What Life on Another Planet Might Have to Teach Us

Recent discoveries from the Kepler telescope have indicated that in our galaxy, the Milky Way, alone there are 647 possible “Earth-sized” planets orbiting various sun-star equivalents. (One does wonder how they get to that exact number.)  And then there are an estimated 500 billion other galaxies out there.  The speculation is becoming more intense as to whether or not there are other “intelligent” species on one or more of those planets.  Well, the great Dr. Stephen Hawking’s view to the contrary notwithstanding, given the vast distances of space it is unlikely that we will ever find out (nor would another intelligent species find out about us either).  (Do note that “vast” is a word that vastly underrepresents the reality of what those distances really are.)  But nevertheless one intriguing question is, if there is, or was, intelligent life that has developed the equivalent of what we call “civilization” elsewhere in the universe, is it co-existent in time with ours?

For it to be co-existent with ours, unless the timing were virtually exact, it would have to have lasted quite a bit longer than ours, because we, living in what we call “civilization,” have been around for the mere twinkling of a geologic eye (less than 10,000 years).  Further, our species is on the verge of self-destruction, whether due to global warming-induced climate change and its resultant disasters, over-population (and the resulting under-supply of food and water), depletion of natural resources, or nuclear war.

Unless all of these problems are solved, and in geologic terms in the twinkling of the twinkling of an eye, we will be quickly gone (and no one knows just knows how many more other Earthly species will be added to list of extinctions for which we have already been responsible).  So if there are one or more civilizations out there, at this time, one can ask what would they have to have done differently than ours to have survived for some geologically significant amount of time.  For the sake of this argument, the assumption is made that, since all suns and planets are the result of the “Big Bang,” such a planet will have a periodic table of elements very similar to ours and of course will have water.

First of all, it would have to be a species, like almost all of our fellow species on Earth, that does not attack and kill its own members.  We do that in great numbers, and apparently always have done.  We have also, at least according to some paleoanthropologists, apparently attacked and killed large numbers of members of similar, apparently “intelligent” species, like the Neanderthals.  Second of all, if it has lasted any significant amount of geologic time, it would be a species which has very carefully used and husbanded the non-renewable natural resources that it discovered on its planet.  Of course unless something like climate change puts an end to the process, ours is well on its way to using up vast percentages of the natural resources with which we were blessed within the twinkling of a geologically twinkling eye, that is several hundred Earth years.  Natural resources like fossil fuels and metallic ores simply cannot be replaced.

Third of all, such a species will have to have found a way, assuming that it discovered nuclear energy, to make sure that it was to be used for peaceful purposes only.  Furthermore, since uranium is one of those resources that will eventually run out, for ongoing energy supply the species will have to have discovered how to bring hydrogen fusion under control.  Fourth of all, it would have to be a species which had not only discovered how to limit its own growth (as ours has done), but then, unlike ours, was able to widely implement policies to make sure that that growth was kept constant and if necessary for species survival, at some point halted.  Fifth of all, they would have to have discovered the principles of environmental conservation, re-use of resources, and the use of renewable resources (which we have discovered but have hardly been able to implement on anything close to the required scale).  But most importantly, they would have had to discover the following.

They presumably would be a species, like our own but unlike any other species with which we are familiar, that for its continued existence relies on the conversion of resources that it finds in its environment into other things, like food from foodstuffs, shelter from wood, metal, and silicon products, implements from metals and plastics (or their equivalent on planets that do not have carbon-based materials like coal and petroleum), and so on and so forth.  That is, unlike any other animal species with which we are familiar, ours does not and cannot simply survive and procreate simply by directly using resources that it finds in its environment.  Further, by one means or another, our species allocates control of the means by which those conversions are made into the hands of a relatively few of its members.  It is this characteristic of “civilized” human societies down through the ages as we know them that has led, directly or indirectly, to every one of the problems on the problem list above that is leading our species towards almost assured extinction, sooner or later.

Thus for survival for any significant period time, an intelligent species on another planet, if they did have a limited group of conversion-controllers, they have to have not proceeded to promote themselves to an economic level well above that enjoyed by the vast majority of the other species members.  They would also not have developed a political/military system designed to ensure the continuation of that control.  They would not be a species in which armed conflict of various kinds for various reasons, but always at their base connected to the political economy, would constantly occur.  They would not experience armed conflict of increasing destructiveness over time as technology developed.  It would be a species that would/could adopt political/economic policies that could provide for successfully dealing with the problems listed above, the problems that, unless something totally unexpected happens, will eventually lead to our species’ destruction, again in the twinkling of a geologic eye.

Thus, to put it in the plainest of terms, on another planet that we can now see, an intelligent species that is still in existence now after light from that planet has made its way all the way to Earth, would have to be one which has an economy which is not built upon the private ownership of the means of production, with the focus on production for profit rather than for use.  Only if such a species were totally rational, sharing, and not self-destructive, would they still be in existence at the time that their light reaches us.  Let us hope, for the sake of all the species living on such a planet, that such is the case. And, in a different sense of the word, let us hope that the light of their wisdom reaches us before it is too late.