The hydrocarbon energy available to a planetary civilization is analogous to the yolk of an egg: just as the yolk offers a newly emerged creature needed energy to break out of the egg and get established in the wider world, so too does a planet’s hydrocarbon energy deposits provide an emergent technological civilization the boost it needs to leave its birthworld and establish itself in its solar system. It offers a very brief window of opportunity to allow a species to develop the technologies and techniques to bootstrap itself off of its planet of origin. Once out into space, a civilization can take advantage of the thousandfold greater material and energy resources found across the solar system. Meanwhile the birthworld can rest and regenerate from its difficult birthing.
This adds to Drake’s equation and the Rare Earth hypothesis to solve the Fermi Paradox. It’s very interesting to emphasize the concept of a small window of opportunity for a civilization to leave the gravity well of its home-planet, but there are some problems for this to be a simple answer to the Italian physicist’s paradox.
The Peak Oil Apocalipse scenario is greatly exaggerated. It may put some stress on our economical and political systems, but the risk we may blow up the planet because of that is still lower than it was during the whole Cold War, when for most of the time oil was extremely cheap.
If a civilization manages to survive the age of a cheap and easily accessible hydrocabon energy source, even if did not manage to colonize space, it will be able to do that if it wants. And the lack of cheap oil may even be a strong incentive to colonize space, as cheap energy sources may lie outside the home-planet. A specially beautiful idea mentioned by Carl Sagan was to use nuclear warheads as fuel for nuclear pulse rockets.
The point is, as long as a technological civilization with a sufficiently developed science exists, it will be able to colonize space if it really wants to do that. Besides the energy stored in nuclear fuels, the energy required to put something into orbit is lower than the solar energy it may collect and direct back to the Earth, for instance. It may all be more expensive than cheap oil, and the total energy available to us my decrease substantially, but as long as science and technology exists, the colonization of space and the possible discovery and access to new sources of cheap energy are always a possibility.
Another interesting point, though, is also advanced by John Micheal Greer on Solving Fermi’s Paradox.
Greer too emphasizes the limited amount of cheap non-renewable energy and the implications of that to the Fermi paradox. But he also notes that besides the gravity well of the home-planet, there’s also the huge vacuum between the planetary systems.
So, even if a civilization manages to colonize some of the planets in its own solar system, that’s still a small step compared to the huge jump ahead. Difficult as interplanetary colonization my look, it’s close to nothing compared to interstellar colonization.
That’s very true, but again, I don’t think energy would be a fundamental problem making interstellar colonization impossible — at least not for an interplanetary civilization. As long as the civilization continues to develop science and technology and doesn’t annihilate itself, its main star will be providing plenty of energy that could be collected, stored and used for interstellar travel. But as for leaving the home-planet, it would take the will and possibly the need to do that.
Overall, all those concepts may indeed solve Fermi’s Paradox, though none of them are absolute.
The Rare Earth hypothesis may not mean we are alone, but it may mean civilizations are indeed extremely rare.
The small window of opportunity to use cheap energy sources (if they are available in the first place!) may not stop a civilization from leaving its home-planet, but it may make things much more difficult. And cheap energy on the home-planet may also induce the species to enjoy all it can on its home-planet with silly things like storing countless nuclear weapons, SUVs and private jets. Also, chemical rockets. It may boost civilization, but it may also blow up the planet.
And then, what is very likely, the huge distances between the stars may mean that there could be absolutely no reward on expanding to such distances. It may only be possible with automated probes that could take too much time to reach their destination and provide no benefit to the builders for millions of years.
There’s just one problem, though. The Fermi Paradox only takes one single civilization to dedicate itself, for whatever reason, to colonize the Galaxy for a few million years. There are also many other different concepts for interstellar colonization. A Von Neumann probe could do it.
Observation suggests not one single civilization did that in the whole history of our Galaxy, and as far was we know, the entire Universe (there are no visibly engineered galaxies). The Paradox is still there. My obvious guess is that’s something to do with some fundamental thing about the Universe we still don’t have any idea about.
The Fermi Paradox may be the single most fundamental question of 20th century science. We now know how puzzling it really is — before that, we didn’t know how large and how old the Universe is, we also didn’t really know much about the other planets and the fact there is no sign of intelligent life out there.
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