Nathan Hwang

Transcript 7X-2: A Zoothropological Perspective

Thank you all for coming to today’s seminar on the Zootopia artifact, recovered during our excursion on planet 7X. I’ll be diving a bit deeper into the implications of the recording, especially those clues that might reveal the reason for their civilization’s demise.

You should have gotten a copy of the translated recording last night, but for those that skipped viewing it, the story matches our own “cop buddy” movies, with unlikely partners pairing up to right wrongs and become friends. Additionally, the recording conveys a message of tolerance, even to those highly unlike yourself.

However, there are hints throughout the recording that there exist multiple conflicts and instabilities brewing beneath the surface of society, any of which might have been the cause of the end of their civilization.

(Of course, everything must be taken with a grain of salt. I will interpret the recording in earnest, but the recording may be presenting a biased/utopic/dystopic view of Zootopian society. However, given the extreme degradation of the other artifacts recovered, I will simply have to assume that the recording reflects Zootopian reality.)

A Malthusian World

The most obvious problem is the looming Malthusian trap. We catch a glimpse of Bunny Burrow’s population near the beginning of the film, and can extrapolate an approximate growth rate. Pegging Bunny Burrow at the visible 8,143,580 individuals, and growing at 1-2 people per second, this rural farming town is almost as large as New York City, and growing around 2 to 4 times as quickly in terms of births assuming no deaths or immigration. Once we include deaths into the population counter, then the birthrate must be even larger.

Humanity dodged predictions of a Malthusian trap in the latter half of the 1900s with a green revolution and a novel tendency for rising standards of living to lead to lower birthrates. However, it’s not clear that either of these did or could happen on 7X. Bunny Burrow is 211 miles from Zootopia, a large and apparently wealthy city (for comparison, Boston is around 200 miles from NYC). Even though the town appears rural, the area is connected to the city with high speed rail, which practically puts Bunny Burrow right next to Zootopia. If Bunny Burrow is selling food to Zootopia, then Bunny Burrow almost certainly has a relatively high standard of living, and yet growth rates are still much greater than replacement. We don’t know what the bunny death rate is like, but unless there’s some system of bunny birth restriction just off screen, each couple giving birth to 275 children will not yield a low enough birthrate to avoid explosive population growth.

On the other hand, it is not apparent there has been a green revolution yet. There are 3 million farmers within the present-day USA, but 8 million farmers on the doorstep of Zootopia, which implies that Zootopian agriculture is closer to America in the 1870s, when half the country was involved with agriculture. It’s also implied that botany or science education is still in its infancy: no one seems to know about “Night Howlers”, an unrestricted plant that elicits an aggressive response in a wide range of species. If botany was underdeveloped relative to the rest of their apparent scientific advancement, then it is possible they could pull off their own green revolution and raise food yields and agricultural productivity. However, the apparent tendency of at least one species (sub-species?) to maintain birthrates in the face of prosperity simply means a massive yet finite increase in agricultural output would only forestall the inevitable.

To fully sketch a bleak world, once 7X nears carrying capacity, any change in agricultural productivity (say, a volcano dusting up the stratosphere) would cause famine. Human responses to famine are varied, so we can’t rule out responses such as violent revolution, widespread debt enslavement while people try to raise the funds to buy increasingly expensive food, or even simple mass death. It’s possible that any of these contributed to the ultimate desolation of Zootopia.

Divisions in Society

Contrary to the main message of the movie, another source of strife would be the highly heterogeneous nature of Zootopian society.

It is unclear how old the accord between herbivores and carnivores is; the introductory skit doesn’t elaborate beyond “thousands of years ago”, which is ambiguous. “There was war thousands of years ago” does not preclude “there was war tens of years ago”. There are hints, though, that the accord is a recent event.

By our eyes, Zootopia looks like a new city: high technology abounds, and there is not much creaking infrastructure of the sort you might find in an NYC subway. On the other hand, there are hints that the city is not brand new: the jungle superstructure presumably had to grow while the city provided climate control, and the city has been around for long enough that it has older low-cost housing (which Judy lives in). However, 50 years is more than long enough for a city to develop those sorts of signs of aging, and the overall veneer of the city reflects a shiny new Singapore instead of an older NYC or Paris. Since the accord was signed in Zootopia, the relative youth of the city implies that the accord is also young.

More circumstantial evidence suggests a young accord: predators easily enter a hyper-aggressive state with barely any chemicals applied (the skin is a good barrier against random chemicals entering the bloodstream). If the accord had happened thousands of years ago, one would expect predator aggression to be more easily kept in check, due to thousands of years of study on an important public relations matter.

(To be fair to the inhabitants 7X, it is likely that Zootopia exaggerates or imagines problems in society. In particular, the “Night Howlers” drug is curiously similar in nature to our own tales of zombies, serving as a fictional boogeyman. Along with the other problems I will detail about “Night Howlers” later, it seems unlikely that it is a real substance, or as dramatic as portrayed. However, as stated before, until a future expedition uncovers contrary evidence we can only take the recording’s word at face value.)

It seems that the accord is young. This means that the peace is more uncertain: institutions that have proven themselves over thousands of years in hundreds of civilizations, like the concept of courts, have shown themselves to be stable across many different circumstances. The accord seems more an uneasy peace that hasn’t had enough time to solidify into an alliance, more like the latest Israel-Palestine ceasefire than today’s peace between pre-Bismarck Germanic states. A societal shock might cause enough strife to break the accord, and the intervening peace would mean both predator and prey are prepared with better weapons.

(On the other hand, coordinating any peace at all between such different groups should be commended. Perhaps the inhabitants of Zootopia have a different enough neural architecture that negotiating and keeping a peace comes easy to them. However, the societal strife caused by Judy’s mid-recording revelations imply that isn’t the case.)

Subsistence Inequality

Another source of instability stems from the inequality coded into the genes of the different Zootopians, with vastly larger inherent differences between Zootopians than between any two humans.

Assuming that the city is relatively young, and that Zootopian society has only recently attained their technological level (much like our own world), it is only recently that smaller animals have gained access to machines with which they could do the work of much larger animals. Since they’re smaller, they don’t have large fixed costs: an elephant has to eat 300 pounds of food a day on an open savanna, while a gerbil has to eat 10 grams of food a day in a square foot cage. If the elephant wants to work at a high frequency trading firm downtown, he has to work remotely with the communication costs that entails, or pay out the trunk for a large city apartment that is still never large enough, but could serve as an outsized mansion for 20 gerbils.

If their society is still moving towards an information technology base, as it seems it is, (mobile phones included), then the smaller animals gain more and more of an advantage. And small animals are demonstrably not dumb: a shrew is a successful mafia don, and the employees at the financial institution Lemming Brothers are, well, lemmings. The situation is analogous to Robin Hanson’s virtual person emulation scenario, where the ease with which minds can be replicated and the low cost of virtual living drive wages through the floor, far below human subsistence costs (defined as maintaining the minimum caloric intake needed for living). Back on 7X, the low cost of gerbil living drives wages through the floor, far below elephant subsistence costs[1]. With this discrepancy in living costs, the tendency of smaller animals to have more children becomes more pronounced: it’s easy to support several deadbeat siblings as a gerbil, but a burden to support a deadbeat elephant. Even if the heritability of IQ doesn’t hold for the inhabitants of 7X, this means that it pays to pursue a r-selection strategy as a small animal. The more children you have, the more breadwinners you might have as children who can support all their siblings and then some. Over time, gerbils will vastly outnumber elephants.

In other words, tiny animals can eat the lunch of much larger animals. However, there is an existing peaceful integration of animals that literally eat each other: perhaps it is possible to also integrate animals with vastly different subsistence rates. One approach would be to impose a species-specific tax structure, similar to a skewed basic income, or provide a subsidy, like a housing subsidy for larger animals, or normalize different wages for different species[2] (it seems like these schemes aren’t already in place, since Judy doesn’t balk at paying for an elephant-marketed popsicle). Or coming at the problem from a different angle, perhaps their society would implement growth restrictions on faster growing populations, although it’s clear that such restrictions are not in place at the time of the recording.

Additionally, we do not know how long each animal species lives. If gerbils and elephants live as long as their terrestrial counterparts, then the shortness of gerbil lives leaves room for elephants to take on a long term Elder role, acting as a valuable repository of institutional knowledge for teams of short-lived gerbils. However, without more knowledge of Zootopian physiology, we can’t know for certain how their institutions would be structured to take advantage of different species, and if those would naturally counteract the problem of subsistence inequality or exacerbate them.

Balancing on a Knife Edge

In addition to the other concerns raised, it seems clear that there generally is a lot of destructive potential energy is stored in Zootopian society, but it is unclear how much of it is actively contained by their governments.

The first hint is the availability and easy-going concern with dangerous drugs, like “Night Howlers”. Previously, I pointed out that this meant that botany probably wasn’t advanced, but the advanced technology of the rest of 7X society means that oversights such as this are increasingly dangerous. Drawing a rough analogy, it’s as if knowing that ammonia fertilizers could be used to create explosives was freely available but specialized knowledge, and when a random farmer orders 10 tons of fertilizer over the internet and blows up an orphanage, the government blames the orphanage for being an old creaky building, and says so for months. “Night Howlers” have been an uncontrolled substance for so long, and city police so unconcerned with copycat terrorist attacks after the events in the Zootopia recording (mass aerosol or water supply attacks leap to mind) that 7X society seems woefully unprepared for what our colleagues in that Three Letter Agency[3] call “independent actors” leveraging all the power a technological society grants them, without any of the checks.

The second hint is the absolutely mind-boggling availability of energy. Creating city-sized micro-climates? It’s an HVAC nightmare, an energy black hole to shovel electrons into. How bad might it be? Let’s do a Fermi estimate: since the climate outside the city is reasonably temperate looking, we might estimate that it is similar in latitude to the farming zone in Western Europe, which means it gets around 50% less direct sunlight than the equator. If the desert climate requires HVAC to make up the rest of the energy usually injected into a more equatorial desert by the sun, then a Manhattan-sized area would require 120TWh of energy over a year [4]. Keep in mind that all 5 boroughs of New York City used around 60TWh in 2009: it requires a city-sized energy budget just to keep one of these climates stable. With 2 more climates to control, the energy expenditure must be staggering. There are some energy savings to be had by the fact that the cooling systems for Tundratown can just dump waste heat directly into Sahara Square, but we’re neglecting to account for the fact that none of these climates are enclosed. It’s well known that you should close your windows when your AC is running under pain of using and paying for more energy than necessary, and the same principle applies here: we never see an enclosing dome dividing the different climates, including the temperate climate in the surrounding area. It’s tough to say exactly how much heat leakage happens between each borough, but it’s likely that the already high energy expenditures become astronomical.

This loose attitude towards energy usage probably means that energy is dirt cheap. However, where is this energy coming from? There’s so much of it, there’s a distinct possibility it’s coming from somewhere unsafe. Certainly, the Zootopians may have access to liquid thorium reactors, fusion reactors, or more exotic forms of energy generation, but we don’t know that they did, and many of the high-output energy technologies we have access to have dubious trade offs.

Fossil fuel sources have the downside of undoing their careful climate control (but we do know their world ended, so maybe that played a role). Nuclear energy needs strict controls to ensure it doesn’t aid nuclear proliferation, and with their lax approach to “Night Howlers”, it isn’t out of the question that they would have problems down the line.

Even if it’s safer green energy, the amount of energy in play can still be dangerous. If there are multiple booming populations like Bunny Burrow, and agricultural efficiency isn’t advanced, the rest of the world likely favors farms, not solar panels. However, we know Zootopia had orbital launch capability, since children want to become astronauts when they grow up, which opens up solar energy farms in space. Getting the energy from vast regions of space, though, has some problems. If there’s an orbital laser beaming down energy from an orbital solar array, that’s another opportunity for something to be hacked and aligned with great destructive power. Same with using gravitational potential energy, such as using falling asteroids as an energy source. It’s not worth belaboring the destructive potentials of even higher density energy mediums, like antimatter.

Conclusions

From the moment we arrived on planet 7X, we knew that we arrived on a dead world. With the end of their journey fixed, we can only look to the past and ask who lived on planet 7X, how they lived, and what brought their civilization to a smoking ruin. We can only hope that by learning more about this one of many civilizations that was caught by the Great Filter, we can hope to avoid their fate.

That’s it. Thank you for coming. Now, are there any questions?


(And in case there is any doubt: this is not an allegory for the current human condition, or any portion of such. This is a crazy no-holds-barred extrapolation of a children’s movie.)


[1] In case you were wondering, humans aren’t subject to the same problem: on a logarithmic scale, there’s barely any difference in size between small and large humans, and size does not correlate to appetite.

[2] This last suggestion seems straightforward, but probably introduces more knock-on effects. For example, a law enforcing different wages per species likely makes their version of Mechanical Turk vulnerable to illegal competitors: if there are dark web enabling technologies like Tor and Bitcoin, then carrying out “human” intensive tasks will be much cheaper in the black market, since smaller animals could mask their identity and charge rates undercutting large animal rates, but higher than small animal rates.

[3] Hint: all three letters are different. Sorry if you thought I was referencing the FAA.

[4] A back of the blog calculation: sunlight provides 1120W/m2. Manhattan is 59.1km2 large. Assume 10 hours of sunlight a day and 365 days a year. Divide by half due to latitude. Arrive at around 120TWh/year.

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