The Great Filter

Humanity is either very special or on an irrevocable path to destruction. The Milky Way has an estimated 11 billion Earth-like planets, orbiting suns similar to our own all within the habitable zone of their sun. Why then do we not see more evidence of life? The Fermi Paradox argues that the only way to explain the apparent contradiction between the high probability of life existing, and the lack of evidence is that somewhere on the evolutionary path there is a Great Filter. It is a barrier that is nearly impossible for any intelligent species to overcome. What does this mean for humanity’s future? It could mean that we are incredibly lucky and have already overcome this barrier. We are destined to colonize the galaxy. Or it could mean that the barrier stands imposing in front of us. If that is the case, then in order to overcome it, we need to be armed with information about the filter. Either way, becoming an interstellar species is either destiny or the only way for us to survive certain doom.

In order for a filter for species development to exist, it would have to be discoverable by almost every intelligent and developed species. Thus, by searching our nearby solar systems and stars we stand to gain more information. If we find alien ruins, they could be our clue to becoming the very special life that overcomes the Great Filter. Remains would indicate that life itself is not incredibly rare and neither is the ability to develop into multi-celled organisms. Knowing what caused their demise is perhaps the safest way to ensure our survival.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 as a political statement, they signaled the beginning of a new age: the Space Age. For the first time humanity ventured out past the confines of our own planet, reaching the Moon and sending rovers to Mars. With each new mission we gained valuable information about our surrounding planets as well as Earth. The Gemini missions took the best photos of our planet to date. Observations of water movement finally solved why the Earth has tides. Those six missions fundamentally changed the way we viewed our tiny planet and our universe. Becoming an interstellar species will also radically change our energy production and technology as well as our understanding of the universe.

Paradoxically, living on other planets is perhaps the best way to save our own. Currently we are using up our natural resources at an alarming rate, spewing their byproducts into the atmosphere. We are destroying the only thing that is protecting us from space. With new planets we would have access to new resources. Not only that, but in order to continue to explore, new technologies must be developed that could replace our current manufacturing techniques. Solar panels, one of the cleanest ways of producing energy, were developed to aid the Apollo missions. But, solar panels were just the beginning of what was developed to aid in man’s first forays into the world of space. Expanding beyond the boundaries of our solar system has fueled the creation of low power nuclear energy sources: RPG’s. A drive to become an interstellar species would certainly push forward the development of reliable energy at an increased rate.

The first form of reliable clean energy was not the only thing developed from the Apollo missions. Technology from the Apollo suits is built into modern athletic sneakers, and digital image processing from lunar photos is now applied to MRI’s and CT scans. A new process was also developed to remove waste from dialysis patients and technology used to control the flow of propellant is now being used to measure precise prescription doses. We have more tools to diagnose and prevent illness, from 6 lunar landings. Imagine, dozens and hundreds of forays to new planets, each one with different conditions. Each new planet would force us to adapt and thus we would need to learn more about ourselves.

Every human shares the innate urge to explore. A desire to experience the unknown pushed us out of Africa and later drove us across the Atlantic Ocean. American pioneers spreading west over the continent gave this urge the name, “Manifest Destiny” or the idea that America was destined to stretch across to both coasts. Yet, this desire is not just American, it is universal, and the the new frontier is space. Venturing out beyond our planet cannot be a national effort, the resources needed are too great, it must be a global effort. In addition to developing more technology, learning more about our universe and saving our planet, becoming an interstellar species would foster international cooperation that could help prevent developing tensions on Earth. For us to achieve this, we must ease tensions between nations. Our shared desire to explore must override international borders. This may seem like an impossible proposition for a world rife with chaos, but, in reality it is already occurring on a small scale. The International Space Station houses astronauts from various countries, all launched through coordinated efforts. In fact, the entire station is a mixture of hardware from different nations, each combined to form a cohesive living space. Our desire to explore already transcends politics; it is only a matter of time before we use that same desire to building the ships that will carry us to different stars.

Humanity is running out of room and resources on Earth, sooner or later we will continue on the evolutionary chain, and the next step is inevitably our solar system and then our galaxy. It is our human destiny to explore. We cannot remain bottled up on 196.9 million miles squared of surface area. The only question is when. The sooner we leave, the greater the chance we have of gaining the information we need to overcome the Great Filter. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “go not where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” If there is a Great Filter before us, then our best bet is to break from the evolutionary chain, expand before humans are forced off Earth. We should forge our own trail, around the Great Filter.