Is there anybody out there? NASA says “No!” but with a possibly surprising reason: The extraterrestrials that we have thought about and sometimes worried about over the years probably destroyed themselves. The warning NASA is giving has resonance for the human race. We too may be on a path that will make it impossible to one day be the aliens visiting other worlds, and will have to look in the mirror to see who caused it.
In “Avoiding the ‘Great Filter’: Extraterrestrial Life and Humanity’s Future in the Universe,” a paper written by NASA scientists, we are warned “that an existential disaster may lay [sic] in wait as our society advances exponentially towards space exploration, acting as the Great Filter: a phenomenon that wipes out civilizations before they can encounter each other, which may explain the cosmic silence.” In other words, advanced societies on other worlds probably destroyed themselves before they could reach the stage of developing the ability to travel to other solar systems.
As long as humans have lived, they have told stories. Sitting around campfires in caves, ancient humans shared details about the day’s hunt or food found through foraging. They probably added details to spice things up, making the lion or tiger twice as big as it really was (the start of creative non-fiction?). As civilizations advanced, they turned their imaginations to the skies, and invented tales of gods and goddesses connected to the heavenly bodies they could see.
Once words were on a page, writers started telling more complex tales about space, and about the strange new worlds inhabited by creatures of all sorts. My father’s generation grew up watching Flash Gordon, and my generation has to thank Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek and George Lucas for Star Wars. These stoked our imaginations with fantastic creatures of all kinds that could be found far from home and even in a galaxy far, far away. How truly sad if real versions of our fictitious alien friends snuffed themselves out before their time came to visit us.
These NASA guys are really party-poopers. They warn that this “Great Filter has the potential to eradicate life as we know it, especially as our rate of progress correlates directly to the severity of our fall.” So is someone like Elon Musk, with his SpaceX ships and Martian dreams, only hastening us to our doom? Will our advancing technology be what eradicates us in a way that will send us back to the Stone Age or even worse?
The Greatest Threats
There are great threats to our survival now. If pollution, overpopulation, and global warming don’t wipe us out, there is always the threat of nuclear annihilation looming over us. Those kids who were taught to hide under their desks and find fallout shelters in the 1950s and ’60s are now grandparents who are worried about the truth that they were never told.
Wars where the sides are using conventional weaponry are bad enough for the human race. But when one side ups the ante and suggests the use of nuclear weapons of any kind (as if “tactical” nukes are supposed to make us breathe a sigh of relief), there is the threat of the end of times. This is what NASA means by the Great Filter; we get too big for our britches and think we’re indestructible, thus causing our destruction.
Thankfully, the paper is not all doom and gloom. The writers suggest that we have reached a time that “indicates a necessary period of introspection, followed by appropriate refinements to properly approach our predicament.” If we all forget showing off how big our britches are and sit our butts down and work something out to avoid catastrophe, “we may be able to mitigate risk to mankind and the nearly 9 million other species on Earth.”
Survival: We Have to Want It
John Lennon famously sang, “War is over, if you want it.” Enough of us have to want it; we need to fight for peace, or things are not going to go well for us. We have other battles too, fighting hunger, pollution, and other threats to our environment. This should encourage every human being to be concerned enough to do something about it.
Humankind has to rise to the challenge and save ourselves; otherwise, we are going to get sucked into that Great Filter like particles of dust into a vacuum cleaner. Everything we ever were: all our accomplishments in science, in medicine; all our music and literature and art; all our history, from the cave to the Moon to the grave, will be erased from time. In the nothingness and vastness of space, it will be as if we never existed, just like our alien friends whom we never got a chance to meet because of their own ignorance and stupidity.
We Can Survive
I’d like to think we will “give peace a chance,” as John Lennon sang, or utter “May the Force be with you,” as the Star Wars Jedi used to say, but even that didn’t save most of them. Perhaps, we can invoke Star Trek’s Mr. Spock’s words, “Live long and prosper.” Our children, grandchildren, and all future generations are depending on us. Now let’s want to survive; let’s do more than enough; let’s do something to save ourselves. If we do nothing, we will have only ourselves to blame.