Climate Strike! Act 1

Act 1.
Fermi's Question

I think often of Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) – the great Italian physicist. He asked an intriguing question. He looked out at the stars and asked: Where is everybody?

Number 1: Our Sun is a young star. It's 4.6 billion years old, while most of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy are about 10 billion years old or older.

Number 2: There is a high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets which, if the Earth is typical, may develop intelligent life. Fermi could only make a rough guess about the number of Earth-like planets in the galaxy. Since getting the data from the 2013 Kepler mission, our current best estimate is that there are 40 billion Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way with surface temperatures conducive to life.

Number 3: These older stars with Earth-like planets would be way ahead of us in developing interstellar travel – some of them billions of years ahead of us.

And number 4: Given that one-tenth the speed of light should be achievable, and that a ship going that speed could get from the far edge of the galaxy to the opposite far edge (a journey of 105,700 light years) in just over a million years, the galaxy could be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years. Given billions of planets that have billions of years of head start on us, a few tens of millions of years is nothing.

So: where is everybody?

Scientists have offered a number of possible answers to Fermi’s question. Maybe the probability of life forming from nonliving matter -- or the chance that life would, within a few billion years, develop to the point of space travel -- is much lower than Fermi imagined. Or maybe extraterrestrials have swung by, but are too clever to have been detected. Maybe.

But the answer that haunts me is this conjecture: It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.

Intelligence emerges in response to competition for scarce resources. If resources are plentiful, or species don’t need to outsmart other species to get them, then all species remain comparative simpletons. So wherever intelligence emerges, it necessarily comes with aggressive, instinctual drives.

When that ancient competitive, aggressive drive to consume resources, extend longevity, and reproduce is suddenly paired with powerful new technology: boom. The species destroys itself through environmental destruction or super-powerful weapons, or at least blows itself back to a pre-technological stage. That's the conjecture: that any species on a trajectory of evolving increasing intelligence will necessarily figure out how to destroy itself before it figures out how not to.

If true, it would explain why no extraterrestrials have colonized the galaxy. Perhaps this self-destruction has already happened on billions of planets. Perhaps it is now happening here.

* * *
Climate Strike! Acts 2-3: Truths Still Inconvenient. Polls.
Climate Strike! Act 4: Joy, Compassion, and the Big Picture
Climate Strike! Act 5: Thrilling Conclusion

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