in 1974. In it, he considers the ability of a series of space habitats orbiting the Earth and the Sun to absorb population increase. These colonies could be built from materials available in the asteroid belt and the Moon using the technology available in 1974. O'Neill's calculations show that they could house 20,000 times the world population at the time he wrote the essay - no less than 80 trillion people!
More post-scarcity thinking
These links point to more post-scarcity thinking that may be interesting or useful, however please note this does not mean that AdCiv advocates all things said by these individuals!
- Buckminster Fuller - Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI.org). Visionary designer and engineer. The Buckminster Fuller Institute runs the Buckminster Fuller challenge, an annual contest to find a practical idea to change the world for the better using good design. A $100,000 grant is given to the winner. The Index of entries is a fascinating testament to human ingenuity and altruism.
“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a 'higher standard of living than any have ever known.' It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable as mandated by survival.”
“Wealth is energy times intelligence, or the manipulation of energy by intelligence.”
“At the beginning of World War II the U.S. had a mere 600 or so first-class fighting aircraft. We rapidly overcame this short supply by turning out more than 90,000 planes a year. The question at the start of World War II was: Do we have enough funds to produce the required implements of war? The answer was No, we did not have enough money, nor did we have enough gold; but we did have more than enough resources. It was the available resources that enabled the US to achieve the high production and efficiency required to win the war. Unfortunately this is only considered in times of war.”
- Eric Drexler - Author of Engines of Creation (2007 update here) and prophet of molecular nanotechnology. He describes molecular assemblers as "engines of abundance".
(Interestingly advanced molecular nanotechnology is not actually required for an advanced post-scarcity society — which can be based on macro-scale technology that exists already. However it would likely provide unprecedented control over matter and currently unobtainable abilities in the fields of engineering, agriculture and medicine to name just three)
- Julian L. Simon - A cornucopian economist who wrote The Ultimate Resource, a book arguing that the power of human intelligence to overcome scarcity far outweighs any seeming scarcity of resources.
“"We now have in our hands — really, in our libraries — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years."”