Are We Homer to the Galactic Donut?

Robin Hanson (
Thu, 11 Nov 1999 10:46:03 -0500

Damien Broderick responded to Billy Brown:
> >civilization that converts all available matter into useful artifacts gains
> >a strong competitive advantage over one that does not, whether their
> >competition is economic or military or both.
>Right now, *we* have the option of slash-and-burning our habitat, of
>monocropping and strip-mining and polluting in an uncontrolled and
>short-term-profit fashion. We don't, by and large, and we better resist the
>temptation the more technically advanced we are. I don't think that's just
>because wealthy cultures are sooky and mollycoddled and wimpish, allowing
>themselves sentimental indulgence of traits encoded genetically for other
>purposes and now culturally hypertrophied. ...
>ET SIs or just plain Is might not be intelligible, but if they are they
>won't necessarily be >Homer Simpson faced by a Donut the size of a galaxy.

There are two issues here:
-- short term vs. long term best uses of resources -- instrumental vs. other uses of resources

Each competitive environment determines a competitive discount rate, and those who discount the future either more or less than this rate are at a competitive disadvantage. Each competitive environment also determines the competitive values of various uses of resources, and those who use resources differently are also at a competitive disadvantage.

Humans today evolved to prefer certain uses over others, and to discount the future at a certain rate. To the extent that those preferences are no longer competitive, humans are slowly being selected toward other preferences. Human cultures and organizations can adapt more quickly, and so are likely better adapted to current competitive pressures. (I expect posthumans to adapt much more quickly.)

There is quite a bit of slashing and burning, mono-cropping, and strip mining going on, and a lot of this probably makes competitive sense. And there are also lots of places where this isn't happening, and a lot of that probably also makes competitive sense.

On the other hand, there *is* probably a lot of "sentimental" declining to use resources that puts people and groups at a competitive disadvantage. And there is probably a lot of overly-aggressive use of resources, which also puts those people and groups at a competitive disadvantage. I see little reason to think the overall trend is one way or the other.

Two thousand years from now competitive forces will have had plenty of time to remake our solar system. If civilization lasts that long, I expect to see very little potentially useful matter that has not become "useful artifacts," at least among the matter that has been accessible for a thousand years (i.e., perhaps excluding the interiors of planets and the sun). So I expect to see very little in the way of "parks" that are not also very useful in other ways. And if energy is valuable, I expect to see very little sunlight left undisturbed to stream off into the cosmos.

Since two thousand years is a very short time on the cosmic scale, the puzzle remains: why do we see so many seemingly untouched stars and so much unused resources? The galaxy *is* a big donut, after all. :-)

Robin Hanson Asst. Prof. Economics, George Mason University MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030
703-993-2326 FAX: 703-993-2323