May 5

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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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Comments: 63

  Carl Youngblood [05.05.08 08:20 AM]

A colleague of mine has made some interesting observations about Bostrom's argument. Essentially, if we do discover evidence of primitive life on Mars, then Bostrom's argument impels us to the irrational conclusion that we are inevitably doomed. Undoubtedly we face many serious existential risks, but it would be irrational to assume that we are powerless to avoid them. Rather, in the face of such risks, we should do all we can to overcome them despite the odds, as all other alternatives would be nihilistic.

  Henrick Kac [05.05.08 08:45 AM]

Excellent post! I suggest the reading of an US author and his very relevant insight about the fact we would have to decrease our need.

"The Long Emergency" by James Howard Kunstler. He describes some scenarios of how expensive oil could modify and slow down our current living.


  Brian McConnell [05.05.08 10:01 AM]

Nice article. For what it's worth, I think the evidence is mounting that we are in a transient period where we're effectively living off fossilized solar energy and must revert to a situation where per capita energy use is in balance with energy input. This implies that we need to radically scale back energy consumption on a per capita basis (all the way through the supply chain, not just at home). We might get lucky and scale up solar and other energy systems rapidly enough to get ahead of the oil supply crash. Hopefully the next administration will recognize the challenge and make the investment needed (trillions of dollars). Unlike the Iraq War, this would be a prudent investment since it's capital investment with a long life span. However I am skeptical that this will happen.

I don't think, however, you can make a global assumption that the type of energy crunch we're destined to go through occurs everywhere. Had life evolved somewhat differently here, we might have had organisms that produced easily harvested supplies of liquid fuel, and would have built around this already renewable resource. The discovery of oil was a historical accident in some respects, and might not have happened when it did. Had that been the case, we would have been forced to build an electricity focused infrastructure powered by hydro, geothermal and other sources that did not require high tech components (semi-conductors, etc). This all could have been done in the 1800-1900s. History would have unfolded quite differently had that been the case. Economic development may have been slower, but we would not have known otherwise, and would have ended up in a situation where we had a low impact, highly renewable energy infrastructure.

In terms of a probability filter, I am more worried about some large scale disaster. While I think it's unlikely, you never really know what will happen when they wind up the Large Hadron Collider. Presumably they'll keep building larger and larger accelerators, and perhaps at some energy threshold something really really bad happens. So I think it's likely there is some especially dangerous technology that advanced civilizations are likely to discover at some point. If they can't recognize the threat in advance, then the odds of passing that test may be very low because somebody always decides to push the little red button and see what happens.

I also think it is too soon to say that SETI has failed. While it has yet to detect a signal, SETI has only covered a small percentage of the search space in terms of modes of communication, wavelength, duty cycle (transmitter might be off when we are looking at it), etc. This is why SETI surveys should continue for centuries if needed.

At this point, we really don't know how rare technological civilizations are because they could be undetectable for any number of reasons, if they exist at all. We also don't know what future threats we face. It's interesting to speculate about this, but same as always, it's tough to predict the future.

Remember what Horshack in Welcome Back Kotter said, "Expect it when you least expect it."

  Brad Templeton [05.05.08 10:35 AM]

Fermi's paradox may mean that we wipe ourselves out, but I have to say I rate lack of oil as .000001% likely to be the cause of that. The energy of oil is almost literally nothing compared to the real sources of energy in the universe. Any civilization that might become interstellar must be far, far beyond oil.

Even we can see it now. While we largely abandoned nuclear fission for power, scary as it is, its worst case scenario is to make tiny fractions of the planet uninhabitable and to raise cancer rates in small fractions of global population. Large numbers to us, which is why we are cautious, but tiny numbers to the species and the planet.
We would not let our society collapse out of fear of that. Avoiding nuclear was just a luxury we could afford as long as we felt we had plenty of cheap coal and oil.

No, the answer to Fermi lies elsewhere. It could be runaway technology (biotech, nanotech, AI) that kills every society. We could be in a Zoo, waiting for the alien Captain Kirk to break the prime directive. Where are you Captain Kirk, when we need you?

Or, extrapolating from us, they may just not want to talk to us yet. Our own modern communications would look like noise to radio engineers of 60 years ago. That's just in 60 years. The more advanced you get, the more silent you appear to those you are not trying to talk to. It is SETI's hubris to think we could detect their signals if they didn't want us to hear, and that we would have any difficulty at all if they did want it.

  Eric Meyer [05.05.08 11:02 AM]

I've long speculated along these lines, theorizing that perhaps life is common but plentiful energy resources are rare-- so that if we did somehow manage to become interstellar travelers, we might find many civilizations bound forever to their home planets, stuck in (semi-)agrarian states.

On the other hand, it seems like we have a halfway decent chance to use our petroleum energy reserves to bootstrap into solar/fusion/whatever energy sources that would last much, much longer than oil can manage. If we can (possibly) do that, why wouldn't at least some other civilizations get that chance? So it's not much of an answer to the Paradox unless having our levels of energy reserves is so rare that we're effectively the only ones who've ever had it, or at least the only ones who've had it for eons upon eons.

  Scott Gray [05.05.08 11:29 AM]

Great insight here. There are certainly filters behind us and ahead of us which is what I think is leading to Fermi's paradox.

If you assume a future filter for all civilations, then to receive radio signals from others in our galaxy means that the timing of technological ability both to send and receive signals must be almost perfect.

Assuming civilizations with radios don't last long (say 3000 yrs optimistically) then even a small error in differences of the complete evolutionary history leading to technology like ours leads to infinitesimally small probability of getting the timing right between any two star systems (it took our sun 4.5 billions years to produce life generated radio signals for example).

Of course we've only been receiving signals for a few decades so maybe we should give it a little more time before we give up. ;o)

  Benjamin Franklin [05.05.08 11:38 AM]

If our technology-based civilization declines because of energy problems, we can place the blame precisely on the neo-luddites that have embraced for decades an irrational, uneducated, and apparently boundless inability to fathom the overwhelming environmental and economic benefits of nuclear energy. Scientific adolescents all of them --- right to the innumerate lawyer / politicians to whom the electorate has inexplicably handed the keys to our lives and our future.

  Paul Mison [05.05.08 11:42 AM]

I'm glad to see this get coverage on such a well-read blog, but (as several previous commenters have noted) it's not entirely a new idea. In fact, this wonderfully scathing piece from last September in Energy Bulletin covers some of the same points. My favourite quote:

the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on Earth, riding the crest of one of the greatest economic booms in history and fueling that boom by burning through a half billion years' worth of fossil fuels at an absurdly extravagant pace, had to divert a noticeable fraction of its total resources to the task of getting a handful of spacecraft across what, in galactic terms, is a whisker-thin gap between neighboring worlds

Brad Templeton: the chances of humanity going extinct in the next few hundred years are pretty much nil; the vast population we've achieved over the last century probably guarantees that. On the other hand, civilisation, which supports that level of population, is far more fragile, and it is built on cheap energy, which means oil. Sure, we could go nuclear (with fission, anyway), but do we - as a global population - have the will and the intelligence to do so? And if we're really hitting peak oil, can we even bootstrap enough fission capacity before the darkness falls?

As a friend of mine writes at the bottom of many of his posts, "the more I think about the twenty-first century, the more it scares me".

  Gregor Mendel [05.05.08 11:54 AM]

Popular "science" is on the wrong path to discovering intelligence in the universe. There is nothing to be found in the void of outer space, and everything to be found in the strand of DNA. However, this hypotheses is contrary to academically more enlightened, yet popular fantasy where DNA is merely evolved, but real intelligence shall be found to exist in outer space. It will take a lot of wasted human effort and investment before our popular culture accepts that life's existence is revealed through the electron microscope and not the radio telescope.

  Tim O'Reilly [05.05.08 11:57 AM]

Eric --

I agree with the idea of oil as a bootstrap to longer-term energy solutions. That is, most of the energy sources with the capacity to handle a civilization of our magnitude themselves require a level of energy intensity to build. The idea is that you only get one chance to get it right. If you fail the test, there's no do-over. Photovoltaic and nuclear are both incredible energy intensive to get off the ground.

Solar thermal and high intensity wind power is probably possible without a hydrocarbon bootstrap, but the question is whether a civilization would ever confront the need for such things, if they didn't have hydrocarbons to bootstrap them to the technology level that required this kind of power.

@Brad -- re communications methods. I agree that that is another possible explanation of Fermi's paradox.

@Scott -- I agree that timing is probably left out of the Drake equation, assuming Brad's point about the kinds of signals we are looking for. The window when radio might be used is quite short in the overall span of time.

  Ross Stapleton-Gray [05.05.08 12:06 PM]

I think we ought to consider ourselves extremely lucky that we've yet to be contacted by alien civilizations; almost certainly those first messages ("Hello New World") would be followed by increasing volumes of interstellar spam.

  mike simonsen [05.05.08 12:31 PM]

Gosh, Tim, I always feel like those who perceive wealth to be something that gets pulled from the ground show a profound ignorance of the process of innovation.

Haven't seen the film, but the argument usually points to the explosion of prosperity coincident with the explosion of fossil fuel use. Of course, correlation does not imply causation. There is simply no question that some time in the future we'll look back and say, "Remember when we used oil? hahaha. So slow and expensive. Excuse me, it's time to hop to Utah and catch the powder this afternoon."

Further, I'd point out that human catastrophes occur not as a function of "society" but largely as a function of politics--authoritarianism, tribalism, and/or superstition thrown in. That is, only when politics actively prevents capitalists and scientists (ie people) from solving millions of tiny catastrophes every day, do we end up with large scale ones.

That's why the religious and protectionist trends in this country scare me far more than the fate of a specific energy input.

  Tim O'Reilly [05.05.08 12:41 PM]

mike --

I couldn't agree more. But the point is, those religious and authoritarian trends could take us down. Could we get into a situation where it was harder to get back up for a second go?

I do think that you're being a bit cavalier about the scale of the problems ahead of us. I'm also a big believer in innovation, but there is huge investment required. See Saul Griffith's talk about the size of the engineering challenge to get off oil, over at

  Sigmund Freud [05.05.08 01:10 PM]


Why do you end up pointing the finger at religion this way. No one is telling you or your readers what do to anymore. That's imaginary noise in your head.

Did you study the rise of our present culture from Greek culture, art and engineering, of which Roman culture was largely adapted. And by the way, there is relatively little in Greek culture about serious theology, although you are always to so quick to equate religion with "authoritarian trends". Deity was an ego trip for the Greek elite, not real theology.

My prognosis for you? Try not to be paranoid. The limits on your personal decisions are mostly in your head. Religion or authority are not the problem for your or society at large. Rather, people who mischaracterize them, from both extremes, are the problem.

So, please don't generalize about religion. "Religion" is no more a problem than "food" is a problem. Both only represent a problem in the hands of ignorant and undisciplined human beings.

  Alfredo Louro [05.05.08 01:51 PM]

Bostrom's argument is a fallacy, in my view. The likelihood of the human species becoming extinct does not vary with the information we have, only our current estimate of that likelihood. In fact, many people would argue that the likelihood independent of our current estimate is not really defined.

Bostrom is merely saying that if humanity is doomed, he doesn't want to hear about it.

  Alex Tolley [05.05.08 02:22 PM]

There are billions of stars in the galaxy and billions of galaxies. What are the odds that all civilizations go through similar problems we do and that all cannot get through the bottleneck? Vanishingly small. The answer to the Fermi paradox is not this.

When I read Bostrom's article last week, I thought that he had a very limited imagination concerning the paradox (he really needs to read more quality SciFi), and very flawed logic for his views on the existence of life and the "great filter".

I don't wish in any way to diminish the the problems we face. "A Crude Awakening" is a depressing movie, mainly because it does not offer much imagination for possible solutions. It has the sense of Victorians worrying about the problem of horse manure and dead horses burying London or New York, yet unable to see that the automobile would drastically change the situation. We don't have to techno-optimists, but neither do we need to be unduly pessimistic either. We know that solar energy could power our civilization up to "type II" level, so the transition is more about the actually technology, social and political paths we take, rather than whether we actually make the transition. Hopefully we can do it without massive global starvation or collapse of civilization. I think it is difficult, but possible and those paths have been outlined elsewhere.

  CO2JuNkiE [05.05.08 02:59 PM]

Well thought out. Well said. I'd like to throw a few other ideas at you about Fermi's paradox. (I understand Peak-Oil is more important at this point in time, but I just can't help myself.)

Someone at SETI noticed that the radio signature eminating from Earth is actually on the down-slope because of increased use of cellular technology & fiber optics etc. Point is, sometimes the world, the universe, or the future is not at all what monkeys expected it to be.

I love Fermi's paradox because its 'paradoxical' nature is due to the fact the sample space we have access to, in order to develop the question, is not sufficient to actually form the question. It's like an early Renaissance thinker asking why he can't see over the horizon if the Earth is flat. A paradox? Well no, it's just a dumb question, but he doesn't understand why it's a dumb question. So let's ditch all anthropocentric schemas for a moment if we CAN. That opens up a few other possibilities...

Maybe, we are way too primitive to talk to. We would only be non-primitive to a civilization at the same level as ourselves... which would only have JUST realized they might not be alone. And would have only JUST begun looking.

Maybe if we are interesting to those more technologically advanced, they'd prefer to watch us while camouflaged. I'm sure Jane Goodall would have been invisible to the chimps she studied if she could have been. It would have been a more accurate study.

Maybe we're not that spectacular, and rather boring and predictable. But a section of the galaxy has been carved out for us anyway, like a refuge of sorts. Maybe our refuge is off limits and communication with us is outlawed. Hell, maybe we are an experiment.

Maybe, civilizations that can 'colonize the galaxy' decided not to because they'd rather not be alone in the universe. They'd rather leave the habitable planets to other indigenous life forms. Maybe they decided happiness doesn't come from having 50 billion of themselves, or 100 billion of themselves. Perhaps, they decided happiness doesn't come from invading the galaxy and infesting it with their own kind.

Instead maybe they spend their resources going back in time & collecting the 'souls' of their ancestors. Rather than make more babies, they decided to save space so they may have a spot to resurrect their past.

Thinking that an 'intelligent' civilization would without question, want to colonize the galaxy & greater universe... That tells me we are still thinking like ants & rabbits. We like to think that spreading our genes, that making copies of ourselves, is THE most important thing that we can do. That by making more & more & more of ourselves & infecting other planets & removing all of our competitors, you know, get them before they can get us - will make us safer & happier.

We are still so very primitive. To extrapolate our simple-mindedness onto the rest of the universe, frankly, is embarrasing to our species at this point in time. Fermi's paradox is not paradoxical. It's just a silly question born out of an egocentric mind. Of course, who am I to question Fermi. He was far more intelligent than me and to many, I have just challenged and offended the Homo sapien nerd hierarchy. At any moment, a silverback will come put me back in my place, and remind me that the urges of big males obsessed with themselves are not to be made fun of... Which is interesting because that might in fact be one of the many hurdles of our species, that you were looking for.

  Thomas Lord [05.05.08 03:15 PM]

(I have to split my "open letter" reply over two replies here because textarea elements have a 10K limit which is slightly to small.)

Tim O'Reilly has made an interesting post relating the Fermi paradox to peak oil. Perhaps, he reasons, our period of oil-blessed economic growth and co-commitment set-up-to-downfall is a universal example of why Fermi's galaxy-colonizing aliens aren't here yet.

I rather like that idea, although I think it is false. And so I've written a reply. I'd like to share it here. I give you an open letter to Tim O'Reilly.


That's lovely.

I'd like to offer some related things to think about, ok?

One useful concept to bring to bear is robustness -- that's an engineering concept. It is useful to join that concept with an economic concept: the region.

Robustness could be defined as operational utility over the widest realistic range of operating conditions. For example, looking at a circuit component, over what temperature ranges, voltage inputs, mechanical conditions and so forth does the component continue to perform its basic duty? A common engineering trade-off is to sacrifice robustness for performance as when we take special care to climate control a super-computing cluster. The trade-off works both ways, as when we add weight to car to make it safer in a collision.

Regions are an economic phenomenon exhibited at multiple scales. Regions have imports, productive capacity and productive activity, and exports. The fundamental social purpose of regional trade is to sustain and improve quality and security of the living circumstance of the inhabitants of a region.

A robust region is thus one that sustains and encourages its inhabitants under a wide range of operating conditions: a wide range of available imports and markets for export; a wide range of potential climatic conditions; and so forth.

  Thomas Lord [05.05.08 03:16 PM]

(and part 2 of the too long reply (see above))

Suppose that when we looked at the arrangements of global capital we were pleased to observe that trade, at all scales, happened to be among robust regions. Our satisfaction at such an observation would be justified, for we would be well off. This is because in that circumstance, the winds of change could freely disrupt and re-arrange the global flows of capital with little risk of oppressing or killing people. Of course, when we do look, we find quite the opposite: we find almost nothing but fragile or failing regions, utterly dependent upon or desperately needy for very narrow operating conditions.

In many places in the world that fragile condition is historic. It has never been different. This is one aspect of the tragedy of history. It is a project of the Enlightenment to attempt to repair that condition.

I do not mean that the Enlightenment project has always been conducted well. It accounts, in part, for example, for the worst abusiveness, oppression, and other immorality of the imperialist project for which the west is famous. But of course it also accounts for much good and for improvements throughout the world, of which I'm sure I need not offer celebratory backslapping -- there is plenty enough of that going around already.

Generally speaking, the imperialist project achieved its aims to a sufficient degree that the most immediately offensive aspects of imperialism were more or less literally kicked out of newly robust regions at gun-point. Imperialism created peers among regions.

There is another, more obscure engineering concept I'd like to remind you of or introduce to you. It is an aspect of robustness. I'll dub it the high value of preserving bootstrapping paths.

I first learned the weight well-trained engineers give to bootstrapping paths from a mentor of mine. While I worked in a lab where "the future was being invented" (a future since come to pass) this fellow was insisting that I take time out from all that noise to become competent in retracing the steps that 15 years earlier created the unix environment we were using. Those fellows across the hall may have been busy inventing global-scale file systems or multi-media documents with active components. My mentor wanted to make sure that, first of all, I was competent to re-invent or re-implement cat(1) or perl.

I was, for a time, insulted. Two things changed my mind.

First was the simple fact that, as I learned the fundamentals he taught, I gained a lot of improvisational capacity -- a lot of productive capacity -- that those fellows across the hall palpably lacked. When we rejoined the folks across the hall on tasks of mutual interest, and I reviewed and revised tasks upon which they had spent heavily, I was able to devise simpler solutions that took orders of magnitude less labor. So one lesson is that the bootstrapping paths are some of our best sources of instruction about how to really get things done. As a "region of one person" -- I became vastly more robust.

Second was when he let me in on a "secret" of his. Namely that his concern for bootstrapping went deeper than I imagined. He and his old school peers were looking at things, even back then, such as the collapse of regional steel industries and over-reliance on imported energy inputs. He reasoned: to make steel, you must first refine oar to have iron. You'll need to produce suitably high temperatures. You'll need to be able to make cauldrons that can take that heat. You'll need to be able to extract those ores. In the worst case, you might have to quickly re-climb the latter from simple pottery, through the bronze age, through iron -- just to get to steel. And in his travels throughout the west his observation was that not only was the necessary knowledge not in currency among the young but, indeed, what tools were strewn about to accelerate re-climbing that path were being dismantled and sold off for scrap. A collapse would no longer be a set-back. It could very well be permanent and fatal. The west, coming off the age of simple imperialism, was gutting itself at an alarming rate. And those concerns of his he voiced to me over 20 years ago: everything since only confirms. His training me to retrace bootstrapping paths of computing? A small corner of the problem.

I would like now to briefly switch gears to a different topic, one much closer to the computing industry. Following that I will synthesize these two parts.

Web 2.0, I claim, is a libertarian form of secret police rooted squarely in the naive 18th century invention of the concept of the population and it's potential for statistical analysis and control.

You will recall, I hope, that the concept of the population was new around the time of the United States' founders. For example, when you review Jefferson's letters analyzing the problem of copyright you will find him enamored of the recent concept of a demographic. The term of copyright, he argued, should be scientifically grounded in recent discoveries such as expected life span. The actuarial table was invented and gained economic significance within recent memory, at that time.

As in Jefferson's writings, the actuarial table and its analogs and descendants came to be regarded as potent tools of social control. In more recent memory, it was that kind of reasoning that made J. Edgar Hoover's rhetoric to his masters sound intellectually plausible. Even more recently, the application of graph theory comes to bear in justifying mass surveillance of certain kinds (such as phone records) by the intelligence community -- looking for patterns. Now, there is a theme to this.

For by the 18th century, the concept of sovereignty was in a period of transition. The monarch, with personal power over life and death was rejected by many because of the palpable possibility of capricious behavior by an actual monarch. In its place, however, was offered a competition among elites over new forms of "scientific" sovereignty. Whilst the king once surveyed his royal estate, now the elites would use financial markets and trade to survey the real estate and the population and to institute forms of control. To create institutions and mechanisms for the management of bodies and minds making use of the new science of "population statistics". Thus we became hoi poloi to a detached and oppressive elite. Thus hoi poloi became increasingly surveilled and in response controlled from cradle to death bed. Thus you, Tim, become one of the traveling class who "venture" along airline and hotel corridors, with occasional day-trips into the brush or the urban jungle to see "the other half."

One aspect of Web 2.0 -- the feel good aspect -- is that the institutions being created have multiplied the lines of communication between individuals. Given these lines of communication, groups of individuals sometimes do remarkable things -- well celebrated in the Web 2.0 literature. What is consistently overlooked or at least given short-shrift is that all of these new lines of communication are paid for by the surveillance data they yield, and the opportunities for intervention they offer to the rich. We ditched the monarch, to be sure, and substituted a more efficient oppressive sovereign.

Billions (if not trillions) of dollars are spent not on, say, regional robustness but, instead, on generating and extracting private value from opportunities for surveillance and control.

Clay Shirky offers that if 1% less of hoi poloi's time went to TV and instead to Web 2.0 why then 10,000 Wikipedia's would bloom.

I offer that if 90% of the investment in Web 2.0 in the west went instead to regional robustness in the west, we would see peace in our time and prosperity in the future. The remaining 10% of Web 2.0 investment could handily return to a boot-strappable approach to communications, without the surveillance and control, and all of Web 2.0's social benefits would still accrue.

A little synthesis:

The problem is seen most clearly Tim, in the advice you get from your financial planner. It's those damn statistics and "scientific" interpolations standing in place of looking at actual productive capacities. You measure financial success incorrectly. You and your ilk have damn near treed yourselves and on current paths you'll soon be the proud owners of a lot of paper, in want of a steel nail to save the kingdom. In want of a proper meal, for that matter.

It is the occasion of Maker Faire and, by gosh, I find that Maker Faire a hopeful thing. The now corrupt Burning Man phenomenon gave a lot of juice to hoi poloi to try to remember the idea of having skills, of being Renaissance people, of taking pride in improvisational capacity.

Will the Maker impulse remain a quaint side-show on the road to destruction? Or will it take hold among the financiers? Not to make money at the margins of tickets to shows or magazine sales but in the application and meaningful development of massively distributed productive capacity? When will you and your ilk start bossing around your financial planners, rather than the other way around?


p.s.: Yes, I still think you should invest in Flower and, more recently, the FSB virtual machine. An entirely corruptable suggestion, however.

p.p.s.: Proper footnotes properly owed to Michael Foucault, Marilyn Fry, and Technocrat's "Guy Fawkes".


  Thomas Lord [05.05.08 04:01 PM]

An additional comment:

My open letter has been cross-posted to and the editors there accepted it as a topic post. I would like to suggest that that forum may be a more convenient place to discuss my letter than here, so as not to drag Radar too far off topic, and also because the threading capabilities of that forum are convenient.

A drawback, though, may be that "registration is required" to comment over there.

This is not to presume that anyone will want to discuss it at all, of course.


  Ken McNamara [05.05.08 06:35 PM]

If you're thinking about Fermi's Paradox, here is a great book:

Life, especially complex life, may be quite rare.

Fermi was on to something, but it may turn out the Earth is not at all typical. Wouldn't that be a hoot for all the philosophers who have concluded that there is nothing special about life - a real paradigm shift could be in the wings.

  Kathy [05.05.08 08:13 PM]

This made me think of Kevin Phillips new book, Bad Money. There's an essay in this month's Harper's.

Phillips talks about the twin crises facing the US -- oil and debt ... and the former will only exacerbate the later. :-/

  Andy Wong [05.05.08 08:28 PM]

When green become a fashion label of thinkings and talking, everybody would just love to take in the false pill.

"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."

Yes. Indeed.

A good example is bio-fuel. People love to contribute to green by using bio-fuel to release the guilt of producing CO2.

Doesn't the burning of bio-fuel emit CO2? Doesn't the growth of bio-fuel crop need fertilizer which is made of oil?

Tim has posted an article about nuclear power quite a few months ago, outlining some view points from a founder of the Green Peace, who had defected from the current course of the Green Peace. The answer is there. But people just love green labels of those bio-fuel or other green "renewable energy", and people hate the black label of nuclear power.

  matt coffin [05.05.08 09:52 PM]

i have read and considered The Long Emergency referred to earlier and listened to Vinod Khosla and others talk about many of the challenges. the key takeaway is not if, its WHEN, and that is the dilemna that we all face. personally i feel that we risk a momentum change in the near future, which will rapidly accelerate the challenges, in response TODAY we need some serious leadership that sets some large goals to get off oil.

  Joining Dots [05.06.08 12:00 AM]

Dr James Martin made a suggestion once regarding climate change and oil shortages - '...suppose the Chinese government stated that everyone who wants a car should have one, but it cannot run on gas.' I thought it was an interesting and rarely-positive take on the challenges we face:

  Leanan [05.06.08 03:47 AM]

John Michael Greer has written about this:

"On another level, though, Fermi's Paradox can be restated in another and far more threatening way. The logic of the paradox depends on the assumption that unlimited technological progress is possible, and it can be turned without too much difficulty into a logical refutation of the assumption. If unlimited technological progress is possible, then there should be clear evidence of technologically advanced species in the cosmos; there is no such evidence; therefore unlimited technological progress is impossible. Crashingly unpopular though this latter idea may be, I suggest that it is correct - and a close examination of the issues involved casts a useful light on the present crisis of industrial civilization."

  Ken [05.06.08 04:07 AM]

Wow, I wish I had enough cognitive surplus to respond sufficiently to Thomas' very copious stream of cognitive surplus. Oh well, perhaps another day.

Meanwhile, I've only read one piece from Bostrom and feel he's neglected some possiblities. For example, what if a Hitler wins the war on another world, and they endeavor to snuff out non-approved gene pools in the galaxy? If they happen to be the first civilization in the galaxy, it's not implausible that they could be successful. Meanwhile, why should they bother with us for now, before we seem to be a threat?

Speaking of having the honor (or responsibilty) of being the first civlization in the galaxy (as improbable as it is), it's still a possibility, even for us. If so, at least we might hope on hope to find other life, until every last planet in the galaxy were scanned, if necessary. Ie, it will take an awful lot to prove we're alone.

Now, I don't feel comfortable with the proclamation that cheap and abundant energy is necessary to attain class II status. So what if it takes intelligent life even a million extra years to get to the solar panel technology instead of 10 thousand years? Once that point's been reached (in one hell of a long bootstrap adventure), logarithmic progress might still kick in, anyway.

Finally, what if a prime directive of non-interference really is the standard protocol? Let's even pretend we have the right to make our own rule about this, and we plan not to bother or nudge any civilization until that civilization (by super-majority vote) puts out an official apb for any and all extraterrestrials out there?

All that philosophical "scientific" speculation (or "cognitivie surplus") wrt the nature of intelligent life in the galaxy (much less the universe) doesn't mean squat, until at least one of the fat ladies sing. Or we all get pricked by a 100% fatal Arian-designed microbe, packaged in a bullet-sized spacecraft.

  John A Arkansawyer [05.06.08 05:01 AM]

I distrust Kunstler, because he's discovered a technological argument that makes his social argument unarguable. Doesn't mean he's wrong, just that I don't take him to be a reliable source.

Well, that and the lip-smacking tone sometimes covering his dire predictions.

  Brad Kipfer [05.06.08 07:36 AM]

That's an interesting explanation for Fermi's Paradox, but my first reaction would be that given enough time technology could evolve bit by bit even without the boost from something like oil. That might be wishful thinking however. On the other hand, I think a more likely explanation for the Great Filter would be something I call the paradox of power, which goes essentially like this: the more powerful a civilization gets, the more difficult it becomes to avoid self-destruction. Power here I define as the ability to act as granted by things like knowledge, technology, resources, etc. The line of thinking goes like this: in order to progress, a certain level of distribution of power within a society is necessary. As power is distributed throughout a society it becomes harder to control. As the overall amount of power increases the amount of damage an individual can do (purposely or accidentally) also increases- eg. the difference in crashing a horse-drawn cart or an automobile, or the difference in using a knife or an automatic rifle. Eventually, if the progress of technology is unstopped, we will have enough individuals with enough power that the probability of catastrophe becomes certain.
If this is not to be a Great Filter then we will need some way of balancing power with another factor that could prevent catastrophe while allowing us to continue to develop our ability to act. I think a good candidate for this would be wisdom. While wisdom is hard to define, it would be a way of thinking that is broader than mere knowledge and had our collective long-term interests in mind. At the moment, looking around, it would seem that we have managed to accumulate power far in advance of an adequate amount of wisdom to properly handle it. It may be that the failure of fossil fuels will be a setback that enables us to catch up in the wisdom department while there is still time.

  Todd Sahl [05.06.08 08:48 AM]

Nice post. Hopefully this isn't repetitive, since I haven't read through all of the existing comments, but John Michael Greer has already written something similar:

  Scott Gilbert [05.06.08 09:31 AM]

Good article. I am glad someone is finally watching this documentary. Whether you disagree with it or not the issue of peak oil warrants discussion. Michael Moore mentioned it on Larry King the other night and stated mainstream media is failing to discuss it. Not sure I follow the extraterrestrial bent on this at all, safe to say we will be lucky to keep our satellite infrastructure in place in the future.

Couple of things to note. Matt Simons was Bush's energy advisor and clearly this issue contributed to the decision to invade Iraq and spend money like there is no tomorrow, because peak oil explains there is no tomorrow. Second Dr. Hubbert posed the problem but also shown in the documentary provided a solution, solar power.

Interestingly enough, peak oil and global warming complement each other, in that either way we will be forced to live in harmony with our planet and its environment or face extinction. Looking elsewhere for answers dilutes the focus that should be upon what we are doing on the planet we presently inhabit. For me I am shopping for a black mustang with a V8, leather jacket and pants, shotgun, and a dingo :)

  Omri Schwarz [05.06.08 10:05 AM]

There is also the possibility that civilizations just don't generate as much detectable radio signal as was previously thought, or that the Great Filter is in fact the interstellar medium, which might degrade such signals.

  Ben Bangert [05.06.08 10:07 AM]

There's an abundance of very very well reasoned replies to the "Peak Oil Myth" as I've seen it referred to, along with some pretty interesting historical facts about how often the Peak Oil doomsday ppl have been wrong so far.

Reason has a great article on it:

A Google Search will also turn up some great articles. The most consensus I've seen is that we may have hit a peak oil refining capability, as few to no new refineries are being built.

This article has quite a few links to some 'leaks' of internal oil company memos showing how useful it is to them to keep pitching the peak oil theory so they can run up profits:

Oil fields run dry, so its not surprising that a film can find some ones that are now dry to show for shock value in a documentary. There's two sides to every theory, and the abundance of well made documentaries makes it hard to figure out which one is more accurate or even using more factual supporting evidence.

There was a very well made documentary about the "Global Warming Scam", that cited quite a few people who are obviously very smart (geophysicists, etc.), to 'prove' that Global Warming is not true:

It's very convincing, except that once you do some more research into it you see why its bad science to be citing non-climate experts on a climate topic. So far, the Peal Oil theory has remained fairly fringe, largely because many of the people pushing it have already been proven wrong in past predictions numerous times, and none of them are oil experts from the oil industry (the people that have actually gone out and surveyed the oil reserves).

Anyways, this doesn't help much with the question of Fermi's Paradox, but hopefully it does help a little regarding the Peak Oil theory.

  Scott Gilbert [05.06.08 01:04 PM]

Well most found the Oil Crash documentary to be surprisingly unbiased in its presentation. The oil fields mentioned were major oil fields that peaked and are now dry, and they showed the historical significance. Articles from 2005 and 2006 may say its panic and speculation but clearly now in 2008 when oil is $120 a barrel its not.

For me peak oil is not complicated, it is what it is, you can derive production from discovery. When people start getting too doomsday and apocalyptic over it, thats when it gets silly. But perhaps you have to scare people to get them to think about alternatives.

  Paul Souders [05.06.08 03:27 PM]

I wonder the same thing, but from a selfishly terrestrial perspective. Namely: should modern civilization collapse, would humanity ever again attain similar heights? Western civilization did in fact survive the end of the Roman Empire and went on to yet better things. Easter Island, however, not so much.

One of the questions begged by Fermi's paradox is whether we're capable of intercepting the signals of advanced alien cultures and then interpreting their source correctly. For example, as human transmissions become more mediated (first analog radio, then analog TV, then satellite radio, now HDTV), the signal becomes denser, more complex and more apparently random (because patterns can be encoded algorithmically).

I recall making a crystal radio receiver as a child. Radio signals are so simple that one can't help but interpret them as intelligently patterned, even before I plugged in the headphones -- you could see the LED blinking rhythmically. If a crystal radio could receive HDTV (I've never tried), I suspect it would produce shapeless white noise (unless the broadcaster has intentionally inserted a much simpler carrier signal on the same frequency...again, I've never tried...) To glean a pattern from the noise, you'd have to subject the signal to a lot of processing.

Which brings me to: would highly compressed alien signals appear as random noise (especially after compression technology has evolved for thousands or millions of years?) Perhaps galactic civilizations are sending zip files of incomprehensible density to one another, and we lack the algorithms or processor muscle to perceive them as anything other than random.

This all assumes alien signals are broadcast, of course. Given the energy required to beam a message hundreds or thousands of light-years, I might be tempted to direct that energy into a beam.

  Jon Freise [05.06.08 05:42 PM]

Most of the world’s oil producers have already peaked, so peak oil is almost a study of history rather than prediction. The only reason peak oil is still debated is that most of the data is in private hands rather than public (unlike climate change).

Some fun sites for exploring what data does exist:

Interactive atlas of countries already peaked:

Here is the UK North Sea oil production listed by field. Just click on the field name on the left hand side. Try “Brent” for the world famous “Brent Crude” (and to the interruption in flow caused by the Piper Alpha fire). Or “Forties” for the very large field whose pipeline was just shut down by a union strike.

You can see all the North Sea fields stacked on top of one another in these charts.

Especially the following chart.

You can see the little fields don’t make up for the declines in the major fields.

For a totally different view, check out this guy who uses Google Maps to decode Society for Petroleum Engineers papers on Saudi Arabia. They hide the true locations of the wells when they publish the papers, but he sleuths them out by very careful pattern matching. Isn’t the internet cool!

  Robbo [05.06.08 08:27 PM]

Why would you use radio signals if you didn't have to, they get scattered, bent by gravity fields and so on? Surely advanced technologies use something beyond our ability to hear, like neutrino streams or gravity pulses. Or maybe Stephen Hawking is right and each civilisation has it's own parallel universe, so comminucation with them will be via the information stream through a black hole? It's also easy to adjust the terms in Drake's equation and come up with an answer of 1.

Sagan waxes lyrical about the billions of stars in the galaxy, as if by sheer numbers there must be life out there. But what does it do to the collective human phsych of we are the ONLY ones. maybe it changes some of our decisions, like war, GM food and that $6 Billion experiment.

Humanity should live as if we are the only ones until we can prove otherwise, this is the path that the facts support.

Question: what if our lovely Sun had sparked into life a short one billion years earlier than it did? Where would humanity be today, if at all. To last for a billion years on one planet, everything MUST be absolutely sustainable, to the last millionth of a percent. Logic suggests expand or perish.

Finally, I've seen no discussion here of the "Galctic Sweet Spot" concept. If life as we know it needs 4 to 5 billion years to develop, the star it gathers energy from must remain stable for a long time, no black holes nearby, no supernovas, and so on. This answer to Fermi proposes that there are not billions of chances of life generation in each galaxy, but only those few that fluke location at a very stable galactic backwater such as ours. The 'great filter' may be galactic collisions, and we may have passed it when the Moon was created by it's catastrophic collision with Earth.

A Moon 20% of the mass of it's planet may be very rare, and it can be argued that no Moon means no jump into interstallar travel, even no intelligent life at all.

  Chris D [05.07.08 07:07 AM]

Great post and a good starter for conversation. Clearly you've been reading the writing on the wall, and it's interesting to connect it to Fermi.

Though I enjoy Kunstler for his brash style, having heard him on a panel as well as on Colbert, I tend to reject the "rapid crash" model in toto. I don't see technology as the exclusive solution; we have as a species substantial capacity to adapt and innovate, and I suspect we'll do more of the former in the case of oil depletion. But you're right, that adaptation might be more at the individual and community level as opposed to the federal level. Transportation due to cheap oil enables rapid reaction to events; without an alternative we'll see slower response from those at a greater distance.

Does this mean a death knell for technology? I don't think so. Knowledge isn't going away (though it may be concentrated differently) but there will need to be focus tremendous investment in those technologies that will carry us forward. We may need to reserve some resources (I'm thinking raw materials, ores, steel, energy to refine them etc.) in order to get there. There may be sacrifices but there will also be hope, trial and error, and success.
Sorry to get preachy but too often one only sees the negative side of the story.

@Ben - there are always two sides, I agree. If this is due to a limit in refinery capacity I urge you to study the EIA's weekly oil reports and find the part where we are consistently running at 80-85% of capacity in the US, much lower than in past years. Those calling peak oil a myth seem to be connected to politics, sadly. Spend a couple months reading The Oil Drum and you might see another point of view.

  Jon Loux [05.07.08 08:03 AM]

Evolution produced a society with a certain psychology on this planet. A somewhat greedy and short sited psychology. Someone on another planet (or this one at some time in the future) would have to be a lot more cooperative, group minded and self sacrificing to pour all of that energy into a massive project like colonizing space, of which few members of the species will benefit.

A culture like that would look a lot different than ours.


  kevin [05.07.08 10:33 AM]

You all need to get off the science fiction fantasy world that we are ever going to find intelligent life anywhere but here on Earth. Space travel is a physical impossibility beyond our own solar system. The distances are immense. the energy required to travel near or beyond the nearest star to our solar system are enormous. Traveling close to or at the speed of light is impossible (E=MC*2, hit just a few atoms or a micrometeorite during your travels and your ship is toast). No aliens are hidding behind the moon waiting for us to "clean up our act". There is no "prime directive"; it's a fantasy movie for gosh sakes. The era of and beyond peak oil will require this civilisation to refocus on the one time worn reality that has been present throughout man's existance; individual survival through local cooperation. Globalization as it has been developed in the 20th and 21st century will be a dead concept by the end of this century. There will also be a lot of starvation and killing over scarce resources; hopefully only local conflicts and not global conflicts. War has been in our past and will be in our future. The Fermi paradox won't matter, life will become much more basic and crude and we will be more preoccupied with daily living than with whether there are aliens about to rescue us from ourselves. Manifest destiny is over and the great contraction is about to begin. Get ready for's coming .........and pray to whatever it is you pray to that you are spared the worst of it.

  Alex Tolley [05.07.08 11:38 AM]

kevin: "Space travel is a physical impossibility beyond our own solar system."

Like Bostrum, you have no imagination.

1. Space travel is possible beyond the solar system, the Pioneer probes are already in interstellar space. They will be followed by the Voyagers and "New Horizons". It just takes a long time.

2. Perhaps you meant people, not machines traveling. But then that is possible too, using generation ships or ships carrying eggs, etc etc.

The point is that slow travel still works, especially when you are concerned with galactic ages. Any civilization slow-boating it from star to star at only 0.01C will colonize teh galaxy in 10 million years.

3. Why is space travel a requirement for finding intelligences? SETI assumes signaling is sufficient. The controversial METI (messaging ET intelligence) assumes the same.

The Fermi paradox is about why is intelligence not obvious when we look at the night sky. Wouldn't there be obvious astronomical artifacts. SETI assumes that civilizations would signal.

With a sample of one, we are forced to speculate. If we survive as a global civilization, at the very least we will be using machines to probe the stars, from massive telescopes to robotic probes.

Bostrum might be dismayed at finding life on other planets, but the biological community would be overjoyed to find other living systems to study. It would be an exciting time for anyone who has an interest in living systems.

  A Solara [05.07.08 09:46 PM]

Great thought-provoking article, for sure, and very intelligent comments overall.

I think we may be guilty of anthropocentrism in many of these arguments--that all "intelligent" life looks, acts, and exists the same way we do, and that their cultures, civilizations, technological advances and history will follow the same path that ours has. It's very hard to think out of our cultural boxes, much less our species box. ;-)

Now for some speculation...I think it's possible that there are civilizations in the universe who have advanced beyond the need for stored energy to power themselves and their civilizations. If such species exist, they will have moved into the direct access of energy, thus giving their species and cultures long-term survivability (not to mention excellent energy efficiency). They will have mastered themselves and their environments to a degree that would seem like magic to us.

In contrast, "battery civilizations"--like ours--demonstrably collapse when the "battery" energy source becomes scarce or nonexistent. As long as we are bound to the womb-planet and dependent on stored energy to power ourselves, our eventual collapse and extinction is inevitable. Our planet has limits, and so do we, until/unless we evolve or figure out some other way to tap energy more directly, without the energy loss involved in using intermediaries. The more complex our technological artifacts/civilizations become, the less energy-efficient they are, until they must finally follow the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and collapse into newer, simpler (but not necessarily less advanced) forms.

Driving "Space SUVs" through the galaxy, a la Star Trek etc., is inefficient and not terribly advanced, technologically speaking. We're not likely to get much beyond or even disperse within our solar system, using that kind of primitive, resource-intensive mode of transportation.

As the late Arthur C. Clarke famously said, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. There have possibly been civilizations that have destroyed themselves, or collapsed, in various ways. But it's just as likely that some have survived. There could be beings and societies out there that we would not even recognize as living and conscious, by our current standards, understanding, models and theories. We could be looking at them right now through our telescopes and rovers and machines and not even know it. How's that for irony?

I think it's funny how the SETI people just assume that ETs would even *want* to communicate with us at this point. Perhaps we're not evolved enough yet in our perception or societal advancement to talk to these people, if they exist...or maybe they have no real interest in confabbing with a planet-bound primitive people who are currently failing Planetary Management 101. As one of my friends once said in response to a mutual acquaintance who stated his belief that the "Space Brothers" will come and save us from ourselves..."If you saw us standing on the side of the road, would *you* stop?":-D

Frankly, I believe we need to learn to communicate with each other on this planet before we waste energy/resources trying to call ET. If we can't even deal with people who have different skin colors and religions, how are we going to communicate with something completely alien? Something that communicates with light or scent rather than sound? Or some means we can't even fathom from inside our "human species box"? Perhaps they don't bother communicating with any species until they've advanced beyond their own planet, "proven" themselves able to survive into space exploration.

We're *so* not ready for ET contact--it would likely destroy us at this point. It would shatter our sense of identity, throw the whole world into existential chaos. Institutions we've nurtured for thousands of years--religious, societal and politcal--would be thrown into an upheaval. We're still a planet of primitive nation-states involved in constant territorial turf wars, without even a unified planetary government.

Like other posters here, I doubt humans will go completely extinct in the next few decades--barring incredible stupidity or bad luck, or both. But those humans who make it through the coming bottleneck of peak resources and climate change--and their descendants--may be more interesting and worthwhile for our theoretical ETs to talk to. ;-)

  Angelo G. [05.08.08 11:45 AM]

And if we use biofuel made from corn, we contribute to world hunger. Total Catch 22 situation. Hope Fermi's wrong and these extraterrestrials come and save us from the inevitable outcome (if we continue like this). Sort of like Childhood's End, creepy...

  Andrew S [05.11.08 08:22 PM]

The influence of oil prices is overrated, at least for first-world nations. Oil has gone from $15 to $120 in a decade, and the US has seen only slight inflationary pressure due to it. The failings of the lending industry have caused a lot more problems than oil prices, causing housing prices to bloat into a giant bubble and losing billions of dollars for everyone except for speculators who got out at the right time. Oil prices have made a head of lettuce cost $.90 instead of $.70. Oil has a piece of everything, but only a tiny piece. Oil has made us buy more fuel efficient cars--which we should have been doing in the first place.

The higher the price of oil, the less relevance oil will have in the long run.

  Lee McColl Sylvester [05.12.08 06:10 AM]

Currently, with an actual crisis (of sorts) going on in Scotland, they now have to pay £2 ($4 approx) per litre. This is a 100% increase within a month. In England, we have seen a 50%+ increase within the last 18 months, and we don't have a crisis beyond what the rest of the world is experiencing. The point to think on is why we're not in a bigger crisis than we currently are, when we know for certain that oil will become fully depleted, and that oil does have an exponential importance in our everyday lives. This point is likely to be due to governmental control. Not the sort of conspiracy theories, but that of common sense. Nothing more can be done than is being done. We know the importance of the issue, and no amount of arm flapping and verbally abusing petrol attendents is going to help the matter.

As for the extraterrestrial theory; I think the main problem with such hypothesis is that we always base the idealisms of potential alien civilizations on our own understanding and experiences, which is, lets face it, completely understandable as without such input no hypothesis could be made.

My belief is to first see that which has driven us to our current point of civilisation. For instance, most technological breakthroughs can be grateful of war. We may currently be on the brink of an oil crisis, but it's likely we will make our greatest advances in fuel when / if *insert-country-name-here* start flying bomb laden planes over our soil, and we have insufficient oil to provide defences and a counter attack.
Thus, if we start at the root of what initiates the advancement of technology and why creatures capable of advancement would have cause to WANT to advance, then we might be in a better position to predict an outcome.

Another thought is to examine how subtle shifts in social behaviour dictate the advancement, and thus future shifts of any given society. In the western world, our societies have changed greatly due to the changes of gender roles and behaviour. This itself has greatly affected technological advances in ways that we may never fully comprehend, and that in turn affects further changes in social shifts.

Finally, one must never assume we know too much. Only now are we truly starting to discover the existence of and the nature of material bodies outside our own garden fence, and one thing we have truly discovered from these observations is that we do not really know much at all. If we combine this known lack of knowledge with the length of time we have claimed to know anything, we're left with very few holes filled.

  trichter [05.14.08 04:42 AM]

If the signs of alien life forms are there, we must first consider in what form they might be present. SETI's parochial search for extraterrestrial signals is the equivalent of trying to find a good mechanic on the planets of our solar system. As was said above by Gregor Mendel - look to the DNA. It has the form both of a blade antenna and spiral antenna - what for? And it also happens to be the blueprint for all organisms. A good long look at life forms such as yeast will reveal far more than poking into the darkness of space, as appealing as the story of "Contact" is. Look closer at the unexplained properties of water. Look at and compare the networked structure of mycelium to the brain's synapses and galaxies - that's self similarity across scales from microscopic to astronomic. Turns out fungi is the earth's Internet but we've only just noticed. Sufficient research into our mundane earthly systems, terrestrial life and our mind should take precedence over fanciful notions of picking up radio broadcasts from other planets. Perhaps they aliens are with us, are us or are in us.

The prize for the most smug and complacent statement goes to Andrew S: "Oil has a piece of everything, but only a tiny piece."

Put simply, fossilised solar energy, specifically in its most concentrated form (as oil) has proven to be the greatest prize in the history of humanity. Innovation and technology may change everything, but we will have to find an energy source to replace oil which is at least as dense, portable. And it will have to be clean to boot. Cold fusion may solve all our problems, but should we count on "Mr. Fusion" simply appearing out of the aether? Prudence would dictate otherwise, but I guess that's not something our civilisation is well known for. The Fertile Crescent is now a barren desert.

  Monado [05.14.08 06:14 PM]

I always thought that the missing number in Carl Sagan's optimistic formula about "the odds of intelligent life" was how long a civilization could remain high-tech without bombing itself back into the stone age. My guess was about 300 years--for us, anyway.

You should consider getting "ReCAPTCHA," which puts your commenters to work deciphering OCR'd works of literature while they're proving they are human. See recaptcha-dot-net.

  Tim O'Reilly [05.14.08 06:31 PM]


We were using ReCAPTCHA for a while, but we had lots of complaints from readers who said they couldn't solve the captchas, despite repeated retries of new captchas, so we switched.

  mike3 [07.02.08 09:56 PM]

A Solara: "We're *so* not ready for ET contact--
it would likely destroy us at this point. It
would shatter our sense of identity, throw the
whole world into existential chaos. Institutions
we've nurtured for thousands of years--
religious, societal and politcal--would be
thrown into an upheaval. We're still a planet of
primitive nation-states involved in constant
territorial turf wars, without even a unified
planetary government."

This cannot be any worse than any effect due to
Peak oil or environmental destruction. That too
would shatter civilization. Maybe it would even
be a good thing, regardless of the cause.
Civilization needs to be destroyed so a new one
can be build in it's place. I do not think
humanity will go extinct, although I am pretty
sure the present civilization we have will be a
goner soon. The current "civilization"
is a laughable, mockable excuse for one, it is
not "civilized" at all. I say bring on ET contact when we're so unready for it. The more
unready the better, as it'll help this wreck of
a civilization die sooner so it can be replaced
with somethin' better. Do we really even _have_
a civilization now? I'm not sure, looking
around at what we like to call one. So what is
there to collapse? Maybe there's only something to build.

Hmm. Bring on the destruction to pave the way
for the creation... We need our whole sense of
identity, norms, institutions, etc. thrown into
disarray and shattered: look how BAD they are
and what they are doing! That would be a good

A Solara: "As one of my friends once said in
response to a mutual acquaintance who stated his
belief that the "Space Brothers" will come and
save us from ourselves..."If you saw us standing
on the side of the road, would *you* stop?":-D"

If I knew how to do things the "right" way? Yes,
I would. I'd tell them what to do to solve their
problem out of Love, but not try to force them
to change. It would then be up to them if they
want to do it or not.


Energy: As for "direct access to energy", we
could have done it a long time ago. We didn't
always use stored fossil-fuel sources of energy.
It's only in the last few hundred years that
fossil fuel sources have actually become a
significant source of energy. Why are we using
them now? Because when we first discovered them,
we were amazed by their potential for yielding
swift, short-term gains, even though such gains
are temporary and would not last. Many people,
not all, but at least the ones that did this,
only thought of the short-term gains, not the
long-term effects, before jumping in. If we had
stuck with renewable sources of environmental
energy -- more "direct" access to energy than
fossil fuel -- instead of leaping on those
Genesis-serpent-like tempters, we would have had
much less energy problems today and our
organizations would be significantly different.

As for oil shortages leading to extinction,
doubtful. Why? Because we lived before oil, we
can live after it. It may be very tough, but we
chose a hard path and so we're going to get it


Space travel:

A Solara: "Driving "Space SUVs" through the
galaxy, a la Star Trek etc., is inefficient and
not terribly advanced, technologically speaking.
We're not likely to get much beyond or even
disperse within our solar system, using that
kind of primitive, resource-intensive mode of

So do you have any theory on how space travel
between _star systems_ could be achieved with
very little energy expenditure??? Physics sets
some hard limits on space-travel energy
requirements, you know.


Actually, there is (at least) one religion out
there that admits in it's own writings the
possibility of alien life forms. I'll let you
guess which one it is.


Fermi's Paradox:
I think the best explanation is simply that the
universe is too noisy to hear anyone else. Even
all our radio transmitters only pump out a
miniscule fraction of what the Sun pumps out,
and we've got 400 billion of those giant things
in the Milky Way alone hollering over us. It'd
be like trying to listen for a single fly
buzzing in a stadium with 50,000 screaming fans.
This makes more sense in light of the fact that
with 400 billion stars, and if a good deal of
them give rise to intelligent life (even 1/1000
would yield 400 million species of intelligent
life forms in this galaxy alone), we'd be likely
to have civilizations at many stages of
development. Why not some at a similar point to
where we are now? Heck, why not some from other
peoples at similar development levels in the
past reached here due to accidental
transmissions? Furthermore, has anyone on THIS
planet even bothered trying to _listen_ to our
radio transmissions from one of those probes
we've sent out? Then we could see if we'd
actually sound like anything that would stand
out from the hustle and bustle of the Galaxy
with all those big roaring atomic fires. If it
doesn't sound like much even from another part
of our solar system, how would it possibly sound
like much in another solar system?

PS. I think it's possible some "UFOs" might be
alien spacecraft. There's no hard proof yet, but
it seems like it might be possible, and if it is,
then Fermi's paradox is answered: They're already

  mike3 [07.02.08 11:10 PM]

What I'm saying is just that: it could not be any worse than what is going to be caused by peak resources. I want to emphasize: it might actually be a good thing if all our institutions, religious, social, and political, are thrown into existential-chaotic upheaval by "too early" ET contact. They are too corrupt to go on, they have to die at some point and when they do, something better can replace them. Is that such a bad thing? I eagerly await your response.

  mike3 [07.02.08 11:17 PM]

Actually, now that I think about it, premature ET contact would be a better collapse/better "euthanasia" for our corrupted half-carcasses of governments and institutions than peak resources, which will be very, very painful. But it's up to the ET, and to us, I guess, what path we take to get from our sorry excuse for a civilization we have now to a real, true Civilization.

  mike3 [07.02.08 11:22 PM]

A complete shattering of our sense of identity sounds like a nice thing too -- look how arrogant we are. That could use some fixing.

  mike3 [07.02.08 11:43 PM]

I think what I'm really trying to get at here is I fail to understand why you think these institutions are worth preserving, given their terrible level of corruption and fundamental, incurable flaws.

  mike3 [07.03.08 12:09 AM]

"In contrast, "battery civilizations"--like ours--demonstrably collapse when the "battery" energy source becomes scarce or nonexistent. As long as we are bound to the womb-planet and dependent on stored energy to power ourselves, our eventual collapse and extinction is inevitable. "

"Extinction"? Funny, considering we spent the last 4500 years of recorded history _without_ the "battery" energy source of crude oil/coal/gas... We were alive back then, so why can't we be after the "battery" is gone.

Contrast that with what you say next, which leaves me confused in light of the above:

"Like other posters here, I doubt humans will go completely extinct in the next few decades--barring incredible stupidity or bad luck, or both. But those humans who make it through the coming bottleneck of peak resources and climate change--and their descendants--may be more interesting and worthwhile for our theoretical ETs to talk to. ;-)

  mike3 [07.03.08 12:46 AM]

Anyway, that's what I'm really trying to say (that I don't understand why they're worth preserving in spite of how bad they are.).

  Oswald [07.08.08 09:06 AM]

the fermi paradox as the link explains it contains all sorts of unsupported premises - such as that 'intelligent life' necessarily includes curiosity about the universe beyond the supposed home planet. 'intelligence' is also assumed to mean the same as 'technological advancement' (which daniel quinn or any number of new agers would quickly dispute).

the problem is that, since we are (again, supposedly) the only 'intelligent' species we know of, we are defining 'intelligence' as 'human intelligence' (or, more specifically, western industrial intelligence). the paradox also assumes evolution as the origin of species (also unproven), and even granting evolution, it assumes that evolution has an end - that is, intelligent life. but natural selection is not teleological - the giraffe does not stretch its neck over time to reach the leaves - as richard dawkins or any orthodox evolutionist will soon remind you.

again, even being generous in granting certain premises, such as that intelligent alien life would be technological, exploratory, and expansionist, it is by no means clear that the technology would be based on crude rocket physics or even gravitic and electro-magnetic principles as we understand them. their guiding principles might well be physical laws the human mind is unable to comprehend - for all we know, the aliens would rather visit other universes or other [i]time periods[/i], even, than leave an artifact or two on our little speck of dust.

but the most egregious unsupported premise is the one sitting out front - i.e. that we have no evidence of ET life.

but apart from that highly contentious issue, the main thrust is this: to think there's a paradox simply because an alien civilization virtually identical to the united states of the late 20th century is not broadcasting signals within a narrow band of EM frequency...

well come on, that's pretty ridiculous.

  Tim O'Reilly [07.08.08 09:32 AM]


I believe that "aliens would be like us" would just be one more factor in Drake's equation. Given the very large numbers, even if most alien species had the characteristics you outline, it would be likely that *some* would be like us. So there is still a paradox. Drake's equation says that given the numbers, there ought to be some signs. Yet where are they?

  Oswald [07.08.08 11:21 AM]


Apparently, the signs can be found over Chicago's O'Hare Airport, over the Channel Islands, over Stephenville, Texas, and over Phoenix, Arizona, to take some examples from recent years. Even more recently are sightings from over the UK mainland and Moscow (see the Telegraph UK and RIAN).

Moreover, sightings have been made by professionals ranging from pilots to astronauts to Presidents of the United States; and they have been recorded both on video tape and radar, by amateurs, militaries, and NASA.

The sightings are sometimes of lights but also of metallic craft; and the 'natural phenomena' argument is not likely right, since the craft often look and behave both 'intelligently' and in contravention of known natural (Newtonian) laws.

The skeptical argument runs somewhat thus:

Testimony is unreliable. The only valid testimony is *mine* (i.e. the accepted scientific community's), preferably in a laboratory somewhere. And all the photo- and video-graphic evidence is faked or misinterpreted - it just has to I won't bother evaluating it all at face value.

This argument doesn't hold water, of course, but it doesn't have to - it just has to be internally consistent enough to prop up the skeptic's belief structure.

  Scott Gever [07.10.08 02:27 AM]

Allow me to introduce Dr. Jill Tarter to the discussion ...

Shortly after I finished my work for O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol, I went to work at SETI in Mountain View, CA., with the Center for SETI Research. I was at Jill's talk earlier this year and it was glorious. I'm an extraordinarily lucky fellow for all the reasons mentioned above.

If you want to cut to the chase, fast forward to minute 77:45. Enjoy.


  mike3 [08.26.08 12:14 AM]

"Contrast that with what you say next, which leaves me confused in light of the above:

"Like other posters here, I doubt humans will go completely extinct in the next few decades--barring incredible stupidity or bad luck, or both. But those humans who make it through the coming bottleneck of peak resources and climate change--and their descendants--may be more interesting and worthwhile for our theoretical ETs to talk to. ;-)""

And I'd also add: this would suggest that the collapse of the _present_ _civilization_ may be inevitable, not not our _extinction_, and a new civilization could be built free of the flaws that plague this one.

As for Fermi's Paradox, well to hear radio from aliens, I think, is nearly impossible. With billions of stars blasting out radio waves at far higher intensities, listening for some aliens' radio signals just "drifting" out into space is like listening for a fly buzzing in a jam-packed stadium with 50,000 screaming fans just as something really big happens in the game.

  Tim O'Reilly [08.26.08 10:18 AM]

mike3 - I think you miss my point. It isn't that humans will go extinct, just that if there were a complete technology collapse, we might not be able to bootstrap to a high tech civilization again, since so much of it is energy intensive, and all the cheap energy is used up. Yes, there's hydro-power, wind, etc. But my guess is that there isn't enough energy density there to build a technological civilization. You can't make a computer or a nuclear plant or an airplane without a LOT of cheap energy.

It's a bootstrap problem.

  scot [01.06.09 05:38 AM]

Tim, I don't think it's the bootstrap problem if we run out of oil or civilisation collapses - it's a bootstrap problem for civilisation in general. I think the problem might still be "behind us" notwithstanding the discovery of extraterrestrial primitive life (even multi-cellular life).

Think of the natural history of homo sapiens. For most of it, our toolset has been wood, bone, and stone.

It wasn't until the ice age ended that we had the climatic conditions to undertake settled agriculture, which is when cities kick off and most of our technological development occurs.

And even the whole glaciation period that we live in depends on that Antarctic circumpolar current which is only 20 million years old.

Accident of geology, human civilisation.

  Craig Brownell [01.06.09 06:28 AM]

Ben Franklin posted!
He must be hanging out with
Reverend Thomas Bayes.

There they go again, publishing posthumously.

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