Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Solving Fermi's Paradox

One of the besetting sins of today’s intellectual climate is the habit of overspecialization. Too often, people involved in one field get wrapped up in that field’s debates and miss the fact that the universe is not neatly divided into watertight compartments. With this excuse, if any is needed, I want to shift the ground of The Archdruid Report’s discussion a bit and talk about Fermi’s paradox.

First proposed by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, this points out that there’s a serious mismatch between our faith in technological progress and the universe our telescopes and satellites reveal to us. Our galaxy is around 13 billion years old, and contains something close to 400 billion stars. There’s a lot of debate around how many of those stars have planets, how many of those planets are capable of supporting life, and what might or might not trigger the evolutionary process that leads to intelligent, tool-using life forms, but most estimates grant that there are probably thousands or millions of inhabited planets out there.

Fermi pointed out that an intelligent species that developed the sort of technology we have today, and kept on progressing, could be expected eventually to work out a way to travel from one star system to another; they would also leave traces that would be detectable from earth. Even if interstellar travel proved to be slow and difficult, a species that developed starflight technology could colonize the entire galaxy in a few tens of millions of years – in other words, in a tiny fraction of the time the galaxy has been around. Given 400 billion chances to evolve a species capable of inventing interstellar travel, and 13 billion years to roll the dice, the chances are dizzyingly high that if it’s possible at all, at least one species would have managed the trick long before we came around, and it’s not much less probable that dozens or hundreds of species could have done it. If that’s the case, Fermi pointed out, where are they? And why haven’t we seen the least trace of their presence anywhere in the night sky?

Fermi’s paradox has been the subject of lively debate for something like half a century now, and most books on the possibility of extraterrestrial life discuss it. There are at least two reasons for that interest. On the one hand, of course, the possibility that we might someday encounter intelligent beings from another world has been a perennial fascination since the beginning of the industrial age – a fascination that has done much to drive the emergence of the folk theologies masquerading as science in today’s UFO movement.

On another level, though, Fermi’s Paradox can be restated in another and far more threatening way. The logic of the paradox depends on the assumption that unlimited technological progress is possible, and it can be turned without too much difficulty into a logical refutation of the assumption. If unlimited technological progress is possible, then there should be clear evidence of technologically advanced species in the cosmos; there is no such evidence; therefore unlimited technological progress is impossible. Crashingly unpopular though this latter idea may be, I suggest that it is correct – and a close examination of the issues involved casts a useful light on the present crisis of industrial civilization.

Let’s start with the obvious. Interstellar flight involves distances on a scale the human mind has never evolved the capacity to grasp. If the earth were the size of the letter “o” on this screen, for example, the moon would be a little over an inch and three quarters away from it, the sun about 60 feet away, and Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system now that Pluto has been officially demoted to “dwarf planet” status, a bit more than a third of a mile off. On the same scale, though, Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our solar system – would be more than 3,000 miles away, roughly the distance from southern Florida to the Alaska panhandle. Epsilon Eridani, thought by many astronomers to be the closest star enough like our sun to have a good chance of inhabitable planets, would be more than 7,500 miles away, roughly the distance across the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of North America to the east coast of China.

The difference between going to the moon and going to the stars, in other words, isn’t simply a difference in scale. It’s a difference in kind. It takes literally unimaginable amounts of energy either to accelerate a spacecraft to the relativistic speeds needed to make an interstellar trip in less than a geological time scale, or to keep a manned (or alienned) spacecraft viable for the long trip through deep space. The Saturn V rocket that put Apollo 11 on the moon, the most powerful spacecraft to date, doesn’t even begin to approach the first baby steps toward interstellar travel. This deserves attention, because the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on Earth, riding the crest of one of the greatest economic booms in history and fueling that boom by burning through a half billion years’ worth of fossil fuels at an absurdly extravagant pace, had to divert a noticeable fraction of its total resources to the task of getting a handful of spacecraft across what, in galactic terms, is a whisker-thin gap between neighboring worlds.

It’s been an article of faith for years now, and not just among science fiction fans, that progress will take care of the difference. Progress, however, isn’t simply a matter of ingenuity or science. It depends on energy sources, and that meant biomass, wind, water and muscle until technical breakthroughs opened the treasure chest of the Earth’s carbon reserves in the 18th century. If the biosphere had found some less flammable way than coal to stash carbon in the late Paleozoic, the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century wouldn’t have happened; if nature had turned the sea life of the Mesozoic into some inert compound rather than petroleum, the transportation revolution of the 20th century would never have gotten off the ground. Throughout the history of our species, in fact, each technological revolution has depended on accessing a more concentrated form of energy than the ones previously available.

The modern faith in progress assumes that this process can continue indefinitely. Such an assertion, however, flies in the face of thermodynamic reality. A brief summary of that reality may not be out of place here. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and left to itself, it always flows from higher concentrations to lower; this latter rule is what’s called entropy. A system that has energy flowing through it – physicists call this a dissipative system – can develop eddies in the flow that concentrate energy in various ways. Thermodynamically, living things are entropy eddies; we take energy from the flow of sunlight through the dissipative system of the earth in various ways, and use it to maintain concentrations of energy above ambient levels. The larger and more intensive the concentration of energy, on average, the less common it is – this is why mammals are less common than insects, and insects less common than bacteria.

It’s also why big deposits of oil and coal are much less common than small ones, and why oil and coal are much less common than inert substances in earth’s crust. Fossil fuels don’t just happen at random; they exist in the earth because biological processes put them there. Petroleum is the most concentrated of the fossil fuels, and the biggest crude oil deposits – Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, Cantarell in Mexico, the West Texas fields, a handful of others – represented the largest concentrations of free energy on earth at the dawn of the industrial age. They are mostly gone now, along with a great many smaller concentrations, and decades of increasingly frantic searching has failed to turn up anything on the same scale. Nor is there another, even more concentrated energy resource waiting in the wings.

If progress depends on getting access to ever more concentrated energy resources, in other words, we have reached the end of our rope. The resources now being proposed as ways to power industrial civilization are all much more diffuse than fossil fuels. (Nuclear power advocates need to remember that uranium-235, which has a great deal of energy when refined and purified, exists in very low concentrations in nature and requires a hugely expensive infrastructure to turn it into usable energy, so the whole system yields very little more energy than goes into it; fusion, if it even proves workable at all, will require an infrastructure a couple of orders of magnitude more expensive than fission, and the same is true of breeder reactors.) More generally, it takes energy to concentrate energy. Once we no longer have the nearly free energy of fossil fuels concentrated for us by half a billion years of geology, concentrating energy beyond a certain fairly modest point will rapidly become a losing game in thermodynamic terms. At that point, insofar as progress is measured by the kind of technology that can cross deep space, progress will be over.

We can apply this same logic to Fermi’s paradox and reach a conclusion that makes sense of the data. Since life creates localized concentrations of energy, each planet inhabited by life forms will develop concentrated energy resources. It’s reasonable to assume that our planet is somewhere close to the average, so we can postulate that some worlds will have more stored energy than ours, and some will have less. A certain fraction of planets will evolve intelligent, tool-using species that figure out how to use their planet’s energy reserves. Some will have more and some less, some will use their reserves quickly and some slowly, but all will reach the point we are at today – the point at which it becomes painfully clear that the biosphere of a planet can only store up a finite amount of concentrated energy, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Chances are that a certain number of the intelligent species in our galaxy have used these stored energy reserves to attempt short-distance spaceflight, as we have done. Some with a great deal of energy resources may be able to establish colonies on other worlds in their own systems, at least for a time. The difference between the tabletop and football-field distances needed to travel within a solar system, and the continental distances needed to cross from star to star, though, can’t be ignored. Given the fantastic energies required, the chance that any intelligent species will have access to enough highly concentrated energy resources to keep an industrial society progressing long enough to evolve starflight technology, and then actually accomplish the feat, is so close to zero that the silence of the heavens makes perfect sense.

These considerations suggest that White’s law, a widely accepted principle in human ecology, can be expanded in a useful way. White’s law holds that the level of economic development in a society is measured by the energy per capita it produces and uses. Since the energy per capita of any society is determined by its access to concentrated energy resources – and this holds true whether we are talking about wild foods, agricultural products, fossil fuels, or anything else – it’s worth postulating that the maximum level of economic development possible for a society is measured by the abundance and concentration of energy resources to which it has access.

It’s also worth postulating, along the lines suggested by Richard Duncan’s Olduvai theory, that a society’s maximum level of economic development will be reached, on average, at the peak of a bell-shaped curve with a height determined by the relative renewability of the society’s energy resources. A society wholly dependent on resources that renew themselves over the short term may trace a “bell-shaped curve” in which the difference between peak and trough is so small it approximates a straight line; a society dependent on resources renewable over a longer timescale may cycle up and down as its resource base depletes and recovers; a society dependent on nonrenewable resources can be expected to trace a ballistic curve in which the height of ascent is matched, or more than matched, by the depth of the following decline.

Finally, the suggestions made here raise the possibility that for more than a century and a half now, our own civilization has been pursuing a misguided image of what an advanced technology looks like. Since the late 19th century, when early science fiction writers such as Jules Verne began to popularize the concept, “advanced technology” and “extravagant use of energy” have been for all practical purposes synonyms, and today Star Trek fantasies tend to dominate any discussion of what a mature technological society might resemble. If access to concentrated energy sources inevitably peaks and declines in the course of a technological society’s history, though, a truly mature technology may turn out to be something very different from our current expectations. We’ll explore this further in next week’s post.


yooper said...

Excellent article John! More proff to the pudding, so to speak! Yes! This is the type of logic, I learned from my instructors so many years ago...Again and again..

Especially like your analogy of the distances between the earth, moon, sun and nearests suns. I took an astromony class, however, this comparsion you've made sure gets to the point! Suppose, if we used all the stored sunlight found in petroleum here on earth into one flight to Epsilon Eridani, think there would be enough?

I hope that some doubting readers are adding your proffs up, making something of it....

Any thoughts of technology to save the day are pointless, if there is no energy to power that technology. This concept is so simple. It saddens me that many bright, well intentioned people cannot grasp this....

Thanks, yooper.

Jim said...

I think you are entirely correct, that travelling to other stars is just unachievable. I am often amazed by how many intelligent people take it as an article of faith that the world envisioned by Star Trek must be in our future. Faith is a tricky business!

Mature, advanced, developed, all these slippery concepts. Progress, or limits. What might it mean to say that unlimited progress is possible? A crude analogy: perhaps we have a balloon that is being pumped up with air, so the balloon's volume is increasing. The expansion of the balloon could still be very constrained - maybe it can only grow in one dimension, so it just gets longer and longer, but keeps the same skinny cylindrical diameter. The idea of a partial order instead of a total order, just this elementary mathematical concept seems beyond very many even intelligent people.

Just like "bigger" and "smaller" are really partial orders, surely "more advanced" and "less advanced" should be partial orders of cultures. Basically they are useless. More useful is to narrow the focus: more or less advanced in what particular regard?

Perhaps the multiple dimensions of intelligence outlined by Howard Gardner could be a useful starting point. E.g., we can build better flying machines than folks could back around say 1500 CE, but the painters back then, Michaelangelo etc., do we have such advanced capabilities nowadays?

On Olduvai & sustainability, I was playing with some related differential equations, discussed at where the kinds of oscillations you describe apppear.

Stephen Heyer said...

There are actually so many possible answers to Fermi’s Paradox that the wonder will be if we encounter someone else, rather than if we don’t. Many of those such as the Rare Earths theory and the Human Event Horizon (Transcendence) seem very exotic to people on the street reared on Star Trek and Star Wars yet are actually the more probable.

The Human Event Horizon is actually now part of mainstream science, though scientists don’t carry on about it too much in public so as not to seem too extreme. The main question now being whether we can maintain the present crescendo of advancement until about 2050, when the Event Horizon is expected, or collapse before then, perhaps losing our chance forever: Richard Duncan’s Olduvai theory.

I am now far less hopeful than I was a decade ago.

Anyway, leaving the more exotic aside, I would like to explore a few nuts and bolts issues with John’s excellent post.


Notice that I did not say colonies on other planets. I believe planets are the last place a high technology civilization wants to be, in part because the resources DO run out and then you have billions of people trapped at the bottom of a gravity well with no way out.

Yet, in the following quote two, in my opinion unwarranted assumptions are made.
“Chances are that a certain number of the intelligent species in our galaxy have used these stored energy reserves to attempt short-distance spaceflight, as we have done. Some with a great deal of energy resources may be able to establish colonies on other worlds in their own systems, at least for a time.”

The first of course being that settlements will only be established on other planets, the second, I suppose flowing from this, that supplies of energy sufficient to drive a high technology civilization will run out and the off world colonies die.

In fact, current thinking is that the natural home of a high technology civilization is space itself, whether inside asteroids or in purpose built habitats. First, in space energy is a lot easier to come by, 24X7 sunlight for solar cells for one, so are raw materials (asteroids, Ort Belt etc) and of course once you have clawed your way up out of your birth planet’s terrible gravity well transport costs are quite low.

In other words, if a civilization once establishes stable, self sufficient colonies, even if only in its own solar system, there is no reason why it should not persist for immense periods of time. If it achieves interstellar travel, then perhaps for the lifetime of the universe.


“a society dependent on nonrenewable resources can be expected to trace a ballistic curve in which the height of ascent is matched, or more than matched, by the depth of the following decline.”

Sort of jumps out at you doesn’t it: Our civilization is rather like an annual plant and one that now looks like it will fail it’s one chance (Olduvai theory) to set and broadcast seed (off-world colonies).

In short, I think John Greer is far too pessimistic about the likelihood of long term survival for high technology civilizations in general, but perhaps sensibly pessimistic about this particular one.

I will have more to say about the likelihood of high civilizations that are more sensible about population and resource use than ours in a later post. They would, of course, be more likely to “set seed” than ours. In fact, just possibly, their off-world daughters just might put old mum on the pension (provide a subsidy of recourses) thus allowing the original civilization to survive permanently.

Robin said...

Thanks for another excelleht summary of a very wide range of thought and knowledge.

I had the idea that fusion energy might someday be a controllable form; ultimately fossil fuels derive thati energy from fusin in the sun. But as was pointed out about interstellar travel, the factors involved are so many orders of magnitude greater that your comments are valid.

Sabretache said...

Thanks for another excellent exposition Jean. Absolute spot-on clarity. Superb stuff.

I don't comment a lot but, as posts go on one of my 'must-read' blogs, this is outstanding

Jean-Michel said...


I mentioned this Fermi Paradox in a comment several weeks ago. You are using it to re-inforce your circular argument, that is: the only possible source of dense energy is of fossil nature, and once it is exhausted, one has to revert to the old ways...

The debate must move forward, and we should move on. Therefore:

Comment 1: as regards peak oil, it is there. I join the club last October, without second-thoughts. During the last few weeks, oil traders have decided that after all, it is the case. They will increasingly bet on it, raising oil and energy prices, until it is taken out of the market system and rationed. This will probably happen in 2009 (guess) at the latest.

Comment 2: so the next step of the debate is climate change. Have we passed or not dangerous tipping points, which will lead to run-away warming?

At this very moment, there is not definite answer. However, there is a convergence between facts and new model-based projections, which indicates that warming is about to sharply accelerate. Warming speed is all we need for a quick and painless so-to-speak eco-system destruction.

My hunch is that in the coming 8 months this debate will also be settled beyond reasonable doubts (like in the case of peak oil), and unfortunately we will be informed that we are indeed "fucked up". Sorry ladies...

Comment 3: This is when Fermi paradox and Ets will become the next step of the debate. This is my prediction.

Because, if we are indeed "fucked up", we must look for "new" options, beyond "standard rationnality". It will be time to become "integral", using Ken Wilber terminology.

Why on earth, Fermi talked about this during a lunch with fellow first-class physicists in the early 50's? What is the context of this questioning about where they (the ETs) are?

Well, you might dismiss this argument, but it seems that strange events took place near atomic facilities, prompting enquiries from the Air Force which lasted about 20 years, after which they were officially abandoned.

The US is the only major country which classifies UFO observations under the pretext of defense.

So, actually, it seems that Fermi and others, well aware of these occurences, asked themselves naturally: Well, if these are ETs, where could they come from? And that is why, they arrived to this perfectly logical statement: if they are out there, they should be here already.

Where opinions start to differ is when one must decide whether they are here already or not.

This is a matter that I leave to any one to answer for himself, based on the evidence we have. Let me just say that an official french report, called COMETA report, written by generals and scientists, has concluded in the mid-90's that there are things that are going on in our skies which are real and cannot be explained by the current science.

France, as I said, seems to have completely opened the files they have and do not hide anything. Certainly not high-level contacts between governments and ETs, which belong, in my view, to the realm of complete imagination (intoxication maybe?). If there were such official contacts indeed whith advanced creatures, not so many catastrophic decisions would have been taken by the US governments and there would have been no need for the Irak invasion!

For those among you, who are veterans (like me) of dubious causes like peak oil, global warming, non-existence of weapons of mass destruction and all the rest, we should by now be well aware that the truth is hard to find and often at odd with official and so-called respectable views.

doctorbob said...


I was fascinated to read this. It is exactly what I have thought for at least the last couple of years - that the reason SETI and other similar programmes have found nothing is that there is nothing to find. Probably thousands (?millions) of planets in our galaxy have evolved life, maybe 1% have got past the prokaryotic stage, maybe 5% of those developed large multicellular life and 1% of those - i.e. maybe still hundreds - developed organisms that we would classify as intelligent. And all come up against the same obstacle of running out of energy at a comparatively early stage of "progress".

Quite likely, many planets had little or no usable fossil fuel resources remaining when intelligence evolved. We can imagine them stumbling along for thousands or millions of years in a state of civilization somewhere between the Stone Age and Medieval levels. Eventually some accident or simple evolutionary process might make them extinct - humans almost vanished after the explosion of Toba, 75,000 years ago. On a few, there might be, say 20 times as much accessible fossil fuel remaining as we inherited, probably near the theoretical maximum. Even if a civilization avoided overheating its planet with the emissions by adopting carbon capture at an early stage, still they would probably not get beyond their own solar system and a few short-lived colonies on other planets of it. Eventually they would run out of energy as the chances of those other planets having much useful fuel would be small. It amuses me that a few people seriously seem to think that we could get fuel in future by mining other planets and their satellites.

So that's why there seems to be no-one out there - there is no-one out there.

Stephen Heyer said...

In my previous post Ort Belt should of course be Oort cloud.

Bernd Ohm said...

You're probably right about the impossiblity of interstellar space flight, but getting back to old Earth, this is at least the second time you claim that nuclear energy has an EROEI of little over 1. Over here in Germany, we're having a lively discussion about the coming "nuclear renaissance", so I'd be happy if you could provide any reliable data on that. The Technical University of Munich published a study that puts the EROEI of nuclear energy at around 100, so I wonder what might be the reason for this stark discrepancy.

RAS said...

JMG, good post. I must disagree with one assertion, however: that no species will ever achieve starflight. I agree that the odds are abysmal, but in a universe this large, over something like the 40 billion years of its existence, and out of billions of chances, some race somewhere will almost certainly achieve. The house may take the largest cut, but there's always some schmo who walks away with a jackpot. ;-)

nativewater said...

yes, excellent post.
I think that astronomer Fred Hoyle pointed out many years ago that given a single allotment of hydrocarbons we had but one chance to escape the solar system. The hydrocarbons are half gone and we're still here.
As for intelligent life in the universe besides ourselves, it seems much simpler to assume that there isn't any, statistical reasoning notwithstanding. The same reasoning that argues for the difficulty of space travel also argues for the low chance of communications with any alien species. The problem is that the existence of alien life is probably an untestable hypothesis. Until we make contact with aliens their existence is an act of faith. It is not science to speculate on undetectable entities.

Jeff Gill said...

Twenty-some years ago I wrote to NASA telling them I wanted to be the first kid in space.

When I read your article last week, John, my initial reaction was to feel claustrophobic. Not leaving the earth is one thing. Not being able to is quite another.

Certainty that we will reach the stars is quite a hard thing to let go of.

Nnonnth said...

Weaseldog said...

Carl Sagan made essentially the same argument in the 1980s series, 'Cosmos'.

He pointed out that even if something is possible, such as interstellar flight, the probability is still very low that intelligent life could evolve, that could actually do it before they self destruct.

He felt that industrial civilizations would almost always be a one shot affair, as they would quickly exhaust their fossil fuels and blink out.

I agree with him. I believe this is our fate. Still, I can see a technological thread that a different species could've taken.

Outside our planet, energy is more abundant. Our sun constantly streams vast quantities of high quality energy out into space. If an intelligent race could gain a foothold off world and capture this energy, they could use it to continue their technological advancement.

Our moon is close enough, that it could've been a base to kick off from. A city could grow under the surface of the moon, protected from direct radiation by solid mass of the moon.

Directed evolution may have allowed this species to change form to better resist radiation damage and thrive in low or zero gravity.

But this path seems impossible for humans to take. We are intent to exhaust our planet's energy endowment in the pursuit of maximizing for a short time, the number of humans that are alive and killing each other for wealth and religion.

As Carl Sagan argues, a species that could pull off such a feat, would be dramatically different than us. They would probably be able to limit their own breeding and in general, would act more rationally than we do. Such a species would probably prefer not to even interact with us, or let us know that they exist. Would such a species fill the galaxy as Fermi postulates?

Imaginings of such a form of intelligent life, borders the line between probability and impossibility so closely, that it could be so improbable that this would occur, that it may never happen.

It is more likely that all species capable of building industrial civilizations are boom and bust plague species like ourselves. Our opportunism, me be a necessary component to evolving into to advanced tool using creatures.

I have never heard of White's Law. Thanks for pointing that out.

Shadowfax said...

This would also suggest that there are no other sources of energy available in the galaxy,otherwise one of those alien races would have discovered it and spread across the Milky Way.What a lousy universe,with galaxies rushing apart faster and faster,and the laws of physics limiting us to the energy we dig out of the earth.

Bill said...

Great, John. This is an important addition to your examination of the reality of limits. I believe that we (humans) have some huge hurdles to overcome in the near future if we are to survive on this planet. Before we can begin to solve any of those problems, however, we have to accept and understand the reality that we find ourselves in. That reality is, in fact, a reality of energy limits. Unfortunately we are mostly living in a culture that is based on, and operating under the assumption of, unlimited energy. Only when that assumption is challenged and upset will we be able to think clearly about our future. Thanks for helping to open the door to the "real" future.

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I thought this post would stir up some conversation. Yooper, yes, it's exactly the inability of most modern people to realize that the laws of thermodynamics apply to us that is making the approaching mess as problematic as it is.

Jim, of course terms like "mature" and "advanced" are slippery -- they necessarily incorporate our ideas about where our society is headed. That's exactly the reason they need to be examined and, where necessary, challenged.

Stephen, your argument for extraplanetary colonies is very reminiscent of the rhetoric about undersea cities back in the 60s, in the days of Sealab -- does anybody remember Sealab any more? The asteroid belt and the van Oort cloud have abundant resources in the abstract, but those resources are of very limited types -- mostly metals and a handful of gases -- and they're thinly distributed over immense volumes of empty space. For a very long startup period, at the very least, orbital colonies would have to be supported at vast expense (in economic, energetic, and resource terms) by the homeworld, and it's only in the imaginations of science fiction fans that such colonies would necessarily become self-sustaining in time.

As for an extraplanetary civilization lasting for millions of years, one thing we know about complex societies is that they cycle up and down in complexity. On a planet, that's not fatal, because you can always fall back to a lower technological level, but if a civilization in space suffered enough of a loss of complexity that it could no longer maintain the hypercomplex technology needed to sustain life, that's the end of it. My guess is that the whole thing will turn out to be a pipe dream, and the claim that any civilization can last indefinitely strikes me as a fine absurdity.

I would disagree, as it happens, that industrial civilization could be compared to an annual plant, not least because this presupposes that it has the goal of setting seed -- where did the "seed" for our plant come from, if that's the case? Still, the relevant metaphor is biological, or rather ecological (since a civilization is a community and not an organism), so you're thinking in the right direction. More on this next week.

Robin, my guess is that the only way we or any other intelligent life form will ever be able to harness fusion power is by using the light and heat from the nearest star. Hundreds of billions of dollars have gone into fusion research, and we're arguably no closer to a working power plant than we were in 1970. My skepticism about the claims of the PV community doesn't make me dismiss solar power -- far from it, it's going to be one of the few good sources of power for future deindustrial societies, and the sooner we can come up with effective low-tech methods for turning it into usable power, the better.

Sabretache, many thanks!

Jean-Michel, unfortunately your argument boils down to "only an extraterrestrial intervention can save us, so an extraterrestrial intervention will save us" -- and that's wishful thinking rather than a basis for constructive action. You're quite right that information about UFOs is still treated as a military secret in the US, but the reason's pretty much an open secret at this point -- something like half of American UFO sightings during the '50s and '60s were U-2 or SR-71 high altitude spyplanes whose activities were still being officially denied by the government. (See, for example, Gregory Pendlow and Donald Welzenbach, The CIA and the U-2 Program (1998), for some of the details.) The steep decline in UFO sightings since the end of the 1973 flap correlates precisely to the American intelligence community's shift from spyplanes to spy satellites.

The Soviet Union also made use of the same gimmick, of course, and I'd be amazed if other countries' intelligence services didn't borrow the UFO mythology for similar purposes. Is there more to the UFO phenomenon than this? Arguably so -- and as it happens, I have a book on the subject under contract right now -- but the evidence for an imminent Second Coming in alien drag (which is what most current speculation in the UFO community amounts to) simply won't hold water. As a response to peak oil and global warming, you might as well copy my Lakota ancestors and try the Ghost Dance.

Doctor Bob, yes, this is pretty much my reasoning. My guess is that it's quite possible for intelligent species, including our own, to end up evolving something long-term a good deal more sophisticated than a medieval society, but such a mature society will likely be at least as different from what we've got today as it would be from the Stone Age. More on this next week.

Bernd, published estimates for the net energy of nuclear power range all over the map, though this is the first time I've heard of anybody claiming 100 to 1 -- the highest figure I'd seen in nuclear industry propaganda was 55 to 1. The problem with these claims is that, as Jeff Vail pointed out in a useful article a little while back on the Oil Drum, price makes a good surrogate measure for net energy. If nuclear power actually had the sort of net energy yield suggested by the Munich paper you've cited, it would have shouldered aside every other means of generating electricity decades ago, because a net energy of 100 to 1 works out to very low operating costs per kilowatt.

The reality is that, economically speaking, nuclear power has flopped. It only thrives when propped up with massive government subsidies, as in France. Here in the US, utilities that made the mistake of buying into the promises of nuclear power advocates in the 60s and 70s ended up saddled with huge, radioactive white elephants that, even when they're working (which is far from all the time), cost more per kilowatt to generate electricity than any other method. That being the case, I tend to think the estimates that put nuclear power's net energy toward the breakeven point are more reliable in real world terms.

RAS, you're assuming a casino model in which there's a jackpot. I'd suggest it's closer to a stock market model where you've got promoters insisting, as they did in 1998 and 1999, that the Dow was going to go straight up to 36,000. It didn't. Corrected for inflation, it probably never will. Starflight is like that -- an abstract possibility that, in the real universe, simply isn't in reach.

Nativewater, Hoyle's comment was one of the seeds that got me thinking along these lines. At this point, though, I find the idea that a species evolved onworld can thrive anywhere else dubious at best -- and there are a lot of good things to do with hydrocarbons other than pursuing the fantasy of interstellar expansion.

Jeff, I quite understand. A science fiction future among the stars is the heaven of the religion of progress, and letting go of it is a little like what a medieval peasant might experience if he looked up into the sky and found that God and the saints weren't there any more.

Nnonth, er, thanks for the link, but as far as I can tell this stuff is somewhere between bad science fiction and bad acid. The anonymous source seems to have put together every theory off the far end of the rejected knowledge movement into a single giddy narrative. Tell you what, though -- if the war between the US and China happens in 2008 the way this guy predicts, we can discuss the matter further.

Weaseldog, have you looked at Duncan's papers on the Olduvai Theory? I don't agree with the OT entirely but Duncan makes some very good points that I've tried to integrate into my own work. He's the one who introduced me to White's Law -- and to the fact that energy per capita here on earth has been declining since 1979. By White's Law, we're already sliding backwards in terms of our economic development.

Shadowfax, exactly -- if there were abundant sources of free energy in the universe, our infrared satellites would be detecting the heat anomalies caused by alien Dyson spheres and world-sized starships blazing through this end of the galaxy. They don't, of course.

Bill, I think our species will survive just fine -- we've been through global catastrophes before, and have the tenacity of cornered rats. It's the topheavy industrial superstructure we've piled on the planet that is the most likely casualty of the next century or two. But you're certainly right that if we're to salvage much from the approaching mess, we have to learn the meaning of the words "enough" and "too much."

Rhodomontade said...

If you truly understand Fermi's Paradox and Drake's Equation, and take into account the astonishing discoveries in the field of extrasolar planets, then you cannot help but conclude that even if geometric technical progress is impossible due to natural resource limits in even 99.9% of the cases, it only takes that .1% outlier to restore the curve by simply spreading information.

The Zoo Hypothesis is a much better fit of the facts.

djenkins said...

Another assumption that's rarely (I believe) noted is that we will continue to be moral enough to allow progress itself to continue. I would argue that we are barely moral enough now, and if/when energy supplies dwindle, we will find morality in short supply, at which point there will be open and extremely destructive war, and progress will undoubtedly take a hit, perhaps a fatal one.

Mike Byron said...

This essay is well thought out and could indeed be correct. However, I doubt that it is. I think that the actual answer to the Fermi Paradox lies in the fact that while life itself is likely very common throughout the universe, the conditions needed for intelligent life--basically environmental stability for geological ages--are hugely improbable. Thus intelligent life is very, very, rare.

This theme is developed in great detail in the book "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe", by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, two University of Washington astrophysicists.

I'll excerpt a bit of material on this topic from my soon to be published book entitled "The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: A Guide to Survival, Transformation and Renewal":

Location, Location, Location: The Earth As Prime Real Estate in the Universe

If the sun were more massive than it is, it would have exploded into a nova and then burned out into an ever cooling white dwarf star by now—not allowing enough time for a species such as humanity to develop. If it were smaller and dimmer, its habitable zone, where water remains liquid would be much smaller. Thus, the chances that a planet would form at just the right distance from the sun within this narrow habitable zone would be much reduced.
This problem of remaining within the star’s habitable zone would be compounded because all stars heat up as they age. This means that the time that any planet could remain within a dimmer sun’s habitable zone would be far briefer than the four-plus billion years required for an intelligent species to evolve on Earth. Our sun has proved to be just bright enough to allow us this immense period of time for our evolution.
Our Earth’s placement within the habitable zone has also proved optimal. Consider Venus with its hellish runaway greenhouse atmosphere, and frigid Mars as examples of not-quite-right placement. Mars’ thin atmosphere and lack of plate tectonics also demonstrates what a not-quite-right size has on the chances for complex life to evolve.
Additionally, Earth orbits around the center of our Milky Way galaxy in a 226 million year long orbit. This orbit fortuitously keeps us far away from the dangerously radioactive core of our galaxy and outside of the galaxy’s supernova producing spiral arms. Our solar system possesses a galactic orbit that accommodates the needs of carbon based life such as we are.
Also, Earth possesses a large satellite—our moon. This keeps the Earth gravitationally stable so that it does not tilt erratically on its axis, which would cause unending climatic chaos. Additionally the planet possesses a molten core that drives plate tectonics which seems to be critical for life to evolve in complexity:

First, plate tectonics promotes high levels of global biodiversity. In the last chapter we suggested that major defense against mass extinctions is high biodiversity. Here we argue that the factor on Earth that is most critical to maintaining diversity through time is plate tectonics. Second, plate tectonics provides our planet’s global thermostat by recycling chemicals crucial to keeping the volume of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere relatively uniform, and thus it has been the single most important mechanism enabling liquid water to remain on Earth’s surface for more than 4 billion years. Third, plate tectonics is the dominant force that causes changes in sea level, which, it turns out, are vital to the formation of minerals that keep the global level of carbon dioxide (and hence global temperature) in check. Fourth, plate tectonics created the continents on planet earth. Without plate tectonics Earth might look much as it did during the first billion and a half years of its existence: a watery world, with only isolated volcanic islands dotting its surface. Or, it might look even more inimical to life; without continents, we might by now have lost the most important ingredient for life, water, and in so doing come to resemble Venus. Finally plate tectonics makes possible one of Earth’s most potent defense systems: its magnetic field. Without our magnetic field Earth and its cargo of life would be bombarded by a potentially lethal influx of cosmic radiation, and solar wind “sputtering” (in which particles from the sun hit the upper atmosphere with high energy) might slowly eat away the atmosphere, as it has on Mars. [Note: Paragraph just above is a quote from Ward & Brownlee's book, excerpted in mine]

For those cosmically rare occurrences where an intelligent species does evolve, it is likely that some will never develop industrial technology, much less civilization, based upon hydrocarbons before they become extinct. After all most of humanity's history was spent as hunter-gatherers. As one of the other comments notes, the volcanic eruption at Toba nearly finished our ancestors off ages ago.

However, once technology does develop, there is only a very short window of opportunity for an emergent planetary civilization to bootstrap itself into the solar system. Again quoting from (another part of) my forthcoming book:

It is important to understand that only a high energy, high technology; civilization is capable of bootstrapping itself into the solar system. There it can harness the vast resources of raw materials and energy found in the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud, the atmospheres of the gas giants—hydrogen in particular—and the endless supply of energetic sunlight which radiates outward ceaselessly, from our sun.

[Note: I explicitly assume in the above that the distribution of resources across other solar systems would be approximately similar to the distribution found in ours--as John does with respect to the planetary distributions of hydrocarbon resources.]

However, as we have seen, such a civilization has only a very narrow window of opportunity in which to transition from a civilization wholly dependent upon planetary energy and material resources, to one able to utilize the thousandfold greater resources of the entire solar system. This is because of the rapid onset of peak oil and global climate change, which in turn swiftly terminates high energy planetary civilization. Once such a civilization falls it can never be restarted again, as the easily exploitable hydrocarbon resources, as well as necessary metals and minerals, are gone. Our civilization appears to have passed the point of no return; however, I believe that it is at least possible that by deploying the microwave reflector satellites I’ve described above, it may be possible to revisit that option post-Collapse.
This endeavor is not a “pie in the sky” boondoggle. Rather, since humanity has always been a tool-using species, it amounts to using our advanced scientific knowledge and capabilities to further both the survival and the evolution of our species in the direction of environmentally facilitating sustainability, while at least leaving open the possibility of future expansion into the solar system and beyond, post-Collapse.
So rather than “pie in the sky”, let’s call it “Pi in the sky.”

My primary difference with John here is that I believe that he fails to realize that the energy and material resources available to a planetary civilization are sort of analogous to the yolk of an egg. They offer a very brief window of opportunity to allow a species to take advantage of the thousandfold greater material and energy resources found across the solar system. Slightly changing my metaphor, the umbilical cord can then be cut and the expanded civilization can then live off of the vastly greater resources of not just one planet, but of an entire solar system. A civilization which successfully takes advantage of these material and energetic resources can indeed accomplish interstellar travel. I believe it will always be difficult--nothing at all like Star Trek--but, that it is indeed possible for a solar system scale civilization. Such a civilization (assuming that its drives, behaviors, and motivations were at least somewhat similar to those of humanity) would indeed ultimately spread across the galaxy over a very long period of time.

However, this window of opportunity is so very brief, that of the small number of planetary civilization which have probably emerged in our galaxy thus far in its history, none have succeeded in taking advantage of it. That is the stark answer to the Fermi Paradox, as I see it.

I must admit that based upon our history thus far, humanity most likely will also fail to take advantage of this once-in-a- planet's-lifetime opportunity.

Peak oil is indeed upon us, as is global climate change, corporate control over our political economy, etc. These developments are not encouraging, and time is almost up. However, our failure to rise to this unique opportunity is not yet absolutely certain. Even if humanity ultimately does fail (we'll know incontrovertibly in this century) is WAS POSSIBLE for us to have succeeded. THAT is the great tragedy (if that outcome comes to pass).

In John's view failure was foreordained by resource limitation and interstellar distance. We differ here.

While dealing mainly with more immediate issues of what to do in the context of looming collapse, I do (in my book) propose a strategy intended to allow us to retain our options with respect to expansion into the solar system *despite* civilizational collapse. It is at this point, a long shot, (pun intended) but, what have we got to lose?

All of that said, please don't take my mild critique personally John, I always enjoy your posts and find them intellectually stimulating. Keep up the good work.

Mike Byron
[Note I have not had time recently between teaching six college classes, finishing my book and life in general, to put up any new content on my blog--it’s pretty stale. Perhaps I'll expand this comment into a more fleshed-out blog entry soon if I can find the time. MB]

Nnonnth said...

>>Tell you what, though -- if the war between the US and China happens in 2008 the way this guy predicts, we can discuss the matter further.<<


BTW the 'aliens will save us agenda' is nothing to do with this. No-one buys that, the very idea! To me what's said here doesn't - at all - contraindicate any of the advice you are giving out about what we should be doing, which I wholeheartedly agree with, and not merely for peak oil reasons.

It's interesting that's all. Anyone who feels so might be repaid by a thorough browsing of this marterial. I claim a lack of stupidity in this area. And it's my nature to throw spanners in the works as long as we have the fuel to work the works.

FARfetched said...

Hm. If you take the argument as it stands, it certainly holds water. I won't try to argue against the idea that we had our chance & blew it, either. OTOH, there are plenty of resources out there — I think it was Larry Niven who said "it's raining soup and we don't even know about soup bowls."

As I said, I think we blew our chance to get beyond Earth — we squandered vast resources on "defense" programs that could have been used to bootstrap ourselves into space. Perhaps a species that can create civilizations is genetically programmed to act like this — perhaps a species logical enough to control their population and use their resources wisely might not have the spark to advance in the first place? Heck, we could "comfort" ourselves with the thought that we're the only species to have advanced this far without nuking our nest.

Truth be told, I don't know my own mind here. It's not hard to conceive a better (or at least more logical) way of living than most of our fellow H.Saps do, with or without abundant fossil fuels. Yet hindsight is 20/20, even if some had the foresight to say we've been heading down the wrong path all along.

John Michael Greer said...

Rhodomontade, I do indeed understand both Drake's equation and Fermi's paradox; that's why I argue that if interstellar travel was possible, it would have happened, and present a theory grounded on thermodynamic reality as to why it is likely to be impossible. The "zoo hypothesis" (the claim that aliens have quarantined our system) doesn't explain why we don't see any trace of the immense energy output that would be necessary to support an interstellar civilization.

Djenkins, granted, this is a likely issue here on Earth, but is it likely to have landed 400 billion other systems in the same boat? I'd put my trust in energetic limits instead.

Mike, I'm familiar with the "rare earth" argument -- one of many ways of crunching the numbers in Drake's equation. There's no way to know whether it's true or not. The claim (also made by Stephen Heyer earlier in these comments) that life off the surface of a planet would free an intelligent species from the energy and resource limitations found onworld strikes me, though, as mythology dressed up as science.

A few resources (metals and a few gases) can be had fairly easily in space, though even there they're distributed very thinly over immense volumes of hard vacuum, and you have solar power at more than earth-surface density. On the other hand, everything else (starting with air, water, and food) has to be imported or made, so the calls on your resource base to support a human population will be much more extreme, and managing a manufactured ecosystem -- as the folks at Biosphere II found out -- is much harder than it seems.

Over and above that, your "yolk" theory assumes a teleology -- that the goal of intelligence is to make some sort of flying leap into outer space -- that's ultimately a value judgment, and not one shared by all of us. Certainly I don't share it. Even if deep space were the best place for industrial civilization, a claim I find questionable at best, I suspect the biosphere where we evolved is the best place for a human civilization -- and that seems much more worth striving for than the science fiction vision you're suggesting.

Nnonth, by all means post this sort of thing if you wish -- I'll just exercise my right to disagree with it, is all.

Farfetched, I tend to use Larry Niven's SF as my poster child for technological arrogance -- do you remember the foreword he wrote to his contribution to the first Dangerous Visions anthology, in which he insisted that within a few decades at most, medical science would inevitably be able to swap out human body parts the way a mechanic swaps out carburetors, and make people live for centuries. Didn't work out that way.

In an abstract sense, there's unlimited energy out there in the cosmos, but nearly all of it is so diffuse it doesn't matter. Remember that it's not energy that does work -- it's the differential between high and low concentrations of energy that does it, and it takes energy to concentrate energy. Large amounts of highly concentrated energy are a relatively rare thing in the universe -- they occur mostly where gravity has produced stars, on the one hand, and where biospheres have stashed unwanted elements to maintain their own equilibrium, on the other. (That's where fossil fuels come from -- they're the place Gaia sticks extra carbon.) So I'd disagree that it's raining soup. If we want soup, and we've been extravagant with the stock in our planet's pantry, we're going to have to start making our own soup the hard way once again.

Jean-Michel said...


I have too much respect for you and your work to waste your and my time in endless debates. But this time, I must question your good faith when you say:

"""Jean-Michel, unfortunately your argument boils down to "only an extraterrestrial intervention can save us, so an extraterrestrial intervention will save us" --"""

JMG, I need to stop you here. You misrepresent my position. My argument is that we are running out of terrestrial/standard solutions, and that we need to look for other options. "Ghost dances" are not part of my analysis.

I am just saying that there are things out there, and that we need to take them into account. I am advocating active and not passive actions. No later than monday I met the mayor of my town. There is not a single book on UFOs on my shelves. But you'll find lots of books on game theory, differential topology, string theory , Heidegger philosophy and even classical mysticism.

Will it be sufficient, will it work? "Will it save us?" I do not know. But what I do know, maybe you will not agree with me and in this case you are the real ghost dancer, is that thermodynamically (I know you like this word) speaking we are screwed up as a specie if we make the assumption that we are isolated in space/other dimensions.

We need to make the assumption, at the very least, that somebody will have an idea truly coming from "elsewhere".

An idea coming from a neural network (in other words a brain) based on earth could lead to a temporary reprieve, but certainly not a long terme solution to the problem of entropy/energy. For instance we could solve the energy problem, but not the problem of topsoil, which in the end is as deadly as global warming.

That is why, the hopless situation of the human specie leads naturally to the problem of the real nature of consciousness.

If we are able to survive this current crisis as a specie (except in the form of a gradual return to a very primitive kind of life which is probably impossible because ecosystems are too much damaged), it will be because our brain can access "other dimensions" or because ETs come to our rescue.

Now logically speaking, ETs must have survived a similar crisis or they are coming from another realm, so "evolved brains" can probably access "other dimensions" on a universal basis. Therefore, the two possibilities mentionned above can be somehow true at the same time.

Of course, the previous arguments are only a preliminary indication of the line of thinking we could pursue. I am actively working on that anyway. It has nothing to do with ghostdancing. It is science in the ultimate sense. Maybe, sooner or later, top universities will have departments working on that if it is not the case already.

Again, once we know for sure that we are almost all going to die because of run-away global warming, things will be seen in a slightly different way. We will start looking actively to ways of connecting our planet to the rest of the universe/other dimensions.
Because, it will be the only scientific/rationnal way of escaping our destiny.

To conclude, JMG, it seems we agree on facts, disagree a little bit on their interpretation, but this should not allow you to caricature in such a way my analysis. It is not what I call "moving forward".

Jonathan said...

Hi, I'm a (former) student in particle and nuclear physics and engineering.

This is a rather long post... sorry. I will first say I totally agree with you on all the environment and ressources problems we face.

Fermi's paradox is well discussed in your article, but I disagree with two arguments that lead people to the same conclusion as Fermi (that we are doomed, or alone).

First :
I don't think we are the only one intelligent lifeform to ever have lived in our galaxy.
Astronomical accounts indicate that the number of earth-like planets is in fact quite bigger than expected, as a great number of sun-like stars are known, and already a couple of non-gazeous planets, including some with water, and no so different from Earth in size.
This convinces me that earth-like and life-accepting planet are common in the galaxy.
The appearance of intelligent life is less probable, but you can also see that in the short term, intelligence is also a great evolutionary asset, and any intelligent specie would quickly dominate its planet.

Second :
I must disagree with what you say of nuclear energy.
Of course it requires a big infrastructure, but the fact so many country adopted the technology shows it is not so cost-uneffective.
The energy yield for an equal mass of ressource of U vs oil is a million to one (it is the rate of the binding energy of nucleus vs those of molecules). The current technology of fission (low temperature) uses only U-235 and at current power consumption we have 250 hundred years of ressources. Hot fission uses Plutonium, U-238 and other nucleus, and gives us a staggering 3000 years of ressources.
Fusion, should it ever be mastered, yield millions of years of ressources, and is much more efficient in term of mass of ressources (Hydrogen and Lithium) vs energy yield ratio.
Thus, I'm quite optimistic about our energy capabilities for the future, and disagree about the oil being the only efficient ressource.

Of course, this does not solve the other problems still preventing us (and potential aliens) from exploring the galaxy :
- starfaring is immensely difficult or impossible
- we are destroying our environment and ressources

Starfaring is very difficult or impossible :
- it requires heavy protection agains radiations and dust, especially since when you're moving close to light speed, local immobile dust and low energy rays (like the CMB) becomes fast projectiles and high energy rays...
- it demands a lot of time, and people ready to abandon their home planet for a no return trip in time and space : because of relativity, they will not age as much as their home planet during the travel, and communication will be impossible. (unless a speculative quantum technology arise)

Considering the environment, that's the most glaring issue right now, and the possible situations are :
1- we will reach (or have reached) a point of no return and will die out
2- we reduce dramatically our impact by developping low-profile technology (low energy consumption, low environment impact) and environment is slowly restored
2'- we develop a technology to restore the environement
3- we develop a technology to survive the new harsh conditions
4- we survive but know a big return to a non-industrialized era, and when the civilization reaches again the level industrial era, the lack of ressources prevent it from evolving to our current level and beyond.

I favor solution number 2, but of course I can understand if others don't. I am personnally and professionally putting my efforts in making solution number 2 happen.

All this leads me to two possible conclusions :
- either starfaring is too difficult
- either it is possible, and therefore there are aliens out there, and we do not SEE them.

The second assumptions has many possible answers :
- Aliens have a stealth technology, because they want to avoid detection, and because they adopted the low energy consumption profile, so we don't detect them even when they come close
- Aliens stay close to high energy sources, like the center of the galaxy (and far from us)
- Aliens avoid gravitational traps at all cost, so they don't enter solar systems
- Aliens stay close to low-temperature (outer galactic circle) to have a high thermodynamic yield technology
- The first specie that "took off" is conquering the galaxy, and destroys others while keeping a stealthy profile. Then we should really stop emitting radiowaves...

Bill Pulliam said...

As I'm sure you realized, when you bring up extraterrestrials you encounter beliefs that are in many ways more religious than scientific; much like, say, industrialization, progress, and apocalypse!

I've always found the Fermi paradox, in its elegant simplicity, to be the most powerful single bit of logical argument about the ET question and the possibility of Star-Trek style cultural "advancement." Occam's razor shouts that the best conclusion to draw is "there's no one there, and we're never going to get there either, indeed getting there is not possible." As these comments display quite well, the "logical" arguments advanced to get away from this obvious conclusion are generally convoluted, ad hoc, and fall to the floor in shreded pieces if you let Occam have a go at them. The Zoo Hypothesis is the prime example. Rather than being "a much better fit of the facts," it is a child-like attempt to avoid the facts and cling to a belief that is comforting even if it is patently unsupportable.

By the "Human Event Horizon," I'm thinking Stephen means the idea that human consciousness, in conjuntion with advanced technology, will soon reach a point where it is no longer comprehensible or even recognizable by earlier human minds? This, too, strikes me as transcendent mythology, not a realistic forecast of societal evolution. The people I see today banging at their keyboards and talking to their imaginary friends (i.e. their bluetooth headsets) as they walk down the steet are the same people who sat around 10,000 years ago telling stories and flint-knapping. Event horizons do not come out of the blue; they have powerful visible effects as they are approached. What I see is technolgy being used to reenforce and expand our same old consciousness and social tendencies -- communication, hierarchical power structures, "labor saving," etc. The idea that we are going to disappear into a carbon-and-silicone Nirvana where the rest of the mundane cosmos will no longer even recognize us is the same old body-loathing, nature-denying poppycock.

An aside about Star Trek.. I always am amused at how much those shows are about the present, not the future. The old show from the 60s was nothing but slightly-liberal mainstream morality plays dressed up in silly costumes. The recent incarnations are the same, except the values are the slightly-liberal mainstream ones of the 90s and the Aughts. Isn't this always the way with "futuristic" fiction?

Bill Pulliam said...

To ammend my last comment a bit...

While the conclusion that "there is nobody out there" is robust (damn near inescapable), the conclusions that "we'll never get there" and "getting there is impossible" do bump into an Anthropic issue. Suppose developing space travel is only very very very improbable rather than completely impossible, to the point that at most one space-travelling civilization would be expected to arise in any given galaxy. Then, at some point, this one single civilization would be sitting there, looking out into the heavens, listening closely, and wondering "Hmmm, why isn't there anyone else out there?" Put another way, if indeed there is only going to be one space-traveling civilization in this galaxy, and we are going to ultimately be it, then at this point in our development we would be expected to see exactly what we do see. So, though I still feel that "It ain't gonna happen, it can't be done" is the best conclusion, there is a logical loophole that leaves this only as very probable, not virtually certain.

ljarvi said...

I'm a little dissatisfied with this discussion because it assumes that progress is necessarily only outward. Could it be that natural concentrated energy sources enable progress toward a transition in consciousness, not merely a move to a new planet for another orgy of rape and pillage? Is survival a goal, or a means to a much more comprehensive end?

Weaseldog said...

JMG, I agree with you, that establishing an off-world colony is hard. It is certainly likely that it is too hard for humans to do.

You started off the discussion discussing travel between the stars. In my view that's a bit like an Ancient Greek ruminating on trips to the moon. The gap between our knowledge now and what we would need to know to make the trip is immense. It seems pointless to worry over it.

On the other hand, the smaller step of establishing a colony on the moon is to some degree, within our reach, if we really wanted to do it. It is a step beyond building a space station, and order of energy expenditure higher. We have the energy, but we prefer to use the energy killing people in other countries. Our priorities appear to be our biggest obstacle.

Once established on the moon, all the resources needed, exist there in some form. The needed component is energy. And our sun provides a lot of high quality energy. The moon is composed of the same elements as the earth, and electricity from sunlight can unlock much of the raw elemental matter that we need. Mainly oxygen and carbon.

With solar panels we can generate electrical power and with mirrors, powerful furnaces. To best capture sunlight, the first colonies should probably be positioned on the poles to eliminate the 14 day black out period that equatorial colonies would experience. Placing the colony in a crater, would keep the people working there out of direct sunlight and protect them better from solar radiation.

The Biodome experiments were very successful. We learned a lot about how difficult it is to create a closed habitat. We should continue that effort. It should get more funding.

You pointed out that concrete absorbed the oxygen in the Biodome. I don't think that concrete would be the material of choice on the moon. Glass is more likely as the intense sunlight can be focused with mirrors to melt the rock and form it into various shapes. Immense glass bubbles can be blown in low or zero gravity, much as we do on earth. So think thick walled glassware the size of buildings here on earth.

Glass wouldn't be sucking the oxygen out of the air.

As the moon does not have a molten core, operations can tunnel to the very center of the moon. In the center of the moon, there is no gravity. So ZG manufacturing can be done in an atmosphere and completely protected from the bombardment of solar radiation.

In such an environment huge glass bubbles could be blown, cut apart and reassembled in orbit to make ships and habitats, on scales we can hardly dream of on earth. If your materials aren't coming from a deep gravity well, then you no longer need to worry obsessively about mass. We'll need no more perilous space stations made of reinforced tin foil.

Establishing a self sufficient and expanding colony on the moon would be very hard. The effort would divert significant resources away from our primary goal of waging war. But I don't believe that this is a technologically impossible feat.

As to travel between the stars, we can let future generations worry over the practicality of that one. They have until the sun expands to figure it out.

I'm familiar with Duncan's papers. I must've missed the significance of White's Law in them. Much of this I worked out on my own, when I saw how my biology studies in college could be used to model civilization. I began to see how civilizations and ecosystems worked on essentially the same principles. And how both must be limited by available energy. It seemed such a fundamental idea, I assumed other people had thought of it too. Sure enough, I was directed to Frederick Soddy a Nobel prize winning chemist that worked it out, long before I was born.

Loveandlight said...

Another point that supports your contentions here is that the absolute fastest theoretical physics imagine us being able to go is half the speed of light (and this is very, very far-fetched speculation). Incredibly fast for getting to Mars, maybe, but that would probably make Epsilon Eridani something on the order of a twenty-year voyage.

Shadowfax said...

When I first started reading about Peak Oil,and discovered it meant peak everything else,it was like a religious person discovering there was no God.I realized that my religion was the belief that man would go to the stars.(I was raised on Star Trek)It was quite a blow to me.Now I have to contend with the road to the Olduvai gorge!

John L said...

JMG said: "...a truly mature technology may turn out to be something very different from our current expectations."

Of course, this is exactly what will happen. For instance, we're searching for intelligent life by scanning the electro-magnetic spectrum. Yet advanced intelligence will have abandoned the relative inefficiencies of EM energy very early in their development, as we will someday.

In other words, "they" will find us when we're ready, not the other way around. And "they" won't be here personally - a seriously advanced race will have developed string-scale proxies to do their bidding.

With enough energy input, the rate of technological change will continue to accelerate. Just as scientists 300 years ago could not dream of our discoveries and accomplishments, we cannot fathom what will arrive in the next 300 years, let alone 30,000.

But one thing is certain: if we don't find another source of cheap, concentrated energy relatively soon, rapid technological advancement will be a low priority for most of us.

Danby said...

Your leaps from assumption to supposition to what "must" be true are indeed dizzying. They are however the opposite of reasoned.

I don't believe in life, let alone intelligent life, on other planets. I have yet to see a single shred of evidence that any such exists. period. Not one, only a lot of supposition and basically religious arguments such as Jean-Michel provides.

I keep seeing arguments such as "if our locale in the universe is typical, there are X number of planets in the universe. (reasonable assumption) If only 1% of those are like earth and only 1% of those have life, and only 1% of those have intelligent life, and only 1% of those develop industrial society, then there must be Y number of space-faring civilizations (wholesale wishful thinking without a shred of evidence to support it.)"

What evidence is there that 1% of planets are rocky, iron-cored, with sufficient uranium to keep the core molten, with sufficient free oxygen, liquid water and carbon to allow life?

What evidence is there that given all these conditions that life will automagically develop?
Why 1:100? Why not 1:400,000,000,000? Either number is just as reasonable. Because you want it to be true? Any number, such as the 400 billion or the 100, is just pulled out of someone's assets.

So show me evidence of such a postulate, any evidence, and I'll consider the rest of your argument.

And no, I don't consider UFOs to be any kind of evidence, any more than the letters of Prester John.

Mike Byron said...

I was inspired by John's essay (and the other comments on it also) on the Fermi Paradox to write on of my own on my site. The bolg itself is located at:

My essay on that site is at:

Mike Byron

yooper said...

Hello John, I'm very, very saddened by some of the responses on this post. Why cannot people grasp the grist of your article? I suppose this kinda seperates the men from the boys.......

When I was a young man,(ever since I was hatched), I had dreams too! When I was pealing out and doing dougnuts in the parking lot at the one roomed school house, in my 62' Volvo "Sport", the instructors just giggled, "Oh, he'll not be doing that for long...."

Perhaps, I did this out of revolt, perhaps, just to release some pent-up energy... That astromony class I was refering to, was when I was in the 10th grade. What was half the class doing equations that amounted to three an half pages long for?!!! I can remember the three of us sitting there knowing full well, that not 99.99% of the human population could solve such problems...Damn it! Even to this day, I'm very, very, bitter about this. Why was I "robbed" of a carefree early manhood? For the betterment of mankind?.....Sacrifice? For what??? If that mankind cannot come to the terms that I'm offering? Forget about any notions, that we might have about changing the world when people cannot even accept the "basics". Face it, John, it's these basics, they never understood......Or we would not be in the situtation we're in today, period.

I'm sorry for being so pessimist about this....However, John, you know this has been my arguement all along.

Thanks, yooper.

Dwig said...

There's one other answer to the Fermi paradox that I haven't heard mentioned, here or elsewhere:

It's clear that, from the first emergence of life on a planet to the emergence of a civilization capable of sending out recognizably artificial signals (let alone spaceships) into space will necessarily be quite a long time. Based on a sample of one, I'll confidently predict (;^) that it will everywhere take at least as long as it has here on Earth. So, let's suppose that in our galaxy there are, say, 4 civilizations advanced enough that we could in principle detect their activities (and vice versa), and let's say that the nearest of them is 10,000 light years from us. That means that it'll be quite some time before they can enjoy "The Lone Ranger" radio shows, and before we'll notice their initial broadcasts (assuming that the signals wouldn't attenuate beyond detection at that distance). Also, of course, even if we hadn't squandered our energy inheritance, and were beginning to colonize the Moon and Mars, it would be a few more millenia before we'd make enough of an impact on our solar system to be clearly evident from that distance.

Joke: a Man asks God, "What's a million years to you?" God answers "a minute". The man asks "What's a million dollars to you?" God answers "a penny". The man thinks, then asks "May I have a penny?" God replies "Sure; wait a minute." So, where are these advanced civilizations? Wait a minute.

Of course, John and some of the others in this discussion have shown that it's highly unlikely that even 4 such civilizations exist in the Milky Way, but as Bill Pulliam says, "that leaves this only as very probable, not virtually certain".

Speaking of colonizing the Moon, a random thought: we have an energy source available to us in the effect of the Moon's gravitational pull, in the form of tidal power. While the Moon doesn't have any significant liquid bodies, I'd imagine that the effect of the Earth's gravity there would be even stronger, and might be able to be exploited.

Asturchale y Chulo said...

I have always wondered why are people so fascinated about space colonies, be it in the moon or wherever, when we haven`t been able to populate even our own planet. One third of emerged lands is desert, and growing. The environment in these deserts is far less aggresive than any place in space that you can name. Now, when I was younger and believed in naive utopias, I thought at some point the governments would divest their resources into colonizing deserts, as some kind of new frontier. I thought we had almost all the required technology, be it new tilling methods or efficient, cheap desalination plants. It would be so great to bring greenery back to the huge extensions of the Sahara, Australia or the Takla-Makan!
It was quite a dissapointment to become a grown-up and find out that, eventually, well, nothing of the sort was going to happen. There was never an intention from any government of allocating massive resources on the new frontier.
Archdruid, can you tell us what are your ideas on "Permaculture"? Are they reliable or are they just swindlers, some Scientology-like bunch of fake environmentalists? Can they really green back the desert?

SCM said...

For those who are interested here is the quote from Hoyle about civilisation being a one-shot affair:

It has often been said, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In a sense of developing high intelligence, this is not correct. We have, or will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same is true of other planetary systems. On each of them, there will be one chance, and one chance only.

Like an earlier poster I disagree with Michael about nuclear fission. Reliable studies indicate it has a good EROEI (the idea that is doesn't comes from an article by Leeuwin and has been widely disputed). However this is still something of a distraction - all it does is postpone the day where energy specifically is a crisis. What we are dealing with is a convergence of crises (a la "Limits to Growth") and temporarily solving one problem doesn't alter the big picture. I agree with the physicist who posted earlier that fusion may be possible (it will certainly be very difficult though). However something tht merely enables us to increase our global footprints even more will just propel us to distaster as surely as any energy crisis.

Stephen Heyer said...

This is great fun!

Usually I’m the dour pessimist, raining on everyone’s fun, but here I can be the rah-rah, optimist preaching that technology will solve everything and humans are inherently sensible and good.

It’s not that I don’t agree with most of what John Michael Greer says; it’s just that I think there is more wriggle room and God lives in the details. In other words, there was always the possibility of doing things differently, may still be, even at this late stage.

For example, back in the 70s much of the West flirted with the European and Nordic Economic/Social Models and those models, especially the Nordic, seem far more viable long term: For one, both kind of solve the population problem (a bit too well, actually).

Evan better, one can readily imagine the Nordic Model fairly easily evolving into an even more long-term, sustainable society.

That we didn’t, instead being seduced into adopting the insane, utterly destructive, American neocon model with its resulting maelstrom of hysterical greed is really a matter of historical accident.

And this is something I know about! Australia flirted pretty heavily with those models, partially being stopped by, it turned out, lies from “official” USA economists claiming that they model gave self-destructively, abysmally low rates of economic growth.

I suppose the difference is that John Greer is speaking from the depths of the heart of darkness, the USA (no offense intended to the USA, it’s just that they do seem to have gotten themselves into a bit of a mess). I, however, am speaking from the edge, and am thus aware that other, more viable systems were just as possible, in fact nearly happened, did happen in some places.

Anyway, on to my rare opportunity to play the optimist.

John Michael Greer ; “Stephen, your argument for extraplanetary colonies is very reminiscent of the rhetoric about undersea cities back in the 60s, in the days of Sealab -- does anybody remember Sealab any more? The asteroid belt and the van Oort cloud have abundant resources in the abstract, but those resources are of very limited types -- mostly metals and a handful of gases -- and they're thinly distributed over immense volumes of empty space. For a very long startup period, at the very least, orbital colonies would have to be supported at vast expense (in economic, energetic, and resource terms) by the homeworld, and it's only in the imaginations of science fiction fans that such colonies would necessarily become self-sustaining in time.”

No, I see no similarity whatsoever. I always knew undersea cities made no sense whatsoever. They had no advantage over conventional land based cities, were still stuck on a limited planet and faced an even more difficult environment than a off-world city. That’s right – more difficult.

And yes, the resources are thinly distributed but they do come in big, easily mineable lumps, transport costs are inherently low, in fact very low if any of the several reactionless drives being developed turn out to be practical. Even without reactionless drives, plasma sails, solar sails and good old ion thrusters still make for cheap transport.

Reactionless drives, by the way, are suddenly becoming almost scientifically respectable and at least one (Roger Shawyer’s Emdrive) reportedly shows dependable thrust under test.

Oh! And those lumps and their environment are simple enough so you just send a bunch of machines – no humans required.

Ditto for building habits. The currently favored model is to send a bunch of machines and the hard to build bits of a factory to build more. The machines build the factory which makes more machines which then build more factories.

I might note that the machines very carefully do NOT have enough intelligence to do this on their own. For pretty obvious reasons they need a lot of executive help from humans (or whetever).

At first the process is quite slow, then suddenly, after a few decades, you are knee deep in machines and factories. Then you set them to building nice places for people to live, ships to move people between them, that kind of thing.

And while they’re at it, they might as well ship a full, orbital solar power system back to the mother world.

Only then, do people start arriving.

John Michael Greer ; “As for an extraplanetary civilization lasting for millions of years, one thing we know about complex societies is that they cycle up and down in complexity. On a planet, that's not fatal, because you can always fall back to a lower technological level, but if a civilization in space suffered enough of a loss of complexity that it could no longer maintain the hypercomplex technology needed to sustain life, that's the end of it. My guess is that the whole thing will turn out to be a pipe dream, and the claim that any civilization can last indefinitely strikes me as a fine absurdity.”

Not entirely. We have to be careful about being locked in our own paradigm of fertile zone, cool temperate farming cultures that went adventuring into other lands.

Water rights societies and even some cool temperate societies (China) are very different and have shown the ability to function for thousands of years, only being disrupted by outside shock (invasion by the Mongols or the Europeans) or by environmental disasters beyond their ability to understand (salinization).

I saw this first hand in Chile in the desert regions where agriculture (and towns) are totally dependent on irrigation from melting snow in the Andes. No matter what chaos was happening politically, the irrigation systems stayed up and working.

Just maybe, the best place to build a truly long lived civilization is in a truly hostile environment. Even better, one with a low availability of resources so as to prevent “developers” seizing control of the economy and society and initiating .a spiral of greed and ultimate collapse.

Perhaps, the Western European environment was too resilient, to easy to survive in after a collapse? Growing up knowing that if the irrigation system (or space habitat’s systems) break down you will be in big trouble right now, concentrates the minds of both government and people wonderfully.

Of course, we live in an oil rights society with an equally catastrophic collapse scenario. Unfortunately it is only ever going to have one iteration and that of about a century and a half, so there is no chance for people to learn anything from it.

Additionally, space habitats will almost certainly function as a large, loose federation of islands. Occasionally a member will fail. The other horrified habitats will learn hard lessons from the collapse, but then bud off a new colony to replace it.

In other words, in the big scheme of things the overall civilization will be tough, resilient and adaptable.

On real islands there is the course the problem of inter-island war. However, in space habitats I suspect that anyone advocating war would instantly be invited to take a space walk without a suit by the other citizens.

Oh! And the method of government is also likely to be quite different from ours. I’m inclined to go with what seems to be the serious science fiction consensus: This is, the citizens playing at democracy, but the real government being by a civil service of AIs, perhaps “derived” from admired human founders (the council of elders).

Recent developments in the understanding of intelligence that emphasizes the importance of emotion make the construction of such intelligences look more doable. They would be built with positive emotions such as altruism, the love of stability, mercy and justice enhanced so as to be even stronger than the human negative, selfish emotions that shape much of our behavior.

This would ensure their long-term behavior far better than any set of rules.

John Michael Greer ; “I would disagree, as it happens, that industrial civilization could be compared to an annual plant, not least because this presupposes that it has the goal of setting seed -- where did the "seed" for our plant come from, if that's the case? Still, the relevant metaphor is biological, or rather ecological (since a civilization is a community and not an organism), so you're thinking in the right direction. More on this next week.”

Err… In case you hadn’t noticed, plants are a community of living cells, not all bearing the same genes, as are all multicelled creatures. And the seed of course came from 4 billion years of evolution, same place as it ultimately came from for the green plants we grow in our gardens.

For an even better model try slime moulds.

Plants, by the way, not having brains do not have “the goal of setting seed” or any other goal. I suppose, you could say that evolution has, but plants don’t.

Of course, this model is both complicated and affirmed by the fact that our civilization (Western European) has already seeded once before – into the New World. To further complicate things, the mother culture is showing signs of being longer lasting than its daughter. Admittedly, this may possibly be with a change of religion to Islam, but it has swapped religion before, each time modifying the new religion to its requirements.

For the moment, we’ll leave aside the increasingly scientifically respectable theory that the ultimate seed/seeds that fired off life on earth arrived from elsewhere.

Jean-Michel said...

danby, (sorry JMG, I know it is not a forum, but this post on Fermi paradox is too much inviting)

let me quote what you have said, because it is about methodology, it is very important. At this stage, if we do not expand our collective understanding we will be in big trouble.

Here it is:

Your leaps from assumption to supposition to what "must" be true are indeed dizzying. They are however the opposite of reasoned.

I don't believe in life, let alone intelligent life, on other planets. I have yet to see a single shred of evidence that any such exists. period. Not one, only a lot of supposition and basically religious arguments such as Jean-Michel provides."""""""

First of all, yes, I am some kind of intuitive person. In my career as a mathematician, I was 90% of the time on intuition and 10% on what you call reasonned/logical.

But my papers are here...

As a matter of fact, I have enormous difficulties to translate my "visions" into something palatable for others, though my intuitive power has never stopped growing over time.

Intuition can be misleading. It needs to be certified by logical and convincing arguments (what JMG does so well). That's something some people are not able to do, despite real intuitive powers. But only intuition is creative. New ideas, revolutionnary ideas come from intuition. Intuition is at the core of understanding. It gives meaning to verbal and logical statements. Otherwise they are empty.

There are things that can only be understood after a long period of thinking and meditation. Like philosophical ideas or a mathematical proof. Peak oil is another example. They must be put on hold before any judgement can be made.

Everything I said previously, is not a proof or something rigourous. I do not vouch for it. But it is more than a belief system. It is not something I have read over the internet, though after doing research I realized many authors reach similar conclusions. Just to give an example, John Mack who is now deceased but was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, reached the conclusion that standard western level of reality is maybe not all there is. His research got him into lots of trouble with his colleagues. But after investigation, they could not find any contradiction with standard academic ethics. He was perfectly aware that his conclusions were shocking, but simple integrity pushed him to admit them. I feel the same.

What we must see here, is the real possibility that, in order to move on, we will have to transcend the standard materialistic paradigm (which appears clearly in the discussions about space travel. Who says that 3D-space is the only way to travel? How do you know that?)

and at the same time the traditionnal religious beliefs. They could be proven totally wrong in many respects (like unicity of creation in the Universe or the exact meaning of the Godhead -the father-son-holy spirit which is the darkest part of christianity, a real impossiblity to fathom).

We could be in for a big shock, akin to the break away from scholastic in the middle ages.

That's where I am now. I have been there many times in my life, in different contexts. I believe there is at least something fundamentally true in what I am saying: precisely that we are about to emotionnally (not cognitively) experience the fact that we are on the brink.

That's what I am currently experiencing anyway and I "saw" this critical moment during these last few years. Scientists of the IPPC have just recently released a report which basically says the chances to avoid the two degrees warming are less than 10%.

me if I am wrong, but it is what we call run-away warming. It seems to me so obvious.
All lights of my inner core are flashing red. It has never happened before, despite my real concerns. It is more like synchronicity. It is like the "truth" is coming out from every corners of our being.

Now, what I am saying is that we must look for other options. Evolution comes about when faced with an apparently intractable problem. We must re-define our objective function in order to see the exit. We must re-define the nature of man and his position in the universe. We must see the big picture.

ETs could be part of the game. A surprising connection between physics and consciousness could be part of the game. Or both.

Or I could be completely out of touch... But it is not for me to say.

mtraven said...

Getting off topic, but I'm surprised to find you attacking Niven's organ transplant predictions, since those have certainly achieved far more reality than your typical SF story. Organ transplants are routine, and we (well, China) have been going down the path of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for some years now, which is just what Niven foretold.

If only his hyperdrive and teleportation stories would pan out as well...

yooper said...

John, totally unrealated here, but thanks, for answering my call.

Think about this for a moment..Why did the Federal Resevre create the housing bubble? The answer to this question is just so simple to me now, like a revelation.

Let me explain, almost all housing related products are manufactured in this country. Perhaps, it was one more last push, for the "homeboys", so to speak. To boost our economy, directly. What now? Gee, is it just that simple???

What are your thoughts regarding this, John?

Thanks, yooper

Dylan Nicholson said...

While Fermi's paradox is a reason to at least question whether we are likely to reach the level of technological capability necessary for 'conquering the stars' (I also think it's curious that we haven't been visited from time-travellers from the future), it's a long way from being a reason to assume it's unlikely we will ever develop such capability. There's a whole host of possible reasons why we haven't detected the activities of other alien species that have already developed this capacity: they may be deliberately cloaking their activities, they may simply be too far away (i.e., there are no civilisations millions of years ahead of us), or such interstellar civilisations have may have since disintegrated to do myriad potential causes. At any rate, it's certainly not evidence that our technological capability is tied to our energy availability base. While fossil fuels have certainly made very rapid industrialisation and technological advancement possible, I honestly don't see why they were necessary: there's nothing about PV or wind turbines or most other forms of energy capture that couldn't have been invented and perfected without fossil fuel inputs...they just might have had to wait a few thousand years.

At this point, I'm not convinced that either climate change or peak oil will put much of a dint in our chances of conquering the final frontier - on one hand, the inevitable economic and social disruptions will definitely make things like space travel far less of a priority, but on the other, they will provide huge movitation and incentive for developing new technologies that may end up proving a vital step towards interstellar travel (especially if nuclear fusion research gets the kick in the pants that it needs).
Also note that of the total amount of money that has been generated by human economic activities over the last 50 years, less than maybe .5% of it has been devoted to space travel, so honestly, we aren't even really trying yet.

John Michael Greer said...

Jean-Michel, thanks for the clarification. From my perspective, though, you're still making an argument uncomfortably like the one that drove my ancestors into the Ghost Dance. You comment:

If we are able to survive this current crisis as a specie (except in the form of a gradual return to a very primitive kind of life which is probably impossible because ecosystems are too much damaged), it will be because our brain can access "other dimensions" or because ETs come to our rescue.

Now to start with, I don't accept that our current situation is so dire that our only hope is to expect a miracle. My take is that we face a long and very difficult period of decline and contraction over the next couple of centuries -- a descent into another round of dark ages, if you will. Of course climate change and today's bad management of the environment are going to make that worse than it has to be, but I've yet to see credible estimates that justify your assessment of the situation.

Second, and more crucial, expecting a miraculous intervention to save us from the consequences of our own bad decisions over the last century or so is one of history's all time bad bets. It's a very common belief in times of trouble that some great breakthrough from the spiritual world will save the day, and it's a belief that is consistently disappointed. Pursuing it also wastes time and energy that could go into some more productive direction.

Jonathan, I agree that there are quite likely to be thousands of other intelligent species in the galaxy right now -- I see no reason to think of us as unique. Doubtless some of them are looking up at a star we call our Sun right now and wondering if there's life out there. My argument, though, is that they, and we, will just have to go on wondering, because the energy demands of interstellar travel are too extreme, and civilizations capable of making a big enough energetic splash to be detectable over interstellar distances run into energy limits very quickly and are replaced by low-energy, sustainable civilizations.

As for nuclear power, once again, it has only proved economically feasible where governments have supported it with huge subsidies, and for reasons I've already posted I find it improbable that its net energy is as high as claimed.

Bill, exactly -- this is a religious issue dressed up in science fiction drag. You'll notice that the rhetoric used by the deep space civilization proponents -- infinite energy, unlimited time, perfect freedom, etc. -- is based on the Christian vision of heaven. I plan on doing a post one of these days on the persistence of myth, and this makes a great example.

Ljarvi, good -- you're anticipating the next post here.

Weaseldog, sure, if you've got a few quadrillion spare Euros and hundreds of terawatts of spare energy here on Earth, you might be able to get a lunar colony going, though some of your ideas would be way out even in science fiction -- where are you going to find a structural material strong enough to hold open a glassblowing chamber at the center of the moon against the inward gravitational pressure of more than a thousand miles of rock in all directions? But it's pie in the sky at this point.

Actually, BTW, I didn't reference the problem with concrete at Biosphere II. That was only one of dozens of problems they encountered keeping a manufactured ecosystem going. I agree that it deserves more work, but that's because we stand to learn a great deal about natural ecosystems from the experiment.

Loveandlight, if somebody can show me where they can get enough spare energy to hit even a tenth of the speed of light for 10.5 light years, I'd be impressed.

Shadowfax, that's the thing I'm convinced is keeping most people from grasping this.

John l, notice how your entire argument depends on the mythology of progress -- the idea that the experiences of the last 300 years will be repeated over the 300 or 3000 years to come. I find that very implausible, because the energy resources that made the last 300 years possible are running out and there isn't a backup. I'd point out that the technology of 1500 CE could likely have been understood by any intelligent Babylonian -- he or she would have been impressed, but it would have made sense. That's the sort of technological continuity you get when you have a stable energetic basis, of the sort we'll have left when the rubble of industrial society stops bouncing.

Danby, given that there's no evidence one way or the other, speculation necessarily runs riot. You're quite right, of course, that the issue is essentially a religious one, though this can be played in many ways -- I'm thinking of the medieval bishop of Paris who formally condemned Aristotle's insistence that there could be only one inhabited world, on the grounds that God could by definition make as many inhabited worlds as He wanted to.

Yooper, the problem is that the basic myths of modern culture make it impossible to think in terms of limits. I suspect, for what that's worth, that this is what's behind the pervasive math phobia these days -- if you understand numbers, you see that 2 + 2 cannot be made to equal 5 no matter how much you want it to.

Dwig, it's always possible to play the numbers on Drake's equation one way or another. If unlimited progress were possible, though, we'd be seeing Dyson spheres, not just Lone Ranger reruns from Tau Ceti.

Asturchale, an excellent point. I have enough to say about permaculture that it's going to have to wait for a post of its own. Very briefly, though, it's a very good system that has been regrettably over-hyped by some of its more enthusiastic proponents.

Scm, thanks for the quote -- and you're quite right that even if nuclear power yielded high net energy, it would only postpone the wider problem.

Stephen, I find it delightful to be labeled an extreme pessimist by the techno-optimists and an extreme optimist by the doomer-pessimists at the same time -- evidence that I've found my proper niche halfway in between. It's also been a source of amusement, though, to watch how fans of one technology inevitably see the flaws in every technology but theirs. All the points you've argued in favor of deep space habitats have exact equivalents in the arguments made by Sealab proponents for cities on the continental shelves, and I find the Sealab case more plausible than yours -- given the assumption that abundant electricity from nuclear power was right around the corner, an essential part of their schemes, they had a very solid case for undersea cities as economically viable propositions. Still, as with Weaseldog's lunar colony, if you can come up with a few quadrillion Au$ and a few hundred terawatts of spare energy on Earth to get your project off the ground, go for it.

Imperial China, by the way, is perhaps the classic example of a civilization rising and falling according to its own internal processes. All human societies show those cycles, however, and fatal technological decline is common enough -- Diamond's Collapse has some good examples of what happens when social forces interact with resource limitations to cause a human group to lose access to vital technology.

Jean-Michel, interesting -- it wasn't clear to me that you were responding to intuitive and visionary experience. In the schools where I was trained, it was an absolute rule never to take those at face value; they are imaginal in nature, to use Henri Corbin's term; they exist in a reality of their own that does not overlap exactly, or in many cases at all, with the reality of the material world. Trying to apply imaginal experience to material existence is exactly the mistake my ancestors made in thinking the Ghost Dance was an effective response to the white invasion of the Great Plains.

Mtraven, I used Niven solely because his "Dangerous Visions" intro is so fine an example of technological hubris. He's anything but exceptional in that, of course.

Yooper, my take is that the Fed didn't deliberately inflate a housing bubble per se -- rather, Greenspan flooded the markets with cheap credit because he thought the alternative was a catastrophic depression and the implosion of the Republican party. It happened to go into housing, among other things -- it could have gone into half a dozen other kinds of speculation, and would have generated some kind of bubble, simply because the vast majority of Americans these days believe they deserve to get something for nothing, and they will invest in anything they think will do that for them. Certainly, though, once housing took off, the Fed fed it with more cheap credit, and the fact that it employed Americans can't have hurt in their calculations.

Dylan Nicholson said...

Jean-Michel said...

JMG you said:

Jean-Michel, interesting -- it wasn't clear to me that you were responding to intuitive and visionary experience. In the schools where I was trained, it was an absolute rule never to take those at face value; they are imaginal in nature, to use Henri Corbin's term; they exist in a reality of their own that does not overlap exactly, or in many cases at all, with the reality of the material world. Trying to apply imaginal experience to material existence is exactly the mistake my ancestors made in thinking the Ghost Dance was an effective response to the white invasion of the Great Plains.


You are absolutely right, I completely agree with you. Actually, I did not learn this fact in the schools where I have been trained (because these schools simply dismissed the possibility of intuition or vision, though most of what they discussed originated from it) but by reading Ken Wilber which advocates integral methods (including interiority, spiral dynamic, historicity, hermeneutics and the good old science).

This being said, without false modesty I believe I am not to bad at putting together interiority, hermeneutics and good old science. I am still missing out a little bit on spiral dynamic and historicity where you seem to be very good at in your own way.

That's why our dialogue is quite interesting. It's kind of a match between hermeneutics-science versus spiral dynamic-historicity. We arrive to slightly different views about the future.

Could it be because the future, this time, will not be like the past?

Dwig said...

SCM, thanks for the Hoyle quote -- I hadn't seen it for quite a while. Reviewing it, I find it interesting that Hoyle's in effect equating intelligence with not just technology, but high-level technology.

In fact, human intelligence (if not necessarily wisdom or even common sense) was already quite advanced before fossil fuels began to be used. By the early 1800s, there was already world-wide commerce, science, highly developed arts, impressive technology, democracy, etc. (Perhaps Hoyle would consider that world "primitive conditions".)

If we can manage a reasonably gentle transition, it's possible that the world of 2200 could be at least as advanced as that, and even more so if we retain the knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. that we've acquired since then, and guide its use with the wisdom one hopes we'll have acquired from the experience. Low-energy tech doesn't necessarily imply low-tech.

JMG, you're right of course about playing with Drake's equation. My point was simply to show by counterexample that a negative answer to Fermi's "Where are they?" isn't an adequate proof of "they don't exist"; one needs to do the heavy lifting, as you did in your post.

Weaseldog said...

JMG, why does the energy to power the colony have to come from Earth? Why not use energy from the sun? The sun is streaming both photons and magnetic waves. the quality of solar energy outside the Earth's atmosphere is of much higher quality than we get as filtered sunlight. You seem to be stuck on the notion that the only high quality energy in the solar system is on the Earth.

The glass blowing doesn't have to occur deep in the moon. The same can be done in orbit. You read that part, right? For simple bubbles the same can be done on the surface of the moon. Focused sunlight can used to provide the energy.

As to a hollowed moon, that seems to me the logical outcome of a hundreds of years of mining. There was a time when people laughed at the idea that the entire American Continent would be fenced.

Remember, as you reach the center of mass for a planetoid, gravity declines to zero. So in fact the center of the moon is weightless. As you approach the center, the rock's weight diminishes. Note that weight is a function of mass and gravity. So you can't just measure the radius of the moon and determine the internal pressure by multiplying by the mass.

Further the moon was once completely molten. It isn't made up of a loose aggregation of rock, but instead, froze together. There should be some structure strength in this. After all of this, we're also talking about a planetoid with 1/6 the gravity of earth. Also, the moon is actually a chunk of the Earth that was spun off by a huge asteroid impact. It has the same essential mineral composition as the Earth. The same process that we use on Earth to smelt metals using electricity and heat should work on the moon.

Finally JMG, you're correct. We won't do it. It is too expensive even if we wanted to do it. Who would profit? We'll stay on the Earth until we become extinct.

As to proving that no other intelligent species can exist because it is improbable. We can use the Anthropomorphic method to see the other side of the coin. Conditions for intelligent life do exist in the universe, because we are here.

If a civilization grew up on a planet with no fossilized fuel sources, then they may never advance to the point of produce high powered radios. We would never detect them. Those that do, may only broadcast for a hundreds years. We would have to be in the sweet spot of time and space to catch their transmissions before they wink out forever.

It is highly unlikely that we will detect other civilizations, but that is by no means proof that they don't exist.

They'll likely never detect our civilization either. We aren't destined to leave this world. We will go extinct on the planet that evolved us.

John Michael Greer said...

Dylan, remember that the steam turbine was invented by the ancient Greeks; it never became anything but a philosopher's toy, because without a cheap abundant source of energy, it was more economical to have human muscles do things. I suggest the same thing will be true once we're past the age of fossil fuels -- but then I don't accept the mythology of progress.

Jean-Michel, the future is never exactly like the past, but it's a pretty fair bet that what's failed every time it's been tried in the past -- and expecting spiritual forces to save us from the consequences of our own bad habits has been tried more times than anything else I can think of -- will fail again when it's tried in the future. I haven't read Wilber to any depth -- his airy dismissal of Pagan nature spirituality has never made him particularly appealing to me -- but I'll doubtless have to make time to tackle him at some point.

Dwig, bingo -- extravagant use of energy is not a valid equivalent for intelligence. More on this in the next post.

Weaseldog, for a couple of decades before your moonbase is established, and for a couple of decades more before it becomes self-sufficient, everything needed there, and everything needed to get it there, will have to be built on earth. Launch vehicles, spacecraft, tools, equipment, personnel, food, water, and air -- all of it will have to come from here. That's where the terabytes will go.

As for the hollow Moon, um, you need to bone up on your physics before you go cavorting around the cavity you've excavated. At the center of the Moon you have zero gravity, not because there's no gravity there, but because the thousand or so miles of solid rock on all sides of you are attracting you with equal force. The problem, of course, is that they're attracting each other with equal force, too, and under sufficient pressure -- and yes, the gravitational attraction of 1000 miles of solid rock is more than sufficient pressure -- rock bends and squishes like Play-Doh. The only thing that would be left of you would be a very small blob of carbon compounds at the very center of the Moon.

As for Fermi's paradox, you're missing the point. I'm not arguing that intelligent life doesn't exist out there; quite the contrary, I think there's every chance that it does. I'm arguing that intelligent life won't be able to travel from star to star, or maintain a high-energy civilization long enough for anybody to get in touch with anybody else, because highly concentrated energy resources in the universe are too limited. Does that make things a bit clearer?

yooper said...

jean-michel, my thoughts exactly! Perhaps, we went to same school house?

John, perhaps, "each time history repeats itself, the price goes up?" Certainly, life will not be like the "Roman Holiday", as we make our descent, but as you suggest maybe a close cousin....

I would like readers to consider, that the average life expectancy in ancient Rome was only 19 years of age..... Furthermore, Rome at 400 had a population of about 2 million people, by 500 a population of 20,000. Key factors was a collaspe of the factory food system and the trasportating system that supported it....Sound familiar?

Yes John, theromdynamics, again, again, and yet again!

Thanks, yooper

Jonathan said...

Thanks John for replying to each post one by one.

I'm not too much into religious and philosophical discussions,so I will stick to pragmatic talks about current knowledge and realistic (short term) forecasts.

Nuclear energy : I agree, it's only a post-poning factor to the energy shortage, unless we master fusion (which is not granted). But a two hundred year post-poning is also two hundred years more to change the mentalities and the nature of technology.

Aliens and Fermi : I don't think we will (from Earth) detect radio emissions from other planets. As far as I'm concerned, we have been emitting radiowaves for barely a century, and we are already switching to more reasonable ways of communication (optical fiber and low range wifi). So I never expected us to detect aliens, but what we should expect (assuming there are earth-type planets and starfaring civilizations older than our) is to be visited, which we haven't been, as far as we (public) know. So I would agree with Fermi's answer, that either starfaring is impossible, or a technological civilization is bound to self-destruction.

Condemned to a dark age ?
I don't think so. You can of course take the examples of China or Western Asia or even Europe which had periods of technological recession. But what was the advantage of Europe and eventually lead it to the colonization period, and is now true of the whole world ? Competition. In Europe, up to 50 States have been competing for domination in the last thousand years. Any State taking a wrong turn has been eliminated or assimilated, or had to take the good decision to eventually grow back in the competition. The example of Colonization, which was initiated by the Spanish, was then swiftly adopted by other countries because it was such an economical and demographic advantage.

I believe we have reached a point where competition between States will prevent a technological dark age. The problem is the huge drawbacks of the situation right now : Population is too high, and its impact on environment has been too high, especially in Western Europe and North America, and is increasing in the rest of the world.

I have several fears :
- whatever the technology we develop, populations with very high growth rate (arabic, north africa, india, china, southeast asia, south america and middle america) will eventually overcome western europe populations and north american population, and want to live with the characteristic comfort of the high-environment impact life we lived (which is BAD).
- low-environmental impact technology (by energy consumption, no GH-effect gas emission etc.) is too slowly or not adopted because of cultural/industrial/economical inertia and the above argument.
- a NEGATIVE (or near zero) rate of growth for the population is never reached, because of "demographic war" ( same above argument) and thus we can never really reduce our impact below the "recoverability threshold" for the environment.

I know some of my arguments are a bit politically uncorrect, I don't wish to start a troll, just point that the problem shouldn't be viewed in term of "technological forecast" à la Star Trek, but rather with pragmatic arguments.

I recommand all to read Jared Diamond "Guns, Germs and Steel". It's very complementary to "Collapse" and this is were I take my argument that we won't know a dark age right now, (unless we surrender to a global government that takes very bad decisions or become a global civilization with low interest for science) and that "demographic war" has been decisive in the course of history.

FARfetched said...

The Hoyle quote (provided by SCM): … if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In a sense of developing high intelligence, this is not correct. We have, or will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. goes to show, even scientists at the top of their game are sometimes prone to blind spots and hidebound thinking.

Maybe we've blown our chance, but that doesn't mean we've used up Earth's one chance. Sure, over a scale of a few thousand years, the lights could wink out… but over geological time? Where were humans 50 million years ago? Plate tectonics provide the ultimate recycling system, and all the stuff we leave behind when we're gone will be turned back into raw materials. Including hydrocarbons. Perhaps archaeologists of some successor species be able to solve the puzzle of our existence and ultimate failure, and learn from our mistakes. Or not…

I'm also not completely confident in Fermi's Paradox, after some thought about it. It's so easy to assume that any other species in the universe is going to be just like us — we make the same assumptions about other groups of people around the world, and wonder "what's wrong with them" when our assumptions turn out to be false. Just because we've deliberately ignored the chance we had to push beyond a hydrocarbon basis doesn't mean that other species will be so short-sighted.

As for why we haven't heard or seen evidence of other intelligent life — not all intelligent species will have the necessary long-term outlook (see humanity); and the inverse cube law, applied over light-years, is going to turn just about any signal into noise (with dust clouds and other roadblocks finishing the job). I suspect that our own signals, as they combine and interfere with each other, look a lot like white noise even from Proxima Centauri. :-P

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, remember that the average life expectancy in all premodern cultures factors in a lot of child mortality -- if you made it to age 5 in ancient Rome you had a pretty fair chance of making it to old age.

Jonathan, well, my guess -- as argued above -- is that nuclear power is not a viable energy source in the absence of the huge "energy subsidy" it gets from having nearly all its energy costs paid for by fossil fuels. (You don't use uranium to mine uranium, or process it into fuel rods, or build nuclear power plants, etc.). So I don't see it as a 200 year delaying tactic -- rather, it's a very large rathole down which we can pour a lot of resources that could be better used elsewhere.

As for competition, we're hardly the first civilization to implode despite being divided into competing fragments. The ancient Maya never achieved political unity -- didn't keep them from crashing and burning in a big way.

Dwig, of course Fermi's paradox can never be definite. It's still worth considering as a counter to the unthinking faith in progress that so often crops up. You're also right that the planet may well have other chances, long after we're extinct -- though they'll probably have to make do without coal, since nearly all of that formed in one big burst in the late Paleozoic. But that's a longer view than I'm going to worry about just now.

yooper said...

John, I look foward to the day you and I can visit, (actually trespass, for we have not earned the right to be there...), "the family" cementary, where my anscestors and friends have been buried, for over 150 years. This cementary is also known as the "baby cementary", I need no reminders from you John, thank you.

Before we transgress "this property" you'll see me face to face, eye to eye. Perhaps, at this point, you'll know "who", I am.

As we enter, perhaps, you'll be in another realm, with the cold winds of Lake Superior blowing through your hair and each stone, "crying out for attention".

We'll pass where my father will soon be laid to rest, further down, my grandfather is laided to rest, yet further my great grandfather. A very short way beyond his grave John, I hope to be laided to rest.

When you kneel down and brush away the white pine needles, oak and maple leaves, and grasp the earth, then and only then John, will you truely know "what I am".

Your friend, yooper

Bernd Ohm said...

Re EROEI of nukes: If I use Jeff Vails "price-based EROEI" approach, I get the following:

A typical nuclear power station produces about 10,000 GWh of power each year, thus, with a source price of 0.03 EUR/kWh and over a life span of 30 years, the operating company can make about 9 Billion EUR with the facility. The initial construction costs might be around 3 Billion EUR in today's money (compare the costs of the new EPR reactor in Finland), operation costs are ca. 5 Million EUR/year, giving 150 Million over 30 years. Typical "real" dismantling costs for nuclear facilities here in Germany have proven to be around 0.5 Billion EUR. It's difficult to estimate the final price of nuclear waste disposal and the initial research costs borne by universities and government agencies, but I would say this is at least equal to the dismantling costs, so the EOREI I get in the end is hardly more than 2. Not much indeed! And it will get much worse if you try to separate the uranium from sea water etc.

Weaseldog said...

JMG, I am aware that the reason the center of the moon is weightless environment is because the mass of moon is pulling in all directions.

Why did you think I didn't know why the center of a planetoid is a weightless environment?

Yes, the radius of the moon is a bit over 1000 miles. The closer you get to the center the less the rock weighs. So pressure near the center could be equivalent to about 100 miles of rock on Earth. Assuming about 600 miles of linear weight / 6.0

Plenty of pressure to make the rock plastic.

I'm still not convinced that a self sustaining and growing moon colony is a technological impossibility. You mentioned difficulties, but I don't see proof that a lunar colony can never sustain itself, in your arguments.

I do however remain convinced that humans can't pull it off, and that we'll become extinct when the next big chunk of rock hits the Earth.

I still believe that an intelligent species with different priorities could pull off a feat such as a self sustaining lunar colony. I do not see any evidence that it is technologically impossible. Just very difficult.

Dylan Nicholson said...

John, regarding steam turbines - the main issue would seem to be that without fossil fuels, the forests would have all but wiped out supplying fuel for them. The devices created in the 1st century (in Egypt, not Greece) were never really close to being a practical device, so it's not surprise they never took off. At any rate, I agree that if the Earth had no fossil fuels at all, technological progress would be extremely slow, and we probably wouldn't have advanced all that much beyond Roman technology by now without them...that however doesn't rule out the possibility that after another hundred thousand years of very slow development, we couldn't have reached today's level of technology. And a hundred thousand years is a blink of an eye, cosmologically speaking. However, in that time-frame, we would have to deal with huge natural climate variations - ige ages and the like, and potentially catastrophic natural disasters such as asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes or mega solar-flares, thus further reducing the probability of survival. In that sense, Homo Sapiens has been massively fortunate so far - we've had the huge energy benefit of fossil fuels readily available, we've had a very stable and temperate climate, we've had no truly colossal natural disasters to deal with, and we've so far avoided destroying ourselves with our own technology. In that sense, we are as well poised as we could hope to be in being one of the obviously extremely rare galactical species to colonize outside our own planet, and ultimately solar system - if not the first. It would be a shame to waste that opportunity.

Dana said...

The term progress has a lot of baggage attached to it which becomes painfully obvious when one wishes to discuss human culture, technology, and the like. To most people it seems to mean bigger and better machines and wonderful invention after wonderful invention. I really wish it meant something else. We might not be in this mess.

Dana said...

Oh, and another thing about space travel...

Even if it were possible to travel to other star-systems and set up colonies there, if we did not want to find ourselves dependent on machines (and thus fuel energy, which always runs out) in order to survive, we would have to find planets with hospitable climates on which to live.

The trouble is Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. If the biosphere of Earth really did co-evolve with the atmosphere--in other words, the air we breathe is breathable because the evolution of life made it so--then just because we go to some other planet with air on it doesn't mean we'll be able to breathe. That would assume (1) there were living things on that planet and (2) we were biologically compatible with those living things. It's not enough to find life on another planet, you see. We have to be able to fit into that planet's biosphere as well, otherwise we'll die anyway. Or be dependent on those machines, as I already said.

So the other option is terraforming. But here's the problem: We don't know how to do it. And while we're great at building machines we are woefully underinformed about the wondrous inner workings of life itself. We get too caught up in reductionist thinking on the one hand and tripping ourselves up with religious arguments on the other (nothing wrong with religion inherently, except when it puts blinders on you), and it'll be a miracle if we ever understand evolution well enough to be able to pull off a terraforming project. And that's exactly what it would take. You can't just go to a planet and start pumping out oxygen and carbon dioxide and expect it'll all settle down into being fit for human beings to breathe. Not if Lovelock is right.

So... We're kind of stuck anyway, and it really doesn't matter what else is out there. And I wish that weren't true. I used to think our job was to "reproduce" Gaia, take Her protoplasm out to other worlds--but I can't see any valid way we can do that now. We might have had a slightly better chance had we not used up our precious energy reserves on, say, maintaining casino cities in the middle of the desert and manufacturing throwaway plastic toys for our kids, but it's too late now for sure.

Weaseldog said...

Dana, On sci-fi theme suggests that if an advanced race colonized their solar system, they may find it advantageous to evolve to no longer need to live on planets. By the time they reach other stars, they may not be suited to living at the bottom of a gravity well.

Food for thought as long as we're fantasizing...

vegedoc said...

Interstellar travel isn't necessary to be contacted. Even if aliens ran out of oil they would have billions of years of solar, wind, tidal, & biomass to power ever more effective radio or other communication devices.

Even if we have to subsist on solar-based power only, we won't forget our technology and, in fact, it will still progress.

Running out of oil doesn't explain Fermi's Paradox. There has to be another explanation.

Also, interstellar travel may not be as impossible as many posters here seem to think. Transporting adult humans is unnecessary. We already have invitro fertilization, long-term cold storage of blastocysts, and we're making good progress with stem cells to make all type of tissue types (e.g. uterus, blood, lungs). It's not unreasonable to expect that humans will be able to be produced starting from cells only within a century or two.

With frozen cells the trip need not be within a person's lifetime. Voyager is doing well at 35 years old perhaps a craft lasting 200 years could be built.

With relatively low mass and non-relativistic speeds, multi-bounce lasers (maybe positronic)/solar sails or M2P2/particle beam approaches might be possible with reasonable amounts of energy. The Earth already produces 14 terrawatts of electricity. As oil, oil sands, coal, & natural gas become scarce people will get serious and utilize other (somewhat more expensive) sources (e.g. fission, fusion, He3, solar, wind, wave, biomass etc). I don't expect to run out of moderately cheap energy for at least 200 years. Also don't forget that the Earth gets only a very small portion of the Sun's light. Space-based solar power is essentially unlimited. And we'll establish a self-supporting lunar base well before we run out of power. So I expect we'll have terrawatts of power available at the time that we launch our small interstellar craft.

Truly there are significant technical challenges remaining in establishing humanity in another star system (e.g. shielding, deceleration, & site preparation) but these are engineering problems with the potential of being solved.

Thomas Mazanec said...

The puzzle of Fermi's Paradox, as it is looked at now, is not "Why haven't FTL or ultra-relativistic or world-sized starships visited us by now?". It is "Why haven't we been contacted by a star probe which is both a Bracewell Probe and a von Neumann Probe by now?". A VNP needs to travel only a few percent the speed of light, and could be the size of the ISS, with an AI aboard with the IQ of a bacterium. It would not be much harder than your colonizing another world in the planetary system...maybe easier. And everything we have sent beyond the orbit of Saturn is a BP...the Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager Record and the New Horizons Message.
Personally, I think the solution to the FP is that it is extremely unlikely for a pre-proto-bacterium with a genetic code capable of self-reproduction and further evolution to form spontaneously by biological processes.