The Milky Way is billions of years old and composed of billions of stars. If life is a fairly typical and unremarkable process, and not an aberration in the history of the universe, then by now there should have been plenty of opportunities for life to originate in our galaxy, and plenty of time for life to become civilized and develop means of interstellar travel and communication.
And yet we find ourselves alone. Unless you believe conspiracy theorists, we’ve yet to be visited or contacted by aliens. This is the Fermi paradox, an argument against the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence first advanced by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.
One response to the Fermi paradox is to say that the reason interstellar civilizations don’t seem to exist is that any given civilization will always destroy itself before it can become so advanced. The causes of demise are varied, but they can include war, institutional decay, runaway technology and environmental disaster.
Our credence in this response should be bolstered by the election of Donald Trump.
No, the Trump presidency is not going to lead to the annihilation of life on Earth. But Trump certainly represents underlying phenomena that could, in the very long run, threaten civilization as we know it. Technology is developing faster than our institutions can respond. Better robotics have led to automation, while better communication has led to globalization and the spread of misinformation. As people feel left behind, they increasingly view the old institutions as outdated, while simultaneously yearning for the old way of life. They seek an authoritarian figure to “Drain the Swamp” and “Make America Great Again.”
But the same relentless drive of technological progress that leads to the rise of authoritarians also puts immense power in their hands. Just as we’ve become better at getting robots to do our work for us, shipping jobs overseas and sharing fake news articles on Facebook, we’ve also become better at polluting the atmosphere and killing each other with weapons of mass destruction.
What does all of this have to do with aliens? Well, these are exactly the kinds of pressures we’d expect any civilization as advanced as ours to face. If the typical response is to seek authoritarian leadership and attempt to go backwards in history, then it doesn’t bode well for highly advanced civilizations on any planet, anywhere.
As this year’s presidential race twisted and baffled its way past the limits of satire, a kind of knee-jerk nihilism came into vogue among liberals. Back in May, the Boston Globe dubbed this the “nothing matters” election. Since Election Day, this dumbfounded despondency has only gotten worse.
But this is the worst possible reaction to the political developments of this year. The presidential election did not show that the work of progress is meaningless. What it showed was that the work of progress is incredibly hard, and it will only get harder. That work is only made more important by the very real possibility that we’ve come farther than anyone else before us — hence the eerie silence of the cosmos.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.