Many historians believe that human history is a never-ending cycle of growth and decline. Duh, reply many ecologists. Humans expand their numbers and their reach until they hit the carrying capacity of their environment, then collapse and retrench. Shove it, reply the historians. It has nothing to do with carrying capacity. Because technology, interjects the tech tycoons. Hmph, the historians mutter dismissively. It has to do with successive generations inheriting the wealth of their ancestors and becoming softer and less focused. Huh? reply the privileged young adults at Forest Beach on Arboria, before they lose interest and return to ogling each other’s artifact collections. The ecologists and the historians return to screaming past one another while everyone else goes about their lives.
But as a technology-oriented ecological historian who has past his misspent youth, I can safely say that for most of its history, humanity has been stuck in a spiral of growth and decline, and that environmental carrying capacity is one of the biggest factors in it. As fast as technology has increased carrying capacity, humanity has quickly expanded to fill it. Even as technological change increased the size of human environments, the rate of expansion kept pace. And when that capacity was exceeded, the consequences were dire — famine, disease, war, and death, along with technological regression. And when things stabilized again, the expansion quickly resumed.
The cycles began to change somewhat in late ancient times, around the 17th or 18th centuries C.E. Humanity reached a base level of scientific and industrial knowledge that accelerated its rate of technological advancement. Some believed that the cycles had been broken, that humanity had reached a golden age. But carrying capacity was still a limit, even when the environment was all of old Earth. In the 21st century, resource scarcity and the associated impacts of climate change came to a head. Worsening the situation were advancements in information technology that had outpaced social development, dampening people’s ability to coexist with those who had different perspectives. The resulting collapse is of course what we classify today as the Second Dark Age.
In the midst of the chaos, small groups began trying to change the equation — by moving to a different environment. The first true efforts at settlement off old Earth — in small orbiting colonies, or small settlements on planetary bodies in the Sol system. Many of these attempts were disastrous failures, but a few succeeded, and the motivation of a ruined Earth proved significant. These migrants from Earth learned how to manage their colonies, how to terraform planetoids, how to protect themselves from the many dangers outside Earth’s protective atmosphere. In the end, by the 23rd century, humanity had halted its decline. But the cost had been enormous. While records from the time are incomplete, the best estimates are that the total human population dropped 85% over the two centuries of the Second Dark Age. The survivors were split almost evenly between those who remained on the dregs of Old Earth, and those who inhabited the planets, moons, asteroids, or wholly contained vessels comprising the rest of the Sol system.
For a time, humanity thrived in relative peace. The sheer number of colonies and the vast distance between them allowed humans with radically different viewpoints to live in their own sanctuaries. But the growth phase of the cycle was in full swing, and driven by innate biological imperatives, humans began to quickly exploit any resources within their grasp. The constraint now was the solar system, as traversing the vast distances to other stars seemed a fool’s errand. But while far vaster than Old Earth, the remainder of the Sol system was much less suited to human exploitation. And improvements in space travel made resource conflict that much easier. So it was that, a mere century after the Second Dark Age, humanity again collapsed into mass conflict, the so-called Sol Wars that dominate our middle ages.
But the Sol Wars were brought to a mercifully quick end by the invention of the wormhole anchor, which enabled naturally formed wormholes to be stabilized and made into semi-permanent wormhole gates. Some of these newly stabilized wormholes led to other star systems, and some of these star systems contained planets that were fit for human habitation, or close enough that they could be terraformed. So growth resumed, and by the 27th century, human colonies dotted hundreds of star systems.
These human colonies were a diverse lot. Some were microcosms of humanity as a whole, with culturally mainstream practices. Others were settled by groups who specifically rejected the cultural mainstream, and migrated en masse to a world if their own, entirely under their own control. The early years on any colony could be rough, and most were dependent on support from more established colonies for decades until they reached self-sufficiency. But the oldest colonies prospered, and as newer colonies reached the century mark, they too began to thrive.
But this golden age proved illusory. Every Confederation citizen knows the general story of the Tech Plague, so I will not trouble you with it here. Humanity faced an existential threat, as colony after colony succumbed to the horrors of the Plague. Drastic measures were needed, and were taken. The establishment of the Firebreak saved the thirty colonies of the Core Worlds. Humanity was reduced, but not eliminated.
In fact, as our enlightened leaders have proclaimed, the millenium we have spent under the Firebreak’s protection has been humanity’s greatest golden age. At last, we have freed ourselves from the relentless cycle of growth and decline. We have also freed ourselves from the more pernicious advancements in information technology, in case it was those very developments that led to the Plague. And by turning inwards, we have perfected our society. Rejuvenation treatment rewards the most accomplished among us, and allows them to provide their wisdom to us for centuries. Hunger, disease, and all of the baser threats that degrade humanity have been eliminated. Our political leadership continues to enforce the Firebreak, and only a few malcontents disagree. At long last, we can safely say that the cycle of growth and decline has been broken.
— A. Smithy, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Ecological History, Capitol Institute-Arboria