Imagine a place where the environment is too extreme for human habitation without a lot of modern, specialist equipment. Let's say it's like one of the poles: massively below zero, awful weather, dark for much of the year, little in the way of natural resources. Somewhere it's only been possible for humans to survive within the last couple of hundred years.

Now, let's say the whole planet was plunged into such conditions before the technology level for surviving there was reached. A lot of people died, very quickly. But let's also imagine that there are a certain class of people who have the skills to ensure small communities can exist in these frightful conditions. They can make fire, raise shelter, provide food.

We'll hand wave how this happens for the time being. These special, essential skills can theoretically be learned by anyone. They're a mixture of practical and academic ability, as is required by certain kinds of scientific research in the real world. But just like science, learning is very hard work, needs a tutor who is already highly skilled, and - like any learned ability - comes more easily to some than to others.

These people have no other particular abilities to make themselves special. They can still be intimidated, lied to, manipulated or struck down in violence. But if they refuse to share the fruits of their labour, anyone they choose to exclude dies.

What I'm interested in is how society and economics might function in this situation, where people's survival is entirely dependent on a small subset of skilled workers. Would these people remain an elite enclave, or would the abilities gradually disseminate through the population? Would the best among them become rich, become rulers, or set themselves apart form such petty affairs? What would society look like?

(I'm being deliberately vague with this. Ask for more details of what I have in mind if you think you need them.)

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    $\begingroup$ My society has those we call them farmers they make up less than 1% of the population. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Feb 1, 2016 at 12:14
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ A lot of tech companies have those too; they're called programmers and they've been enslaved by management. $\endgroup$
    – aroth
    Feb 1, 2016 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ This sounds a little like the Dune universe. Their civilization would crumble, and people on remote planets may die due to lack of supplies, if not for the abilities of the Guild Navigators and their willingness to perform them. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2016 at 17:51

5 Answers 5


I'll take a stab at this. I think what you'd get is a gradual of progression that starts out well for your talented minority (I'm assuming the 'special' people are the exception rather than the rule) but then gets progressively worse.


Upon closer inspection, my interpretation diverged somewhat from the stated conditions. Basically I missed the second half of the third paragraph ("special skills can be learned by anyone..."). The assumptions used below are:

  • People possessing the special skills are a minority group within the planet's population, and stay that way.

  • Whether or not someone possesses the special skills is an innate attribute; they're either born with the capacity or not.

  • The capacity to perform the special skills is hereditary, passed on through a recessive allele; if both parents are skilled, then their offspring will be too, and if only one parent is skilled then there's either a 0% or a 50% chance that each child will inherit the trait (depending upon whether or not their partner has a copy of the recessive allele at all).

  • The ability of 'normal' people to learn the special skills is limited, at best. Perhaps they can pick up a few basics, but without the innate talent their abilities never amount to much more than simple parlor tricks.

So in other words, I assume that the special group of people are special not just because they know things, but because they possess some innate attribute that allows them to do things that other people just can't. The scenarios below flow from this assumption.

The Early Days

Chaos reigns amongst the general population. The conditions on the planet have taken a drastic turn for the worse, many have died, and so on. Whatever social order may have previously existed has been shattered, and you're left with pretty much a blank slate. Survival is the only game that anyone is playing.

During this time one might expect members of your specially skilled caste to be viewed similarly to wizards in your stereotypical fantasy context. As in, greeted with instantaneous awe, respect, and blind devotion. Moreover, you'd likely have permanent settlements spring up around these people (because where else is settlement possible?), and it's likely that at least some of them (if not most) might nominally be viewed as the "leader" of their local village.

Probably there'd be no over-arching social structure at this point, with each village essentially having its own set of rules/customs/laws. There may not be any significant interaction between settlements, because each one survives by virtue of its local "wizard", so what point is there in engaging with others?


The problem is, once the basic survival needs of everyone in a settlement are being met, their thoughts can turn to other things. And people don't generally like being beholden to others for their survival, especially if they have no direct influence over those others.

And unfortunately, unlike wizards in a fantasy setting, your special individuals don't have godlike combat abilities, or superhuman wisdom/insight, or anything else that would reliably protect them from the self-serving machinations of others.

Eventually somebody is going to work out a way to put a yoke around their neck, and take control of the situation. It's not hard to imagine ways in which they might do so:

  1. Create an 'if you let me die, then you'll die (and probably slowly/painfully/horribly, too)' kind of situation. For instance, kidnap the special person, lock them in a room where nobody else can find them, and suddenly you're their only source of food and water so they can't let you die and you're in a good position to exert leverage over them in terms of getting them to do/not do other things.

  2. Create a 'do what I say, or your friends/family/dog/cat all die' situation. Probably a riskier gambit than #1, but someone is bound to try it.

  3. If a member of the opposite sex (or same sex, in the instance of gay special people), use seduction.

  4. Use manipulation and/or take advantage of their core principles. For instance, contrive an incident that allows you to "save" the special person's life, and have them swear a life-debt to you in return.

Anyways, as time goes by I'd expect that nasty, brutish, 'feudal warlord' types would start finding ways to dominate and control at least some of the special people. Depending upon how easy/effective it is to do so, any independent special people might find themselves subject to organized hunting efforts and face gradual subjugation as a result (and who knows, maybe subjugating one is a way to gain significant status in the emerging social structure, as it means you're now self-sufficient and have the means to support others of your choosing).

Since it takes a brutal, scheming, power-hungry sort of person to subjugate another in this way, the rest is fairly predictable. The special individuals are no longer the local leaders, and their replacements will work tirelessly to build up their influence and power for its own sake. Shifting conflicts and alliances between settlements/their leaders seem likely, Game of Thrones style, as each local despot jockeys for the top spot.

And as long as the 'normals' have control over enough special people to ensure their survival, any others are essentially expendable and too dangerous to allow to roam free (for fear that they'll agitate/liberate others). Without significant foresight (to the extent that some large segment of the special individuals see what's happening well in advance, and agree to work together to stop it) and plenty of luck (they're heavily outnumbered and have no particular skill when it comes to combat or strategy), the vast majority of them will be either subjugated or killed. Dark days, indeed.

The End Game

Long term, I think a stable equilibrium may be reached in which the output from the special caste of individuals is essentially commoditized and tucked away somewhere out of sight where nobody really sees (or cares about) what's going on.

You could, for instance, have a 'corporatocracy' kind of situation where a single entity has control over the entire caste and coordinates their output for the rest of mankind (at prices that essentially make slaves out of everybody, of course). Forced breeding and/or cloning programs may be employed to keep up numbers, along with indoctrination/brainwashing of new children to make them more easily controllable. The controlling entity just needs to keep them comfortable enough that they're more willing to play along than they are to die in protest (or to be less dramatic, to lose out on some of their comforts in protest). Nobody else can see what's going on under the covers there, so nobody else cares (even if they might due to prevailing social mores).

Or, as already has been mentioned, kind of like farmers in the real world (or Navigators in Dune, floating around in their vats of spice, happy to just sit there, get high on spice, and ferry folk around for the Spacing Guild). But potentially much more brutal depending upon what sort of culture develops on your much harsher and less habitable planet.

Bottom Line

Your special individuals have something that everybody else needs, but lack both the brute force and the intellect to prevent others from taking it "by hook or by crook". Other people maximize their benefit not by playing nicely, but by establishing themselves in a position of control/dominance over the special ones. The economics of the situation are heavily against the special people, and unless your society is a very altruistic one things probably won't end up well for them.

A benign subjugation is the best plausible outcome.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a fantastic answer, thanks. So many potential stories lurking beneath the surface! $\endgroup$
    – Bob Tway
    Feb 1, 2016 at 14:39

I can see these approaches. I ordered them from most plausible to least plausible:

1. We are in this together mindset

Well, if you keep secret how to get food, you might screw everyone. Including yourselves. When everyone is dead, you are dead. The people in position of having the extra knowledge will indeed know this and work together with rest of the people on the survival.

2. We rule you mindset - aka the Shaman approach

The people in knowledge would be highly appreciated by the rest of the community. Maybe even worshiped. Because if shaman is dead, the whole community is dead. The shamans (=people in knowledge how to survive) would carefully train new apprentices, including seeking of people of specific traits inside current community. (Say only extra high people can really get all the resources you need for survival)

3. You work for us mindset

Curent society is dependent on about 1% of population food wise. The people to obtain food for the rest are called farmers and no one really care about their conditions. We are just happy to chew on the apple, not caring where is the apple actually from or how much did person growing such apple actually received on salary.

The same applies for programmers. Although salary wise the situation is better (hello from saturated Czech market), still we kinda do not care about who actually programmed our Apple product.

Although the people create very low amount of population, still no one cares about them. And society works fine... Yet :)

  • $\begingroup$ I think you meant apprentices, not appreciates. "Appreciates" (to appreciate) means liking something, while an apprentice is a student, usually in a practical field. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Feb 1, 2016 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ programmers are among the best paid workers! they are closer to shamans than farmers in that sense $\endgroup$
    – chuse
    Feb 1, 2016 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ "The geek will inherit the Earth." Terrifyingly, that's already come to pass. Big Data puts programmers in the top tiers of the groups that control modern life, even if they themselves have no actual control, they provide the tools for those that do (even worse, there's not much they can do about it). #IDon'tWantToLiveOnThisPlanetAnyMore #I'mAProgrammerToo $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2016 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ You don't die if you can't get an iPhone. You can also replace "programmer" with any occupation at all. $\endgroup$
    – djechlin
    Feb 1, 2016 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Damn you, autocorrect! I fixed that, thanks for notice. In my case if you see such typo, feel free correcting it. Although I speak really fluently English, my writing skills are still below part... $\endgroup$ Feb 2, 2016 at 7:21

A lot probably depends on the people themselves. Most will probably start from the standpoint of maximizing survivors. If you're maximizing survivors, you'd disseminate knowledge as quickly as possible. Because that way, you can leave one trainee building the fire while you go off and do something else.

As a result of this, I would expect people to learn subsets of the necessary knowledge. One person would learn how to make fire. Another would learn how to raise shelter. While they were doing that you'd show another how to find food. Once you've gotten your immediate group up to snuff, you could go out and look for other survivors. You have to do that, as it requires all the skills, not just those you can share easily.

A rich elite is conceivable, but the knowledgeable would have to be quite cold (emotionally). Hiding knowledge from others would lead to deaths. Plus that seems like a lot of work. Oops. The fire went out--can you start it again? I'm hungry, can you find food for me? Two children wandered off, can you go out into the dangerous area and find them? I would think that the knowledgeable would find that more overwhelming than profitable. Remember, these are people who are desperately trying to survive. How much could they have? How rich would you be?

Sure, you could demand that everyone who joined your survival cult turn over all their worldly belongings to you. You could have enough money to go swimming in it, Scrooge McDuck style. But what would you use the money to do? No one can go that far from you or they die. Why would they need money?

If you have people share in the survival tasks, then they'd have to learn how to do them. In which case your monopoly on that task is broken. So you'd have to be careful about that. Teach them how to tend the fire but not how to build one. But it's possible to build a fire by laying fuel and bringing a burning stick from the existing fire. Presumably they'd be able to see where to get fuel. Similarly, if you share clothing with people, the source is likely to be obvious.

So to become rich, you'd have to do all the work yourself. But if you do all the work yourself, what are the people going to give you?

Perhaps there are survival skills that would lead to monopolization. For example, lighting a fire from nothing. But much of what needs to be done would be visible. And people would resent you for hoarding. And of course, if you die, the community dies.

If your people meet a more altruistic knowledgeable person, then they are likely to switch to that person and leave you.

For these reasons, the rich elite builders will save fewer people than the altruistic. This would lead the altruistic-led communities to dominate over time. They'll be bigger initially and more capable of growth.


It could go a tuple of ways, depending on who controls the capital and the degree of solidarity among the techs.

case 0: techs control capital and have solidarity

A Dictatorship of the techs they have all the cards and dictate all the conditions. This doesn't mean they set up a junta just that whatever institutions exists exist at their toleration.

Case 1: Techs do not control capital but do have solidarity

A management vs union situation. The techs are well compensated or they strike. Things are negotiated. Heaven if you are not an American.

Case 2: Techs control capital but do not have solidarity

We have a free market so no one makes a profit. [profits are impossible in free markets. look it up.] Government subsidies support the system. American Farmers are a good example of this.

Case 3: Techs do not control capital or have solidarity

Techs are revered about a much as they are in our society.


Here's a semi-facetious answer:

Exactly like today, only grimmer. There are a group of people (scientists, engineers, mechanics) responsible for the well-being of others, and another group (politicians, management, ?) skilled in manipulating the first group. A balance is struck.

This corresponds to case #3 in King-Ink's answer.

edit: reminds me of this Dilbert comic.


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