In my previous incarnation as a technology reporter covering the free software movement during the dot-com boom heyday, I was constantly running into Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of the computer book publisher O’Reilly Media. I was even a part-time employee of his company for about six months at one of the earliest entrants in online publishing, Web Review. But as my focus gravitated away from software and Internet culture towards economic affairs, energy issues, and globalization, I’ve lost touch with the world in which O’Reilly is a significant player.
But all worlds collide. And now Tim O’Reilly, writing in his online column, joins the ranks of those worried about the challenges of climate change and peak oil. But he throws a great new angle into the mix — the Fermi Paradox.
The Fermi Paradox is an attempt to wrestle with the question of why we haven’t yet encountered any evidence of alien civilizations. Wikipedia defines the paradox as follows:
The size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.
Such evidence might include radio signals, UFO sightings, or pointy ears. But so far, we got nuthin’.
O’Reilly then references a piece by Nick Bostrom in the current Technology Review, “Where Are They? Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing,” which gloomily suggests that one reason why we haven’t ever met any other advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is because all such civilizations run into some unsurvivable disaster that dooms the development of space travel as part of the normal evolutionary cycle. Examples cited by Bostrom include nuclear war, nanotechnology run-amok gray goo, germ warfare, or an asteroid strike.
To which list of joyful future scenarios, O’Reilly adds “diminished access to readily available natural resources after a crash of civilization.”
In other words, we haven’t encountered alien space-faring civilizations because all such alien races that developed the technological capacity for space-flight smacked head on into peak oil and then reverted back to barbarism, or some other form of pre-Industrial Revolution social arrangement.
I like it — a nice tidy unified theory that connects the price of gasoline to the absence of evidence for alien life.