The concept of an old and dying red planet is common in pulp novels, comics, and gaming. What I am interested in is a world dying under a sun that has turned red and is expanding. The increasing luminosity of the aging sun drives water off the planet, where live is short and cheap, and men are desperate and cruel.

The Problem Statement

But the confounding problem with the dying red planet genre is that the timescale for the environmental changes is immense. Stars take hundreds of millions of years, at the least, to grow from friendly main-sequence stars to menacing red giants. The time it takes a watery, verdant world have have water vapor sputtered out of its atmosphere is in the millions of years as well.

So how does society survive from the verdant world to the dying one? It must be stagnant, technologically. There are plenty of questions on this site addressing that aspect (here, here, here, more if you want to search). But in this case, the society must be stagnant for tens to hundreds of millions of years.

Our current society, as is, won't make it. We rely greatly on stored hydrocarbons, and those won't last long on geological timescales; one way or another our society will change. But, plenty of older cultures were not sustainable in their own ways. The Sumerians poisoned their fields with salt after thousands of years of irrigation; the Ethiopians lost the topsoil on their fertile mountains after cutting down the trees. Early modern Europe would have lost most of its tree cover if wood burning had not given way to coal.

Finally, there is the issue of space travel. A society cannot be trapped in too advanced of a state, or some group of survivors will be able to escape the planet completely (even if it is only one survivor).

The Question

Assuming that technology is already stagnant for whatever reason, what is the highest technological level that a society can achieve and still survive, stagnant, on the order of a hundred million years on one planet?


  • The obvious, and trivial answer, is zero technology. If intelligent life never develops on the planet then technology is at exactly the same level 100 million years from now.

  • This doesn't have to be Earth, and it doesn't have to be humans. The question is only about the state of technology.

  • The question isn't about evolution. The biological species can change all it likes, so long as the technology remains stagnant.

  • $\begingroup$ As it stands I think this is too opinion-based. We don't have an example of a society that's been completely stagnant for that length of time (as you point out, all of your examples either adapted or died out), meaning there's precious little objective to base an answer on. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Nov 28, 2018 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question, except for this - it makes no sense to allow evolution but suppress technology. That represents a completely arbitrary, unnatural constraint. It would have be be applied forcefully - moreover, across a time-span vastly greater than our species narrow existence. If the suppression is necessary for some secondary reason, maybe think about focusing upon that. You are reaching for, in any pragmatic sense, an eternal condition. What was our world like just a single million years ago, just a single decade ago, when the smartphone was just getting off the ground. $\endgroup$
    – theRiley
    Nov 28, 2018 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ @theRiley The issue of the cause of the technological stagnation is a separate issue, not addressed by this question. I linked some other helpful answers to give some ideas on how technological stagnation might be caused. This question is about coming up with a sustainable stagnant technology level. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 28, 2018 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion - But if conditions are growing steadily, however slowly, more dire, I suppose the question is how a truly stagnant civilization would ever solve the challenges, lacking freshly demanded solutions, since by so doing, they move directly out of the stagnancy, to that extent. The changing conditions induce adaptation. The how will always be some variation on the themes of technical or ideological leading to social innovation, otherwise extinction in the extreme, increased demand for adaptation short of that.. $\endgroup$
    – theRiley
    Nov 28, 2018 at 5:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @theRiley: Assume that there are physical limits to technology. For example, consider lighting; in about 150 years, we're gone from candles & oil lamps that convert less than 1% of their energy into light, to ~1-3% efficient incandescents, 7-10% efficient CFLs, and now LEDs that are perhaps 20% efficient. Since the limit is obviously 100%, can lighting tech advance much more, even in millions of years? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 28, 2018 at 6:23

9 Answers 9


Near future.

Your society is governed by an artificial intelligence. Policy and technology decisions are all decided by the Benevolent AI (Ben for short). Ben does not innovate, but in an enlightened way it rearranges and redeploys the very adequate known technologies to cope with changing circumstances over the years such as drought, salinity, increasing UV and so on. The code of Ben is inviolate and not to be updated, amended or changed in any way for fear of introducing bias. Governed by an angel, humanity does very well over the eons.

Innovation / new technology is suppressed as dangerous, chiefly because Ben does not know about it, cannot use it and it is anathema to update Ben's program. Technology parks at the level it was when Ben was started. That does not necessarily mean Ben uses all the tech it knows about at any given time but that tech remains available for use as circumstances warrant. Life is good.


Before even thinking about society, we have to think on a more basic biological level about the scenario you are asking about. In order for a society not to change on a high behavioural level, the species itself must not change evolutionarily on a basic biological level even though the world the species lives in changes a lot from friendly habitable to lacking in water and quite inhabitable. Any species which is highly dependent on its environment is therefore ruled out to fulfill your requirements, as not only their society but even their biology would have to change to adapt to the changing environment. As examples look at polar bears as the 'big losers' in current climatic change, as they are very specialised in their habitate and food sources. Also consider human evolution itself within only a few million years - a much smaller time scale than you are asking for - where races developed based on the amount of pigments required in different environments or the body mass and size optimised for different climatic side conditions. Our current level of technology allows us to converge biologically, as races mix and physical requirements are less prominent due to technology being able to make up for environmental requirements. We can also observe how only a few degrees of temperature rise cause havoc among humans, causing floods, draughts and in addition mass migration which is the most radical kind of societal change possible.

Thus, I see two possible options:

First, your species must possess a sufficiently high level of technology which can completely make up for any physical changes in their environment and is advanced enough to have sources of food, energy or living space completely unaffected by any environmental changes, e. g. because they migrated several 100s of metres below the surface and completely maintain their society by not moving out of their underground bunkers where the live so completely maintained by their technology that any further research is unnecessary and unacceptable by the society itself, because the technology can automatically adapt to the long term changes without active maintainance or intervention by the people. Likely a species living under such conditions would not be the species originally having developed and built the technology, as such amounts of research require a high enough number of peole driven by curiosity and the wish to learn about and change things in the world. A species driven by the wish to change its environment and constantly improve itself and its technology through research would never just 'stand still'. Thus, one can imagine that the people living in this unchanged technoloigcal environment without any drive or wish of even a single individual in millions of years to change somenthing could be that they are scavengers without much drive towards change or improvement having found and nested in the high technology environment and as they get all that they need from the technology itself they degenerated much like some overbred races of pets who would be unable to maintain themselves under any circumstances which do not involve someone feeding them.

Second, your species is optimised for survival under conditions in an environment which is not greatly affected by global changes as much as others, yet still flexible enough to survive minor changes. We have a few examples of such 'old' species: sharks and crocodiles as more advanced species, bacteria, amoeba on a more basic microbial level of life. Sharks and crocodiles show a 'group'social behaviour, however defining a school of sharks as a type of society might be far-fetched. They did not have to change evolutionarily, because they are already optimised as successful predators in the seas who can survive in warm as well as cold waters that any changes in shape or skills do not make much of a difference any more.


I was originally going to leave this as a comment, but realized it was more of an answer, so...

The inability to escape the planet could be the result of exceptionally high gravity. So long as whoever goes/lives there cannot devise a solution to escape the gravity well, they're stuck.

At that point, you can advance your technology all you want and still be on the one planet.

According to this NASA site (emphasis mine):

If the radius of our planet were larger, there could be a point at which an Earth escaping rocket could not be built. Let us assume that building a rocket at 96% propellant (4% rocket), currently the limit for just the Shuttle External Tank, is the practical limit for launch vehicle engineering. Let us also choose hydrogen-oxygen, the most energetic chemical propellant known and currently capable of use in a human rated rocket engine. By plugging these numbers into the rocket equation, we can transform the calculated escape velocity into its equivalent planetary radius. That radius would be about 9680 kilometers (Earth is 6670 km). If our planet was 50% larger in diameter, we would not be able to venture into space, at least using rockets for transport.

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    $\begingroup$ Disagree--sufficient technology can escape a planet. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2018 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel So, in other words, if someone devises a solution to escape the gravity well, then they can leave the planet? Isn't that what I said? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Nov 30, 2018 at 5:49
  • $\begingroup$ Your argument applies to chemical rockets. I'm aware of four other approaches that could be used--nuclear pulse (aka Orion) and three approaches based on supporting structures with objects moving inside the structure at above orbital velocity, thus generating a net outward force. The least of these is engineering on a scale far beyond anything man has yet built, but all are certainly possible. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2018 at 5:57
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel My answer is not about rockets; it's about technology in general. The fact that the NASA article explains that chemical rockets could not achieve escape velocity for a larger Earth does not mean that chemical rockets are the only solution. I never said it was always impossible to leave; just that, lacking a solution, it is impossible to leave. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Nov 30, 2018 at 6:31

When you start talking about timescales like this, you have to shift the way you think entirely. The meaning of "surviving" starts to become tricky. You're operating on timescales where evolution of species starts to become a meaningful issue. Indeed, it forces us to recognize that "species" isn't even a natural concept. It's a man made one used for categorization. The genomes in question flow fluidly from one generation to the next. DNA from bacteria finds its way into human genomes. Nature doesn't care about our boundaries.

The same issue arises with societies. Was there really a transition from Confucian China to Daoist China? Or was it just a fluid series of events which we call a transition in retrospect? Should we say the Confucian society "died," and a new Daoist society was "born," or should we say that the Chinese society "evolved?"

Is the Voyager probe an "escape?" Or do we need a person on board for it to be an escape? What about just a vial of H. sapiens DNA?

To deal with these questions, I find it is most meaningful to look at individuals as a reflection of the universe around them. They're a fixed point, mirroring the world and themselves within the world. This is why "escape" is such a big deal. If just one reflection of a society gets free, that society can be mirrored once again upon whatever grounds the escapee lands in.

Have you ever pointed a video camera at a monitor displaying its own feed? The pattern dances around, but often there are single points on the screen which remain constant, black or white, because the camera is looking at the exact same pixel that it is outputting. Those are the fixed points in question. And, being reality, they're imperfect. One lone survivor of Nazi Germany may not be able to carry a perfect enough image of the Third Reich to rebirth it. That society may indeed die with its last individual. The image may simply lack the fidelity to resonate in the new landscape, and die out like so much thermal noise.

So when you start asking about how advanced a society can be and still be trapped like this, its a curious one to explore. You don't actually have to trap all of the individuals, you just have to trap the ones who mirror society with sufficient fidelity. Consider a society where religion and technology are entertwined. The technology fuels the success of the religion, and the religion passes down the skills and knowledge needed to manage the technology. Let's say this religion has a rule that you never leave your planet. It happens. The only potential "escapees" are those who are insufficiently indoctrinated in the religion to have this mindset. But then they also lack the knowledge to reproduce the technology. An escapee cannot bring their society with them.

You could also have a species that has made a fatal mistake and all they are doing is stalling for time. We see this in the Asgard of Stargate SG-1. They accidentally made all of their species sterile. They live a long time, but as they die, their society dies with them. They are an ironic twist on your question. They are spacefaring, traveling the stars, and yet they cannot save their society. Their society spans planets, yet is dying.

The universe can also be terribly inhospitable. Consider the extremophiles of these societies, the ones which buck up against the limits of the heat death of the universe. You can have FTL, but it won't do you a lick of good once you exceed the half life of protons, and there are simply no planets outside of your protective technological spheres to colonize. This is explored in Stephen Baxter's book Manifold Time.

Or perhaps the mistake is in our definition of a dying planet. If we look at a planet, we may see death, when they see life. Consider a tree in winter. It's easy to say the tree is dead, but any gardener knows that there's still life there when you know where to look. The deserts of the Australian Outback are famously dead, but the aborigines native to the area know exactly where to look to find food and water when they need it.

Going back to Stargate SG-1, we also have the Nox. The Nox inhabit a planet which we felt was dying because the Gua'uld were coming, and no planet survives that. But the Nox were some of the most technologically advanced species in the galaxy, and they saw no threat from the Gua'uld. They felt their planet was more than lively enough.

So where does that leave us? Anywhere we want, really. You're really only limited by your imagination, and any artificial limits you may place such as species boundaries. in 1883, Nietzche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we find The Last Man, a society which spends all of its energy just continuing to be a society. It slowly decays, never once looking to the stars to escape. We've had over a hundred years since he wrote that, and so many technological revolutions that we don't even track them any more. Surely there's room for imagination more!


I think that your approaching this with the wrong mindset. I don't see why a super advanced civilization would leave a planet they have the technology to survive on. As long as they have the means to do so, and get benefits from it, then why not.

Firstly, I want to address the society part. Society doesn't need to refer to the entire race or civilization it could be a very small part of it (relative to the species). For example a small town of only a couple hundred people might consider themselves a society, or a university group of 10 people could form into a society.

As the species advances and heads to space, they don't bring everyone with them. This is due to costs and unwillingness. Firstly, going off planet means relocation. Leaving your current life for a new one. You need money to get off planet and money for a new house. If you don't have this money, then you have to sell your life away to get sent off planet (this is a pretty common reoccurring theme). So the people who don't want that stay behind. The technology they had is still there and will get upgraded slowly over time as the tech becomes cheaper, more widely produced. Even if the star disappeared, people would try and find a way to survive. Because they can't afford to leave.

So the Technology level could be anywhere from a super advance 100% self sufficient space faring species to the stone age.


Related to Willk's answer: Far future.

The last real creation was a limited AI that could run things, providing a life of leisure for everyone. In time, the skills actually needed to accomplish useful things were lost--there was no reason to learn most practical things.

The AI is good at adapting but can't actually do research, it's trying it's best to keep things working. Since the survivors can't do anything meaningful in that regard there is no incentive to redevelop such learning. All innovation goes into fighting--something the AI doesn't do and so can't provide any help in.


The hard part here is not where is the technological ceiling, but "how does a civilization have any technology and be so stagnant for so long". The benevolent AI previously listed is one good solution to this problem because no man has the drive or intelligence to become more than it. Once people hit that climax, man itself goes into a sort of idiocracy that is wholly reliant on that superior intellect.

A second solution is Genetic Intelligence. Perhaps your species is not intelligent in the way people are, but more in the way ants are. Since this world is much older than Earth, a few billion extra years of behavioral evolution could make a species that creates things as complex as cars and planes and cell phones, not because they are innovative, but because their instincts have evolved to that point over time. Picture an ant hive, but instead of 4-5 genetic specialties, if there were 1000s of genetic specialites, that are each born knowing how to perform a needed vocation of this society.

In either case, the limit to your question is as you defined, just short of interstellar travel being viable. Otherwise, there is no theoretical limit to how smart such a static civilization might be.


Assuming that technology is already stagnant for whatever reason, what is the highest technological level that a society can achieve and still survive, stagnant, on the order of a hundred million years on one planet?

They can be super advanced way beyond us. So we have the formula e=mc^2, but we can't actually implement. That mass can be converted to energy and vice versa freely and at will. At this point not much else matters.

I want a glass of water, but there's no water around. Picks up rocks, drops them into a Star Trek replicator. Deconstuct, and now you have energy. "computer glass of water 58F please. Now you have a glass of water.

Therefore as long as you have access to mass or energy either can be converted into anything you need.

The people on my planet wouldn't need to be desperate, cruel, or life be cheap for a very long time. Even then advanced technology may still save them. They maybe able to tractor beam asteriods,debris, who knows maybe even other planets close enough to absorb the material and convert it to energy.

Further, a primitive tractor beam may not even be needed. Maybe they can "beam" chunk of other planets directly onto there planet for absorbtion.

Maybe they actually open worms holes to anywhere and suck matter through for absorption.

In fact the super dense core of there dying star might be the very thing that saves them. They could keep ripping off tiny chunks of there dying star (and/or planets) for hundred of millions of years easy. Open a worm hole and suck through a chunk large enough to power there planet for a 1000 years plus the energy to pay for the wormhole.

In this case the only limit would be the range of there worm hole, and scientifically speaking there are no limits besides, maybe energy consumption to create said wormhole might increase over distance.

The Q on star trek are kind of an example of this type of thing, except they're not trapped on a single planet. They are essentially omnipotent. With a snap of their fingers they can do anything. Yet they are bored and a society stagnant because literally every person has experienced everything ever. There is no record of any of them ever dying of natural old age. Member of there society have literally volunteered to take up being a scarecrow in a field for millions or billions of years because they're "bored". This is demonstrated with Picard and Janeway.


Technology has never been stagnant

Through all of recorded history, technology has always moved forward. The very act of recording history was itself a new invention, as writing is one the most fundamental of all technologies. Technology was probably moving forward before the invention of language, but it's hard to say for sure.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and technologies evolve much the same as species. Witness the gradual evolution of medieval weaponry. The rise of effective armor changed warfare. In response, anti-armor features were invented and new weapons adopted them. Armor compensated for the existence of armor penetration. The dance continued until the invention of weapons so powerful no armor could stop them, making armor obsolete.

You have a survival pressure in the form of this gradually shifting environment. This pressure is going to induce innovation to cope with the problems of the dying planet. You also have a problem in that technology breeds the creation of new technology.

It basically is not possible to make technological progress cease, and have everything stagnate, with a real population that's around for a hundred million years. In less than six thousand years our society went from inventing writing to working out how to build stars. (Not very big stars, mind, just big enough to blow ourselves up with.) That is more than four orders of magnitude shorter than the timescale you're talking about.

You'd have to force people to remain stagnant. That is going to be very hard because of the strong incentive to cheat: the rewards for finding a way around any 'no new technology' prohibition are power and prosperity. You're probably going to have to go all the way down to an extreme Orwellian society or something even worse, like actual mind control chips or Friend Computer.

Proposed alternative: The population moved there but is now stuck

Instead I'd recommend looking into how Anne McAffrey solved this problem for Pern: A bunch of, well, basically space hippies wanted to recreate a lower-tech world, went out and bought themselves a colony world, then things went pear-shaped and things Went Bad. Similarly, you may want to check out the backstory of Trigun.

Find some reason for a population to settle on this planet, then cut them off from interstellar society at large, then have disaster strike leaving them stranded.


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