How do we ensure the survival of our civilization over future millennia? Yesterday Heath Rezabek discussed installations called Vessels that would contain both archives and habitats to offset existential risk. Today Rezabek’s collaborator, author Nick Nielsen, broadens the view with an examination of risk itself and three possible responses for protecting our culture. Nick is the author of two books, The Political Economy of Globalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) and Variations on the Theme of Life (Trafford, 2007). In addition to his recent talk at Starship Congress in Dallas, he presented “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” in 2011 at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando, and “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization” at the 2012 100YSS conference. In addition, he authors two blogs: Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon and Grand Strategy Annex, focusing on the future of civilization and the philosophical implications of contemporary events. Mr. Nielsen is a contributing analyst with Wikistrat, an online strategic consulting firm.

by J. N. Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

To see our world as a pale blue dot barely visible in the vastness of space graphically shows Earth’s place in the universe, and if we could continue to expand our scope for several more orders of magnitude while remaining focused on our pale blue dot, we would perceive our Earth in the full magnitude of its cosmological context. Just as Earth is placed in cosmological context in its appearance as a pale blue dot, we must similarly place earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization in its cosmological context, and we can do so by way of astrobiology. Astrobiology can be considered an extrapolation and extension of terrestrial biology, or as biology in a cosmological context.


There are many definitions of astrobiology, some quite detailed and others quite concise. The NASA strategic plan of 1996 (quoted in Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, 2005) gives this definition of astrobiology:

“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”

The NASA astrobiology website characterizes astrobiology as follows:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

More briefly, astrobiology has been called, “The study of life in space” (Mix, Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone, 2009) and that, “Astrobiology… removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere.” (Plaxco and Gross, Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction, 2006). Taking these sententious formulations of astrobiology as the study of life in space, which removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere, gives us a new perspective with which to view life on Earth.

With earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization placed in cosmological context, we ourselves and our civilization can be understood in terms of the Fermi paradox. Fermi asked, if the universe is filled with life, “Where is everybody?” The universe is billions of years old, demonstrably compatible with the existence of intelligent life, and yet we find no evidence of highly advanced civilizations. The paradox has only been sharpened by recent scientific discoveries of exoplanets, including small, rocky planets in the habitable zones of stars, some of them relatively nearby in cosmological terms.


Once we remove the distinction between life on earth and life elsewhere we see that the idea of an “alien” is an anthropocentric concept, and a Copernican conception such as astrobiology must do away with the idea of “aliens” as constituting all life other than earth-originating life. So when we ask, “Where are all the aliens?” We must answer, “Right here, on earth; we are the aliens.”

A conception of intelligence and civilization as comprehensive as astrobiology would place these phenomena in cosmological context, and drawing on the insights of astrobiology we can see that an anthropocentric conception of alien intelligence as all intelligence other than earth-originating intelligence limits our conception of intelligence, as an anthropocentric conception of alien civilization as all civilization other than earth-originating civilization limits our conception of civilization. A Copernican conception will be concerned with the fate of life, intelligence, and civilization as such, but we must also acknowledge that we are all that is known so far of life as such, uncopernican though that sounds.

We are the only known “aliens” to pass through the Great Filter – which is what we call whatever it is that has filtered out other possible civilizations in the universe and left us only with our own civilization on Earth – and the development of astrobiology has directed our attention to the many near disasters we have experienced in the past – disasters that have shaped the surface of our planet and the history of life on Earth. The emergence of a single hominid species from several branches of hominid evolution makes homo sapiens a kind of existential choke point or bottleneck in the history of intelligent life, so that there is a sense in which we are the great filter. And this life, which is itself a marvelous and meaningless accident of the cosmos, is vulnerable at any moment to being annihilated by another meaningless accident of the cosmos.


Through the ages of cosmological and geological time our homeworld has been subject to massive volcanism, asteroid impacts, solar flares, gamma ray bursts, and the extensive glaciation that characterizes the present Quaternary glaciation, with its warmer inter-glacial periods such as the Holocene, during which the whole of human civilization has emerged. These natural forces of the Earth, the solar system, and the cosmos at large have shaped terrestrial life, humanity, and human civilization; we have been hammered on the anvil of a violent and dynamic universe. And we have survived thus far, but our survival is not guaranteed.

Earth-originating life has now given rise to industrial-technological civilization, which continues in its development to this day. What follows planet-bound industrial-technological civilization is the process of extraterrestrialization – the movement of the infrastructure of terrestrial civilization off the surface of the Earth and into space – which places earth-originating civilization in cosmological context, just as the pale blue dot places Earth in cosmological context and astrobiology places life in cosmological context. The process of extraterrestrialization, should it come to pass, furnishes us with a more comprehensive conception of civilization that begins to transcend our anthropic bias.


The resources of industrial-technological civilization hold the promise that life, intelligence, and civilization can spread beyond our terrestrial homeworld. Each stage in the development of a civilization capable of harnessing the energy resources required to expand beyond exclusively planet-bound conditions represents passing through further layers of the Great Filter. The gravitational thresholds of our home world, our local solar system, our local galaxy, and our local universe are each of them existential risks and existential opportunities for the future development of earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization. With the passage beyond one gravitational threshold to another, existential risk is mitigated but not eliminated; the mitigation of one level of existential risk means ascending to a more comprehensive level of existential risk.

The technology that our civilization develops will influence the structure of extraterrestrialized civilization. If the settlement of the universe is parallel to the settlement of our planet, each gravitational threshold will first be passed by an initial slow wave, only to much later be filled in by faster waves of expansion resulting from later, higher technology. But in the event of a disruptive technological breakthrough, as, for example, any of the technologies based on the Alcubierre drive concept, there could be an initial fast wave of expansion only later filled in by slower and more thorough later waves filling in the gaps.

Given extraterrestrialized civilization in its cosmological context, we can approach existential risk mitigation through three principles: knowledge, which transforms unknown uncertainties into quantifiable risks that admit of calculation and mitigation, redundancy, which means multiple self-sufficient centers for Earth-originating intelligent life, and autonomy, which assures the independence of each self-sufficient center to seek its own strategies for survival.

What does knowledge have to do with risk? Following economist Frank Knight, what we call Knightian risk distinguishes between predictability, risk, and uncertainty, with predictability implying total knowledge, risk implying partial knowledge, and uncertainty implying the absence of knowledge. These are simplified and idealized categories; no risk is entirely free of uncertainty, and even uncertainty must lie within what is possible within our universe, and in that sense is predictable. But Knightian risk offers a framework to think about the dynamic nature of risk, which changes over time. The growth of knowledge moves the boundary of risk outward, meaning less uncertainty and more predictability.


For example, even if we have done very little in the past forty years in terms of human space exploration and extraterrestrial settlement, and we are still accessing earth orbit with disposable chemical rockets, space science has made enormous progress during this period of time, and this knowledge has transformed our understanding of our universe and our place within it. This growth of our knowledge of the universe has made the universe a little less uncertain and a little more predictable for us, suggesting clear paths for the management and mitigation of existential risk.

Knowledge alone is not enough. Without redundancy of earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization we still face the possibility of a terrestrial single-point failure. Existential risk mitigation ultimately means multiple self-sufficient centers for Earth-originating intelligent life. These distinct centers of earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization will be subject to distinct risks and distinct opportunities, and these distinct populations of Earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization will be subject to distinct selection pressures, so that they will evolve into unique forms.

Knowledge of risks and redundant centers of earth-originating life together are not yet enough to secure on the long-term viability of Earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization. Redundancy without diversity incurs the risk of homogeneity and monoculture. Existential risk mitigation also points to the necessity of the independence of each self-sufficient center to seek its own strategies of survival. The mutual independence of self-sufficient centers means the possibility of continued social and technological experimentation, which will in turn lead to the realization of distinct forms of civilization.

Autonomy seems like a simple enough condition, but it may be more difficult to achieve than we suppose. If we look around the planet today, with all its ethnic and cultural diversity, we see that there is, for all practical purposes, only one viable form of political organization – the nation-state – and again, for all practical purposes, only one viable form of civilization – industrial-technological civilization. We need to proactively seek to transcend social and technological monoculture to arrive at a civilizational pluralism from which social and technological experimentation flows naturally.

Taking existential risk seriously means that certain moral imperatives follow from this perspective, but who would possibly object to preventing human extinction? Of course, it is not as simple as that. It might be more difficult than we suppose to define human extinction, because to do so we would need to agree upon what constitutes human viability in the long term. Additionally, there are vastly different conceptions of what constitutes a viable civilization and of what constitutes the good for civilization. What is stagnation? What is flawed realization? What exactly is subsequent ruination, when achievement is followed by failure? What constitutes a civilizational failure? What exactly would constitute the “drastic failure of… life to realise its potential for desirable development”? What is human potential? Does it include transhumanism? For some, transhumanism is a moral horror, and a future of transhumanism would be a paradigm case of flawed realization, while for others a human future without transhumanism would constitute permanent stagnation. These are difficult questions that cannot be wished away; to pretend that they are not contentious is to fail to do justice to the complexity of the human condition.

These different conceptions of human potential and desirable outcomes for civilization will issue in different ideals, different aspirations, and different actions, but if we can continue to increase knowledge, establish redundancy and assure autonomy there is reason to hope that existential catastrophe can be avoided and an OK outcome realized, which is the point of what Nick Bostrom calls the maxipok rule – maximizing the probability of an OK outcome, where an OK outcome is defined as an outcome that avoids existential catastrophe.

If we do nothing, we will have on our conscience the extinction of all earth-originating life, intelligence and civilization. In the long term, our survival is only to be had through the extraterrestrialization of our civilization. But survival is not salvation. Survival often simply means that we will have the opportunity to go on to make later mistakes on a larger scale, which constitutes an OK outcome that is better than the alternative.