The entire history of all living things relies on a simple principle: we live in a world of limited resources. It defines how organisms evolve, how societies act, how economies change, and how governments run (or fail). We take this assumption so much for granted that if anyone refutes it, they’re considered ignorant or insane. Tell someone that one day we will have unlimited food and see their response. Civilisation as we know it is going to have the biggest shake-up yet: because this guiding principle will no longer be relevant.
Scarcity as truth
Until now, scarcity has ruled our existence. We base the value of anything on how much effort it takes to get it or make it. Make a pair of sandals in India for 89 cents, sell it in London for 89 pounds. The time, skills and effort needed to source it, transport it, package it, and market it adds the value. De Beers has bought, shut down, and lobbied for regulations against, at least 5 companies that have developed large pressure containers that can create a real diamond the size of an almond in a few days. Economics 101: rarity creates value for useful things.
Moreover, the person who can get it, gets rich. An oil company that builds the rigs and ships gets the money. A hunter who could provide fresh meat regularly ruled the tribe and got his choice of meat, shelter and companionship. How much payment depends on the energy expended to get the item and the scarcity of the item. Whether moving a product from one side of the world to another, or killing your prey faster, value comes from effort expended, which we measure in energy.
Efficiency as a driver
Efficiency rules. The hunter that brought back the most food did not necessarily have the most strength. He may have used his wits to hide at the right vantage point and used his skills to distract and bring down his prey. He would finish the hunt early, after expending less energy. He uses this extra energy to either hunt more, bringing more value, or enjoy his spoils more, living a better life. Spending less energy to get more product makes for more wealth.
The more energy and efficiency a group has, the wealthier it becomes. We only have to look at the GDP across the globe to see this. But all of this has begun to change. The decentralisation of energy production that comes from renewable power — especially solar, wind, nuclear and hydro — changes the equation. In the last 40 years, installation cost of solar panels has dropped from $77 per watt to $1 per watt, and it continues to drop.
Free energy changes everything
Recently Elon Musk (who arguably has done more for making solar practical than any other person alive) told government officials that the entire US could be powered with 100 square miles of panels in a sunny state. In the last 6 months alone, 3 separate new technologies have emerged that can radically drop this cost. A few weeks ago a paper came out that shows how to make a solar cell 50% more efficient. Solar has now become cheaper than any other power source. Soon we will have more energy than we can consume.
An abundance of energy will mean the cost of energy will approach — and eventually reach — zero. When energy has no cost, how do we value everything else? The cost of production will approach zero. The cost of mining will approach zero. The cost of development will approach zero.
What about material resources?
We also have to consider the limit of material resources. Abundant energy will allow for ease of creation of heavier materials. Material scientists already create more complex and useful materials that more and more will replace the materials created naturally by pressure and time.
Just look at graphene, a superconductor stronger than steel, lighter than metal and made of carbon, one of the most abundant elements on earth. Once we overcome a few engineering challenges, the only real barrier to mass production lies in the energy consumption cost. Free energy, free graphene.
Even if we were to deplete earth’s resources, the main thing holding back asteroid mining? Yes, the high energy cost of getting into space.
Remember the hunter? If any tribe member could go out and grab a free burger instead of waiting for the bounty of the hunt, how would the hunter be valued? The single underlying truth of how we organise everything, a world of limited resources, will no longer exist.
The current state of play
This process is not about to happen. In fact, it has been happening all around us for the whole of human history, accelerating in the last 450 years since the establishment of science, and moving even faster in the last 20 because of computing technology.
We can see it in the politics of today as the people who rely on the status quo to remain wealthy lash out. They rage against the machine their companies made possible, fighting to maintain scarcity, reducing distribution of wealth, reducing education and brainwashing the resulting dullards to act against their own interests. We see it as businesses that follow the old guard struggle to maintain the economic system, even as startups emerge that use hyper-efficiency to nibble away at their profits, then get bought by tech giants and we watch the old companies die. Only a few learn to adapt. The choice becomes a choice as old as time: adapt or die.
The world as we desperately cling to knowing it, has a new foundation: unlimited energy, leading to abundance of all things. Space mining requires energy: solved. New material production requires energy: solved. Artificial intelligence requires energy to run machines: solved. And so on and so on, abundance, abundance, abundance.
What’s next in this new world?
How will we live in this new world? How will we organise ourselves when nation states and the economy we know no longer have a place? Will we fight this losing battle against this change and traumatise ourselves as a species, or will we embrace it and speed towards a future of abundance, choice and wealth? What do you choose?
This is part of the Freedom series, looking at how near future technology will change civilisation.