By David Brin
- Perhaps life erupts rarely, or intelligence
- most life-worlds are more oceanic so that few create hands-and-fire users
- maybe life gets pounded in most places by comets or supernovae.
- Bad governance leads to Big Mistakes (e.g. nuclear war, eco-collapse etc.) that kill off or render impotent many or most technological species. Note that this is a whole class of potential failure modes, a minefield of errors that young, technological races might commit, veering past one doom and escaping the next before tumbling into a third… or fourth… or…
- Most tech species slump into the same social attractor state that snared 99% of human cultures. That pattern, repeated from Egypt and Meso-America to Babylon, China and Rome — from Tokugawa Japan to Bourbon France to Hanoverian England — was family-based oligarchy. The standard, pyramid-shaped social order wherein conservative elites (king, lords, priests, wizards) squelch rapid scientific advancement and middle class innovation as a threat to their carefully maintained inherited privilege.
Contemplating these two potential explanations for the Great Silence raises a question: do these two winnowing factors work together? Or against each other?
After all, one of the top rationalizations that oligarchies have given, when they suppress science and markets, competitive invention and enterprise, is that the priests and lords are acting for the good of all. Preventing instability and disruption. Indeed, this is a chief point raised by Jared Diamond in his great, highly-recommended, but disturbingly off-target book COLLAPSE.
In other words, a lot of species might find serenity through #2 — while most of the rest are swept away by #1. Together the pair may help to explain the interstellar quiet. And naturally, the genteel stagnation represented by #2 seems preferable to the effective extinction of #1. Assuming these two choices represent our only alternatives — and some of the characters in my new novel EXISTENCE argue that point — then we have a pretty good idea why the stars appear so lifeless and empty of voices.
But as we’ll see, that may be a false way of looking at things. Rather, I will contend that the oligarchy process guarantees falling into fatal pitfalls, rather than avoiding them.
These two paths and types of failure modes seem especially relevant to the present US elections. COMPETENCE and RENUNCIATION are the distill-words.
American scientists have voted with their feet, with only 6% now calling themselves Republican. (It used to be about 50%). Indeed, the head of the GOP controlled House of Representatives Science Committee recently and repeatedly declared the Earth to be 9000 years old. Yes, the head of the Science Committee. Of the House of Representatives. Of the United States of America.
In every conceivable way, from science to education… all the way to the rebuilding of a vastly powerful American Oligarchy, the GOP is your party if you feel that renunciation and a return to traditional patterns of aristocratic rule is preferable to Periclean instability. It is the Olde Way, pushed hardest via a media empire owned by multiple foreign billionaires, including the Saudi Royal Family.
Moreover, it may be that millions of other species faced similar choices and all picked this route! The decision may be inevitable.
Think about that a while. Chew on it. Put it all together. If 99% of human cultures did the natural thing, and most other sapients do, as well, and we see empty star lanes… then maybe, just maybe, we should do something different. I say we ought to stick with Pericles.
Ah, but that only addresses failure mode #2. Then there is Fermi failure mode #1 and that matter of competence!
Whether you support the Periclean Experiment (in this election that makes you Blue… or largely a democrat… or maybe libertarian), or else you happen to favor a return to the oligarchic pattern of 6000 years (in other words, a follower of Fox-owners Rupert Murdoch and Prince bin Walid)… there remains the other Fermi Factor listed above.Factor #1. Is your side any good at governing?You might yearn for a king, but if the one available is horridly stupid and BAD at statecraft, maybe you should side with the Pericleans for a while and wait for a better king.
Please. Put aside preconceptions. Use curiosity to overcome the all-too human tendency — to funnel disliked information through the emotional amygdala. If presented with clear and systematic proof that your side is incompetent, will you at least have a look? Instead of skimming?
Cutting through all the polemic, attack ads and sketchy evasiveness, this 2012 U.S. election ought to boil down to which party tends to govern better. On that, the historical record is clear. For those who can still be swayed by factual comparisons – and if you care about the role America might play in taking civilization to the stars – have a look at these stark contrasts and share them with others:
This one has gone viral, drawing a lot of hits from regions where soldiers and sailors live. If we must endure dangerous times, shouldn’t we compare who does defense well? The blatant facts may shock you.
Might we be the exceptions?
Getting back to Fermi… one question stands foremost: who will govern better? Those who are willing to negotiate openly, fight carefully, manage cautiously and consult science as we charge into an uncertain future? Or dogmatists who erased every scientific panel that used to advise Congress from 1940 till 1996? Because those panels offered inconvenient and impudent things called facts.
The great historian Arnold Toynbee studied every known Earthly civilization and concluded that societies either thrive or fail in direct proportion to how much trust and initiative they willingly invest in their “creative minorities.” The far-lookers and problem-solvers.
We are plunging ahead into a mine-field, one that may have killed every other sapient race in our galaxy! Can we be the first to pick a safe path across?
Not if we wallow in nostalgia and tell the smartest people in our society to go to hell.
(Originally appeared at Contrary Brin)