Love, Impending Doom, and the Drake Equation

Why we are doomed as a civilization,
and why this is both inevitable and prefectly OK.
From a conversation with a friend.
[Alien Drawing]

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi wondered, "where is everybody?", meaning that, given the billions of stars in our Galaxy, there should be plenty of evidence for extraterrestrial live. However, such evidence has never been produced by anyone. This seeming contradiction is now widely know as the Fermi Paradox. (Warning: massive time sink ahead!)

So what does this question tell us about our own future?

In the remainder of this essay, I'm making a few assumptions that may be debatable. It's just a thought experiment, feel free to disagree! :) Most importantly, I'm assuming that

When a civilization starts to use radio communication, a solid sphere of radio waves starts to emerge from their planet and extends in such a way that their planet is in the center of the sphere. Note that I'm using radio as a placeholder for any form of electromagnetic communication here.

When the civilization dies, the solid sphere becomes a hollow sphere. See figure 1 (click to enlarge).

[Figure 1]

The dot in the middle is the planet hosting the civilization. The arrows indicate the direction of radio emission, the ring around the arrows is a 2-dimensional projection of the hollow sphere. Inside of the inner surface and outside of the outer surface of the wall of the sphere, there are no signs of radio transmission from the civilization. The thickness of the wall (in light-time) equals the lifetime or longevity of the civilization (L).

[Figure 2]
When the longevity L is large, the walls of the spheres emitted by intelligent species will be thick (figure 2). In this figure, the dot in the middle represents our planet, Earth. If the civilizations out there in the the galaxy would last long, we should be in the intersection of lots of walls of radio transmission, so there should be plenty of evidence for intelligent life outside of Earth.
[Figure 3]
If, on the other hand, the average longevity L of an intelligent species was small, all of the radio transmissions sent by them may very well have passed by us in the past (figure 3; the dot in the center is Earth) or will only reach us in a distant future. In this case, although the galaxy was brimming with life, we would never know about it.

The idea of L is, of course, taken from the Drake Equation.

So what does this tell us?

If the civilizations around us have a short lifespan, why should ours be an exception? What it might teach us (if it wasn't far too late to teach us anything at all ;)), is this:

Civilizations fail.

If we take a look around, this is pretty obvious. Far more than 99% of outer space is boring: vast regions of nothing interesting, interspersed with a few star systems. Much more than 99% of a star system is boring, interspersed with a sun and a few planets. The vast majority of planets is probably uninhabitable, with very few exceptions. Most of the planets never develop intelligent life, with very few exceptions.

I like to call this the fractal principle (but I have no idea whether I picked it up somewhere or it just popped up in my head). You have to be the exception of the exception of the exception, etc to get here, like a fragile tiny structure in the borders of a Mandelbrot fractal.

So we are pretty priviliged, really.

But here comes the sad news:

According to the fractal principle,
the vast majority of civilizations doesn't make it,
and we are most probably among those who don't.

But why?

Several steps are necessary for a civilization to come into existance:

At that point it is probably unavoidable that conflicts will arise. Conflicts among species and, as the population grows, conflicts between members of the dominant species. The next necessary step to create a lasting civilization would be

And this is where we messed up completely so far. Of course we know about biology and chemistry and physics, but these are all technical answers and without a proper understanding of life, they are of limited use.

In order to assert our dominance, we play with a system that we still know virtually nothing about. We know close to nothing about the interactions of the components of our ecosystem, about the fragile balance of our environment, about love as the driving force of the universe, about our role in the universe.

Science without religion is lame.
Religion without science is blind.
-- Einstein

I'm not a religious person, but I know that love is a force beyond our limited understanding. Science cannot teach you this, you will have to experience it. Science can teach you "how", but you will have to find your own "why?" and our culture will do anything to stop you from doing that! Without love, we put science to all all kinds of uses that might look reasonable from a technical point of view, but do not work out too well. E.g.

As long as we use technology only to destroy what we do not like, we will protect life that is not worth living at the cost of destroying life that is not our enemy and, ultimately, destroying our own habitat.

The next step on the way to a sustainable civilization would be to create an understanding of our role in life.

As long as we do not make this step, we will be the rule and not the exception. Our lifespan will be as short as those of all the other civilizations we have never heard from.

But it's OK, really!

We, as human beings or even as a civilization, are not life. Life is much greater than all this. Flowers spring from a seed, grow, blossom, wither, and die. Humans are born, grow up, reproduce, grow old, and die. Civilizations rise and perish. Only life itself is eternal, never born and never dying.

We are not life, we happen in life. We are only an expression of life. A blooming flower or laughing child is a beautiful manifestation of life -- this is why we love them so much -- but they are not life itself. We think that we love our children or beauty or success, but in fact it is life itself that we love, and life will go on, even if all of us die and our civilization vanishes without a trace. And that's OK. It has always been and will always be that way.

While we are here, though, just keep in mind that it is love what you are looking for.

Enjoy this expression of life while it lasts!

(Not so) random literature

Daniel Quinn; "Ishmael"; 1995
David Korten; "The Great Turning"; 2007
Kim Robinson; "Red/Green/Blue Mars" (Mars Trilogy); 1993
Michael Nagler; "The Search for a Nonviolent Future"; 2004
Riane Eisler; "The Chalice and the Blade"; 1988