Fermi’s paradox: does the lack of contact from extraterrestrials have implications for human survival?

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Posted Jun 22 2015 by Paul Jennings of Criafolen

“Where is everybody?” Enrico Fermi is supposed to have asked in 1950 of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Working from first principles, Fermi calculated that extraterrestrials should have visited the Earth long ago, and many times over; the absence of any evidence to suggest that they have done so presents therefore the basis of the paradox that now bears Fermi’s name.

Fermi was neither the first nor the last to raise this puzzling question, and a decade after the famous lunchtime conversation at Los Alamos, Frank Drake formulated an equation to stimulate discussion of the chances that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) would discover radio communicative civilisations on other worlds. The Drake Equation is an attempt to find systematic means to evaluate the various probabilities involved in the existence of alien life. There are both Drake Equation optimists, and pessimists, but given the age of the Universe, even when possible problems with the equation are taken into account, the paradox remains compelling, as compelling now, as it was fifty years ago when SETI began its mission in earnest. Where is everybody?

More importantly you might be thinking, what on Earth has this subject got to do with Lowimpact.org?

Numerous explanations have been suggested for the conspicuous absence of alien visitors, or indeed signs of their existence, for example enormous alien constructs, detectable evidence of asteroid mining, the passage of alien probes, or massive use of solar energy changing the light curve of planets measured near eclipse.

Now of course it may be that we are indeed the first, and that is why there’s no evidence of other civilisations; it may be that intelligence of our sort at least is rare in our galaxy. You can play around with the numbers here: http://www.classbrain.com/artmovies/publish/article_50.shtml

It might just be though, that intelligent life, again of an intelligence close enough to ours to be recognisable, has a tendency to destroy itself. Carl Sagan, a Drake optimist in terms of the amount of civilisations likely to exist in our galaxy, nonetheless pointed out that any planetary dominant species would pass through perhaps a century, early on in its days of exploring the Cosmos, when it would have attained the capability of destroying itself, either through nuclear war, or through creating catastrophic climate change for example.

To my mind this rings horribly true. A species that attains utter dominance of the world on which it evolves might just forget, as we seem to have done, that every species is shaped by, and depends upon the eco-system in which it emerged. The moment, a century, or a millennium, in which hubris might allow a species to believe that it can outgrow the natural matrix from which it arose, would provide plenty of time for the precipitation of mass extinction and planetwide catastrophe. A global war fought with nuclear weapons would, as the saying goes, most likely limit future conflicts to the use of stones and sticks as primary armaments. Even if there were survivors, there would be no question of interstellar ambition. Catastrophic climate change would have the same effect.

So, we arrive, perhaps many species have arrived, at the moment when the stars seem almost to be within our grasp, and yet we have perhaps already assured the destruction of the natural systems upon which, despite our pride, we still depend. Given what seems to me to be the crucial role of the natural world in making us what we are, that is to say, that this is not merely a question of breathing or of drinking, but of the very essence of our being, I would be surprised if grief alone would not stop potentially communicative species in their tracks, once the worlds which gave rise to them had been ravaged beyond recognition by their dominance.

There is a question of some relevance here I think: where does the oak tree end? You might choose any species. You might choose us. The idea that a species can be seen in isolation, imagined hurtling through space and still to be the creature that left its home, is illusory. No Earth beneath our feet, no humanity. It is surely worth considering. Similar considerations might have kept other species from venturing into space.

Humans have lived and died on Earth for much longer than civilisation has existed. This thing is a very recent development, one which we tend to see as a natural outcome of progress. Progress is the most powerful god in our mythic pantheon. Civilisation is a process, and some of what it has given us seems to be of immense value, but it may be that civilisation is a one way ticket to the cataclysmic destruction of the very planetary conditions that allowed its development.

At the heart of civilisation after all, we don’t find high aspirations, the morality of which has been hastily cobbled together and pushed into the breach – no, we find exploitation of people and resources, we find hierarchy with all its religious and ideological blandishments. What drives civilisation? Arguably the greed of the few; the urge of a minority to wield power; a sort of cancerous need of hierarchies to grow, to control and to simplify. We were not always like this.

Perhaps we didn’t have to come this way. But we have. We teeter now on a peak of cultural evolution, and the other peaks that we might have reached lie far away, and separated from us by deep valleys, places and paths we are taught to fear. I like to wonder where it started, hierarchy, civilisation, the division of the first cancerous cell. It doesn’t matter though; there’s nothing we can do about that now.

The question is, how might you get from this civilisation to another place, one in which our species, and the natural world on which we depend for our identity, might survive? To paraphrase a joke about asking directions, if we wanted to go there, it would be better not to start from here. A civilisation might necessarily be destructive, might be seen as a destructive process; it might not be something that can be mended.

So either necessary change, or catastrophe, might take us forever out of the ranks of those intelligent species likely to be communicative in Frank Drake’s sense of the word. Where is everybody? Maybe the really intelligent ones never got that itch, never passed through the crisis that gave rise to hierarchy and the myths of progress; they’re out there, but they never went in the direction of radio telescopes, nuclear weapons, or burning gigatons of ancient hydrocarbons. On the other hand, maybe some of them were or are like us, and they blew themselves from the faces of their worlds, at which point, to borrow from Lovelock, their own Gaia breathed a sigh of relief, and carried on.

If we have a path to future survival, it seems clear to me that it must be found through a thoroughgoing reexamination of civilisation and of our place on this Earth. This is a blog, and I’m thinking on the hoof, but if you’ll forgive me, I shall be as bold as to suggest that hierarchical society cannot be mended by politics, or by thinking that finds its roots in the very assumptions of that society. The change would have to be fundamental, radical, and psychological; it would have to give rise to an entirely new culture, to a long forgotten way of living within our ecological and spiritual means.