Monday, July 18, 2011

On Global Economies

Our global economy has reached the point that our everyday lives are fundamentally dependent on goods and services provided from great distances, sometimes ten thousand miles or more.  This dependence on non-local support began when our hunter-gatherer ancestors first grouped into villages and towns.  Local transportation and storage of supplies and materials expanded with trade to distant areas.  This allowed mankind to exploit regional specialties, originally based on the varying abundance of natural resources. 

Technological humans are those that use tools and fire, build villages and have generally stable populations.  The scope of a population is the range over which they gather resources.  Even though most individuals in a population may not travel very far they may rely on transportation of goods from great distances.  Some of these exotic items may be considered luxuries, but if efficient transportation makes items abundant they may come to be viewed as necessities. 

The ready availability of inexpensive goods mass produced in specialized centers located at great distances is what makes our modern technological society possible.  Exotic goods, invented mere years ago are now efficiently produced and transported from locations that are completely beyond the control of the consumer.  This dependence on distant materials, manufacturing and transportation is a source of great concern.  Any disruption due to economic miscalculation, terrorist acts or natural disaster could cascade into virtual collapse of society on a wide scale. 

There are communities that have stable populations which use resources from a limited scope.  Primitive tribes in isolated areas tend, for the most part, to be able to function without outside contact.  Amish communities, for example, have an early twentieth-century technology and sustain their populations with minimal scope. 
The scope of the average individual in the United States has grown to encompass a large part of the earth.  Cheap foreign mass production and efficient, inexpensive global transportation have made local production of virtually all goods unlikely. 

There are no manufacturing facilities for the most basic electronic components (resistors and capacitors) located in America.  The specifications for those devices are well standardized and the production has been optimized over a long enough time that virtually all of these components come from a small number of plants in Asia.  This transfer of technological competence means that the United States relies completely on foreign sources for the most basic devices.  Furthermore, it is likely that there are no longer any individuals in the United States that have the knowledge of how to set up the equipment to produce these components.  If it were necessary to begin domestic production it would probably take months or years to reacquire the knowledge. 

Interestingly, although I believe the United States is in a dangerous situation with respect to demand for foreign resources I think China is much more vulnerable.  They are depleting their resources and shifting their population in a completely non-sustainable fashion.  In the quest for global trade, they are duplicating the political, regulatory and environmental mistakes that plagued the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the exception that their production is not headed for domestic consumption but rather is being sold for a fraction of its worth overseas.  Any major disruption of demand or transportation will lead to the collapse of their highly specialized manufacturing.  This will leave huge populations without the ability to participate in commerce and may impact the availability of life-sustaining necessities to these people.  The sudden loss of certain manufacturing specialties will ripple throughout the world and cause unpredictable effects on most of the population.

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Determining the scope of a particular population may be trickier than it initially appears.  An isolated group may be dependent on rain for agriculture which comes from seasonal weather systems that cover thousands of miles.  Scope determination becomes easier in a high-tech environment where virtually all resources flow through a known transportation system.  Submarines at sea, the International Space Station and research bases in the Antarctic allow a careful examination of resource utilization, but none have truly closed environments or sustainable populations. 

Eventually mankind will try to establish self-sustaining colonies in space or on the Moon or Mars.  It will be necessary to use local manufacturing to produce many of the goods that will be needed in such colonies.  There will not be adequate transportation or storage area to bring along every commodity that might be required.  The population will (initially) be too small to allow skilled artisans to manufacture rarely needed goods.

All of the assumptions that make mass production and transportation on a planetary scale so efficient will not be applicable in tiny, truly isolated colonies.  Determining the minimum sustainable population on Mars (for example) is a completely different matter than on Earth.  Specialists will be required for maintaining the habitat, obtaining energy and raw materials from the environment, managing health care and reproduction and training young replacements for aging individuals.  Each of these tasks will need sufficient redundancy so that accidents or time will not leave the colony short of critical skills. 

For the foreseeable future, certain strategic goods will need to be shipped from Earth.  But a just-in-time manufacturing facility will be required in any case.  With a population of only 250 adults, even carefully screened, one would expect more than 25 cases of diabetes to develop.  It would be unreasonable to rely on timely shipments of simple pharmaceuticals from Earth.  Deriving insulin from pig pancreases is simple, early twentieth-century technology.  Of course, this presumes that the colony has plenty of pigs.

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