SETI, Teaching Life in the Universe, and the Trump Presidency
It’s odd how things come together, except it may take you a while to realize it. My two current preoccupations have been teaching “Life in the Universe”, using four video lectures from the same course by Prof. James Bullock at UC Irvine, and blogging about the dangers of the Trump Presidency, especially to the planet. We are now at Bullock’s Lecture 15, in our Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), where he calculates the number of advanced civilizations that there are operating in the galaxy at the present time. A recent Washington Post article, by Howard A. Smith of Harvard University, discussed the “Rare Earth” hypothesis covering just the sphere of a few thousand-light year radius surrounding us, in which communication might occur.
The calculation is carried out with the Drake Equation, using factors from the formation rate of new planets, to finally the lifetime expectation of an advanced civilization. It is the lifetime of our technologically awakened civilization that concerns us, and the possibility that we are one of the few. or the single planet currently hoping to become an advanced civilization in either the galaxy or the above-mentioned communication zone. In lecture, I had pooh-poohed this possibility, unaware that the overall number of civilizations could be very small, depending on their lifetime. The concurrence with the exploitive billionaire Trump administration, and his questionable stability or temperament, as it is politely called, leads to speculation that our advanced civilization lifetime could be shorter than we imagined.
There is the obvious speculation about another global world war, fueled by aggressive actions by Russia and China, and the monetization and weakening of all of our alliances and international trade partnerships, which is about to be carried out by the Trump administration. Trump has also threatened the carefully constructed plans to halt the spread of nuclear weapon states, by threatening our alliances to defend South Korea and Japan, encouraging them to rapidly nuclearize, and by promising to destroy the non-proliferation pact with Iran, which was very close to building its own nuclear weapons. There is also the possibility of the sale of nuclear weapons by a rogue nuclear state, such as North Korea.
Besides this, one of the Drake Equation factors is the likelihood of our planet being within the Goldilocks, or habitability zone. The nations of the earth have finally converged in the Paris agreement to actions to reduce fossil fuel burning, although the commitments are not enough to fully cure global warming. The US is a leader in this collaboration, through our plans under President Obama to massively curb our emissions, but this will largely be undone by President Trump by backing out of the treaty, removing all of the US environmental protection regulations controlled by the federal government, possibly cutting government subsidies for renewable energy, and encouraging a return to the very warming use of coal. While the US contributes 16% of the world’s fossil fuel pollution (as of 2011, China contributing 28%), our withdrawal could partly destroy the entire pact. A rapid rise this century by several degrees Centigrade and maybe up to 8 degrees Fahrenheit, would lead to food shortages, starvation, mass migrations, country destabilizations, and an enormous cost to our progress. While a return to sanity in four or eight years would help, the CO2 that we emit now will keep warming for a century.
In starting this article, I thought it was going to be to about following through with the relative uniqueness hypothesis, to what we can do in that case to make the planet more hospitable and stable. The writing took a rather morose turn with Trump, but trying to keep a cooler planet, and a nuclear-free or war-safe planet, are the two key elements. We also have to care for the poorest and most disadvantaged in the world, in order to guarantee the peace and prevent environmental destruction.