UNSUSTAINABLE civilizations

muse unsustainable by mbladzer

As you might know, one of my favorite bands is Muse, and their song Unsustainable gave me the idea for today’s post. Let’s speculate a tiny bit on the idea, which goes like this (and is also how the song begins):

All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way, that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless. New energy cannot be created and high-grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is unsustainable.

While it is still a looooooong way to go until we reach anything close to unsustainability, in science-fiction, we’ve been there and back again. It can take many different shapes.

Earth may still be habitable, but our way of life may not be sustainable, or we might no longer be able to satisfy our need for growth and development. We might reach a point where we use 100% of all energy available to us on Earth (thus becoming a type I civilization) and get stuck. That’s it. No more territory to farm; no more forests left to cut down; no more fossil fuels; no more surface left to cover with windmills or rivers to build dams upon; no more water left to tap (all of it being already integrated into a vast circulatory and recycling system, or used as limited environment for sea life). No more metal ore left unusued, no more building materials available to expand constructions.

It’s hard to imagine, I know, but this point is very much reachable if we don’t ever venture away from Earth, or some horrible disease doesn’t wipe out 80% of the the population every time we get close to it.

But —


Does this vision of the future include solar power?

Let’s look at that premise again:

[…] if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases.

If the system is Earth, and we use only the energy Earth has to offer — wind power, hydropower, geothermal power, nuclear power, fossil fuels, wood and organic matter — then yes, we’re definitely heading for unsustainability. Such a system cannot grow indefinitely; it will consume itself and slowly fall into decay and chaos, letting natural entropy do its work (but most likely unnatural, accelerated entropy will give it the death blow).

But what if energy enters the system from outside?

Solar power is energy coming from outside the “Earth system”. It’s a free, available, and already used energy source we can tap into.

But is it finite within the life of our civilization? And must we expand our hypothetical system then, to include the entire solar system? Might we still reach unsustainability if we harness solar power?

Yes, if, at one point, we will use the entirety of our available real estate on Earth, and will require new lands to build and live upon. But if we don’t procreate like rats and rabbits, and don’t smother Earth with our ever-greedy bodies, we might never become unsustainable.

Although, if we reach such a technological level (not to mention the Singularity), that we require increasing amounts of resources (such as metal and silicon) to sustain ourselves, we might still get there. Not everything can be indefinitely recycled, you know. At one point, things will reach a molecular composition that can no longer be transformed into something usable, at least not without investing such high amounts of energy into the process as to be entirely unfeasible.

And what about surfaces we can cover with solar panels? Those too will run out eventually, if we never move beyond our orbit.

Unsustainable humanity is a distant possibility. Frightening in real life, intriguing in fiction. And it can go so many possible ways. Don’t you think?

* * *

          This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.        

   In 2012, my U post was — Unlikeable vs. Unrelatable Protagonists

3 Replies to “UNSUSTAINABLE civilizations”

    1. What an idealist he seems, compared to what we can envision for the future now. Even though global population is lately stated to not suffer an asymptotic growth, but in fact flat-line and potentially decline someday, I sincerely doubt that our requirements are only tied to our numbers. Even today, a relatively small percentage of the global population consumes a relatively large percentage of Earth’s resources (and thus renders them “dispersed, spread out, wasted”). This will only become more acute in the future.


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