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Imagine a world that reaches the end of its resources in silicon, petrol, coal, metals... everything that allows for conventional technology — even before it has found a way over it (renewable energy sources, space exploration for mining...).

Let's ignore the possibilities for stagnation or proper collapse of the society.

What in this case would be the next logical progress for the society? What "technology" style would arise? What breakthrough? How likely are they? How do they solve / resume technological advancement?

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    $\begingroup$ Resource depletion is myth. It's never happened and baring political interference in resource and development use e.g. the "energy crisis" of the '73-'83, never will. Economist Juilan Simon's "The Ultimate Resource." Basically, there are no "natural" resources, all resources save the ambient oxygen in the air result from human effort and manipulation of some kind. No human civilization has ever run out of resources and there aren't even any examples of critical shortages. Resource depletion is just a hypothesis based on a poor understanding of technology. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 14 '14 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah that's more or less what the accepted answer says. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Oct 14 '14 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, must have missed it. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 17 '14 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ I bet they would just keep on burning stuff like wood? It always grows back. Any plantlife really. $\endgroup$ – Radmation Sep 21 '16 at 15:21
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A quick note here is that 'running out' isn't really a thing economies experience. Or at least the leading economy in the world has never experienced this. It's easiest to see with energy. A given material is popular at a given time because extraction economics favor it. Trees were once popular because they were everywhere and took hardly any effort to chop down. Coal became worthwhile as trees dwindled and we figured out how to dig effectively. But turns out that the advances in digging technology made it easier to get at oil and gas. And today, oil deposits are getting increasingly difficult to get at, so we're developing wind turbines and solar panels and the like. However, at each step along the way, the new resource didn't suddenly appear as we 'ran out' of the old one; it was there for quite awhile, just much less often used. Similarly, when we switched to the new resource, the previous one wasn't depleted. There are still trees, coal and there will still be oil by the time we switch to something else, it's just more expensive to produce. This is why we shift to new materials.

What a given society thinks is 'too expensive' changes based on technology available, and at just about every point in history, technology has advanced faster than our exploitation of a given resource can reach cost-prohibitive levels. We've always had something new in the works whenever the old thing gets difficult to continue. Resources are never really disposed of, they just end up in increasingly difficult places. For example, it became more cost effective to mine garbage for aluminum than digging up the ores back in the 60s. The only way a material really becomes lost to us is if we throw it into space, which we presently do in trivially small quantities. If this ever becomes a common enough practice that it's a problem, it would likely imply an advance in spaceflight that make things like using the moon or asteroids for mining become more practical and at some point, mining our garbage will become less cost-effective than mining the moon.

Perhaps we run out of technological advances waiting in the wings, waiting for a time when their exploitation will be profitable; that seems rather unlikely. It's often said that the Higgs boson is probably going to be the last major verified discovery of physics for a long time. Further particle physics research is going to require larger, more sophisticated accelerators to test. In physics, we've more or less hit the limit of how fast our technology can keep up with theory. In mathematics, we hit this limit well over a century ago. Presumably, since these two foundational sciences on the complexity ladder have surpassed our technical capacity, we might some day hit such points in chemistry and biology and all the rest. It's suggesting that theoretical research proceeds faster than technology can keep up (which makes sense in a way). As a result, we're going to have a lot of things we're pretty sure are there but need someone to get around to making. So we won't run out of things to invent.

We've sort of got three rates of progression, economic being the slowest with technology a bit faster and research being much faster than that. Even if research stopped today, it's got quite the headstart on keeping the minds of engineers full of ideas. On the other hand, if we really did run out of stuff to invent, that means scientists have run out of stuff to study and we would understand pretty much everything. A world where humanity is omniscient of all the workings of the universe is a much different and exciting question. However, it's one I really don't think I can provide a decent answer to.

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  • $\begingroup$ Humans have run out of some natural resources. even the at the time leading economy did, with the mineral Imperial Porphory [1] bit.ly/1oZRnFG $\endgroup$ – Abulafia Oct 29 '14 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good answer, but generalizes a bit too much in it's confidence that technology always will provide an answer to a depleting resource. Population growth can strain consumption to a level that we deplete a resource before an alternative is developed. Also, new technologies require use of existing technologies/resources. If we run out of accessible iron ore, we can't manufacture drills to dig deeper into the earth to get more iron ore. Again, good answer, but just because resource depletion hasn't happened yet, doesn't mean it can't. $\endgroup$ – Random Nov 18 '14 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Assuming a functioning market, rising prices of a resource self-rations the resource, and provides incentives to find more of it, or to find substitutes (glass fibre optics instead of copper wires). This is why modern market economies don't run out of resources. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Lock Mar 15 '15 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Abulafia: Even the imperial porphory isn't depleted. It's stuck in Ancient Roman buildings that we'd like to preserve. If we needed it for the sake of our own survival, I guess we'd take it. $\endgroup$ – Sebastian May 19 '15 at 9:33
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This is a concept that's arisen in sci-fi fairly frequently.

Generally one of three things are portrayed to happen:

  1. After a period of upheaval the society reverts to simple agriculture and stagnates at whatever technology and population level can be supported.

    Sometimes there remains a small group that still has access to the advanced technology but it is not accessible to the masses.

  2. Civilisation collapses entirely. Think Mad Max roving hordes, people fighting over every last scrap they can get.

    This is one variant of the post-apocalyptic scenario popular with a lot of sci-fi.

  3. There is some sort of breakthrough that changes the rules of the game. For example organic technology, synthetic fuels, solar power, nuclear fusion.

    A lot of interesting stories can be told along these lines, civilization on the brink of collapse or already collapsing while people struggle to perfect a viable alternative in time.

Future Tech

The problem with future tech is that ...it's future.

If we already knew about it then we would have it. There are a large number of things in the near or medium term future that we can possible guess at. Reading sci-fi or speculative science articles will provide plenty of fuel for thought, but here are a few examples to get you started:

  1. Bio fuels generated from sunlight
  2. Moving away from transportation entirely (telecommuting, video chats, virtual reality)

Then further into the future:

  1. Fusion
  2. Bio technology - artificial life tuned to perform certain roles
  3. Quantum Computing

Then from there we open up into pure speculation:

  1. Completely new power sources
  2. Major breakthroughs in physics or chemistry

For example at any point, even tomorrow, someone could have a eureka moment and crack cold fusion, or antigravity, or teleportation, or something else we've never even heard of. When they do that the entire game changes. It could even seem really minor at first, the discovery of electromagnetism, or of lasers, were major breakthroughs that are now used everywhere around us but at the time their possibilities were impossible to predict.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe my question isn't very clear, but i'm actually interested in your 3rd point. What are these breakthrough? How likely are they? How do they solve / resume technological advancement? $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Sep 17 '14 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ @FlorianPellet Added more info on future tech $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 17 '14 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ But how do you telecommute / video chat without silicon nor energy? How do you do research on biofuels? $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Sep 17 '14 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ They wouldn't disappear overnight, they would run out over time and as that happens they would be replaced. Unless you're talking some sort of alien intervention that zaps every piece of modern technology overnight. Silicon is never going to run out, even if fossil fuels ran out that process is gradual and non-essentials would go offline first we already have enough in the way of solar and wind to keep essential research running, etc. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 17 '14 at 14:53
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I can think of two different ways of approaching this question, depending on what you mean by "conventional technologies". As I think both would be interesting questions, I will attempt to answer them both.

No more conventional technologies to discover

Our own history has involved moving on from one technology to the next as we discovered better ways of doing things. I would call that a series of conventional technologies, even though each one is novel when it first appears. If you are asking what would happen when there are no longer technologies left to discover (due to a species reaching the current limit of its ingenuity) then the next technological step could not be a discovery. In that case the next technological step would be some kind of compromise. Unable to use technology to continue feeding an ever growing population, compromises may include population restriction, rationing of resources including food and water, or even reduction in body size to allow a larger population of smaller creatures. Metabolic rate may also be artificially restricted so that a slow living population can support greater numbers than the available energy would otherwise allow. When technology can no longer be used to provide more, it may be used to restrict numbers, restrict access to resources, or restrict the size or life rate of individuals.

Given enough time these are all natural effects on a population in a restricted environment. For example, dwarf dinosaurs and reduced metabolic rate on islands. Technology may be used to speed up these effects in order to avoid conflict and suffering. It may be used to enforce equality in suffering so that everyone is a little bit hungry, rather than some starving. In the extreme case, a species may become unrecognisable due to the changes made, possibly even ceasing to be organic eventually.

The next conventional technology

If instead you are looking for the next conventional technology, to allow continued growth of a population that can no longer be sustained by its current technology, then there are two ways of searching. You can look back or you can look forward. You can look back to earlier times and see if a technology that has been abandoned for being less practical might be adopted again due to being more efficient. Sometimes new technology is not more efficient that the previous one, just more convenient in times of plentiful resources. Looking forward is more difficult unless your world has technology similar to our past, allowing you to use our present as an estimate of their future. If you want to predict technology that we don't yet have ourselves, this is more difficult but there are some things you can do without needing to make genuinely new inventions.

Look at the theoretical limits of current technologies

For example the limits on communication, transport or computing. It is unlikely you can predict the specific details of improvements in computers over the next century, but you can read up on the theoretical limits of computing. This way you can give your world a level of computing power which is theoretically consistent with the amount of available energy and materials they have, even if you don't explain exactly how it works.

Necessity is the mother of invention

A good prompt for your imagination is to ask what a population in such a situation would most need. This won't give you the inner workings of the resulting technology, but it will allow you to present a more believable combination of unexplained (or partially explained) technologies.

Be specific about what is in shortage

It's not easy to imagine new technologies as a result of a shortage of everything. It's a lot easier to come up with new ideas if you just think about one specific shortage. For example, in a world with a water shortage you can think about what problems that would cause and what alternatives could be used. You need to drink water, but you don't need to flush the toilet with it. You can separate the current uses of water into essentials and luxuries, and come up with alternative technologies for the luxury uses and more efficient approaches to the essential uses. By imagining one shortage at a time, and adding to them, you can build up an idea of what might happen if a population was subjected to a number of different shortages over time.

Specific details

There are of course far more specific potential answers, which you can access by posting further questions and narrowing down your requirements each time.

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I know this is a late answer but I think this needs to be added and I haven't really seen the other answer emphasize it (besides Envite's, indirectly).

Recycling

In Dune, there's little water so they make suits that recycle bodily fluids (sweat, urine) into drinkable water - they also have moisture farms (Luke Skywalker used to work in one on Tatooine, another desert planet). That's just one example. In real life we do this all the time - old metalworks get gathered and turned in for pennies and this contributes a lot to the availability of metals for industry. While recycling may not be a great way to save energy, it is a great way to make the most out of existing materials.

At any point, you're going to have old technology around and old constructs, that can be refined into newer ones. The limiting factor is energy. Unless we're talking about a world without any energy (it can lack conventional fuel but it can't lack energy sources entirely), they can go through a time period of scarcity, as they adjust to different energy sources and recycle their old stuff into new stuff.

This would of course raise the value of materials a great deal, but it can also depend on how efficient recycling is - if the techniques are developed adequately, it would be much like an unchanging supply of coinage, since the supply wouldn't grow or fade - the value of materials would be closer to the difficulty of recycling them versus their technological usefulness.

Another effect would be a shift of research into transforming materials into one another. If you need an element and don't have it, you can work on forming it from others, shifting from scarcity of each material separately, to scarcity of material overall. You could have technology that creates rocks out of dirt or get sand out of stones to make glass. You could also find ways to use some of these materials as fuels - if you find some process that can turn uranium into plutonium efficiently (very implausible but it's just an example), you could then use it as fuel until it degrades and you can use it for something else. I know we're talking about all resources being gone, but you might still have waste from old reactors and you can still transmute other metals to uranium or whatever.

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The Mote in God's Eye is a novel (nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards) in which humans make contact with a race that has depleted their world from metal. Do not continue reading this if you want to read it! I strongly recommend it.

In that world, the society has cycles of increasing population and development until there are no more resources, when it comes world war for resources and population strongly reduces almost to the point of non-survival, and technology disappears. Then they grow again, thanks to an innate "superpower" of their mechanics, able to build almost anything from any other thing with no new materials, just reformatting existing metal and plastic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Damn i haven't read it yet so i cannot read your answer :-) $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Sep 18 '14 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ Dude are there any books you haven't read!? I like the idea of a natural ebb and flow of population. Grim but realistic, just like microbes when resources dwindle $\endgroup$ – Liath Sep 18 '14 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath there are a lot of books I haven't read! :D I just try to get the maximun intellectual profit from those I have already read. $\endgroup$ – Envite Sep 18 '14 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ Another book to put on my to read list... sounds good. $\endgroup$ – Nick Wilde Sep 18 '14 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ The Mote in Gods eye is a bit dated in places (the description of communications I seem to remember being quite jarring to a modern reader), there were also a few flaws in the basic premise but it and its sequel are still excellent books. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 18 '14 at 15:42
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Technological development would be focused around resource production (probably especially energy). Depending on their situation, they may focus on going to space, or going into the earth. Depending on the parameters around them they may try to go to an alternate universe or use magic.

In order of likely hood (in my opinion):

  • Going to space. Civilization would work on a way to use remaining resources to enter space and collect new resources.
  • Going into the earth. The civilization would try to go deep into the earth to get geothermic energy/materials buried deep
  • Develop magic. This depends on how the rest of the world is built. If magic exists, civilization may try to use magic to get the resources and energy it needs. For example, if people could produce electricity with magic, then maybe society would enlist these people to make electricity to supply power for technology.

Technological advancement would depend on how society stuck together. If everyone went out for themselves, likely no more advancement would be made until a remnant of society was rebuilt. If society was stuck together, it is likely that technological advancement would be seen as the only way out and would be focused on.

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  • $\begingroup$ -1 for develop magic... that is not a technical solution. $\endgroup$ – Chad Sep 18 '14 at 17:52
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As your civilization sees it's end nearing all nations put their differences aside to solve the problem you put forth by a most ingenious method; they build a self-learning machine intelligence and give it the instruction of solving the problem of diminishing resources.

So they go at it and at some point the machine reaches enough basic intelligence to start learning. It decides to make itself smarter to be able to solve the problem it's been given. Two minutes later it reaches near infinite intelligence. Five seconds later it launches every nuke on the planet to every city it can find, irradiating everything.

The machine solved the problem of diminishing resources by cutting out demand, making sure te remainder will now last forever.

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