Not at All Foggy Now, Mr. Fermi
“American professor and science educator Carl Sagan and Soviet astronomer and astrophysicist I. S. Shklovskii speculated in their 1966 book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, that technological civilizations will either destroy themselves within a century of developing the capacity for interstellar communication or master their self-destructive tendencies and survive for billion-year timescales. Self-annihilation may also be viewed in terms of thermodynamics: Insofar as life is an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, the interstellar communicative phase may be the point at which the system becomes unstable and self-destructs.”—Dr. Guy McPherson
By Dr. Guy McPherson
BELLOWS FALLS Vermont—(Hubris)—1 May 2023—The Fermi Paradox, named for Professor Enrico Fermi, refers to the contradiction between the lack of evidence and the high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. Fermi was an Italian physicist who later became a citizen of the United States. He has been called the architect of the nuclear age and, also, the architect of the atomic bomb. The basic points of Fermi’s Paradox are as follows:
1. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to the Sun, many of which are billions of years older than Earth.
2. There is a very high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets and, if Earth is typical, some of the attendant solar systems might develop intelligent life leading to the development of civilizations.
3. Some of these civilizations might develop interstellar travel, as we have attempted on Earth.
4. Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the Milky Way Galaxy could be completely traversed in about a million years.
According to this line of thinking, the Earth already should have been visited by extraterrestrial aliens.
In an informal conversation, Fermi noted no convincing evidence of this, leading him to ask something like, “Where is everybody?” The actual quote has been lost over the decades since its utterance, but the general consensus is that Fermi asked a question something along these lines.
Several hypotheses have been forwarded to explain Fermi’s paradox, including that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.
This is the argument holding that technological civilizations usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space-flight technology. Possible means of annihilation are many, including war, accidental environmental contamination, and poorly designed artificial intelligence. This general theme has been explored both in fiction and science.
American professor and science educator Carl Sagan and Soviet astronomer and astrophysicist I. S. Shklovskii speculated in their 1966 book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, that technological civilizations will either destroy themselves within a century of developing the capacity for interstellar communication or master their self-destructive tendencies and survive for billion-year timescales. Self-annihilation may also be viewed in terms of thermodynamics: Insofar as life is an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, the interstellar communicative phase may be the point at which the system becomes unstable and self-destructs.
In other words, according to this perspective, our demise was guaranteed when the first technologically advanced civilization arose on this planet. As we know from myriad examples on Earth, pre-civilized societies are capable of persisting for many thousands of years. In contrast, there are several means of achieving near-term human extinction on Earth rooted in this set of living arrangements.
It seems we are following the extinction path as if it’s a handbook. I’m surprised nobody has written a book titled, Extinction for Dummies, which would fit nicely into the existing series of guides.
The fastest and seemingly most-likely path to near-term human extinction on Earth is abrupt, irreversible climate change, as I have described frequently in this space. The peer-reviewed, open-access journal literature tackled the topic of hothouse Earth with a paper in the 9 February 2016 issue of Nature Communications titled, “Transition to a Moist Greenhouse with CO2 and Solar Forcing.”
This paper by Max Popp and two other scholars includes the following information in the abstract: “Water-rich planets such as Earth are expected to become eventually uninhabitable, because liquid water turns unstable at the surface as temperatures increase with solar luminosity. Whether a large increase of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as CO2 could also destroy the habitability of water-rich planets has remained unclear. Here we show with three-dimensional aqua-planet simulations that CO2-induced forcing as readily destabilizes the climate as does solar forcing. The climate instability is caused by a positive cloud feedback and leads to a new steady state with global-mean sea-surface temperatures above 330 K.” 330 Kelvin is about 57 C, compared to today’s planetary temperature of about 15.5 C. This temperature increase of 41.5 degrees Celsius is equivalent to a rise in temperature of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot.
It should come as no surprise that our time on Earth is limited. I have pointed to numerous warnings throughout history during which we could have addressed climate change. As a society, we ignored those many warnings. Indeed, even if it were not too late to change our lives, it’s not as though we’re interested in making any substantive effort. Most people within civilization are too enamored of money, and the privileges it brings, to make significant sacrifices on behalf of life on Earth. Even if we were interested in enacting substantive changes, it would still be too late.
Even the stunningly conservative political entity known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has admitted with reports on 8 October 2018 and 24 September 2019 that Earth is in the midst of abrupt and irreversible climate change, respectively. Follow-up information from the IPCC, media personalities, and paid climate scientists indicates that you and I must make changes in our lives, and soon. Even as these pronouncements come from the IPCC, media personalities, and paid climate scientists, they are doing nothing except demanding that the masses change while they continue making zero sacrifices. As COP27 revealed last November in Egypt, the warnings continue to target the masses. The topics rarely or never mentioned include the aerosol masking effect, Jevons’ Paradox, and the danger of stripping away stratospheric ozone and thereby superheating the planet due to nuclear plants’ imploding.
A footnote about Enrico Fermi, as related by American physics professor Robert Oppenheimer, who is often called the father of the atomic bomb: “He was simply unable to let things be foggy. Since they always are, this kept him pretty active.”
Here’s the bottom line: We are in the midst of achieving the least-desirable outcome consistent with the Fermi Paradox. Abrupt, irreversible climate change is not a problem for the future. Instead, it’s a predicament in which we are embroiled now, today. Meanwhile, industrial civilization is sufficiently technologically advanced to drive us to extinction with the push of a button.
The leading surprises in the minds of informed witnesses seem to be either 1) that it hasn’t happened quite yet, or 2) that it is happening on our watch.
Editor’s Note: In the photo of Enrico Fermi above, there is—ironically—an error in the equation.
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Thanks, Dr. McPherson.
Reading Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920, after WW 1) :
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Now, with what we know a century later, interacting transformations of water – ice, water, vapour – and heat enter poetry.
The world won’t end, not in this geological epoch. We may.
Our animal end may be wetter than either ice or fire, a fusion of immolation and immersion.
Love and hate matter still more than in Frost’s insight. They are choices. Not only about other animals.
Now we choose to love or hate ecological thermodynamics. We will affect the outcome.
Guy R McPherson
Indeed we will, Mr. Lash. In fact, we already have altered “the outcome,” and not positively. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.