“Where Is Everybody?” The Fermi Paradox and the Life-Cycles of Civilizations

The Fermi Paradox — never mind that Enrico Fermi didn’t originate it and it isn’t a true paradox — results from current scientific findings suggesting that a Galaxy as big as ours, now seemingly teeming with planets, should also be teeming with life and show signs of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) — perhaps vast civilizations in space. But after over four decades of searching and listening via, e.g., SETI, no scientifically-agreed-upon evidence of ETIs has been detected.* The heavens remain silent as a tomb. The Fermi Paradox thus asks, “Where is everybody?”

Just to review: here’s the basic idea: (1) there are perhaps 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, some of which are much older than our sun; (2) there appear to be other Earth-like planets, possibly billions of them, some probably also much older than our world; (3) assuming Earth to be typical, and given that intelligent life exists here, it is surely possible that ETIs have appeared on other such planets; (4) some of these should be much older than we are, perhaps with technologies mastering interstellar travel; and (5) one or more should have traversed and colonized the Galaxy.

So where are they?

First, obviously, one or more of our assumptions could be wrong. Maybe the universe isn’t as old as we think. One of cosmologists’ assumptions on which our estimates are based is that heavily red-shifted entities are moving away from us at tremendous speeds. Astronomer Halton Arp, a noted critic of Big Bang Cosmology, challenged this idea by claiming to have observed nebular connections between red-shifted and non-red-shifted objects (e.g., quasars and galaxies), suggesting the need to go back to the drawing board and possibly throw out the idea of a 13.8 billion year old universe. But never mind that here. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument Arp was all wet.

Maybe we are wrong in inferring that because intelligent life exists here, it must exist elsewhere. Yes, we’ve discovered what appear to be other Earthlike planets, but given the vast distances and the rudimentary data we have, our conclusions about the degree to which these “other Earths” are like “our Earth” is speculative at best. They may be too large, or have poisonous (to our kind of life) atmospheres, even if they orbit within the habitable (to our kind of life) “Goldilocks zones” of their parent stars.

Moreover, maybe Earth is atypical, because of its unusually large satellite, which some astronomers think may have acted as a sort of shield, its gravity diverting most of the comets, asteroids, and other space debris that would otherwise have taken consistent target practice at the Earth and caused many more extinction-level events than our world has actually seen (a big one may have killed the dinosaurs nevertheless). Other Earth-sized planets may not have been so graced, suffered many more such events, preventing intelligent life from ever developing on them.

On the other hand, maybe ETI is out there, but we are wrong in assuming an ETI is necessarily technological or creates civilizations that expand outward. We forget that there are cultures here on Earth that have no interest in technology or expansionism, and it would be the height of Western hubris to deem them unintelligent on this basis. Some have existed in their niches, their problems of existence solved, relatively unchanged for over a thousand years, and experienced actual harm when they came into contact with Western technology and “liberal-democratic” capitalism. Read Ancient Futures: Lessons from the Ladakhi for a Globalizing World (1991, 2009) by Helena Norberg-Hodge. In terms of mindset or technology or even basic biology, ETIs may in fact be nothing like us. Restricting ourselves to Earthlike planets is yet another form of hubris. Maybe life as we don’t know it can exist under unimaginably different conditions include some that would destroy us in an instant.

Or perhaps the speed of light is an absolute barrier, so that not only are there no “warp drives” or “jump gates,” any signals from an ETI would have left their world hundreds to thousands of our years ago. Ours would take just as long to reach them. This would make it unlikely that any civilization could expand outside its solar system, and would render effective communication with an ETI impossible.

But let’s suppose all these qualms, like Arp’s “seeing red,” are all wet, and that there really might be at least one vast, Galaxy-spanning super-civilization out there. Still assuming contemporary cosmology is essentially correct, there are indeed stars billions of years older than our Sun. Odds are strengthened that at least one planet gave rise to an ETI that would be billions of years older than we are.

Might we still not be in the position of this woman?

Might the situation not be even worse? Consider how rapidly technology has advanced in the West over just the past 100 years. Our great grandparents would be utterly lost in a big urban metropolis today, with its rapid transit systems, its glassy skyscrapers, their denizens carrying mobile devices able to talk to folks on other continents using email, social media, Skype, Messenger, etc. Now add that our advances have been accelerating — to the point that some writers depict a coming “singularity” in a few short decades, when advance becomes infinitely fast — perhaps because AIs have taken over!

Now project this into the future: a hundred years, thousand years, a hundred thousand years … a million years … a billion years. (Okay, breathe.)

If a civilization that old existed, then if we encountered its technology, would we even know what we were looking at? Were it all around us, in our little corner of Galactic real estate, would we even see it? Ants build colonies along sidewalks all the time. Do they see the sidewalks? Wouldn’t we be in the same boat, “seeing” ETI megastructures but not “seeing” them, as they form part of a background that’s always been there (along with background noise)? And incidentally, do you suffer moral qualms from stepping on an anthill? I didn’t think so. That ought to give ETI hunters an occasional sleepless night. One hopes these ETIs don’t decide to tear up the cosmic sidewalk and put in a superhighway (as did those Douglas Adams colorfully imagined!).

Seriously, by now you get the idea: not only is our question “Where is everybody?” a tad naïve, but we really are flying blind. We’re clueless what we’re actually looking for, or if we would see it right in front of our eyes! It might be silly to think an actual ETI would be using communications technology sending out signals we could recognize.

It’s all speculation, of course: a product, I think, of an existential desire felt even in science not to be alone in the universe — and a sense of profound oddness at the very idea of our existing and being alone — given, of course, that “God planned it that way” as an explanation doesn’t cut much ice these days.

There are even less hopeful explanations of the stellar silence. Maybe there really isn’t anyone out there. Not because a god did or didn’t will it, but because of the dynamics of civilizations themselves.

Some expositions on the Fermi Paradox (this one, for example) postulate a Great Filter which civilizations get past or fail to get past. If they get past the Great Filter, they can grow indefinitely. If they fail to get past it, they crash, burn, and disappear. Then the $500 billion question becomes: is our Great Filter behind us or ahead of us? Given that we have just one advanced civilization to study, it may seem again we don’t have much to go on. Some speculation is reasonable, though. Could a global society get past the Great Filter by permanently ending warfare and learning cooperation; or by learning to drive its technology in ways harmonious with their world’s ecosystems instead of perturbing and disrupting them, as most climate scientists say our burning fossil fuels is presently doing?

Maybe civilizations never cross the Great Filter. Maybe something else destroys them.

Numerous writers, Oswald Spengler being the first I know of, claimed that cultures / civilizations have an “organic” existence and lifespans just as individuals do. They are born, grow and advance, reach great heights. Then they get complacent, begin to decay, and finally collapse. Edward Gibbon offered one of the most famous accounts of a declining empire, that of Rome. Less known is author and British-born authority on Arab civilization Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897–1986) who grew puzzled by its distant past. Arabs had a civilization spanning the Middle East and North Africa a thousand years ago. They had universities filled with scholars. We owe this civilization words like algebra and algorithm. It rose, then declined and fell. So did the Ottomans, centuries later. Glubb wanted to know why. He began to study the great empires and reached a conclusion similar to Spengler’s. He saw civilizations as following, other things being equal, this trajectory:

(1) An Age of Pioneers.

(2) An Age of Conquest.

(3) An Age of Commerce.

(4) An Age of Affluence.

(5) An Age of Intellect.

(6) An Age of Decadence.

As briefly as possible: (1) heralds a dramatic breakout during which a previously undistinguished people suddenly founds a new society, perhaps based on new principles. Think of Americans’ Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. (2) sees a period of rapid and energetic expansion, such as that of the U.S. in the early 1800s — and heaven help anyone in the way (ask the Sioux or the Cherokee!). (3) witnesses a coming of age, seen in the rise of industrial titans such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. By the time (4) is reached (overlapping with (3) somewhat), trade routes are laid down, basic infrastructure and public administration are in place, and prosperity is spreading. The great industrialists become philanthropists. They establish universities and foundations. The sciences and arts begin to flourish. Culture thrives. But it is during this period that trouble starts. Those earning fortunes start to love money more than the common good. They seek protection from competition, or just greater control, as does an emerging political class. The state expands to accommodate all this.

With the arrival of (5), a civilization starts to lose its sense of direction. A mass media environment appears. Its chatterers follow celebrities and harp endlessly about nonevents. A class of professional intellectuals emerges in universities. They argue interminably over matters profound and trivial. Eventually they doubt anyone ever reaches truth, and these doubts seep into the surrounding culture. Common people turn inward, embracing a range-of-the-moment pragmatism. Love of money among the masses is exchanged for the endless chase after enough of it, often for endless mass consumption or just to keep the lights on when their money doesn’t buy what it used to. (6) portends decline, as (also courtesy of some of its intellectuals) the civilization’s first principles are replaced by a superficial relativism (“all cultures are equal”). Sectarian agendas abound, and the common good becomes an alien concept. Hedonism unleashes passions formerly restrained by civil mores, and we see an obsession with sex of every stripe and variety. At its “macro” level the civilization grows militaristic and overextended. Its “leaders” adopt political-economic policies that are increasingly irrational and self-destructive. More and more people seek to live at the expense of a bloated and increasingly authoritarian state.

Such factors, Glubb believed, signified a civilization in decline. He also pointed to changing migratory patterns. He distinguished immigrants of Ages of Conquest, Commerce, and Affluence, who eagerly assimilated into and contributed to the civilization, learning its language, embracing its mores, founding businesses, etc., from those of an Age of Decadence who colonize cities without assimilating, refuse to learn the language, reject once-accepted norms as (e.g.) “racist,” eventually becoming disruptive. The civilization fragments and slowly disintegrates. Meanwhile, its own best and brightest begin migrating elsewhere! Is the U.S. in its Age of Decadence? Think about it!

In any event, surely it is possible that theories of civilization such as Spengler’s and Glubb’s explain why civilizations fail to advance past a certain point. An advanced civilization’s own dynamic creates conditions in which those forces and values that built it cannot live, and which invariably take it down.

Now again, we have no way of knowing whether an ETI civilization would follow this path or not. But any intelligent species, were it technological and growth-oriented, would face many of the same problems we face. If its leaders and members were no more successful than ours have been to date, we might have a reasonable answer to the question, “Where is everybody?”

There might indeed be no one out there, if no one gets through the Great Filter!

Must civilizations become victims of their own successes? Or can they break free of this dismal fate? One of my favorite imaginings, admittedly idle, is that at least one civilization solved the problems, got through the Great Filter, and colonized the Galaxy. They have us quarantined, unless and until we prove ourselves. They’ve watched our wars of colossal stupidity like the one in Iraq, or just our mindnumbingly absurd obsession with the Kardashian sisters, and closed their eyes (I am assuming they have eyes) with a sigh. They have their own Prime Directive which forbids interfering with us, either to help or hinder. In this scenario, they know how to hide their technology from our instruments which are primitive, after all, by their standards. Or again, it could be in our faces and even our best scientists wouldn’t recognize it. Hence we listen to the skies and do not even hear crickets.

In which case … it is up to us to rise up and “break the cycle,” as it were. The decline of the West won’t render this impossible. If Anglo-European civilization crashes and burns, future civilizations will doubtless rise, phoenixlike, from our ashes (unless, of course, we’ve ruined the planet’s eco- and climate systems). One might succeed, finally be contacted, and be the first to learn that We Were Never Alone.

I suppose one can hope — or dream.

*I am leaving aside speculations about UFOs, as even if we have a few unexplained cases of high strangeness, science has no clue what to do with them; and anyway, are we sure a civilization advanced enough to get here would need flying tin cans to do it? I am also leaving aside speculations that the anomalous dimming of “Tabby’s Star,” KIC 8462852, around 1,400 light years from Earth, results from a megastructure being built by an ETI, as to date there appear to be more plausible explanations.