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Post scarcity

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Post scarcity or post-scarcity describes a hypothetical form of economy or society, often explored in science fiction, in which things such as goods, services and information are free, or practically free. This would be due to an abundance of fundamental resources (matter, energy and intelligence), in conjunction with sophisticated automated systems capable of converting raw materials into finished goods, allowing manufacturing to be as easy as duplicating software.

Even without postulating new technologies, it is conceivable that already there exists enough energy, raw materials and biological resources to provide a comfortable lifestyle for every person on Earth. However even a hypothetical political or economic system able to achieve an egalitarian distribution of goods would generally not be termed a "post-scarcity society" unless the production of goods was sufficiently automated that virtually no labour was required by anyone. (It is usually assumed there would still be plenty of voluntary creative labour, such as a writer creating a novel or a software engineer working on open-source software.)

There are some exceptions to this usage of the term. Anthony Giddens, for instance, uses "post-scarcity" to refer to a set of trends he sees in modern industrialized nations, such as an increased focus on "life politics" and a decreased focus on productivity and economic growth. Giddens acknowledges that the term has also been used historically to mean a literal end of scarcity.

The term post-scarcity economics is somewhat of a misnomer because scarcity is a defining feature of modern economics. Quoting a 1932 essay written by Lionel Robbins, economics is: "the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."[1]


Speculative technologyEdit

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.[2] 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 labour required.[2]

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.[2]

Digital abundanceEdit

Traditionally, creators have used (and continue to use) raw materials to instantiate their works: a painter might use oil and canvas, a sculptor might work in clay, an architect might draft designs in pen and ink. Such work would result in a single copy (or "matrix"). While mass reproduction of such works ("impressions") — by processes such as printmaking or photocopying — is possible and common, such reproduction still incurs appreciable costs (for example for the paper used, and for the physical distribution of the copy).

Digital copies however have negligible reproduction costs. The same painter could create an original work with graphics software; the sculptor might use rapid prototyping; the architect CAD/CAM tools. Most of the "cost" in such works is in paying for the original design and development — for the creators' expertise and for their tools (though these also do not wear out the same way physical tools do). While the creators of such works must still labour to create the design matrix, there are virtually no raw-materials required to recreate the work once completed.

This negligible-cost reproduction raises the question, "How much should one pay for something that can be copied near-indefinitely at minimal expense?" Does a purchaser have the right to reproduce their own copy as much as they can afford to? Some people believe the purchaser does not or should not have any rights to copy or transfer ownership, and use Digital Rights Management to enforce this view. Others instead feel that information should be freely distributed (see copyleft), and that DRM measures are attempts to restore prior business models' viability by inducing artificial scarcity.

Many advocates of the open source model attempt to collaboratively create open-source software programs which are intended to offer similar capabilities to their commercial competitors, but with the source code made public and permission granted for users to freely copy the software. Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project which designed the open-source GNU operating system, and co-founder of the free software movement, has explicitly cited the eventual creation of a post-scarcity society as one of his motivations:[3]

"In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counselling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming."


Economic paradigmEdit

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.[4][5] 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.

In Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (George Allen & Unwin 1926), Frederick Soddy turned his attention to the role of energy in economic systems. He criticized the focus on monetary flows in economics, arguing that “real” wealth was derived from the use of energy to transform materials into physical goods and services. Soddy’s economic writings were largely ignored in his time, but would later be applied to the development of bioeconomics and biophysical economics and also ecological economics in the late 20th century.[6]

Many science-fiction variants also imagine the very concept of ownership to weaken or disappear,[7] 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.

Unavoidable scarcityEdit

Some things will remain rare 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 and there are only sixty-nine 'real' Fabergé eggs in the whole world. However, hypothetical machines such as a Star Trek replicator or nano-construction are envisioned as being able to produce any real-world artefact, and some fictions even envision the physical creation of new living space (orbitals[7] or ringworlds[8]) to reduce this scarcity. This would likely further reduce (though not fully abolish) the value of an 'original' item or a specific locale to live in.

Population growth, if it continues long enough, may also lead to unavoidable scarcity. As pointed out by Paul Ehrlich, Albert 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 could continue 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 6000 years the mass of the human population would equal the estimated mass of the observable universe.[9] 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. It is therefore difficult to conceive of a credible post scarcity scenario which does not also imply zero population growth or very low population growth.

In fictionEdit


Fictional post-scarcity societies include such varied settings as the Bitchun Society from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow, The Queendom of Sol in the same-named series by Wil McCarthy, "the Festival" from Singularity Sky by Charles Stross, and possibly the United Federation of Planets from the Star Trek series (although canon sources do not provide much detail about the Federation's economic system, and it has been suggested in sources such as the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual that there are many items the replicators can't make duplicates of, including starships).

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, fuelled 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' The Culture stories center 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.


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 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. In Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad, a central motif is unbounded progress of technology. In 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, epitomised by the quote: "Strength is the outcome of need".

The recent Pixar film WALL-E can be argued to include an example of a post-scarcity dystopia.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


  1. Lionel Robbins. "An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science". Macmillan and Co., Limited. 1945. url = p. 16
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Engines of Creation (full text online, see also Engines of Creation) - Drexler, Eric K., Anchor Books, 1986
  3. GNU Manifesto (full text online, see also GNU Manifesto) - Stallman, Richard; Dr. Dobb's Journal, March 1985
  4. The Gift Economy - Vaughan, Genevieve, Ms. magazine, 1990
  5. The Hacker Culture as Gift Economy (full text online, see also Homesteading the Noosphere) - Raymond, Eric S., April 1998
  6.,_Frederick Soddy, Frederick - Encyclopedia of Earth
  7. 7.0 7.1 Various novels set in the 'The Culture' universe - Banks, Ian M.; 1987-2000
  8. Various novels from the 'Ringworld' series - Larry Niven; 1970-2004
  9. Patricia Muir. "Cornucopian versus New Malthusian perspectives". 2007-11-01. url =

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