Why we are doomed as a civilization,
and why this is both inevitable and prefectly OK.
From a conversation with a friend.
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
When the civilization dies, the solid sphere becomes a hollow sphere. See figure 1 (click to enlarge).
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).
The idea of L is, of course, taken from the Drake Equation.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!