Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where are all the Aliens?

Thinking about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is a fascinating exercise in thinking about about civilization. This link is inevitable because any rational search strategy forces you to consider what civilizations do, how they evolve and, most importantly, how long they last. Back when nuclear war was our biggest worry the question of civilizations' endurance always seemed to hing on its bellicosity. Our new found recognition of climate change and the limits to growth changes that perspective. Now we have to ask if there is something fundamental to the very agent which makes civilization seem possible which can, in turn, threaten it - technology.

To that end I want to share with you a paper I have been reading that I found on the astrophysics preprint server. The paper is called THE SUSTAINABILITY SOLUTION TO THE FERMI PARADOX and its authors Haqq-Misra & Baum have been remarkably creative in merging SETI with our new concerns. The Fermi paradox is an old conundrum (which may not have really started with Fermi) that asks, essentially "If ETs exist, why aren't they here already?" The idea is that if one assumes an exponential expansion of a star-faring civilization then unless things just got started everywhere in the galaxy civilization-wise, we should already have been overrun by little green friends.

Haqq-Misra & Baum have an answer for this that comes from our new understanding about limits to growth. Here is their abstract.
No present observations suggest a technologically advanced extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) has spread through the galaxy. However, under commonplace assumptions about galactic civilization formation and expansion, this absence of observation is highly unlikely. This improbability is the heart of the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox leads some to conclude that humans have the only advanced civilization in this galaxy, either because civilization formation is very rare or because intelligent civilizations inevitably destroy themselves. In this paper, we argue that this conclusion is premature by introducing the “Sustainability Solution” to the Fermi Paradox, which questions the Paradox’s assumption of faster (e.g. exponential) civilization growth. Drawing on insights from the sustainability of human civilization on Earth, we propose that faster-growth may not be sustainable on the galactic scale. If this is the case, then there may exist ETI that have not expanded throughout the galaxy or have done so but collapsed. These possibilities have implications for both searches for ETI and for human civilization management
I will let you read the rest for yourself and see what you think.


  1. Thank you for the post!

    Those little green alien friends you mentioned are here indeed and have been here.

    If the brilliant minds of those like yourself would quit looking to the fringes of the universes and look right here on terra firma, we might all get some grand thing accomplished in way of CONTACT.

    We at IQXS would also ask you to re-evaluate your idea of these beings you seek...whether or not they are indeed, little, green...and friendly.

    The LINK to this interesting article has been Twittered at and shared with 965+ die-hard UFO Twit-thusiasts galaxy-wide.

    We track the latest in UFO/Alien Affairs News, Views, Pix and Vids. Come join the loop and be in the know. Tin foil hats, optional. :)

    ATT: We do not re-post videos or data, we only share the link to yours. Ciao!

  2. Adam, I've been making a case for the original understanding of faith because it pertains to the threat of climate change and the end of our civilization that we won't otherwise recognize.

    If we use the structure of a continuum, then faith would occupy one end while despair would occupy the other. In the middle would stand indifference; which is where the lion's share of our population experiences their lives: it's the rare person who longs for despair and if you're one that can't buy into simplistic religious world views, then there is no credible thing to entrust your faith to. So we're left with indifference.

    To make the pallid experience of indifference palatable, we utilize "bread and circus" to distract ourselves from having to be truly conscious of our predicament. In this mode, the profound is the enemy of the trivial: i.e. endless conversation about remodeling projects at cocktail parties.

    If I'm accurate in my portrayal here, then I would argue that the threat that is sensed more completely and primal than an end of civilization, is the threat that the "emperor" which protects one from having to face a life of indifference, has in fact, "no clothes on": without a comfortable indifference, we're forced back into the dilemma of choosing between faith and despair- without the means to face such barren confusion.

    This is why I like the idea of coevolution. I think this can be developed as a credible pathway in which to entrust our faith. Once there can be faith, than people can experience a felt sense of wanting reality more than bread and circus.

  3. Very interesting post that calls attention to our need to transition from an expansive society to an equilibrium society.
    If we started colonising remote planets it is reasonable to assume that a similar cycle will take place on each of these remote planets, rapid growth followed by equilibrium as they reach the resource limits of that planet.
    But I cannot see that this limits the interplanetary growth as long as sending out a small number of probes does not require a disproportionate amount of the planet's resources.
    Herein I see the weakness in the paper's argument. The need to achieve equilibrium on each planet need not not slow the interplanetary growth. Remember each new planet will inherit the gains and lessons of the previous planets and this fact alone will accelerate the expansion.
    I suspect though Adam, what you are hinting at is the real possibility that societies inevitably collapse as the result of uncontrolled expansion and that this is why no ETI has been observed. That is a sombre observation that adds real urgency to the debate.
    I am a little more hopeful though. The post-WWII years suggest that we are learning to collaborate on a global scale and that there is an on-going shift in values towards a conservation ethic.

  4. On re-reading your post Adam, I see you are suggesting that our technological capabilities are expanding faster than the rate with which we learn to moderate those capabilities. And this makes our collapse very likely. If that is true then only those species that acquired a much higher level of intelligence than ours would survive. Now that is entirely possible and there is no reason to suppose that, in terms of intelligence, we are the pinnacle of creation. But then we should still see evidence of ETI as the most intelligent species would survive and spread, probably even faster as the result of their superior intelligence.
    But the absence of ETI does not invalidate your main point - we should be very concerned that our technology capacity is growing faster than the rate at which we learn to moderate it.

  5. @mike I agree that few long for despair but how does cynicism fit in? Many people seem to have a cynical view that "nothing can be done" which sometimes seems like a more "hip" version of despair.

    Along those line I agree with waht you are saying about the cocktail party distractions. We have constucted a "simulated" reality of reality TV and YouTube phenoms as a way of keeping the wheels turning while we head off a cliff. I think some part of the solution will be finding a way to get the species to think in millenial time-scales which is not something evolution selected for in the past.

  6. @occiasional I am not endorsing their entire argument because, as you point out, there are some ways around their main point. What I was excited about in the paper was the merging of sustainability reason with an astrobiological context. I have been thinking about this a lot recenty - how does our thinking about life in a planetary context change our thinking about our life/civilization. I suspect there is something very fruitful that can come from braiding these two viewpoints together.

  7. Adam, I take your point that valuable insights can come from seeing our world in an astro-biological context. So, taking your lead I am trying to recast my thoughts accordingly. My first thoughts are that in that context our world can be seen to have certain properties:-
    Rarity Our inhabitable world would seem to be exceedingly rare, if not unique. Why else are our skies completely absent signs of extraterrestrial life?
    FragilityThis universe is a very hostile place where innumerable and very powerful forces threaten us with extinction. The snowball earth hypotheses has already shown what could happen to us and another asteroid strike could end it all.
    BrevityIn light of the extraordinary long term dangers that face us we must accept humanity may only have a short time available to it. Life forms in other places may never have had enough time for significant development.
    UniquenessWherever we look in the night skies we seem to see only barren rock and gaseous balls. Maybe we are living in a uniquely special place.
    FecundityOn our planet though life bursts forth in every imaginable place in astonishing splendour and variety. This is why we automatically want to believe that it is happening elsewhere in the universe.
    But that may be mankind's biggest delusion.

    For me the conclusion is that we are living in the midst of the most remarkable miracle imaginable, a tiny, perhaps short-lived, bubble of beautiful fecundity. All of this set in the midst of a huge, unimaginably hostile place. This is all we have, this is all there is and, as if there were not enough dangers already, we are becoming the agents of our own destruction.
    The most urgent and important task facing humanity is to harness all its energies towards preserving or prolonging this tiny and miraculous bubble of life for as long as possible. We have no greater duty.

  8. Nick Bostrom's paper Where Are They? is particularly relevant to our discussion.

  9. @Adam, I wouldn't call cynicism a hip version of despair- I would call it a fashionable psychological defense against the underlying threat posed by despair: cynicism is fashionable because it's a collective "project", and it's a psychological defense because there is no sensed exit strategy if one were to actually enter into despair. I would say that cynicism is a "herd" phenomenon.

    As you mention millineal time scales, I'm noticing a shift in my own sense of time scale occuring just in the past year; Newton is feeling like he's only a genaration or so back from me. I don't know if this has to do with my predominate frame of reference -which centers on the experience of human being in life, rather than the technology that humans invent- or if it's just about my age- 49.

    Sitting here I can sense the relevance of our population being able to personally experience a millenial time scale.

  10. I need to clarify something about cynicism.

    As a 'defense mechanism' I hold it as something profound to a person and not trivial. So I wouldn't want to try "pushing" a cynic out of cynicism; this would be violent. I would however, work to develop a credible vision that could draw a cynic from their place of felt security- volintarily.