Fermi's Paradox and the End of Cheap Oil

I’ve been thinking of Fermi’s Paradox since I saw the documentary film A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, with its dire predictions of the wars and disruptions that could occur on the downward slope of the Hubbert curve. While I remain an optimist about the power of human ingenuity to surmount enormous challenges, I have enough sense of history to know that catastrophes do happen, that societies fail to make the right choices, and that civilizations fail.

What if the answer to Fermi’s paradox is not the absence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but merely the absence of high technology? The movie makes the case that the extraordinary flowering of our society has been driven by our profligate use of oil as an incredibly cheap energy resource — and one that won’t last. With haunting images of once vibrant oil fields that are now ghost towns, the movie is a thought-provoking counterpoint to An Inconvenient Truth. If the movie’s contentions are correct, we’re truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Either global warming or peak oil will lead to an urgent transformation of civilization as we know it, or our failure to transform quickly enough might well lead to the end of civilization as we know it. And if indeed cheap oil is a prerequisite to the first flowering of technological civilization, might a Roman-Empire-style collapse due to some future disaster make it difficult to rebuild to spaceflight-capable levels due to lack of said resource the next time around? Many of the large scale energy technologies that we imagine replacing oil are energy intensive to build. They are, in a sense, themselves dependent on oil.

depleted oil field in Azeri, one of the first oil boom towns

The idea that peak oil is far from a fringe idea was brought home by a recent NY Times story, For Exxon Mobil, $10.9 Billion Profit Disappoints:

…even as it posted the second-most profitable quarter in its history, Exxon’s earnings managed to disappoint investors because of a drop in oil production. Shares closed down $3.37, to $89.70, on a day the Dow industrial average rose 189.87 points….
Record oil prices have lifted corporate profits to new heights throughout the industry but they are also masking an increasingly tough business environment for international oil companies, marked chiefly by rising development costs and stagnating hydrocarbon production.

The connection between the idea of Peak Oil and Fermi’s paradox came back to mind after I read Nick Bostrom’s piece in Technology Review, Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing.

…the evolutionary path to life-forms capable of space colonization leads through a “Great Filter,” which can be thought of as a probability barrier. (I borrow this term from Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University.) The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful–which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable–that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

Now, just where might this Great Filter be located? There are two possibilities: It might be behind us, somewhere in our distant past. Or it might be ahead of us, somewhere in the decades, centuries, or millennia to come.

Bostrom’s provocative thesis is this: once we find evidence of primitive life elsewhere, we’ve narrowed the likelihood that the Great Filter is behind us, and increased the likelihood that it is still ahead of us, in some unknown disaster to come:

The other possibility is that the Great Filter is still ahead of us. This would mean that some great improbability prevents almost all civilizations at our current stage of technological development from progressing to the point where they engage in large-scale space colonization. For example, it might be that any sufficiently advanced civilization discovers some technology–perhaps some very powerful weapons tech nology–that causes its extinction.

Bostrom speculates about everything from nuclear war to gray goo to germ warfare to asteroid strikes as the locus of possible Great Filters. While diminished access to readily available natural resources after a crash of civilization is, like all of these other scenarios, merely food for thought, it seems to be a thought worth sharing. In any event, I recommend the movie.

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