Post Scarcity

A concept the futurists and MolecularNanoTechnology aficionados have to contemplate even though it's rarely encountered in SciFi. Our society is organized around a scarcity economy to such an extent that many people believe 'scarcity' and 'economy' mean the same thing. Even if it were true, different economies deal with differently scarce things. These can be categorized into:

Primitive economies had to deal with a scarcity of land and so feudalism emerged. The industrial revolution made capital scarce and so capitalism emerged. Nowadays, energy, especially cheap energy, is scarce and so we have the US invasion of Iraq. But on the internet, in academe and Hollywood, none of these are factors and with nanotech, the AttentionEconomy will encompass everything. Finally, ArtificialIntelligence will make even attention plentiful and the only scarcity will be that of purpose. What do you do with your immortal life? Why bother living at all?

PostScarcity in Science Fiction


Non-examples (Incidental PostScarcity, in the same sense as IncidentalScienceFiction)


All economies depend on the most scarce resource: time. No matter how much land, capital, energy, attention, purpose, nanotech, whatever you have, you can't have unlimited time. We'll all die someday. TimeIsMoney.

Scarcity means only that you have less of a resource than you want, not that the resource is finite. Oxygen is finite but it isn't scarce. The same is true of time: most people I know would kill themselves if given immortality.

Economical "laws" that prove post-scarcity to be impossible are doggerel. Every year there is another "proof" that ArtificialIntelligence, MolecularNanoTechnology, SpaceElevators, etc. are impossible. There have even been "proofs" by otherwise respectable physicists that the universe is non-deterministic. If those proofs were invented despite being provably impossible, then I certainly won't believe the latest economics theory.

First, immortality means "not subject to death". (American Heritage Dictionary)

The medical community disagrees. Something is immortal if it is alive but doesn't age. Something is eternal if it doesn't change at all. There is no word to describe something that "cannot die" because such a word is useless.

Secondly, do these people you know work 24 hours a day? Why not if time is not scarce?

Time is scarce now and nobody has claimed otherwise. Immortality, nanotech and AI should remedy this.

Just because something is limited, doesn't mean it's scarce. Scarce means that there is less of a thing than you want to acquire for a given amount of effort. The simplest way to eliminate scarcity is to reduce people's wants or make them accept greater amounts of effort. Hence, post-scarcity is possible. QED.

To demonstrate that assertion, show how it is possible to eliminate scarcity, not just assert that it is possible. I'm working toward a world with much less scarcity and more free time. We'll soon be able to build robots to do all of the jobs we don't enjoy. I'm concerned about how resources will be allocated once that happens. -- EricHodges

Post-scarcity is possible but it requires nanotech, immortality and artificial intelligence to relieve the scarcities of material goods, time and attention. Obviously, we aren't at that state yet. If you want to read a pretty complete blueprint for a post-scarcity society, just read one of the references above.

About robots - what sorts of jobs will they do? In the first place, it's extremely complicated to build them to do anything but the most basic and repetitive tasks. Anything resembling artificial intelligence is a long way off. And in any case, western economies (esp the US) have been shifting away from manual-labor-intensive jobs for quite some time. As far as I can tell, the only thing that's changed is that people are getting fatter. -- SteveConover

Nanotech makes robotics simpler by between 3 and 6 orders of magnitude. That's because you end up being able to make any object using lego building blocks. AI is not that far off, much less than a century. -- Anonymous

I think there are a lot of AI scientists who disagree with you. What they've essentially found is that even doing the most basic tasks that make us intelligent, like seeing, are incredibly complex. There are even problems that our brains solve every moment that are ill-posed problems (unsolvable) for modern physics. See "the robot challenge" at the beginning of Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works". -- SteveConover

The USA has been offloading its manual labour intensive jobs to third world countries like Mexico and China. As a result, it's difficult to say those jobs have actually disappeared. However, the 'professional' jobs (bank tellers, lawyers) have been rapidly disappearing because the knowledge in these people's heads is being embedded in software. What's left are largely service jobs (and programming counts as service). So a lot has changed and even more will since we're shifting to an attention-based economy. -- Anonymous

I seriously question the assertions about lawyers - lawyer salaries have been skyrocketing in the past ten years, which should attract more people into the profession. However, I could be wrong - do you have any data on this? I'm not sure about bank tellers but I wouldn't mind some data there too.

Intelligence is complex, but there's nothing magical about brain hardware that can't be duplicated in other hardware. Machine intelligence is already here and its only a matter of time before it is capable of performing any task we don't want to do. It doesn't matter where the jobs are (east or west). Eventually, robots will be doing them. -- EricHodges

How will this be different from the labor shifts we've seen to date due to robotics? What exactly will these robots do that humans currently do, beyond say manufacturing and minimum-wage work?

They will make work optional. They will do anything we don't want to do. Any job you can think of that people don't enjoy, that will eventually be automated.

I guess we disagree on what exactly "eventually" means. Good discussion though.
I seriously question the assertions about lawyers - lawyer salaries have been skyrocketing in the past ten years, which consequentially should attract more people into the profession....

Would this be empirical evidence that Lawyers are a creative service? Bank tellers are a service, but they are automatable because the transaction are repetitive and predictable. But there will always be room for a good loan shark. :)

No, I was wondering about data that shows that the number of lawyers is actually less that it was, say, 10 years ago (in response to the assertion that that's the case). It would be surprising in light of the fact that there's a lot of economic research being done into winner-take-all professions, which attract more people than what is optimal for the same reasons that people (irrationally) play lotto - there's a huge payoff for those at the top, like any market suffering from the winner-take-all dynamic. The market for lawyers is one of the ones often cited as suffering from this effect, along with CEO's, actors, and sports stars.

Intelligence is complex, but there's nothing magical about brain hardware that can't be duplicated in other hardware. Machine intelligence is already here and its only a matter of time before it is capable of performing any task we don't want to do. It doesn't matter where the jobs are (east or west). Eventually, robots will be doing them. -- EricHodges

From GettingToPostScarcity; this is somewhat redundant, but there are some points not covered above:

Life expands and evolves to fill all possible niches. The only time there isn't at least one scarce resource limiting the reaction is a brief period after a massive die-off. See Europe after each outbreak of plague for examples. It's safe to assume that no matter how many resources we make abundant some form of life will find a way to thrive off of a key resource and make it scarce again. Viewed from this perspective, scarcity is one of life's signifying by-products. The only way to reach PostScarcity may be to get rid of life.

Life may, but humans don't. I'm certain some humans could live on eating nothing but dung, but that niche is too small to be worth considering.

That's not an EvolutionarilyStableStrategy. Some set of humans might live on nothing but dung, but given enough time and population some humans will hoard the dung and grow better food in it. Humans are just as much living organisms as fish or bacteria. If some group can better exploit the available resources they will.

Many also distinguish between artificial scarcity (digital bits, movies, music, knowledge protected by laws/drm), and physical scarcity(water, oil, food). Some scarcity is purely political.

It doesn't matter. Someone will figure out a way to use more than someone else and benefit from it. Scarcity is what life seeks. Each of those categories exhibits this. The rights to music are protected so that the owners will profit. Access to oil is protected so that the owners will profit. Political entities regularly restrict access to food, speech, weapons, etc. to exert power over others. Underneath it all, some group and their children are living better than the rest. I guess the real question is "which group"

So should we assume that things like wild berries, forests, and oceans will become scarce? That it is just a matter of time?

Often there is one limiting reagent in the reaction. If wild berries become the limiting reagent for some survival strategy, then yes, we should assume wild berries will become scarce.

This is one valid (and possibly the only) way to reach post scarcity. Get rid of life.

Sure, but that supposes infinite abundance, which is something different from post-scarcity. Post-scarcity only requires that there is enough to fill everyone's needs, not every lifeform ever. Life does not seek scarcity. (Though, there has been attempts from single, post-scarce individuals to reduce the total number of living beings (Gilles de Rais springs to mind:, but that didn't exactly work out...)

Most of the talk on this page overlooks the thing that's really crucial: energy. There's not going to be enough energy for this wonderful future society. The HubbertCurve? will simply force us back to the middle ages (possibly by way of the stone age).

By "energy" you mean petrol. I doubt it. I also doubt the idea that petrol, gas and uranium will all be exhausted at the same time, leaving no room to retool the energy industry to use wind and solar exclusively. I predict a happy future where China sets off nuclear bombs in every major US city as a sneak attack against history's biggest resource hog.

It seems oil (becomes petrol) and natural gas are depleting fairly simultaneously. The production of these two will drop rapidly enough that Uranium cannot take over quickly enough, and of course nuclear power plants create electricity and we have cars with internal combustion engines. The cost (in energy!) of re-tooling all (or even a fraction) of these vehicles is too high. We will be left without the capacity to do work, move goods or gather food. Starvation is coming...

How much of the scarcity is artificial? Although it's true that these are not renewable resources, the amount of the resource one has access to at a given time is governed by political means.


I predict solar energy will become cost-effective for home and building power within a decade or two. Our roofs are currently sitting there doing nothing. Solar has been trending down toward the oil cost level for several decades. And, our cars are more powerful than we really need for the basics of most transportation. We need powerful cars to compete with other powerful cars. If the average is lowered through some incentive, then the engine arms race would stop. --top

CategoryScienceFiction, CategoryEconomics, GiftEconomy

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