So there's some crazy shit going down on Earth these days. Everything's changing (mostly). The air's getting warmer. Much warmer. So's the ocean. But some winters are much, much colder, for much longer. Everything's drier, and also wetter. You can talk over crystal clear HD live video with a friend or family member or amateur porn actress, a half-world away. Our population is growing at a stunning and unrelenting rate -- in some places. The poor are poorer (in rich countries), but also more enabled than ever (in poor countries). You use cell phones to gawk kitten pics, they use them to bank and sell crops. Medical care is nearly universal in industrialized countries -- but not everywhere. We still use dinosaur bones to power our cars and boats and buildings, but unlimited, renewable energy is making incremental, but relatively huge strides. It's been a long time since we sent a man or woman farther than 205 miles from the surface of our little planet. But we've been living off-planet continuously for almost 14 years. We've populated Mars, our Ghost of Christmas Future, with robots. But we have no idea how to actually live there, or anywhere else off-planet, for longer than a few months.
So all of this organic and planetary evolution begs two questions:
1. Are we alone?
2. Are we about to die?
Interestingly, these are related. And quite possibly time-sensitive.
The Fermi Paradox
To super nerds, "are we alone?" isn't a question necessarily limited to whether we have neighbors, but further: are we unique? Is our planet unique? Is humanity unique? Was our evolution unique?
Here's the thing: despite an increasingly slim budget and focus on science, researchers have used incredible tools like Kepler to find more and more planets that are potentially similar to our own. Potentially because we can't actually see them -- just the way they wobble. But we can kind of measure them, and their distance from their own star, giving us a fairly decent idea of how big they are (gravity) and how warm or cold they are (survivability for organisms like our own). But the more of these suckers we find, the more the question grows: where the hell is everybody?
And that's the Fermi paradox. Basically. In layman's terms: if there's so many other planets similar to ours, surrounding stars that are considerably (millions of years) older than ours (ours is relatively young in the grand scheme of the universe), why the hell haven't we detected another civilization, or if they're that much more advanced, been colonized or visited by them?
The Drake Equation
That's a great question. Thanks for asking. It turns out the now-deemed relatively simplistic Drake equation hoped to shed some light on how many other cool cats are out there, by inferring:
For every star born, a fifth to half of them will eventually host planets. Probably one to five of those planets would be capable of supporting life. Assuming 100% of those develop life, and life that's intelligent, then probably like 10-20% could communicate. Which, fifty-three years after Drake dropped this math, would imply there's anywhere from 1000-100,000,000 civilizations out there, five of which are being considered for an overseas NFL franchise. It's a huge range, and are we sure moving a franchise to London is a great idea? Size of metropolis does not equal size of fanbase; see Los Angeles, California.
But the issue is, since 1961, we've discovered and solidified a lot of other shit about the factors listed above, and among other reasons, this new ever-evolving knowledge really throws that number off. For example, we now believe stars host planets as a rule, not an exception, and also we have only one real example of a civilization that can "communicate" across galaxies and time and space (hi -- that's us), and we barely do it, aside from one message in the 70's that kind of gave away all of our hopes and fears and secrets (which, btw, is a much-theorized reason why other peeps might not be blasting out their coordinates). Also, now we can build spaceships and colonize a dead planet that feels suspiciously like our own, but with robots. So my man Drake's equation has become more of a philosophy than a guideline, like "Yo, we can all agree there's a shitload (more or less incomprehensible) number of Earth-sized, Goldilocks-located planets out there that should host life. "
But can we?
What if intelligent life is only just beginning? Like, what if humans are V1?
Here's the thing about our universe. It's kind of just getting started. Yeah, that sounds cray because it's 13.8 billion years old already, but most scientists think it'll keep producing stars for another trillion years or so. Shit, Earth's only like 4.5 billion years old, and while it took 3 billion of those years for intelligent life to climb outta the goddamn ocean, it's still...incredibly early in the process.
Now, hold on to this: some educated folk think if we use robots, it'll only take 20 million years to colonize the galaxy. So: 3 billion to evolve. Just 20 million to take over. Introduce a dominant, invasive species, and they win. Darwin, bitches.
That means: second place is first loser. The first civilization could colonize the galaxy many times over while everybody else is catching up, or getting steamrolled.
So, bringing things full circle: if we're not first, then again, I ask, why isn't there an alien finger up my ass?
Also, isn't it kind of presumptuous to wonder "where the hell is everybody" when we still drive cars (ourselves, and on gas), believe in supernatural beings and have only had microchips for about fifty years also-don't-forget you're closer to the space station right now than where you and your homies carpooled to spring break? The universe has at least hundreds of billions of years to produce more intelligent life and by then, "intelligent" might (hopefully) have an entirely different meaning.
But Carl said we're not unique
And that's why you don't fuck with Carl.
Look at what I wrote above. In particular:
Also, isn't it kind of presumptuous to wonder "where the hell is everybody" when we still drive cars (ourselves, and on gas), believe in supernatural beings and have only had microchips for about fifty years also-don't-forget you're closer to the space station right now than where you and your homies carpooled to spring break?
If I were describing anybody else but, um, us, wouldn't you be like "safety school!"? Yeah, well, that's called the Copernican principle. Carl loved that shit. Things we know for sure ("science"): we're not the center of the universe, we're not the center of our galaxy, we're not the center of our own solar system. We are, in fact, parked way, way, way the fuck out in right field. What part of being unique or chosen gets you stuck at the end of this goddamn cul-de-sac?
So who the hell are we to assume we're top dog, as good as it gets?
But if we're kind of idiots, and not hot shit, and there is, or more importantly, was, somebody smarter and taller and better looking, where are they?
This...this the problem.
The Great Filter
It stands to reason that any civilization is gonna see its share of challenges. I mean, look at the dinos. They had this shit on lockdown for near 165 million years and, well, let's just say when you prioritize eating each other over a well-funded science program, you're not gonna deflect that asteroid.
We went from single-cell to multi-cell, grew fins and learned to walk, we've seen wars and pestilence, plagues and droughts, floods and freezes over our paltry 200,000 years. But we made it! Until now. What I'm trying to say is, we have put ourselves in a goddamn precarious position, all in the name of progress. We don't make wars by donning tri-corner hats and marching in straight lines and stabbing each other anymore. We make it go boom from far, far away. We've bottled up those aforementioned plagues and diseases and keep them in a Kitchen-Aid for some god-forsaken reason. Half of us are eating ourselves to death. What I'm really trying to say is, just because we've made it to this point, doesn't mean we're gonna continue.
And that's the Great Filter. The theory being, at some point, every civilization faces a true breaking point: nukes, disease, asteroid, environment, star goes supernova. Whatever. The point is either they make it, or they don't.
You're probably wondering: how this relate to us, and the search for E.T.?
Scenario #1: "I thought you said we're fine", OR: The Great Filter is behind us (OR: more technically, the "Rare Earth Hypothesis")
One prevailing theory is the graduation to multi-celled life was our Great Filter. The right time in organic history, Earth's history and the solar system's history. The planets just "lined up" (KILL ME). Incredibly rare. The odds were decidedly not in our favor for that one, and now look: Tinder!
This cheats a little because it veers away from the thought that Great Filters tend to occur when a civilization is on the brink of incomprehensible technological greatness. That is, everything we've discovered and built turns against us. That just before we can travel the stars, we kill ourselves. But anyways. In Scenario #1, we made it! We're on the way to becoming a Type III civilization, capable of colonizing whatever the fuck we please.
Why this sucks: If it's so rare, and we're the only ones that made it, we're probably alone.
Why this rocks: We're #1! We're gonna make it!*
Scenario #2: The Great Filter is in front of us, OR: Better get that fucking rocketship program back underway
Let's look at all the shit that could kill us in the near future. Just the near future. Comprehensive, nature and human induced climate change, leading to complete environmental destruction. A hard reset. Nuclear war. Asteroids. Synthetic pandemics. Skynet.
Not only do we not over-tax the guys who yank the last drops of oil out of Earth's teet, we give them tax rebates to do it. Nobody remembers the last time it rained in California. Solar storms. China's coal. It's getting warmer, quick. We've still got thousands of nuclear weapons, and so do other people, and neither they nor we can say with absolute assurance that ISIS doesn't have one. We've made zero preparations to deflect an asteroid (see: dinosaurs, above). Because of the internet and science (yay!), anybody can build a bioweapon (boooo). Also, the last couple hundred years of our boring climate were, by all accounts, a total aberration. The polar vortex is just the tip.
Why this sucks: Something bad comes this way. Eventually, we're gonna get to the end of CONTRA, and as anybody my age will tell you, that final fucking alien head was such a huge pain in the ass to kill. You're not gonna make it on your first try. And with the Great Filter, you don't get another try.
Why this rocks: If we can get past whatever the fuck it is (and if the theory actually holds up when we meet other civilizations — finger crossed, jesus), we're much more likely to survive, commence interplanetary and interstellar travel and colonization and severely lessen the odds we die off in a single planet disaster of any shape or form.*
And maybe, just maybe, we'll meet another civilization that squeaked by. And maybe we won't kill each other.
Now, I know what you're gonna ask.
Are we capable of saving ourselves?
No? We can't escape? Any of us? Even just a few of us? Can't we start over somewhere new ASAP? Where are we realistically capable of going in the next 25 years?
Well, we certainly can't escape anytime soon. Maybe we can stop some of the other shit from happening. Or slow it down. But considering that climate scientists have stopped using preventative language and now talk about "adaptation", it feels like, I don't know, maybe we're fucked.
But listen, I don't wanna be all doom and gloom. I just wanted you guys to understand the way I feel. That as a species we're terrible at estimating risk, and we don't really do any long-term planning, and that our kids and grandkids are gonna have it really, really different, despite what we do now. I want them to breathe clean air and go to space and meet aliens, but I don't know, more than anything I just want them to live a good life and fight for what's right. We didn't do it. And there's a really good chance judgement day's a comin'.
*Sooooo....you're probably wondering what the asterisks are all about.
Hi again. Did I mention that all this is near-term? One tiny little long-term detail remains unavoidable: our sun's going boom in about 5 billion years. But well before that, in probably like 2 billion years, Earth's gonna roast from the growing heat. And so are we if we're still here. So, like Christopher Nolan says, we actually have to get off this rock at some point. The question remains: will we?