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I have this society that has enjoyed some rather fantastical circumstances resulting in a unique path of technological advancement, and I need help figuring out what kind of technologies they would be capable of making and using.

The Species and its God

The species is human-like and evolved on an earth-like planet, with a real god that acts like intelligent evolution. It can deliberately induce beneficial mutations in the species, and eventually gains the ability to communicate with individuals of the species (who come to be called prophets). There is no other intelligent life on the planet.

The god is benevolent, communicative, honest, and humble. It wants to help and guide its species, not dominate or control them. It answers their questions and encourages them to prize truth and reason, even to the extent of doubting the god itself and questioning what they're learning from it.

Growth and Development

This religion swiftly grows to encompass the entire species, preaching science, rationality, and cooperation. Various theories about and insights into the physical world (germ theory, evolution, biology, atomic theory, etc.) become widely accepted, with science and the empirical method becoming more about verifying and utilising than discovering. The appearance of prophets is accompanied by numerous technological advancements and social developments.

Initially the focus is on food (crop rotation, fertilisers, plant breeding, animal breeding, etc.), medicine and hygiene (sanitisation practises, basic medicines/practices, treatments for wounds/injuries, etc.), education (literacy, numeracy, politics, economics, etc.) and construction and engineering (roads, aqueducts, canals, sewers, buildings, etc.). Essentially, the things that will help the most people. Eventually, prophets begin appearing in every field/industry imaginable.

Limitations

The species is held back by the near total lack of available fossil fuels on their world, the result of an unrelated and temporary visitation by another species about 1 million years ago. As well, due to various evolutionary blessings bestowed by their god and the wisdom/guidance of the prophets, the species attains a high standard of living and quality of life for the large majority of its members quite early on in its technological development, with rates of inequality, poverty, starvation, etc. falling every generation. Having a population that is healthy, happy, and educated makes advancements easier in a way, but it also takes away some of the drive to change and grow.

For religious and practical reasons the species ends up becoming quite environmentally friendly, prioritising long-term gains over short-term ones. They definitely still manipulate the natural world for their own ends, but they don't exploit it ruinously for temporary benefit.

Finally, due to advancements in medicine, various forms of birth control have become widely available across the world, leading to reduced population growth.

These effects all combine to limit the exponential nature of industrialisation. The knowledge and ingenuity are there, but the fuel and bodies aren't. Nor is the motivation the same as in our world. Industrialisation that frees up labour and is sustainable gets eagerly pursued, while industrialisation that requires large/sudden shifts in demographics and societal structures meets resistance.

The Situation

In the present day, I'm envisioning the species as numbering around 400 million, spread all across the planet, with a verrrry slightly positive population growth. The main fuel sources are either localised hydro/wind/geothermal, or steam technology fueled by biofuels, mainly biocharcoal (extra-energy-dense charcoal that burns hotter than regular kind, manufactured by seeping wood in a kind of vegetable oil before burning it) and biodiesel. This requires the harvesting of resources both on the industrial scale (vast forests and fields) and the local/personal scale.

This is roughly what I imagine the species has achieved:

  • 30-60% urbanisation rate.
  • Efficient bureaucracy and very low rates of corruption.
  • Extensive local and global trade routes.
  • High rates of education, with 99% literacy across the world.
  • Typical working week between 30 and 50 hours.
  • Life expectancy of 75-80 years (beneficial mutations play a big role).

Question:

How feasible would it be for this society to fabricate and utilise the following technologies at significant enough scales?

- Electricity
- Antibiotics
- Trains
- Bicycles (including good enough roads/paths)

They have no overt magic or help from their god besides knowledge.




I hope this question is up to standard, please tell me if I need to clarify/add/remove anything. I wanted to provide enough information without it going too long. I also hope the premise/questions aren't too broad or vague. I'm happy to delete the second question if it's too open ended. The question is partially speculative, but I would especially appreciate answers grounded in real world examples.

I am also aware that there have been numerous questions about settings without fossil fuels, but I felt that given the other unique factors at play in this setting, it was worth posting a new question.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 7 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ Clearly your question is very well thought out, congrats! However there are specific limitations that say you can't ask more than one question per post, which is what you've done. You could always ask one of the two questions here and link another post back to this one to ask the second, though. As it is this question will likely be closed unless you choose one of the questions to answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ That's my bad, apologies! I removed one of them $\endgroup$
    – MarkKaiya
    Commented Feb 7 at 2:09
  • $\begingroup$ Most of this civilization seems to be rather unplausible. You have a real god there already. What difference a few relatively trivial technologies make? Yes, it would be plausible. God helped them or something. $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    Commented Feb 7 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that a god being real is implausible, but that's the point of writing fantasy. Just because there's one fantastical element doesn't mean that anything goes. But thank you for trying. $\endgroup$
    – MarkKaiya
    Commented Feb 8 at 12:56

3 Answers 3

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They can have all these technologies, but some of them only in the same sense that we have Lamborghinis: they exist and can be bought by anyone with enough money, but in practice are way too expensive to base the economy on.

Widespread adoption of trains is out of the question straight away. The lack of fossil fuels makes it impossible to produce enough steel for either the rails or the rolling stock to make widespread adoption possible (not to mention the even greater quantities of fuel required to keep the trains running). But they could still have small railways in mines, ports and the like, and the loads they can carry will be modest by today's standards. Some of these railways will be wooden.

On the other hand, your society would have no problem building a dense network of canals. Humans have a long history of creating canals with nothing but hand tools and draft animals.

Bicycles will be tricky as well, partly due to lack of metal but mostly due to lack of machines precise enough to produce ball bearings, and of rubber to produce tyres. These machines would themselves need to be made of metal, and vulcanisation of rubber takes a lot of sulfur, which in our world was readily available as a byproduct of producing coke from coal (and is part of the reason why widespread adoption of rubber tyres could only take place once the world extracted sufficient quantities of coal). The lack of ball bearings and/or vulcanised rubber would greatly increase friction in the bicycles and make them less practical as personal transportation.

On the other hand, your society would have no problem using cargo scooters along the lines of African chukudu, or wheelbarrows (the much larger Chinese variety). These are wooden vehicles operated with muscle power.

Electricity would exist, but electrical grids will not. This again partly due to lack of metals for long cables, but mostly due to lack of electricity storage, without which the grid would be just as much at the mercy of the weather, but at a greater cost.

On the other hand, the rich (and possibly some middle class) households could be able to produce some electricity for their own needs, which will be very modest by today's standards: think lighting for a few hours in the evening. The industry would generally prefer to use such intermittent power sources directly: so you will definitely have mindmills using wind power directly, but no wind turbines dedicated to electricity production.

Antibiotics are the easiest to achieve out of the four. Many antibiotics occur naturally in plants. Your society may not be able to extract them, but they don't need to; herbalism was a thing since prehistory.

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    $\begingroup$ Metals have been mined, smelted etc since ancient times, mostly with charcoal. While coal makes it easier and cheaper to do so - eg charcoal is only 1/12 of the wood input and takes time to make - is there a fundamental reason that biofuels cannot be used at scale to do so? Not trying to defend my answer, just looking for the details. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ KerrAvon2055, thank you. Yes, and the reason is that fossil fuel deposits are just so much more energy dense: compare a forest, which consists mostly of air between the trees, with a coal seam, which is a solid layer of fuel from top to bottom. (And on top of that, even the lowest grades of lignite have 2-3 times more energy per unit of volume than charcoal.) A fossil fuel deposit will eventually be exhausted to be sure, but while it lasts, you can extract energy from it many times quicker than you could from a biological source. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Commented Feb 7 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm... agree that it will make for a very slowly implemented industrial revolution, but not convinced that it will stop it. Agree that metals will be relatively expensive, but that may mean that they are reserved for applications where nothing else will do rather than being used as the default material for construction (which means...). And now you have me diving down the rabbit hole of whether it is more efficient land usage to use draft animals or biofuel-powered tractors for farm tasks... Upvoted anyway, and may look to update my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the reply! I definitely don't want to underestimate the impact of not having access to such ideal fuel (often located close to where the metal is mined, too). I do agree with KerrAvon2055 that I don't think it would stall the industrial revolution entirely, just slow it a lot. ihaveideas, do you think given enough time (centuries) and stability, they could slowly build up to semi-industrialisation? It takes less fuel/metal to maintain than create, so cumulative progress could be the way. $\endgroup$
    – MarkKaiya
    Commented Feb 8 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkKaiya, thank you. Oh sure, everything that has been done before fossil fuels would still be available to them - and even modest amounts of electricity would also allow things such as radios, i.e. instant mass media and long distance communication. Over centuries they could refine their designs and end up with an economy somewhat resembling that of the continental Europe of early, or perhaps even middle 19th century. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Commented Feb 8 at 14:25
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Not enough people

Looking at this planet, Earth hit the 400 million people mark sometime between 1300 and 1400 (probably). A civilisation with a technology level equivalent to circa 1900 could exist with only 400 million people, but it would occupy a continent, not the entire world. 1.5 to 2 billion people is closer to what would be required for a world population. Stabilising at that population level is quite feasible provided the god playing Civilization XXXIV with this world planned and timed the introduction of the various technologies along with guidance on appropriate social and economic mechanisms to disincentivise big families.

Edit - additional points on population: By 1900(ish) in the real world, which I am treating as partially equivalent to the world you are describing, science and technology were specialised enough that people needed to specialise. Mining of lots of different minerals is required in lots of different places and factories are required to produce many different products. (Even a bicycle factory is dependent on lots of supply chains, let alone a "train factory".) This requires many, many types of specialists working together, which means a city with enough infrastructure to support these specialists to do their work. That infrastructure needs to include not just basic food and accommodation, but an extensive education system and health care system in order to meet the specified literacy and life expectancy standards, which are way higher than existed over any large region on Earth in the early 1900s.

(Flipping the urbanisation specification around, 40-70% of the population are living in rural areas, presumably working on farms or in mines where serious accidents happen regularly in a low-tech environment. All of these people need to be within hours of high quality medical care, yet the only transport to the nearest town with a railway is probably by bicycle or animal-drawn cart.)

In short, everything in this society requires that even outside the cities the population density is quite high. Unlike the real world, this world cannot have significant numbers of individuals or family groups living on their own in the back of beyond or the literacy and life expectancy targets are totally impossible. By corollary, if there are only 400 million people then they will either only occupy one or two continents or if there are 80 million people on each of 5 continents then there will be large areas that are totally uninhabited. (Just for context, Britain alone had over 40 million people in 1900. So you could have 10 Britain-sized settled areas around the world with the rest being wilderness.) End of edit

Other than that, it all seems quite technically feasible. The critical point about the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine was that the initial design was so inefficient that it relied on being used in an application (pumping water out of coal mines) where energy-dense fuel was cheap as chips. With divine guidance on how to build a much more efficient steam engine first time around (and an economic use case where it works) that Great Filter can be bypassed and fuel crops introduced into the agriculture picture. (Until trains are all electric, that may lower the population value slightly - fuelling the trains, thermal electric power plants and other uses will take up considerable agricultural area that cannot be then used for food. Although, a more vegetarian diet might mitigate that issue by requiring less land for the same calorie output...)

One additional factor for consideration is that lack of fossil fuels also changes the plastics industry. Divine guidance would be needed to introduce alternatives such as bioplastic, and using lacquer as insulation on wires may persist longer. This will have knock-on effects on the size and design of electrical devices, which is one of the areas where plastic is really useful rather than just convenient.

The social side of the equation is extremely complicated and unprovable. (For example, whether this will this result in an efficient bureaucracy - almost an oxymoron in my experience - with very low rates of corruption is unknowable, unless there are some "prophets" in the bureaucracy's fraud section who are told who's on the take and where the evidence is.) Think hard about whether there is a social contract between god and the people and whether the prophets of states that are playing nicely are provided with advances preferentially over states that start kicking over the applecart with unnecessary warring, environmental destruction etc. Also note that raising funds for big industrial projects practically requires some level of captialism, with its associated good and bad points.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great reply, thanks a mil! Can I ask what makes you say that the society could only exist on one continent? I figured that sailing being so much faster/cheaper than carts/wagons, most 'global' trade routes would be seafaring ones. $\endgroup$
    – MarkKaiya
    Commented Feb 8 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkKaiya yes, water transport is much cheaper than land transport, but with slow, weather-dependent sea travel a country may be in trouble relying on critical goods from outside - see COVID and the Suez Canal blockage in the last few years for the weakness of that system even when communication, weather prediction and propulsion technologies are far more advanced. As far as population distribution goes - I'll edit into the answer, too long for a comment. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points, especially in your edit. I had been imagining most populations and urban centres being on the coasts, with lower and lower population density as one moves inland, so that would fit with large areas being left unpopulated. As well, on the health/life expectancy side of things, I believe that good diets, healthy lifestyles, and a bit of divine genetic tinkering would go a long way to raising life expectancy. A preventative approach rather than a corrective one. As well, even if medicines are made and professionals trained in urban centres, that doesn't stop them going elsewhere $\endgroup$
    – MarkKaiya
    Commented Feb 8 at 15:29
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You could have all of it

You do not need fossil fuel to sustain an industrial revolution when your population is only 400 million. A civilization with the desire to preserve the environment could easily and sustainably grow enough trees to power the world with wood and charcoal. Historically, Europe ran through its forests in a little over 100 years of industrialization, but that was because they were not replanting what they were cutting down. If they were replanting thier forests as they cut them down, and fertilizing the land with the wasted ash, they could have produced nearly 10x as much charcoal as they did, sustainably. In a world without coal or oil, charcoal is very important compared to solar or other renewable power sources because it can be used to carbonize steel which is the basis for most Industrial Revolution technologies. Wood can be burned directly for most purposes, and the production process behind charcoal is very similar to turning coal into coke; so, if you get the sustainability issue taken care of, the cost of using wood and charcoal instead of coal and coke is very similar meaning that you can not only make all of the same things, but you can do it at comparable prices.

Furthermore OUR industrial revolution was made super wasteful through planned obsolescence: something an environmentally conscious race would never consider. Thier stuff will be a bit more expensive, but all thier cars, lightbulbs, etc will be made to last for well over 50 years; so, they will use less fuel, spend less money of durable goods overall, and need smaller factories for the size of their population.

As for the environmental impact of burning wood and charcoal... there is not much of one, at least, not on a global scale. The reason coal and oil ruin the environment so much is because you are burning sequestered sources of carbon and adding it to the carbon cycle which increases CO2 over time, but when you cut down and burn a tree, and plant another in its place, all of the carbon the burned tree puts into the air is reabsorbed by the new tree. So, globally speaking, the atmospheric CO2 stays constant even though you are burning all that wood because it is all maintained in a closed loop cycle.

As for population density concerns, pretty much everything up until the early 1900s does not really need a huge population to support it. Most technologies were still manufactured using common resources that can be found or grown in most places in the world, and no manufacturing process was so precise and expensive as to need a population in the billions to spread the cost of a super expensive factory across (like microchip fabs). As for being able to diversify enough, you are fine here as well. In the mid-1800s, the United States had about 1 factory for every 250 people. So, 400 million people could support up to 1.6 million factories world wide. Granted some of these will be big factories employing 1000s of people while others will be small specialty factories, but the point of the matter is that this is enough factories to produce a very wide range of products.

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