We need a ‘Great Simplification’ to avoid catastrophe, and in doing so, we will unwittingly answer one of the most interesting questions in modern science.
The Fermi Paradox is a fundamental problem in astrobiology that asks a hauntingly simple question: ‘If intelligent life in the universe is likely to exist, why do we see literally no evidence of their existence?’
There is a myriad of possible solutions to this question, everything from ‘We are all alone’ to ‘We are too stupid to see them yet,’ but perhaps the scariest answer is that of the ‘Great Filter,’ the idea that all industrial, spacefaring civilizations like our own cannot overcome a certain unknown obstacle (the filter) to further development and either go extinct or de-industrialize and fade away.
Well, this decade might provide an interesting possibility as to what the ‘Great Filter’ might be. The recent heroic protests by Greta Thunberg and the many millions of protesters have brought climate change back to the forefront of public debate, and that has lead to speculation that climate change is the Great Filter.
It stands to reason that any industrialized civilization would emit a lot of heat, energy, and pollution, particularly ones that would be detectable by us. Our pollution of the atmosphere has proven to be massively destabilizing to our own Earth. It will cause massive climactic change within a few generations, which poses a very real existential threat to our entire civilization.
Climate change is not likely to wipe out all human life, but it could definitely throw us back to the stone age and completely reverse the development trajectory of our species. It’s reasonable to assume that other worlds if they have intelligent life on them, would likely face the same issues. Intelligence of our magnitude comes with hubris, a kind of false confidence that we are the ones in control, making it likely we will overshoot the carrying capacity of our planet.
Perhaps there are worlds out there where the unstoppable beast of industry has consumed itself and left behind the ghosts of old industrial civilizations, with the survivors eking out an existence on a world far different than the one their ancestors evolved on.
The Great Simplification
If climate change is an inevitable symptom of industrial civilization and the only way to avoid massive famine and potential extinction is to scale back our society to pre-industrial standards, then the ‘Great Filter’ becomes more of a ‘Great Simplification’ (used in the ‘The Future is Rural’ by Jason Bradford).
If the answer to the Fermi Paradox is usually the ‘Great Simplification,’ then there are a few possible trajectories for an industrial civilization.
1)The first is a species that overshoots the carrying capacity of its planet so much that the climate conditions change to the extent of causing extinction or massive decline that cannot be easily recovered from.
2) The second is a species that either overshoots then realizes the mistake or anticipates the issue ahead of time and ‘pulls on the reins,’ so to speak. They would scale their civilization back as a means of survival but would likely never be able to use technology to the point of reaching other star systems or give us much evidence of their existence.
3) The last is a species that screws up its home planet and finds a technological fix, adapts, or leaves, thus continuing the development of their industrial society.
If most species fall under option 1, and the majority of the other civilizations fall under option 2, only a thin sliver of species would fall under the 3rd category and be easily visible to us.
I suppose that if these assumptions are true, they might imply that our universe is populated with post-industrial societies that will never see each other or meet, simply eking out an existence on their home planet without the ability to leave, or at least to go far, until they eventually go extinct. Maybe the ‘Great Simplification’ is a form of self-imprisonment, followed by a turn to the internal or to a kind of collective apathy to further development.
The easiest solution to climate change is obvious and painful. It is degrowth on a massive scale, the scaling back of our industrial society to something more in-line with the carrying capacity of our planet. It’s obvious we need to pull the reins on our collective population growth and fossil fuel use lest we completely destroy ourselves.
Perhaps this is why it is important for us to find meaning in our homes, art, literature, and gardens. If we wish to leave our children a world that is actually livable, we need to cast aside the toxic ideas of infinite growth and industrial society and embrace our real identities as just a part of a large community of animals on this precious planet of ours. Maybe we, like all other species on this planet, are destined to fade away into this great river of time that we inhabit. I think that’s fine.