Fermi Paradox: Stay At Home Civilizations


Today we come back to the Fermi Paradox to
contemplate the concept of advanced civilizations that don’t go out and colonize the galaxy
or go extinct, but manage to exist for truly long periods of time just on their home planet,
or perhaps their own solar system.     Now the Fermi Paradox itself is not
our main focus, but more of a backdrop to this concept because it is a recurring one
in discussion of alien civilizations. That said, if this is your first visit to
this channel, or you just haven’t seen those episodes, I do recommend watching the earlier
Fermi Paradox episodes before this one especially the Fermi Paradox Compendium. This is not a good introductory episode.     As a refresher though, the Fermi Paradox
is the apparent contradiction between how immense and old the universe is and how apparently
absent of intelligent life it is. There are tons of solution for why this is
the case and we covered all of those in the aforementioned Compendium.     Now one of the common camps is that
technological civilizations like our own do not arise very often, either because life
doesn’t emerge too often or the evolutionary path to intelligent tool users just doesn’t
get followed much. We don’t see alien civilizations because
none have developed yet near enough of for us to see them.     The other side of that argument is
that technological civilizations do emerge fairly often but something prevents us from
seeing them. That can be extinction, which we covered in
the Apocalypse How video, or it could be because such civilizations do not expand much, are
not that common, and tend to stay fairly quiet. We discussed a lot of other options and they
just don’t work very well.     Against that we have the idea of a
civilization that has the brains but not the ability. Dolphins never develop technology because
they can’t light fires under water. The hyper-intelligent snail people of Mollusk
V might lack the hands or tentacles to use tools, but even if they had them the gravity
on their world is just too high and the atmosphere too thick for them to get into orbit using
conventional rockets, so they never turn their eyes to the skies. They might exist for eons that way, and even
if their technology eventually improves enough to allow them to economically get off their
planet they may have adopted an attitude of it being a bad idea to try. People do that, faced with a nigh impossible
task they will often come up with laundry list of other downsides that become conventional
wisdom and remain so even after the landscape had changed to permit the idea.     The notion of a long-lasting but non-expanding
civilization is one we also ruled out as decent explanation for the Fermi Paradox, but it
was a bit different than some others. We didn’t say that there are not civilizations
that stay at home, or that they were uncommon, but rather we ruled it out because it does
appear possible to expand outward and colonize an entire galaxy and it would only take a
tiny fraction of civilizations to do just that to destroy it as a Fermi Paradox Solution.     But again we didn’t say such civilizations
were uncommon let alone impossible.     There are a lot of reasons to get out
and colonize the galaxy, and as we will see some make more sense than others. If you are a regular on this channel you know
I am a strong advocate of doing just that, and basically to me looking at the night sky
is like looking at a bunch of beautiful bonfires… made of burning libraries.     Every star in this Galaxy which does
not currently have an inhabited planet around it is just wasting its energy, energy that
could be used to support life and which I believe can, should, and will be turned to
that end by us in the next few million years.     That is not common way of looking at
space exploration, I suspect a lot of the regular audience here who have absorbed some
of the ideas we kick around might share that view now but it isn’t a common one. I don’t think it is a controversial one,
just the byproduct of thinking some of these ideas through to their logical conclusion.     Let’s consider some of the more normal
reasons for space exploration and consider how logical those are, and ask if you need
to colonize a bunch of other solar systems to do them.    Many have valid points, but many also
do not, and of those that do, we are going to consider if there are alternatives.     I will just list out the reasons to
do it and the reasons not too, then we will come back and chew through them.     Here are the most commons reasons I
could find to go out into space: 1. So we don’t have all our eggs in one basket
here on Earth. 2. Because we need the raw materials
3. Because we need the space
4. To better Understand our own world
5. To Inspire mankind and future generations
6. To seek out new life and new civilizations Mostly good reasons, or at least they sound
good. Here is the list of reasons not to do it: 1. We still haven’t finished exploring Earth
yet 2. We need to solve our problems here first
3. It is a waste of money
4. We could be blundering into threats we can’t
handle yet Okay, let us go through and contemplate those,
and since we are asking why people might stay at home on Earth I will mostly play Devil’s
Advocate.     Let’s look at our first one. Get off Earth, if something happens to it
humanity goes with it. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. This would a great reason except for two key
problems. First off, civilizations aren’t eggs, except
in the sense that if you place a colony somewhere it is going to hatch into a thriving civilization
all on its own. This is not a great way to preserve your civilization. When you throw technology into the mix, things
like genetic engineering, and look at these things on astronomical timelines, there won’t
be much in common with the colony and the world that sent it. Second, you don’t need other solar systems
to protect your civilization from natural hazards and it won’t protect you from intelligent
threats. A few dozens of the kinds of rotating habitats
we have discussed on this channel so many times give you all the backup you need and
there are room for trillions of them in the solar system, millions just in close proximity
to Earth, but you could stick some far off in the Oort Cloud if you just want distance
as protection, and those can be constructed to be Supernova proof. They can also be constructed to be decent
interstellar starships, so having a few dozen scattered around your solar system gives you
an excellent backup against natural disasters and accidents. To truly threaten a technological civilization,
one that is advanced enough to be able to go to another solar system and terraform a
planet in the first place, you need intelligence. And distance won’t help you against that
because there is no stealth in space and you can’t hide. If I’m the commander of some Alien Extermination
Fleet, I am going to know where your backup colonies are because I saw your ships go there,
and I am not going to call it a day when I’ve obliterated your homeworld. I will go track down all your colonies because
I know where they are and I do not want them growing up to come get some vengeance in a
few thousand years. You do need space technology to get yourself
protection from certain types of threats but you don’t need much and you don’t need
an interstellar civilization to have it. Some threats like asteroids just are not a
threat to a technologically advanced species, you don’t need a backup planet to protect
you from that and a random asteroid approaching your planet is more likely to be regarded
as a lucky mining resource, not a threat.     Which of course is another reason often
cited to get to space. We need the resources, we want the metal. We talked about this in the asteroid Mining
episode, except for precious metals like gold and platinum, which you don’t really need
just want, we have more of everything down here on Earth than in our entire Asteroid
Belt. Asteroid mining is great for getting metals
to be used in space, not for bringing it home to Earth itself. If you aren’t planning to build up a huge
space infrastructure then all those moons and asteroids are mostly worthless.     Lots of folks say we need the space
for our population to grow. Or expand into, but population growth cannot
be fixed by interstellar colonization. It costs more energy to get a person to another
solar system then it would to keep them alive for centuries anyway. Also as we’ve discussed in other episodes
you can stuff a lot more people into a solar system than you can into an entire galaxy
if you are just using planets. One way or another, if you are living here
on Earth, we are going to run out of room if we keep growing in numbers. After you fill up your solar system, after
you fill up your galaxy, after you use all the tricks for miniaturizing stuff, or even
people, you will still eventually have to either stop growing your numbers back here
on Earth or you’ve got a problem. We quadrupled the human population last century,
if we kept up that sort of growth in a bit over 10,000 years we’d have more people
than there are atoms in the Universe. We’ve talked about some ways to support
truly huge numbers of people, both regular old people like ourselves and purely digital
folks living in digital existences, but I don’t care how good you are miniaturization
you aren’t going to support a person on less than one atom even if they live on a computer
chip. At those kinds of growth rates you’d fill
up the kind of Planet-wide supercities we discussed in Ecumenopolises in five-hundred
years, a classic Dyson Swarm in a bit over a thousand years, and even a Matrioshka Brain
in about four thousand years. If you are colonizing the galaxy you still
haven’t gotten out to all but a tiny piece of it by then even if you could go the speed
of light, and 10% is probably about as fast as you can get with a colony ship. So you have to stop growth eventually, and
even if you are growing more modestly that just slows down the timeline. We must also consider life extension. Extending human lifetimes beyond a century
will also increase your growth rate and alter many other dynamics. Some folks would say you might as well start
now and just keep to the current population or even bring it down lower.  I don’t agree but that doesn’t invalidate
that perspective.     Another popular one is that it will
help us better understand our own planet, and I think that is quite true. But mostly because of what we can learn from
satellites around the planet and some associated technologies. We could learn a lot about weather by having
a few hundred Earth-like planets we could watch the weather on, but I suspect we will
have that down pat long before we get people or even robots around planets in other solar
system to watch them up close.     We would also say that learning about
the Universe and exploring it can inspire mankind and generations of scientists to come. That is true, Gargarin and Glenn and Armstrong
and the others inspired countless people all around the planet. There are other sources of inspiration though,
other fields which have greatly contributed to mankind and inspired us too, and you do
get diminishing returns on that investment. I couldn’t think of the name of single member
of the current crew up on the Space Station and I would be surprised if most people could
name anyone who had been up there in the last decade. Which is a pity, because there are ton of
amazing folks from a bunch of different countries who have been up there doing their nations
and the humanity proud. But it is what it is. We remember Amundsen and Scott as the first
to lead teams to the South Pole, but who knows the names of any of the hundred or so people
down at the Amundsen-Scott Station on the South Pole. We remember Magellan’s Expedition for circumnavigating
the globe, but that’s mundane now and the crew on the ISS actually do it fifteen times
a day. So it isn’t a great investment for inspiration. We will remember the first person step foot
on Mars or on some planet around Alpha Centauri, but not the hundredth person to do so or the
hundredth new planet someone sets foot on. Also, there are plenty of things to be inspired
by back here on Earth too.     But it is inspirational, the idea to
set foot on where no one has gone before, to seeks out new life and new civilizations,
to boldly go where no man has gone before.     I think this is a great reason to go
into space, unfortunately it probably isn’t. Science-fiction, especially Star Trek, tends
to imply you can meander around the galaxy and just blunder across new civilizations
and spatial anomalies every week. This is highly unlikely in a non-FTL universe. You would know long before you got to a solar
system if anything is living there, even non-intelligent life ought to be pretty obvious. You wouldn’t send people to these anyway,
you’d send robots. Sending people there, loaded up as we are
with tons of strains of viruses and bacteria, is not a great approach to exploring an alien
ecosystem. Robots are better, especially if your robots
are smart enough to do all the cataloguing on their own so you don’t need people up
in orbit of that planet controlling them remotely. As to technological civilizations, you should
be able to see them a long way off, even if they are hiding. You’d need centuries or even longer to get
to visit them face to face and that’s not the sort of thing you do by surprise. If you did just happen to wander into a solar
system that contains a civilization that’s been hiding there, I suspect they won’t
appreciate guests very much anyway. Yes it would be great to meet aliens and to
talk with them and to explore the universe together, but I think that’s better done
by making first contact at a distance and only with those who want it. That’s a topic we will be looking at in
January, first contact with alien civilizations.     Okay, those are some of the more popular
ideas for why we should go into space. And they are good ones, but as we see, a lot
of them are a bit thin. Or at least seem that way when contemplated
as a reason to move your civilization out beyond your own planet and solar system.     Now let us go the other way and look
at some of the reasons suggested for why we shouldn’t go out into space. I generally don’t think much of these, and
again I’d imagine the majority of the audience of this channel don’t either, but some are
a bit more solid than they first appear to be when we examine them.     First we have the notion that we still
haven’t finished exploring our own planet .This is true, we have barely cracked the
surface of neat and interesting things to study just here on Earth. It is the most interesting place in the Universe,
at least that we know of. But this is not a good one for a few reasons. First, by exploring off the planet we do often
learn a lot about the planet, or get the tools for doing so, that was one of our common reasons
given to explore space after all. Second, we will eventually figure out our
own planet, and I doubt it will take millions of years to do it. So it only delays things in that respect. Third, we can walk and chew bubblegum at the
same time. I don’t see why we can’t explore Earth
and Space at the same time anymore than we can research chemistry and biology at the
same time. Heck we do better by exploring both at once.     Many would also say we need to solve
our problems here first. I hear this a lot when we talk about colonizing
Mars. We don’t want to export our screwed up civilization
to another planet This tends to be followed by some soap-boxing about whatever they dislike
most about our civilization. I am never too clear why so many folks are
so down on humanity. Personally, I think we’re pretty awesome,
I mean not as awesome as a dinosaur, but pretty awesome. Still I’d have to agree we certainly have
our failings, I just don’t think that will ever not be true, at least in our own eyes. If we are examining ourselves and not finding
faults, we probably shouldn’t be leaving Earth because we have probably devolved into
a super-narcissistic society. So if we use this as a reason not to go, it
is unlikely to ever change. I don’t find it compelling though.     Next we have the idea that it is a
waste of money. This is obviously subjective, NASA is very
expensive, its annual budget is larger than entire Gross Domestic Product of fully half
the nations on this planet. That said, it represents a relatively minor
budgetary expense against the United States own GDP, being about a thousandth.     The argument is still valid, especially
when stretched to include non-scientific missions. We learn a lot of new science and develop
a lot of new technology through space but we also do by investing that same money in
something like cancer research. You could argue more good would be done by
investing NASA’s budget into curing leukemia but that’s a superficial approach to how
research works. Research gets done by finding smart people
who are passionate about something and giving them the resources to look into it. Doubling or halving the money we spend on
something isn’t going to double or half the time it takes to make a breakthrough and
sciences are pretty interconnected. Breakthroughs in one often help in another.     But that only applies to the research
itself, it is hard to argue spending a few billion bucks to land people on the moon again
is a responsible use of funds right now, for instance. Next we have the idea that by going out into
space we could find ourselves running in threats we don’t know about and can’t handle yet. At first glance, this one does seem like a
good concern, maybe the best, but the thing is there isn’t any reason to think there’s
anything out there that is a threat we can’t handle. Now I know, two obvious rebuttals spring to
mind. First, you are thinking, “Isaac, you just
said threats we don’t know about. If we don’t know about them, how can you
say we can handle them?” Which is a fair point, and you are also probably
thinking, “Hey Isaac, what about aliens? Are you saying a high-tech alien civilization
is a threat we can handle?” And the answer is no, if they wanted to attack
us they’d mash us up badly. We talked about how insanely huge the scale
of a Kardashev 2 civilization was a couple months back and how they could crush us like
a bug even if they only had modern technology. But I also said they could see us anywhere
in the galaxy and come get us no matter what we do. They’re not a threat we can handle, they
just are a threat that isn’t altered by us going out into space or not. Similarly, if there are hazards in space we
don’t know about, there is only one way to find out what those are and if they cost
us some explorers, well that is why we tend idolize explorers. They take risks, they roll the dice, and sometimes
those come up snake-eyes. We are not a species of cowards and I hope
we don’t devolve into one, certainly not one that is terrified into staying home because
we’re afraid of the unknown. I have to say, I didn’t find those reasons
to compelling, so I asked the audience for some ideas why we might stay at home and I
got some good ones. As you may or may not know this topic was
selected by a poll over on the Channel’s Facebook Group. It came in first out of about forty options. The topic surprised me, “What if we won’t
go anywhere? What if we stay on Earth?”. I thought, what a strange topic to ask me
of all people to cover, especially as most of the videos in the last couple months have
been about colonizing space. So I threw together a quick video for the
facebook group asking them to give me their best ideas for why we might never leave Earth,
or the solar system at least. As I said I got some good ones, at least better
than the common ones we just covered. Let’s look at those. One of the most common and compelling arguments
that was brought up in one variant or another was that we might back off from space because
of time lag of communication. This doesn’t hold up in a classically human
civilization but it does work a lot better in the context of a lot of the Transhuman
or Technological Singularity style civilizations. While those tend to be immortal by definition,
so that time shouldn’t be a huge issue, it is worth remembering that some of those
could find time delays of even a second incredibly maddening. If your mind has been sped up to process information
millions of times faster, in many respects time is basically running millions of time
slower for you. Just the four or five seconds needed for a
message to get to the moon and for them to reply would seem like an entire year to you. Waiting for the next book by your favorite
author might seem like a few million years, which is even longer than it takes George
R.R. Martin to put out a new book. To such a person the idea of leaving behind
the solar system might sound like the worst kind of hell. And one of the audience even flipped around
the notion of hive minds on me. Normally I don’t think much about hive minds
in regard to space travel, I figure if one altered the dynamics on research and development
it would be to accelerate it. But you can’t run some networked mind at that
kind of scale without risking a loss of cohesion. And you wouldn’t think of a hive mind as
wanting to spawn more separate hive minds, it kinda runs contrary to the basic premise.     Which raises a good point about normal
civilizations too. Colonies tend not to be terribly friendly
to their homeland for too long. As time goes by and they diverge culturally,
they can become an enemy. Now they might not, and it might be a thing
only a minority did, but there is still a finite chance that one day an invasion fleet
is going to arrive from one of your colonies. It’s not even a particularly small chance
when you get around to it, but big or small it is non-zero. Right now the chance of an invasion from Mars
is zero.     Some might say why take the risk? And every new colony heightens that risk. They are eggs in another basket and they could
hatch nightmares. Some colony might get relaxed about its safeguard
to prevent spawning some malevolent super-intelligent computer and next thing you know a swarm of
robots ships comes flying back to Earth. Why spend huge amounts of money colonizing
other solar systems when we honestly won’t get much out of it but will get a lot of potential
threats. And back here on Earth we probably won’t
see many benefits from it either, not for a very long time at least. For instance we might have finished science,
figured it all out, before the first colony contributes its first groundbreaking piece
of original new science. You can only conduct serious interstellar
trade in information, new science, new art, and so on. Some might argue patience is a virtue considering
the risk and we should just continue here in our solar system, after all it wouldn’t
have to just be Earth, and we have seen the sorts of massive civilizations you can build
around just one star. Those ought to spew out more original art
and entertainment every second than a single person could watch in a thousand lifetimes.     We might find something more interesting
at home too. As I mentioned back in the Compendium and
the Dyson Dilemma, all our assumptions break apart if we start tossing in options like
perpetual motion machines being invented or someone finding out a way to open portal to
alternate universes where Earth is the same just never got populated by people. We could also see inside a purely digital
civilization that they might not want to go traveling. In such a thing, where one can exist constantly
inside virtual reality environments and be immortal in that existence, they might find
artificial landscapes made by each other to be vastly more interesting than Universe. At such a point the idea of traveling to another
solar system might seem as interesting as leaving an amusement park to travel at great
expense for many centuries to visit one random small town in farm country, with no internet
or phones.     We could get pretty lazy in such an
existence too. A person born into a Utopia, especially the
more extreme kinds offered by virtual realities, is going to have motivation problems even
learning enough to keep their civilization running, let alone exploring space, which
is relatively dull and unpleasant. A lot of post-scarcity civilization could
fall apart just from compounding laziness. Fortunately such places by their very nature
would tend to have a lot immortal people – be they human or some AI – kicking around still
to fix stuff, and for that matter make sure someone doesn’t decide to use their super-3D
printer that can make anything to make nuclear bombs or something worse because they are
bored and have no ethics. Of course such a civilization could get turn
into a serious police state, even if everybody had everything they could want, just because
they need to monitor everything to prevent some lone lunatic from killing everyone.     Which brings up our last one, from
the audience anyway, that you could end up staying at home because no one is allowed
to leave because humanity is under totalitarian control. That could even be fairly benevolent, many
a tyrannic regime actually has been compared to its neighbors and tyranny has been the
norm, not the exception, of human civilization. It probably is pretty common among aliens
too.     You could have one pop up just to protect
people from each other, that is the scary thing about a police state after all. Benevolent or terrifying, the one thing such
a government would never look fondly on is the idea of some colony too far away for them
to monitor and control. Heck they might even get that passed by popular
support when you consider the dangers that might get bred up in those colonies where
they can’t control dangerous technologies and some fool might let a dangerously malevolent
artificial intelligence off the chain to cannibalize that colony system and come home to Earth
with an armada planning to do the same. I said in past episode that the only way to
stop colonization, if the technology got practical, would be to shoot down any ship that tried
to leave for no greater crime than wanting to leave. I never said people couldn’t do that, just
that I didn’t think anyone would go that far. But in this context the people doing the shooting
are not firing on people who are only guilty of wanting to leave, they are shooting at
people they firmly believe are, whether they want to be or not, endangering all of humanity
by leaving. To them it would be the same as being on guard
outside a city under quarantine that was infected with a plague and somebody jumped the wall
and tried to flee, carrying that plague with them to uninfected cities. They might fire warning shots or try to tackle
the person but if that doesn’t work they will probably shoot them and I won’t say
they’d be wrong to do it. The last one to discuss, and the one that
always worked for me, as a reason to leave our own solar system, is the notion that no
matter what else, one day the sun will burn out and when it dies so would we, along with
everything we accomplished. In the end the sun will go dark. That’s billions of years off and by using
some of the tricks we have discussed before like starlifting we could lengthen that even
more. Heck if we could disassemble the sun and just
use it to power Earth via fusion it would have enough fuel to light our planet not for
a few billion more years but several billions of billions of years, millions of times longer
than we have before the last stars in the Universe die off. I hate to say it but that is time enough,
if we haven’t figured out how to extend our existence indefinitely by then I don’t
see that cannibalizing the rest of the galaxy to extend it further would serve much purpose. We would have long since cracked immortality,
I wouldn’t be surprised if we did by the end of this century and I would be surprised
if we hadn’t by the end of the next. Such a civilization would have long since
gone a step past zero-growth because you aren’t even having children to replace people who
died of old age, just those who decided to die. And I figure such decisions ought to get less
and less frequent as time rolled on since those still alive would be the ones who especially
liked living and were better at helping others decide to do so too. You could have some billion year old civilization
here on Earth where most folks are very nearly that old and no one has died in a million
years. That would be a weird group and I could see
them getting collectively exhausted and just saying enough, we have people here who make
Einstein look dumb and they’ve been researching ways to beat entropy for a billion years. We don’t think we will ever figure it out
and honestly we don’t feel like trying anymore. It seems like our purpose in life is just
to keep living. Why go to the effort of sending out ships
to go gather up more hydrogen to keep us running? Let’s just run out the clock. I don’t think they would go that route but
I could imagine a handful of people still kicking around as the last fuel ran out and
just shutting off the lights on all the monstrous libraries and museums they collected down
the eons and going to have a drink before the world ended. It doesn’t matter how many systems we colonize,
someone will eventually have that job, and I could see a lot civilizations deciding to
do their curtain call earlier than they have to so they can go out with dignity and all
their monuments and mementos intact, rather than cannibalizing them all to buy a little
more time. If tomorrow the sun went out and the Earth
started getting colder, I can’t see myself burning all my books just to buy myself a
couple more days or robbing my neighbor for their furniture to do the same. So I could see civilizations deciding to stay
at home for that reason and others. A touch depressing, that last one, but there
are some scenarios that might let us keep going forever, even past the timeline we discussed
in the episode about civilization at the end of time, and I think we will talk about those
sometime next year. Taken as a whole, I do not find any of these
arguments truly compelling. I honestly don’t think many civilizations
will choose to stay home and in the context of the Fermi Paradox I just can’t believe
they all would, so it isn’t a great solution for the Fermi Paradox in my eyes, though better
than many we have looked at. We are going to talk more about alien civilizations
next year too, including discussing the scenario of First Contact with them next month. However next week’s episode will close out
Year 2 for this channel and the topic then is going to be Black Swan Events and some
related concepts like OCP or Outside Context Problems introduced in the late Iain M. Banks
novel Excession. This is the notion of things occurring that
no one predicted or could predict and just rocked the landscape. First Contact with aliens is often given as
an example of such things. I thought that was an appropriate way to end
the year when it tends to be popular for a lot of folks to make predictions about the
future. I considered doing that myself, a list of
what technologies I thought we would develop in the next generation maybe, but I think
we will go the other way and remind ourselves how uncertain the future is instead. Again that is next week, and if you haven’t
already seen them I suggest going back and watching the earlier episodes about the Fermi
Paradox or some of the topics we mentioned today like Matrioshka Brains or Starlifitng. As always, if you enjoyed the episode, make
sure to like it and share it with others, and subscribe to the channel for alerts when
new episodes come out. Until next time, thanks for watching, and
have a great day!

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