The Guaranteed Ending?

“He was simply unable to let things be foggy. Since they always are, this kept him pretty active.”

~ Robert Oppenheimer, regarding Enrico Fermi


Fermi’s paradox, named after Enrico Fermi, refers to the contradiction between the lack of evidence and the high probability for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. The basic points of the argument, as detailed by physicists Enrico Fermi and Michael H. Hart, are described by Wikipedia as follows:

1. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to the Sun, many of which are billions of years older than Earth.

2. With high probability, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets, and if the Earth is typical, some might develop intelligent life.

3. Some of these civilizations might develop interstellar travel, a step the Earth is investigating now (sic).

4. Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the Milky Way galaxy could be completely traversed in about a million years.

According to this line of thinking, the Earth already should have been visited by extraterrestrial aliens. In an informal conversation, Fermi noted no convincing evidence of this, leading him to ask, “Where is everybody?”

Several hypotheses have been forwarded to explain Fermi’s paradox, including that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. This is the argument, again detailed by Wikipedia, that technological civilizations may usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space-flight technology. Possible means of annihilation are many, including war, accidental environmental contamination, or poorly designed artificial intelligence. This general theme is explored both in fiction and in scientific hypothesizing. In 1966, Sagan and Shklovskii speculated that technological civilizations will either tend to destroy themselves within a century of developing interstellar communicative capability or master their self-destructive tendencies and survive for billion-year timescales. Self-annihilation may also be viewed in terms of thermodynamics: insofar as life is an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, the “external transmission” or interstellar communicative phase may be the point at which the system becomes unstable and self-destructs.

In other words, according to this perspective, our demise was guaranteed when the first technologically advanced civilization arose. As we know from myriad examples on Earth, uncivilized societies are capable of persisting for many thousands of years (at least). In contrast, there are at least six paths to near-term human extinction on Earth, each rooted in civilization. It seems we are following the extinction path as if it’s a handbook. Were I so inclined, I’d write the relevant book: Dummy’s Guide to Extinction.

The fastest and seemingly most-likely path to near-term human extinction on Earth is abrupt climate change. The refereed journal literature tackles the topic of hothouse Earth with a paper in the 9 February 2016 issue of Nature Communications: “Water-rich planets such as Earth are expected to become eventually uninhabitable, because liquid water turns unstable at the surface as temperatures increase with solar luminosity. Whether a large increase of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as CO2 could also destroy the habitability of water-rich planets has remained unclear. Here we show with three-dimensional aqua-planet simulations that CO2-induced forcing as readily destabilizes the climate as does solar forcing. The climate instability is caused by a positive cloud feedback and leads to a new steady state with global-mean sea-surface temperatures above 330 K” (330 Kelvin is about 57 C, compared to today’s temperature of about 15 C).

It should come as no surprise that our time on Earth is limited. After all, the director of the New York office of the U.N. Environment Program said governments have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control. That was 27 years ago. It seems we’re a tad late in warding off catastrophic climate change.

Even if it were not too late, it’s not as if we’re interested in making any substantive effort. Most people within civilization are too enamored with money — and what it buys — for that trick. If we were interested in enacting substantive changes, it’d still be too late.

Abrupt climate change is here. It’s not a problem for the future. Instead, it’s a predicament in which we are embroiled now.

It seems we reached the least desirable outcome consistent with Fermi’s paradox: Industrial civilization is sufficiently technologically advanced to drive us to extinction. The only surprise to most of today’s informed witnesses is that it happened on our watch.