Thursday, March 29, 2012

Are Technologically-Advanced Civilizations Destined for Self-Destruction?

There may be 10 billion habitable planets, but there's no guarantee of life anywhere in all of creation.

It's a situation that scientists, politicians, philosophers, and dreamers all consider at some point: is all of this modern technology a good thing or not? The thought processes as well as viewpoints are near limitless.

It is an undeniable fact that technology can work miracles, such as: organ transplants, genetic engineering, discovering properties of planets light years away, and generally making life easier than it was in the past. On the other hand, there are some serious dangers that go along with technology, which include: weapons of mass destruction, increasing the ability of governments to play Big Brother to citizens, and the opening of a new avenue for the commission of crime.

Obviously, there is a lot of good and bad that comes about via high technology, so what does this all mean for scientists' search for alien life?

Yesterday, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the result of a 6-year research study involving the hunt for alien planets around red dwarf stars which, according to some, could make up as much as 80% of the Milky Way's stellar population. The finding: there could be upwards of 10 billion habitable planets in our galaxy alone.

In the Milky Way Galaxy alone there are (according to the most optimistic of estimates) about 400 billion stars and this number may rise as the galaxy, as science has progressed, has gotten increasingly populated as estimates of star counts have risen steadily over the decades. With so many stars, there are probably many times more planets, some of which are suitable for life as we know it. On some of these distant worlds, life may have arisen.

So, with all of these planets, where are the aliens?

One view of this paradox was explained by the scientists Enrico Fermi, one of the men whose research directly lead to the construction of the first atomic bomb. Fermi, upon witnessing the destruction the thing he helped create had wrought, got to thinking about the possibilities of alien life and the role technology could play in helping, or hindering, our search. Living in the era of the Cold War, Fermi realized that, should aliens come upon high technology, there was the very real possibility that they, like us, were teetering on the threshold of planet-wide self-destruction.

Thus arose the Fermi Paradox, which simply states that, because there are so many stars and there has been no alien contact, chances are that, upon reaching levels of high technology, the tendency of civilizations is to destroy themselves. So, could the Fermi paradox be true?

Answer: a definite 'yes.'

Ever since the industrial revolution, we humans have accelerated our technological capabilities at an exponential rate. Yesterday's science fiction is today's science fact. With all the great things brought about by the industrial revolution, such as: jobs, increased wealth, more time for leisure, and spin-off technologies came some not so good things: pollution, filthy, over-crowded, crime-ridden cities, and social problems including class warfare. So, by the end of the 19th century, mankind had already acquired the technology to make the world a much dirtier, unhealthy to live in place.

With the arrival of the 20th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full-swing all over the world. However, unlike in the 19th century when technology was employed with intentions to better the world, that same technology would soon be put to use for the creation of death and destruction in the cataclysm that was World War 1. Machine guns, submarines, aerial bombing, poison gas, and all of the filth created by war would, in 4 years, leave over 8 million people dead. For the first time, technology was changing the world, undeniably and intentionally, for the worse.

With the ending of WW1 in 1918, the same science and technology would once again be brought to peaceful usages, at least for 2 decades, as the peace-loving nations sought to bandage their wounds and move on with existence. During the same times however, other nations with sinister intentions were, at the same time, using the same technology to prepare for a new war that would wind up being far more destructive than the last: World War 2.

However, even more so than in WW1, WW2 would see an even more devastating marriage between science and military in the creation of the atomic bomb, whose dropping on Japan brought the war to a swift conclusion. Unfortunately, while the bomb initially brought peace, it would soon spawn a decades-long arms race that would leave the entire world in constant fear of a nuclear holocaust: the Cold War.

During the Cold War years, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union would be forever racing to build bigger bombs, longer-range missiles, and better ways with which to spy on each other. The result of this arms race was a doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which had the appropriate acronym of MAD. The most troubling aspect of the Cold War was that both sides knew the whole situation was madness but, despite having reasonable people on both sides whose greatest concern was national preservation, the hostilities continued until the communist economic system of the Soviet Union caused the superpower to fall and the nuclear standoff to end. During the years of the Cold War, besides nuclear weapons, deadly, yet cheap to produce, chemical and biological weapons were also developed as further deterrents to aggression.

Numerous times during the Cold War years of 1945 to 1991, the superpowers nearly came to direct blows. Between standoffs like the Berlin Blockade and Cuban Missile Crisis to proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, the world could have,if something had gone differently, spiraled into a nuclear holocaust that would have destroyed not only the two global superpowers fighting each other, but the entire world civilization itself. Fortunately, during the 4 ½ decades of the Cold War, this never happened. However, with the end of the superpower standoff, the world entered a much more dangerous stage of international conflict.

With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ronald Reagan's 'evil empire' was a thing of the past. However, all of the USSR's weapons were not. With the sudden breakup of the Soviet Union and the formation of many different new countries, all of those old weapons suddenly found themselves with new owners, and some, with no owners at all. The trouble here is obvious: with all of those nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons unsecured, some of them, if the price was right, found themselves up for sale on the black market.

It is this proliferation of WMDs into the hands of small, rogue states and terrorist organizations that leads us to the current state of international problems we face today.

Come 2012, instead of economic systems, the world is most threatened by war over religion. Islamic terrorists, not global superpowers, are now the greatest threat the world faces. Unlike in the Cold War where the object of soldiers, both American and Russian, was to survive, the Islamic terrorist has no such desire, seeing death as martyrdom and a direct ticket to heaven. With such irrational fanaticism and no central government to control them, terrorists are the most insidious threat faced in the history of the civilized world. Needless to say, if WMDs were to fall into the hands of such people, there is no doubt that they, unlike the Soviets of decades past, would have no hesitance in using them.

This is the current state of our world, and it shows no sign of changing anytime soon, either.

So, taking this world, the only inhabited one of which we know, as a model, the search for alien intelligence does not bode very well if technologically-advanced aliens take the same path on their planet as we humans have taken here on Earth. Yes, so far, anyway, we have managed to avoid man-made catastrophe. However, that could all change tomorrow and there is no doubt that the same day-to-day existence is true on other worlds around other stars all across the known universe.

Yes, it's a depressing scenario, but it is a very real possibility that, at this current point in time, we may be all alone in the cosmos, huge as it is.

Fermi may have been right.

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