Civilization is a human construct, taking vast amounts of energy and time from millions, even billions of people around the world. Civilization would not exist without those people, so there must be specific things that humans bring to the table of the universe in order to transform a raw landscape with physical objects, energy and natural laws into something that can be called a “civilization”. This essay is an attempt to explore those things that only humans in our experience have ever brought into this universe in abundance.
There are four major resources that are created of, by and for the human mind, body and soul. By soul I do not mean spirit, which would get into religious context that are beyond the scope in many ways but integral in one specific way. Religions are passed from person to person and down from generation to generation in the form of stories, ideas, concepts. Whatever the language, whatever the medium, it is the story that is told that we want to focus on here. It’s the information, the data. It can be measured, either in the number of words in a book, the number of pages in a manuscript, the number of equations in a proof, the number of rows in a database. Data can be stored, it can be shared, recorded, the content can be reviewed, hashed, etc. Whatever language is being used, it can tell the same story in different ways, from different perspectives, but it all comes down to what is being relayed. In all of its forms, data is the soul of civilization, telling its story to its members and keeping that story alive as that civilization grows and changes over time.
The second primary resource of a civilization is productive capacity. This is the ability to take an idea and turn it into an object or to use it to do useful work, taking the materials, energy and natural laws of the universe and turning it into something usable by humans for human needs and wants is truly magical. Productive capacity is that spark of genius that takes a series of numbers and transforms it into a visual chart, or taking a natural law like heat and pressure and turning a gear shaft with fire and steam, that capacity can be measured. It’s the efficiency of an engine, the value of an invention, the yield of a farm or the assembly quota of a manufacturing plant. It is the ability to do work. Not the value represented by the speed of an engine or the price of a crop or manufactured good, but the sheer transformation of raw materials into finished product, or the generation of ideas in the pure service economy.
Value is a third primary resource of civilization, and I’m talking about the core functions of money itself, those being a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. Money can come on many different forms, and can be measured in many different ways, but all of these are aspects and facets of those core concepts. Whether we are talking about fiat currency within a jurisdiction or country, or commodity money representing a specific amount of a material, our economic system depends on our willingness to accept that things have a certain value and that those things can be exchanged for goods and services. Just like different languages can tell the same story in different ways, different currencies can hold and represent the same value in different ways. Whether you are talking about the highest valuable national currency in the world with the New Zealand Dollar or one of the least valuable currency (not including the hyperinflated ones) like the Iranian Rial, we do accept that they each have a certain value that can be used to purchase goods and services around the world.
The final primary resource of civilization that only exists between creatures with a certain sized neural network within the brain is trust. When one gives their word that they will do something and they follow through, they build that trust, and when someone breaks their word either through intent or forgetfulness, it degrades that trust. We can even bypass some monetary value in a direct trading economy when we mutually agree that painting a picture is worth a certain number of dinners or a ring is worth a lifetime of memories. Sure, the painting might be valued a certain amount if you look at it exclusively as canvass, ink and time, but our ability to strike a bargain and come to an agreement can change the value at will.
What got me thinking about all of this in the first place was the rise of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. There will only ever be 21 million Bitcoin in the network once all of the coins are mined. But each Bitcoin can be easily subdivided into 100 million decimal components, called Satoshis. That final mining operation to bring all 21 million Bitcoins into circulation is projected to happen in 2078, and the expected population from the United Nations for that year is 10,637,573,903. I know that this is just math, but if we take 21 million, multiply by 100 million, and then divide by that population figure, we get an equal distribution of 197,413.43 Satoshis per person in 2078. That’s with all things being perfectly equal.
Bitcoin is a store of value, a unit of account and a medium of exchange. The act of the exchange and the creation of the blocks in the blockchain is an act of productive capacity, turning raw data into a unit of work, moving money from this wallet to that wallet, and keeping it all on a shared and trusted ledger. But it’s just one of a thousand different blockchains out there, each of which has a value, both in terms of market capitalization and individual unit worth in the open market.
Let’s get back to the analogy. A resource in the real world can be abundant or scarce. There are oceans of water on Earth, and there are also vast deserts. Water is only one resource though. The Sahara desert is composed of sand and dust that is carried across the Atlantic Ocean by the wind and drops in rain drops onto the Amazon Rainforest, providing a great deal of the nutrients and materials over time that the Rainforest needs to thrive. Scientific investigations into what the global effects would be if efforts were put into turning the Sahara green again with plant life and rich forests showed that it would reduce this transfer of materials to South America and that the Amazon might end up losing much of the nutrient rich soil, becoming a less dense forest, even a savannah or desert given enough time.
Now think about the resources of civilization in those terms. There are places in the world where data is very scarce, people don’t have access to education or any information, they are limited only to what stories are passed from generation to generation and the knowledge that they need to survive. And there are great libraries that hold vast numbers of books, information filling every corner in quantities that no individual human could ever consume in a single lifetime. There are places in the world where thousands, even millions, of people live with a revenue of less than a dollar per day, and then we have places where thousands of dollars are spent by a single person for a hotel stay for a single night, or millions of dollars pass from hand to hand in heartbeats or even shorter timelines within commodity trading markets. There are fields of war where thousands of years have passed since anyone trusted anyone else, and other places where the struggle to survive means that all productive energy is spent just moving water from a river to a cache basin to do a single load of laundry for a single family.
What makes a civilization a “success”, and how can that be measured? The reality is that it is the equality or inequality, the equity or the lack of equity in any or all of the resources of civilization that can be used to quantifiably measure the success of that civilization. We don’t need each and every person in the population to have exactly 197,413.43 Satoshis in 2078, but we also don’t want to see a world where a small number of people control wallets holding 20.9 Million Bitcoin while the rest of the world fights over just 10,000,000 Satoshis. Even given that as just part of the total economic picture, it still reflects the metaphor of Deserts, Oceans and Rainforests, with different resources available in different quantities in different places, and all resources needing to be put together deliberately for civilizations to thrive.
The physical resources we have available on Earth are limited, and they do create limits to what we are capable of doing on this planet. But the Solar System is more than just Planet Earth, it includes all of the other planets, the asteroids, the comets and even the Sun itself. And this system is only one of billions of star systems within one among billions of Galaxies in the Cosmos. What we must do is use the resources of civilization, which are information and data, productive capacity, money/value and our willingness to trust ourselves and our fellow man to reach beyond just the Earth towards the stars. And we must do so with equity and equality at the center of the story of humanity.