What Fermi’s Paradox could tell us about the fate of western civilization
Statistically we should have had contact with aliens by now. Why they haven’t appeared may hold clues about what it means to be an advanced technocracy.
Random speculations of a deep green conservative
I had some interesting correspondence with an old friend recently regarding the famous Fermi Paradox.
The theory holds that given the trillions of stars in the universe, we can statistically assume that technologically advanced civilizations exist on other planets.
The paradox is that we haven’t made contact with any of them yet.
The story of how the theory came into existence is one of those hokey tales about nerdy rocket-scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US.
Walking to lunch one day in the summer of 1950, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and several colleagues including Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, were discussing recent ufo reports around the country.
During their meal, Fermi suddenly said something to the effect, “Where are they all”, referring to alien visitors.
He later produced a series of statistical calculations indicating we should have been visited by extraterrestrials “long ago and many times over,” according to the physicist Herbert York, who attended the original lunch.
What interests me is that Fermi based his calculations on the idea that we should have been visited by a ‘technologically advanced’ civilization.
Because our own ‘advanced’ high-tech civilization may not survive long enough to make it much further than Mars, precisely because of our obsession with technology and our abandonment of the nature that spawned us.
And that might be why other high-tech extraterrestrial civilizations have crashed before making contact with us.
The Fermi Paradox begs many questions.
Would a truly advanced civilization even bother to colonize other galaxies given the vast amounts of energy this would require?
Remember the movie “Independence Day”. Sometime in the future a hostile spaceship 5000 km (3000 mile) wide is approaching earth. A mighty battle ensues between our super advanced high-tech forces and the alien ship.
The subtext is the alien’s insatiable, and ultimately self-defeating need for energy, presumably required to get back home or wherever it is going next.
Then there is the question of whether a “technologically” advanced civilization is by definition advanced or parasitic?
When do we reach the limits of technological growth and stop behaving like a cancer consuming its host? Climate disruption and biodiversity breakdown are both symptoms of a sick planet.
Enlightened extraterrestrial civilizations may have even avoided or bypassed the industrial/technocratic phase of development.
Maybe advanced tech is an aberration rather than the norm, stemming perhaps from the Christian doctrine of dominion over nature?
Maybe successful extraterrestrial civilizations decided that harnessing energy as a substitute for labour was stupid economics?
In his book Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher made the point (which followers of this blog will have read more than once lately) that “the amount of real leisure time a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.”
This suggests an enlightened society would probably avoid high-tech like the plague.
There could be other reasons.
Perhaps women, or the feminine equivalent in enlightened extraterrestrial societies, have played a more prominent role in developing cultures.
Women, in my experience, are generally less inclined towards creating the explosions that are a basic function of technocratic development.
Finally there is the crucial question of power.
Throughout human history there has probably never been a meeting of cultures that did not involve the issue of who wielded the most powerful weapons.
Nor has a more powerful entity ever likely to have ceded power to a technologically weaker opponent.
An enlightened culture would probably recognize this, realizing that intergalactic battles would ultimately have the same outcome as the fight to conquer nature.
In the end, the battle is unwinnable.
I know supporters of the status quo argue that a key definition of life is the ability to colonize unfamiliar environments, and that hence the stars are our ultimate destiny.
But everything has limits (except, probably, technology and cancer), and Fermi’s Paradox may well only be a rational, white alpha male explanation for interplanetary colonization.
Even a cursory knowledge of traditional cultures and religions suggests there are many other definitions of the driving forces of humanity.
Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Catholicism (now the Pope has neutered the concept of Dominion) all suggest that enlightenment lies within rather than in the stars.
The modern alchemy of technology and it’s theology, science, are new kids on the block. They are tools that offer no moral compass.
The real paradox is that scientific tools have measured the effects of technology on the planet, and it has come up severely wanting.
Consequently we now face what former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd once described as “the great moral challenge of our time” in dealing with climate disruption.
There will always be passionate advocates for high tech, space travel and colonization, just as there are passionate advocates for yoga or sitting in a cave meditating.
That doesn’t mean society should unquestionably follow either lead.
If extraterrestrials were to suddenly appear on earth I would be as consumed with interest and fear as anyone else.
And I get Fermi’s statistics.
And of course there may be millions of other valid reasons why we haven’t heard from extraterrestrial civilizations.
But I think my point is still valid: being ‘technologically advanced’ is very different to being ‘advanced’ or ‘enlightened’.
From our own experience here on earth, colonization has generally been a disaster for the colonized, and historically only a fairly temporary arrangement for the colonizers.
We should be asking: how advanced is a civilization relies on non-renewable energy for almost every aspect of daily life?
How smart is a civilization that is wiping out other species so fast that we are threatening our own existence due to a potential biodiversity crash?
How advanced is a civilization drowning in plastic or running out of water?
As for Fermi’s Paradox, there may well be thousands of civilizations out there in deep space.
But perhaps the only survivors have been those who have tended their own garden first before setting off on unsustainable flights of fancy into deep space.
As my Arrernte Aboriginal friend Ambrose is inclined to say: “You’ve got to live with nature, not kill it.”