September 27, 2021

Where is everybody?


Image by way of wikipedia

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with UFOs, then known as “flying saucers.”

It was a thing at the time, with UFO crazes that sprang up and disappeared like mushrooms every few years. Flying saucers were featured in news stories, science fiction, movies and popular songs.

In 1959, toward the end of his life, the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung wrote a book about them titled, “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky.” He thought such sightings were psychological projections symptomatic of our lost sense of wholeness.

I don’t know about that, but my kid self gobbled it all up and scanned the sky, desperately trying to convince myself I saw something.

For a while, I read dubious books that speculated about ancient astronauts. I got over that, although you must admit that the “wheel in a wheel” the biblical prophet Ezekiel saw “way up in the air,” as the song goes, was pretty trippy.

During a UFO craze when I was in junior high, a friend of mine and I wrapped up in aluminum foil and walked on Interstate 64 at night trying to appear as space aliens. We were hoping to freak out drivers, thereby obtaining eternal glory. (I guess I peaked early. And I’m assuming the statute of limitations has expired on such offenses.)

Interest nationally in UFOs has persisted over the years, and not just in the “X Files” crowd. This summer, the Pentagon released a report acknowledging some weird things way up in the air but casting doubt on their extraterrestrial origins. Meanwhile, the search for intelligent life on other worlds has shifted to radio telescopes, such as the one at Green Bank, in Pocahontas County, so far with no luck.

Saucers aside, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t life of some kind out there somewhere. After all, in our own solar system, we know there’s life on Earth, such as it is, with some serious scientific speculation about microbes on Mars and Venus, and maybe even something under the ice on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. A number of potentially habitable exoplanets have been discovered beyond our system that might support life as we know it. Then there’s the possibility of life as we don’t know it. After all, the universe is big.

Still, a question remains that is sometimes known as “the Fermi paradox,” which got its name when physicist Enrico Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?” In a universe so vast, it seems that at least some beings are likely to have become technologically advanced enough to send signals out into space to other worlds. So far, we haven’t found any.

There are lots of reasons that might account for this, one of which is a real downer.

Astrophysicists Tom Westby and Christopher Conselice have written: “Perhaps the key aspect of intelligent life, at least as we know it, is the ability to self-destroy. As far as we can tell, when a civilization develops the technology to communicate over large distances it also has the technology to destroy itself and this is unfortunately likely universal.”

Sometimes, I think we’re starting to resemble that remark. On Earth, even relatively low-tech complex civilizations tend to have limited shelf lives, as geographer Jared Diamond demonstrated in his bestselling book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Diamond defines collapse as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” He argues that this has often been driven by environmental and climate changes, as well as related social factors.

Among the examples he discusses are some Pacific Islanders, Mayans, the Anasazi of the American Southwest, Vikings in Greenland and more recent societies pushing their luck.

According to a recent estimate, we’re consuming the resources of around 1.8 Earths, and we only have one. The effects of climate change are already bad but could get much worse if unaddressed, with rising temperatures and sea levels, extreme weather events, extinctions, food shortages, epidemics, massive displacements, conflicts over resources and related societal stresses.

Climate change, by the way, isn’t that hard to understand. Most people know that insulating a house helps keep heat in longer. To test this hypothesis, all you need to do is leave doors and windows open on a cold night. The greenhouse gases we’ve been burning since the Industrial Revolution began in the early 1800s have added way more insulation than we need, with potentially disastrous consequences.

And we’ve wasted decades when we had no time to spare to deal with it.

Fortunately, there are some concrete ways to address climate change in infrastructure bills now under consideration and in further legislation likely to be proposed soon.

West Virginia has much to gain in terms of transitioning to a stronger, more sustainable, and more just economy — and our senators will have a big say in whether any of that happens.

Considering the alternatives, I’d prefer that we take steps now to ensure that we and our grandkids and their descendants can stick around longer — maybe even long enough to find some real alien life forms.

After all, I’m getting too old to wrap up in aluminum foil and run around on interstates.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazatte-Mail.)

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