Have we, as some have argued, entered a new ‘age of humanity,’ the so-called Anthropocene? The notion is controversial in many quarters, but it addresses the growing concern about our human influence on the Earth and the nature of planetary change. David Grinspoon’s new book Earth in Human Hands (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) has much to say about the Anthropocene, but as anyone who has read the work of this canny scientist knows, he’s not one to let facile assumptions get by unquestioned.
For if the activity of humans is now emerging as an agent of geological change, then we are discussing our civilization in the same terms we talk about planetary forces like tectonic movement and the carbon cycle. This makes us major players whose effects we can begin to chart in terms of the effects of our technology on Earth’s living systems. If the Anthropocene is happening, it presents us not only with danger but the prospect of a long-term future. And its implications take in not just our movement into space but our search for other civilizations.
Hence Grinspoon’s view that while we are leaving an unmistakable footprint on our planet’s living substrate, this is not something to be deplored as much as understood and put to good use, the theory being that living things have always shaped the world around them, in ways as profound as the Great Oxygenation Event of 2.5 billion years ago. Earth in Human Hands is rich in discussion of what it would be like to enter what Grinspoon calls the ‘mature Anthropocene,’ in which humans acting wisely and with long-term horizons learn to use technology to repair past damage and introduce a new era of planetary stability.
In this view, our current dilemma is that we are achieving global impact without any sense of global control. The analysis is filled with Grinspoon’s experience as an astrobiologist and it draws together themes that are at the heart of how we consider our own future and how we look at other civilizations. For make no mistake, when we examine SETI, we’re forced to address questions like the lifespan of a technological civilization. If such societies persist, how do they do it, and equally of interest, what sort of signature would they leave? Stanislaw Lem comes to mind, and Grinspoon quotes him from his Summa Technologiae:
We need to overcome the habit of considering outcomes of human activity as more imperfect than those of nature’s activity — understandable as such a habit may be at the current stage of development — if we are to talk about what is going to happen in a faraway future.
Are we not ourselves a part of the nature we study, and rather than deploring the fact, should we not be considering how to make our own contribution to the mindfulness that intelligent life brings to the universe? You may pick up a bit of Sagan in these themes, particularly the Sagan (and Shklovskii) of the 1966 masterwork Intelligent Life in the Universe. The connection is borne out by Grinspoon’s relationship with Sagan, who worked with the author’s father at Harvard and shaped his boyhood and early career. No wonder Sagan and Shklovskii’s influence on SETI play such a vital and entertaining role in his book.
A Third Route for SETI
A confluence of events marks the beginning of SETI, with Frank Drake’s early efforts at Project Ozma following swiftly after the famous “Searching for Interstellar Communications” paper by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison. But I think you could say that the discipline put down its formative roots at two conferences, the first being the one Drake hosted at Green Bank in 1961, the second the First All-Union Conference on Extraterrestrial Civilizations and Interstellar Communication, which was held in 1964 at the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory in Soviet Armenia. Between the two we see a foundational SETI defined.
Frank Drake’s famous equation emerged from Green Bank, a conference with only 11 attendees that took SETI out of the realm of theory and into observational science. At Byurakan, Iosif Shklovskii criticized the Cocconi and Morrison paper for being too restrictive — the authors, Shklovskii argued, assumed that extraterrestrial civilizations would be on approximately the same level as ourselves. Shklovskii believed that any civilizations we detected would be far more advanced technologically than ourselves, for “We are only infants as far as science and technology are concerned,” and technology’s growth is rapid.
Grinspoon’s treatment of SETI is relaxed and knowledgeable, but it is the weaving of the anthropocene theme into SETI’s subsequent development that gives these chapters punch. For Nikolai Kardashev, then a young student of Shklovskii’s, was also at Byurakan to make the case for his three types of technological civilization, based on what he saw as a predictable and steady increase in the use of energy. Thus the categories most Centauri Dreams readers have come to be familiar with:
Type I: A civilization that can use all the energy resources of its own planet.
Type II: A civilization using all the energy resources available from its star. This is a civilization that has mastered its own stellar system and travels readily in space.
Type III: A civilization that can harness the energy of its entire galaxy. This is obviously an interstellar culture that moves freely between stars.
Image: Astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, now a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson.
We have often considered in these pages how advanced civilizations might present themselves to a distant observer; i.e., what kind of signature their engineering might leave in star systems and, indeed, in entire galaxies. Searches for Dyson spheres and odd stellar phenomena like the light curves of KIC 8462852 (Boyajian’s Star) continue to push the boundaries of radio and optical SETI. At a second conference in Byurakan, put together by Sagan and Shklovskii following the success of their book, the discussions of advanced technologies clustered around the Kardashev scale and its potential observables.
Radio and optical SETI, the first level of SETI, are complemented by a Dysonian SETI (level 2) that looks through our astronomical data for the signs of technological activity. But Grinspoon points out the key assumption of the Kardashev scale: That civilizations will inevitably increase their energy use in order to fuel a continuing expansion into the cosmos.
This is an idea of progress that is generally accepted — Grinspoon calls it the ‘inevitable expansion fallacy’ — but it is one that doesn’t take into account that key term (L in Drake’s equation) about the lifetime of a technological civilization. What if, in short, expanding in the Kardashev manner is the most likely way to end the growth of a culture?
A third level of SETI now emerges. You can see how Grinspoon is tying this back into the idea of an Anthropocene epoch on Earth. Let me quote him on this:
…it is reasonable to suppose that truly successful, long-lived species have all discarded the expansion imperative, and replaced it with an ethic of sustainability, of valuing longevity of expansion. If technological intelligence has a true and lasting form, one of its basic properties must be that it moves beyond the exponential expansion phase (characteristic of simple life in a petri dish or on a finite planet) before it hits the top of the S-curve and crashes. For us, achieving this kind of planetary intelligence will require critically examining our inherited biological habits and shedding those that have become liabilities.
And what exactly does a planetary intelligence involve? Grinspoon explains it as:
…thoughtful control over one’s self, escape from the mindless drives to multiply, to expand, to lay waste, kill, and drown in your own waste. Perhaps this is why we will not find what Shklovskii called ‘miracles,’ the highly visible works of vastly expanded super-advanced civilizations. Because advanced intelligences are not stupid.
At this point, we’ve stood Kardashev’s ideas on their head, for what Grinspoon is saying is that the kind of technological intelligence that lasts is one that has the ability to overcome its biological need for exponential growth. If this is the case, then we are confronted with the possibility that the more advanced a technological civilization becomes, the less likely we will be to distinguish it from natural phenomena. We may confront a cosmos rife with advanced civilizations whose work is so harmonized with their surroundings as to be invisible.
In earthly terms, the ‘mature Anthropocene’ is where we begin to move out of the era when the changes we make to our planet are beyond our comprehension, and into the era when we begin to consciously shape the Earth’s future, a time when, as Grinspoon writes:
…we fully incorporate our uniquely human powers of imagination, abstraction, and foresight into our role as an integral part of the planetary system. The mature Anthropocene differentiates conscious, purposeful global change from the inadvertent, random changes that have largely brought us to this point.
In SETI terms, consider the Anthropocene a metaphor for what can happen on other worlds. As we first confront the danger of technological over-reach in our environment and then learn to heal the wounds that limit sustainable growth, we may turn toward a balance that sustains our planetary ecology while ensuring the survival of our civilization. What Grinspoon calls the ‘Sapiezoic’ eon would be the long-lived stage of technological civilization that leads conceivably to immortality. Exponential expansion may simply be an evolutionary dead end, and the likelihood of finding civilizations that are learning this lesson the hard way is vanishingly small. They are simply not in existence long enough for us to see them.
Do we have a chance at detecting a civilization that operates according to the long-term model? Let’s talk about that tomorrow as we continue to look at this third route for SETI. We’ll also see that in Grinspoon’s view, expansion into space has a major role to play in the survival of long-haul civilizations. Developing a stable relationship with world-changing technologies is the key.