20 January 2015

Climate Change as a test of civilization's surivability

Some may have seen the interesting article by Adam Frank in the Sunday NYT, Is Climate Disaster Inevitable?
The article is more about the astrobiology of civilizations than Climate Change on Earth, but it asks the question how likely is it for a planetary civilization to 'break through' to real sustainability?   
And he posits that the relative degree of unlikelihood of that process' succeeding may account for the Fermi Paradox. If not familiar with the idea of the Fermi Paradox, may I gratuitously recommend my own essays on the subject, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The gist is that the Galaxy (and, for that matter all galaxies, since they're all about the same age) have existed for nearly as long as the universe itself, and have evolved slowly, such that the universe has everywhere been more or less as it is now for at least a few billion years. So in all the Galaxy, if civilizations are common, all, or surely nearly all, that exist right now must be older than ours, unless we are the only one (which is possible). And if you imagine that in 10,000 years time we might figure out how to send robots or ourselves to visit the nearest, say, 50 star systems.... the math comes out that if there are more than a tiny number of civilizations, and each one exists for at least 50,000 years (very roughly), then every single star in the Galaxy, including the Sun, would have been visited by an alien civilization by now. (If you doubt this, e-mail me and I'll explain the numbers). And since that doesn't appear to be the case here, Fermi's famous question in 1950 was «Where are they? » Good question.   
Tim Ferris in a 15 year old documentary called "Life Beyond Planet Earth" said it was false logic; it was like wondering why a lobster doesn't come to the door and climb up onto your plate. But I think that's a false analogy. Civilizations will, by biological imperative, seek to discover new potential habitats for life. Any that survive and have the capacity to develop technology will develop space travel, at least to some level. It is a real and serious issue, to answer why, if the supposition that life, and in particular intelligent life, is common, then why is not evident? (Other than here, of course, and jokes about no intelligent life on Earth are a bit old, thank you).

It took life to go from origin to complex, multicellular forms nearly 3¼ billion years on Earth, then another 600 million before intelligent life arose. There is no reason to believe that the emergence of intelligent life was inevitable in that time. (Cf. Stephen Jay Gould, and his speculation that if you re-ran the "tape," there would likely be no intelligent life a second time around). With an example of one, we can't know whether this was typical, remarkable in that intelligent life emerged quickly (or at all), or that Earth was a bit retarded (in comparison to the rapid emergence of intelligence on average). Statistically meaningful estimates could be made if we had even two examples. But with only one, as with the likelihood of life originating at all given the availability of certain requisites, we really can't say anything meaningful. All we have is our intuition that life should be common in so vast a universe; and if we can have arisen in the only known example of a living world (Earth), why not elsewhere? Why not, indeed. But the Fermi phenomenon is an important data point. We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that the "Star Trek" universe, where the Galaxy is teeming with advanced civilizations zipping to and fro, visiting and colonizing hundreds of planets, and inexorably expanding in space... almost certainly does not exist in our Galaxy, and probably does not exist anywhere.   
But the Fermi paradox can be quite easily explained by the supposition that life requires some rather rare (not exceedingly rare, just rather rare) conditions, and that intelligent civilizations are really quite rare, such as only one or two... or ten... but not 100... existent in a galaxy like ours at at any given time during the current epoch (say ± 2 billion years). And that only some fraction, say 1/10 of them, survive long term, such as over 10,000 years. With those kinds of numbers, if they're anything like reality, it is not at all surprising, in fact is exactly what would be expected, that we see no evidence that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials, and we see no vast Galactic network of communicating civilizations.

Which is not to say that tomorrow, we will not find a signal or some evidence that others are out there somewhere. 
And if sustainability is perhaps an unlikely achievement, for any given form of intelligent life, we must take it as our challenge. To become one of the ones that succeeds.

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