For quite a long time now, you and your predecessors at SETI have been trying to find a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization. So far, nothing has been found.
It appears to me that there is a message in this fact. In a way, the universe has sent us a message and I suggest that you should be using your position to spread this message.
In order for us to find another civilization, this civilization must be near enough to us so that signals they are sending can be received and recognized to us. Some authors suggest that there are civilizations that use all the energy from their host star or even from their galaxy. This appears quite unlikely, so the most likely case would be “simple” technical civilizations like our own. Signals from such civilizations are going to be relatively week, so the sphere around the solar system from which we have a chance to detect any signal is quite limited in its size.
Moreover, the civilization must be contemporary to us in the sense that signals they send our way pass earth while we are here. Signals of foreign civilizations passing the solar system a million years ago are not going to reach us, as well as signals passing here in a distant future.
How likely is it for another civilization to exist nearby and with a sufficient temporal overlap for us to be able to detect signals from them? This depends on several different factors. One of them is how long a civilization capable of communicating is typically going to exist. People often estimate that such civilizations are going to last tens or hundreds, or even millions of years. However, if we look at the only civilization we know so far, our own, we see that it is in no way sustainable. We are currently destroying the resources of our planet quite quickly.
We acquired the ability to communicate with other civilizations maybe about a hundred years ago. At the moment, it does not appear unlikely that our technical civilizations may be gone after just another hundred years or so.
If this is typical for technical civilizations, a contact between any two of them would indeed be an extremely unlikely event. So the failure to find others might contain a message: that such civilizations like our own, even if they might spring up here and there in our galaxy and in other galaxies every now and then, might be very short-lived systems. Our planet has been habitable for such a civilization for several tens of millions of years, even for several hundred million years, and it might remain so for some time to come in principle, but within this span of many millions of years, technical civilization might just be a short blip.
So might there be anything inherently self-destructive in technical civilizations like our own? I think it is. Let me explain this line of thought:
I think that the emergence of life is quite likely, given a planet with the right conditions. Planets like earth might not be very common, but probably there are many of them. What happens if on such a planet, intelligent beings emerge, beings we may simply call humans, even if they might look different from ourselves, humans equipped with highly developed sense organs, the ability to move around, organs to manipulate their environment, analogous to our hands, and something analogous to our brains that gives them the ability to think, to plan, to act and to communicate. Such humans would initially live as hunters and gatherers. They would develop simple technologies and these technologies would result in an increased rate of survival. They would start spreading over their planet. Eventually, some of them might discover methods of food production like agriculture. As a result, their numbers would be growing. Cultures would become more complex.
Such groups of humans are using resources, like land, water, stones, etc. They develop technologies and we can speak of them developing something that can be called an economy or a civilization.
Economies will start growing. Some of them will grow faster than others. Those which have technologies and attitudes that cause them to grow more quickly will outgrow others and either assimilate ore subdue or destroy them. As a result, the fastest growing sub-civilizations or economies will become dominant.
Once the development of knowledge, technology and economy goes through a process comparable to our scientific and industrial revolutions, economic growth is going to become extremely fast, and again, those groups, societies, businesses etc. growing fastest will overgrow or push aside those that are growing less quickly. Growth can be achieved by exploiting resources. The resources of any planet are limited, but if a group understands that permanent growth is unsustainable and starts limiting its growth, it will be outgrown by another group that continues growing. Groups that use more resources than the planet will sustainably provide will grow fastest and will outgrow others that limit themselves. As a result, you get a system that has an attitude of growth and is overexploiting the resources of the planet.
For the society to become long lived, it would have to become sustainable. But the groups that benefit from fastest growth are the most powerful, since they have most of the resources. It is therefore unlikely that the transition to a sustainable economy, i.e. an economy that stops growing and enters a steady state, is made in time. So the typical technical civilization will be like ours. It will have its scientists and its SETI project and it will be unsustainable. After a short time, it will shrink and dissolve or it will catastrophically collapse.
There is some information gained by SETI, there is a message. The absence of any signals from other civilizations is the message. The message is that civilizations capable of communicating are short-lived. The transition to a sustainable civilization is possible in principle but it is not very likely. Most of us (with us I mean here the humans on Earth and on all the other planets) fail in making this transition.
As responsible scientists, you should draw this conclusion from the SETI project and use your position to spread this message, in accordance with your mission statement. As long as you don’t, you remain part of an ideology that tells people that there is a wonderful SFish future ahead and that we can just go on and remain happy consumers, using more and more wonderful gadgets, flying to Mars and then to Proxima Centauri and beyond. As long as you continue perpetuating those myths, you will be part of an ideology of growth that is destructive for the planet. Of course, this futuristic ideology is part of those attitudes that increase growth and so have made the civilization that provides the base of SETI dominant on our planet.
But the myths of this ideology are not the truth and you should tell people. We are currently destroying the atmosphere and the oceans, the biologic and genetic diversity and other resources of our planet. The future is not going to be wonderful. Instead we are exploiting the humans of the future. Inequality is rising. The shrinking riches of the planet are being concentrated in fewer hands. The civilizational cores will soon begin to shrink, our civilization is going to become ever poorer and finally, it will be gone. There will be humans still, but no advanced technology. There will be no second technical civilization because the easily accessible resources will have been used up already. After perhaps 200 years or so, the window of contact will be closing for us.
It is time to spread the message, the real result of the SETI project.
(The picture, showing antenans belonging to the Allan Telescope Array (ATA), used also by the SETI project, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C_G-K_-_DSC_0442_(by).jpg. Follow the link to find more information about the author (Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill) and the license.
Andreas Keller, also known as “Nannus”, is an independent philosopher and blogger living and working in Europe).