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Post-scarcity is a hypothetical form of economy or society in which goods, services and information are universally accessible on condition of fulfilling one's social obligation to maintain the economy. This would require a sophisticated system of resource recycling, in conjunction with technologically advanced automated systems capable of converting raw materials into finished goods.
The scarcity problem
Scarcity is the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited human needs and wants, in a world of limited resources. It states that society has insufficient productive resources to fulfill all human wants and needs. Alternatively, scarcity implies that not all of society's goals can be pursued at the same time; trade-offs are made of one good against others. As such, the term post-scarcity economics may be somewhat paradoxical. To quote a 1932 essay by Lionel Robbins, economics is "the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."
Economics in any and all forms rests on the assumption of conditions of natural or artificially enforced scarcity, far less than enough to supply everyone. The study of economics and its everyday business control and transactions tells you how each variation of the Price System makes an ideology of how to divide up that scarcity. You will find economics defined in terms of scarcity in every textbook on the subject, usually in the opening chapter. Without scarcity, some of them candidly admit, there would be no need for economics.
— John A. Waring, "Technocracy and Humanism", Section 3 Newsletter, Feb. 1985, No. 18 and Mar. 1985, No. 19.
However, in Marxist economics, scarcity is said to be peripheral. Human wants in practice are not assumed to be infinite, but variable and ultimately conditioned. Scarcity, instead, is secondary to the issue of differential distribution within a society due to class, primarily between a producing class (e.g. slaves, peasants, the proletariat) and a surplus-taking class (e.g. slave owners, lords, the bourgeoisie).
Most visions of post-scarcity societies assume the existence of new technologies which make it much easier for society to produce nearly all goods in great abundance, given raw materials and energy. More speculative forms of nanotechnology (such as molecular assemblers or nanofactories) raise the possibility of devices that can automatically manufacture any specified goods given the correct instructions and the necessary raw materials and energy. Even before that level of technology can be achieved, fab labs and advanced industrial automation might be able to produce most physical goods that people desire, with a minimal amount of human labor required.
As for the raw materials and energy needed as input for such automated production systems, self-replicating automated mining plants set loose in the asteroid belt (see asteroid mining) or other areas of space with huge amounts of untapped raw materials could cause the prices of these materials to plummet. New power sources such as fusion power or solar power satellites could do the same for energy, especially if the power plants/power satellites could themselves be constructed in a highly automated way, so their number would be limited only by raw materials and energy.
Market economies or planned economies may be unnecessary in a post-scarcity age, though gift or exchange economies may take their place once the scarcity driving earlier types of economy disappears. Post-scarcity societies might also have their market economies limited to the exchange of energy and resources, or of other scarce or even non-material things, such as status or reputation (see Whuffie for a fictional example), real estate, or skills and expertise.
Many science-fiction variants also imagine the very concept of ownership to weaken or disappear, as people lose attachment to all but sentimental-value items, knowing that they will always be able to receive or create replacements. Monetary systems in consequence also cease to be a factor. Many stories depict these changes as a positive advancement, freeing humanity from both toil and greed. Others posit that handing production and most other services over to machines and computers will stunt the spirit of humanity, or even lead to a loss of control over humanity's own fate, e.g., Jack Williamson's With Folded Hands.
Some things would remain limited in supply even in a post-scarcity society. There is a practical limit to the number of people who can live in any specific, 'in-demand' locale. However, hypothetical machines such as a nanofactory are envisioned as being able to produce any real-world artifact, and some fictions even envision the physical creation of new living space (orbitals or ringworlds) to reduce this scarcity. This would likely further reduce (though not fully eliminate) the value of an 'original' item or a specific locale to live in. Engineers have suggested megascale structures such as an Alderson disk or Dyson sphere to provide abundant living space and energy.
If immersive virtual reality were to develop to simulate reality so accurately that one could not distinguish it from the physical world, the amount of available virtual space would be vastly increased. Since one need not simulate the world to a quantum level to make it appear completely real, a simulated reality which appears completely real to a user could be simulated on a computer much smaller than the simulated space.
Population growth, if it continued long enough, would also lead to unavoidable scarcity. As pointed out by Thomas Robert Malthus, Paul R. Ehrlich, Albert Allen Bartlett, and others, exponential growth in human population has the capacity to overwhelm any finite supply of resources, even the entire known universe, in a remarkably short time. For example, if the human population continued to grow indefinitely at its 1994 rate, in 1,900 years the mass of the human population would equal the mass of Earth, and in 6,000 years the mass of the human population would equal the estimated mass of the observable universe Although this would imply the invention of faster than light travel, necessary for humanity to spread throughout the universe as fast as population growth, even at lower growth rates these levels would still be reached in readily imaginable times. So a plausible post-scarcity scenario must imply zero population growth or relatively low population growth, even though possible future technologies such as self-replicating spacecraft could theoretically maintain exponential growth far beyond Earth's carrying capacity.
At present, the total fertility rate is high in poor countries with poor health infrastructure, but it tends to drop to replacement levels or lower once a nation reaches a per capita income of roughly $10,000. In fact, virtually every wealthy OECD nation currently has a total fertility rate that is below replacement levels, implying a coming population decline for the West. Due to the decline in fertility that tends to accompany wealth (of the 233 countries listed by the CIA for fertility, 100 have fertility rates below replacement rates), human population is expected to stabilize at near 9 billion by 2050.
Fictional post-scarcity societies include varied settings, such as The Queendom of Sol in the series of the same name by Wil McCarthy, "the Festival" and agalmic economics from Singularity Sky and Accelerando by Charles Stross, and the United Federation of Planets from the Star Trek series.
One of the earliest treatments of a transition to a post-scarcity society occurs in Pandora's Millions by George O. Smith, in which the development of a "matter duplicator" that can replicate almost any scannable object causes an economic collapse, and a return to a barter economy for the only remaining scarce resource: Skilled human labor. Chaos ensues until the inventors of the matter duplicator discover a substance that explodes when scanned by the duplicator beam. This new substance, "Identium," serves as a new medium of exchange for skilled labor, in a post-scarcity society otherwise primarily devoted to the pursuit of leisure, science, art, the occasional lawsuit, and the sale and exchange of "Certified Uniques" — objects whose chain of provenance can legally establish that they have never been scanned by a duplicator beam.
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy describes the beginning development of a highly automated society whose economy was to be based on caloric input/output and had only a few materials valued based on their scarcity. However, the inherent problems of such a system (such as its remaining capitalist elements or the difficulty in fixing the worth of academic work) are not resolved within the timeframe depicted in the trilogy.
An intermediate step to a post-scarcity society is shown in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, where fabricator technology allows the growth of any item that one has design plans for - however, the poor receive a lesser amount of energy and resources per day to use, and thus have to wait longer for their items to be fabricated. Also, their items tend to be smaller, as they have no access to large-scale fabricators. This system, fueled by a centrally-distributed matter 'feed' is eventually replaced by the protean 'seed', which is able to take in raw materials from its environment to develop into whatever its program dictates. No longer bound to the aristocratically-controlled feeds, the society moves to a post-scarcity economy.
James P. Hogan has written several works where post-scarcity plays a major role. Voyage from Yesteryear details the society of the "Chironians", embryo colonists of Alpha Centauri who have adopted such a lifestyle. Cradle of Saturn and its sequel The Anguished Dawn is mostly told from the perspective of the "Kronians", a pseudo-religion who colonize Saturn's largest satellite in the process of developing such a society. Both stories are driven by the difficulties of changing an existing economic paradigm, and postulate that a fresh start may be necessary to overcome old thinking about money and possessions.
Rudy Rucker also dealt with this jarring transition in Realware in which humans receive an alien device that can instantiate any consumer product they have seen. This leads to a breakdown of the market, with stores blacking out their windows in a vain attempt to prevent people from 'copying' their products. Still, people who do buy the products find them instantly copied once out on the streets.
Iain M. Banks' Culture series centers around an advanced spacefaring civilization that has used artificial intelligences to provide extremely abundant (and in daily practice unlimited) amounts of goods and services using advanced technology, describing a fully post scarcity society, which also attempts to influence other galactic societies towards the advanced cultural stage that freedom from greed and material need has allowed it. As Banks puts it in a 1994 article, "nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby."
John C. Wright's novel The Golden Age deals with a future voluntary libertarian society spanning the solar system called the Golden Oecumene. Due to technology, nearly everyone is immortal and tremendously wealthy except those living outside society due to exile or by choice. The Sophotechs, a superior line of computer intelligences, do most of the work, research, and simulations required by the society. Throughout the book the main character, Phaethon, has to face off against a technologically superior and unknown enemy while also dealing with a post-scarcity society which is afraid of death and instability more than anything else and does not believe his plight.
There have also been fully dystopian science fiction societies where all people's physical needs are provided for by machines, but this causes humans to become overly docile, uncreative and incurious. Examples include E. M. Forster's 1909 short story "The Machine Stops", Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, and Arthur C. Clarke's 1956 novel The City and the Stars. Riders of the Purple Wage, Philip José Farmer's dystopian 1967 science fiction novella also explores some ramifications of a future wherein technology allows everyone's desires to be met.
Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel "Childhood's End" also describes Earth achieving a post-scarcity society when god-like aliens take indirect control of the planet and eradicate war, disease, poverty and other ailments. A lack of competitiveness causes humanity to become disinterested in science and space exploration.
Jack Vance's The Moon Moth presents a planet where plenitude has led to a culture of intricacy with an elaborate half-musical language and craftsmanship. The lack of incentive for collaboration is one of the problems faced by the "outlander" main character.
In Frederik Pohl's The Midas Plague, resources and luxuries are so common, that the poor must bear the burden of consuming and disposing of the bounty, as well as working at meaningless jobs to produce more meaningless plenty; the rich, conversely, are allowed to live simple but comfortable lifestyles.
In Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad, a central motif is unbounded progress of technology - in the sub-story The Highest Possible Level of Development civilization, the inhabitants have become passive, and the visitors have to shoo away machines trying to comfort them. In H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, the Time Traveller speculates, based on the Eloi, that mankind had been "armed with a perfected science" which reduced all dangers in nature, epitomized by the quote: "Strength is the outcome of need".
In A for Anything, a science fiction novel by Damon Knight, the "Gismo" is a device that can duplicate anything—even humans or another Gismo. Since all material objects have become essentially free, the only commodity of value is human labor, and a feudal society and a slave economy is the result.
- Robert Chernomas. (1984). "Keynes on Post-Scarcity Society." In: Journal of Economic Issues, 18(4).
- Robbins, Lionel (1945). An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited., p. 16
- Marx, Karl, trans. Moore, Samuel and Edward Aveling, ed Engles, Friedrich. "Capital, Vol. 1". Progress Publishers, Moscow: 1887. Available on marxists.org: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm
- Engels, Friedrich and Marx, Karl, trans Moore, Samuel. "The Communist Manifesto". Progress Publishers, Moscow: 1888. Available on marxists.org: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm
- Communism and Women of the East. A 1924 speech by Leon Trotsky, available at International Communist League website: http://www.icl-fi.org/english/esp/60/trotsky.html
- Engines of Creation (full text online, see also Engines of Creation) - Drexler, Eric K., Anchor Books, 1986
- "The Gift Economy" - Vaughan, Genevieve, Ms. magazine, 1990
- The Hacker Culture as Gift Economy (full text online, see also Homesteading the Noosphere) - Raymond, Eric S., April 1998
- Various novels set in the 'The Culture' universe - Banks, Ian M.; 1987-2000
- Various novels from the 'Ringworld' series - Niven, Larry; 1970-2004
- Orland, Kyle. "How close are we to truly photorealistic, real-time games?". Ars Technica.
- Muir, Patricia (2007-11-01). "Cornucopian versus New Malthusian perspectives". Retrieved 2008-03-18.