Fermi’s paradox solved?

The galaxy is vast, the number of planets enormous, so how come we never hear from any alien life forms?

Professor Galacticus proposes the following explanation:

There is a lot of life in the galaxy, and he surmises that all of it will be carbon-based and all of it originate in water.   As a result, in every planet in which life takes root, deposits of carbon and hydrocarbons will build up over millions of years as organisms die, form sediments, and are subjected to various geological forces.

In a relatively small proportion of living planets, Galacticus suggests, the process of biological evolution will have resulted in symbol- and tool-using intelligence.   This in turn brings into being a newer and much faster secondary evolutionary process, corresponding, roughly speaking, to what we call culture.

At a certain level of development, culture stumbles upon the vast reserves of chemical energy that built up millions of years before it came into being.  By exploiting these reserves, culture is able to massively accelerate its own evolution – Galacticus speaks of ‘putting on seven-league boots’ – because the enormous increase in the productivity of each individual allows large numbers of individual to cease to be involved in meeting the basic physical needs of the species and thereby become available for other work.

In such a context, highly complex activities such as space travel become possible: activities which require individuals to devote themselves to doing things with no immediate practical benefit at all.  And when cultures embark on the project of space travel, they naturally begin to contemplate the possibility that other cultures, on other planets, are doing likewise, and begin to develop means of searching for, and communicating with, those putative others.

However all this occurs in a very narrow window for, unknown at first to the individuals who make up these cultures, they have set in train a force that will destroy them.  This force is not nuclear weapons, as some have surmised it might be, nor poisonous pollution, but something seemingly entirely innocuous: a very common substance, and one that is not merely non-toxic but actually essential to life. Carbon dioxide.

By the time the danger becomes evident, cultures are already so massively committed to fossil fuels that change is difficult.  It is not technically impossible – the explosive development of technological knowledge which the ‘seven-league boots’ have made possible means that a switch to some combination of alternative energy sources is entirely feasible in purely engineering terms – but it is psychologically and sociologically very difficult indeed.  Almost every one of the intelligent life forms in the galaxy has gone well past the point of no-return – or will do so – before they have fully taken on board the nature of the threat.

And then the physical world takes over, positive feedback loops of various kinds kick in, and, very rapidly, the culture, what is left of it, is reduced to a precarious existence in which the very idea of attempting to communicate with aliens, just for the sheer fun of it, is simply laughable.

‘Hence,’ says Professor Galacticus, ‘the silence from the sky.’

*  *  *

‘You may think,’ he adds, ‘that I am making far too many assumptions about the psychology and sociology of unknown life forms, but I don’t think I am.  You see, their basic psychological equipment is always going to be the product of a biological evolutionary process.   We know how creative such a process is, and we know the diversity it has achieved, but it has one deep limitation.  It is reactive rather than teleological.   It is not aimed at anything, but is simply based on the accumulation of a kind of trial and error knowledge, and this makes it very weak at dealing with an unpredented threat.

‘I would, however, be very pleased to be proved wrong.’

What runaway truck, you liberal pinko?

This article describes a huge, concerted hundred-million dollar effort by wealthy American conservatives to discredit the evidence that climate change results from human activity. 

But why?  Doesn’t being conservative mean wanting to keep things the way they are?  And wouldn’t it logically follow that conservatives would want to protect their country, its cities, its farmlands, its way of life, from the depradations of hurricanes, floods, droughts and worldwide turmoil?   Self-interest might seem to explain it, but I don’t think it really does.

Revealingly, the picture at the beginning of the article shows an American conservative holding up a sign: ‘I don’t believe the liberal media.’

That’s it really, isn’t it?  There’s been a category error, and this has come to be seen as a partisan political issue, when it is really a straightforward threat from the material world.

It’s as if a driverless truck was hurtling down a hill towards the town square, and someone shouted out a warning to a bunch of people who were standing there talking.  But no one agreed with his political views so they all thought it best to ignore him.

‘Don’t come whining to us about runaway trucks, you liberal pinko!’

Saliency or efficacy

By way of footnote to previous post.  Thought this post about the impact of images on the way we think about climate change was interesting.  It connects well with some thoughts I’ve had about the difficulty of writing fiction about climate change.  Images of the effects of climate change get the message over about the threat (saliency), but make people feel fatalistic.  Images of attempts to mitigate climate change make people feel something can be done about it (efficacy), but don’t get over the seriousness of the threat.   Tricky!

Giant wind turbine at Nigg Yard by John Wright

The Politics of Climate Change, 2nd ed, by Anthony Giddens

In a previous post, I discussed this video clip of an American woman, emerging from a cinema after seeing the film ‘Chasing Ice.’   She’s clearly on the conservative side of the  American political spectrum.  ‘I love Bill O’Reilly,’ she says (he’s a right-wing commentator on the Fox News channel), ‘I watch Bill O’Reilly every day, and I’m proud to be an American, but…’

It’s the ‘but’ that fascinated me, the ‘but’ that she felt obliged to insert before she went on to say how badly she’d been shaken by the movie and how, in spite of previous scepticism, she now recognised climate change as a reality and a threat.   Why a ‘but’ rather than an ‘and’?   If you are proud of your country, doesn’t it logically follow you’d want to protect it from being ravaged by drought, storms and global chaos?  Surely protecting a thing is something you do because of your love for it, not in spite of it?

I’m only pretending to be surprised though.  Politics is a very tribal thing.  All of us (liberals and lefties as much as conservatives) tend to subscribe to approved clusters of beliefs, rather than working out for ourselves what we think about each individual issue.  The newspapers we read, peer group pressure, our own inertia – all tend to have the effect of homogenising these clusters of beliefs, so that we end up with a comforting ‘us’ and ‘them’ (and thus a linear dimension – left-right, liberal-conservative –  to represent the entire multi-dimensional space of possibilities).  These are ‘our’ views.  Those are ‘theirs’.  And of course ‘their’ views are always based on ignorance, fear, self-interest, or a refusal to face reality, while ‘ours’ are always based on wisdom, courage, decency and deep understanding of the world.

It so happens that a concern about climate change has come in America and elsewhere to be associated with the political left.   Research cited by Giddens in this book shows that Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans to believe that global warming is a reality, and more than three times as likely to believe that it is the result of human activity.  That’s why the woman in the clip says ‘but’.  She knows this is an idea that is associated with ‘them’, and she wants to make clear that her essential loyalties remain, nevertheless, unchanged.   (I know how she feels.  It’s uncomfortable to admit to a view that doesn’t fit the consensus of the group that assumes you are ‘one of us’.)

One of things that I appreciated about this book is that Giddens identifies this as a problem.   A concern about climate change really should not be associated with a particular political position:  (a) because a change in the global weather system is going to affect everyone’s children and grandchildren, whatever they happen to believe about the appropriate mix in society between state and private enterprise (and all the other issues on which we disagree politically), (b) because nothing useful is going to happen if this remains just another political football to be kicked back and forth between two teams:

“Responding to climate change should not be seen as a left-right issue.   Climate change has to be a question that transcends party politics, and about which there is an overall framework of agreement that will endure across changes of government. (p 74)”

In the same vein, Giddens also argues that we need to be very careful not to automatically conflate climate change with the usual ‘green’ concerns.  Being ‘green’ is of course another cluster of beliefs and lifestyles, which are assumed to all belong together but may in fact need to be disaggregated:

“For example, a key green value is that of ‘staying close to nature’ – or, more briefly put – conservation.  It is a value that has a certain aesthetic quality to it.  It is very possibly important to the good life, but it has no direct relevance to climate change.  Clashes can easily occur between conservationist values and policies relevant to global warming – for example, conservationists might resist the building of a nuclear power station, or a wind farm, in a particular area of the country.”

Greens of course (with a few exceptions) usually hate nuclear power, and Giddens acknowledges that “the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the possibility of nuclear terrorism and the difficulty of disposing of nuclear waste” but one of the overall thrusts of this book is that “no course of action (or inaction) is without risks; and that, consequently, there is always a balance of risks and opportunities to be considered in any policy context.”

He calls this ‘the percentage principle’ (as opposed to the precautionary one).  I know it well from my career in social work. We can’t eliminate the possibility of nasty thing happenings, not least because reducing the risk of one nasty thing typically increases the risk of others.  If we are to avoid the worst consequences of runaway climate change, therefore, we will be need to willing to take some risks, and to accept some changes that, in themselves, we don’t particularly welcome.

I wouldn’t say this was a great book.  It helped me to crystallise a few existing thoughts, rather than providing me with new ones that had never occurred to me.  But it was worth reading.

Climate change is an odd kind of threat, as Giddens points out:

“Since the dangers… aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, many will sit on their hands and do nothing…  Yes waiting until such dangers are visible and acute… before being stirred to serious action will be too late.”

He calls this Gidden’s paradox.  I’m not sure the thought is so original as to justify him naming it after himself, but the problem is real enough.   The way to get round it is to keep foregrounding the issue, and for that reason, as much as any other, I think this book is to be welcomed.

Belgium’s doughnut island

In order to move away from fossil fuels, we need to move towards either nuclear or renewable energy .   Both of these, for different reasons, create problems of inflexibility of supply.  Nuclear can’t just turned on and off to respond to fluctuations in demand (actually, this isn’t so easy with gas or coal stations either), and renewables are dependant on sources outside of human control.   Gloomier souls sometimes suggest that renewables, for this reason, are very little use.

But there just needs to be a way of storing surplus energy when demand is lower than supply.  Dinorwig power station in N Wales is an example of a large-scale solution to this problem.  It pumps water uphill at times of surplus power, and then lets it run downhill again to generate power when extra power is needed.

I’m no engineer,  I’m not even someone that likes to fix his own bike, but I enjoy thinking about these problems, and what interests me is that it isn’t so very hard, even for a not-particularly well-informed lay person, to dream up solutions.  I wondered whether fly-wheels could be used, for instance, and when I did a little internet search, it turned out that one fairly large fly-wheel-based plant actually does exist.

A more fanciful idea of mine (or so I thought) was to construct a large doughnut-shaped island in the sea out of which water could be pumped and then allowed to flow back in again.  I’ve just found that the Belgian government really does propose to build just such an island (Details here.)

I’m not suggesting here that flywheels and doughnuts islands are ‘the answer’.  I’m saying that, if even I can think of solutions, then this really isn’t such an insurmountable problem.

Climate change denialists are one thing, but climate change fatalists are also pretty dangerous: the ones who say that change is happening alright but it’s just too difficult to fix.  That could so easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and therefore yet another one of those dangerous positive feedback loops that threaten to exacerbate the problem.

Look at the resources, brainpower and effort that is now put into extracting petrochemicals from ever more difficult places (tar sands, the arctic, mile-deep ocean beds).   Is it really so difficult to imagine that a low-carbon economy could not be achieved by the same kind of commitment and effort?

150 slaves

“If we were to add together the power of all the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compared that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has over 150 ‘energy slaves’ working for us twenty-four hours a day.”

Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over, p 31.

How empty and worthless is the power of kings

At first glance, it is hardly surprising that oil companies and the like fund efforts to debunk the science on climate change.   It’s in their interests to do so, right?  Just as it was in the interests of tobacco companies to try to debunk the evidence of links between smoking and cancer.

But then you think, hang on, don’t oil executives have children and grandchildren, the same as the rest of us?

This is something more complex than cynical self-interest.  It’s a deep category error.   Climate change is being seen as an essentially political threat, a thing to be outmanoeuvred, fobbed off, discredited, or managed through spin and symbolic placation.   There’s a failure to understand that this isn’t about interest groups, it isn’t about the politics of left versus right.  It’s about air, and water, and ice.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Canute is supposed to have said, when the tide refused to obey his command to stop, and began to wash around his feet.

It’s not nature that’s fragile, it’s us

I think we’ve got it all wrong about  our relationship with nature.   For years we’ve been presented with the idea of nature as something precious and fragile and vulnerable, which is threatened by us crass and oafish humans.  This invites a hard-nosed, macho, ‘realist’ response: ‘Tough!’, ‘Too bad!’, ‘Nature’s going to have to look after itself.’

But nature isn’t fragile.  (What hubris!)  Nature is exploding supernovae.  It’s the eruption of Krakatoa.  It’s Hurricane Katrina.  It’s the tsunami that devastated Japan.  It’s the force that created the dinosaurs, and the asteroid that destroyed them.  It’s the electric storms that can been seen from space flashing continuously across the surface of this violent violent planet.

The question isn’t how to protect nature.  Nature doesn’t give a damn what we do.  The question is whether we want to go on being part of nature, or whether we’re just going to chuck in the towel and let it sweep us away.

(Thoughts prompted by this rather hard-hitting post about impending climate catastrophe.)

(NASA photo of Hurricane Katrina).

The heat

“The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

“And most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.”

The above comes from that well-known bunch of hippies, the World Bank, who add that “4 degrees Celsius… is what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy changes.”

“Turn Down the Heat: why a warmer world must be avoided” from The World Bank.


I found this clip interesting.  It’s about a woman who’s seen the film ‘Chasing Ice’ and been convinced that global warming is real, having apparently previously been such a ferocious climate change denier that when people talked about it she ordered them out of her home.

Two things struck me in particular.

First of all the bit where she feels the need to say ‘I’m proud to be an American but…’  You wonder what on Earth patriotism has to do with it, and then you realise that no one’s belief system really works as a set of separate propositions.  She’d subscribed to a cluster of values, climate change denial came as part of the package along with patriotism, and now she was experiencing some dissonance.

The second thing that struck me, and I found it touching, is that she spoke of ‘undoing the harm’ that she’d done.  I’m not sure everyone really gets the fact that, if you deny something that’s a real threat, or make fun of it, then you’re actually doing harm, because we are actually in the world, and what we say spreads out like ripples in a pond.

God knows how much harm a figure like Jeremy Clarkson has done, for instance, with his jokes that imply that this sort of thing isn’t really for red-blooded males to concern themselves with.

I saw him chairing Have I Got News For You, the other night, and the not-very-macho Will Gomperts was on the panel, having to deal with Clarkson’s challenges to his manhood.  Sure enough when wind power came up as a subject, Gomperts saw his chance and promptly rubbished wind turbines, saying they were absolutely hideous things and he much prefered (big macho) powerstations.  He got a raised eyebrow of mildly surprised approval from Clarkson and looked very pleased with himself.

After all what’s more important than your manhood?