Why the Quantum, Why the Universe --"Are Findings Pointing to a New Physics?"
Habitable Alien Planets of Binary Stars --"They May Be Hidden Behind Gas Giants"

Astronomers Debate: "How Long Can a Technology-Based Civilization Last?" (Weekend Feature)





"We have no idea how long a technological civilization like our own can last," says University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank. "Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years? Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society. Are we the first and only technologically-intensive civilization in the entire history of the universe? If not, shouldn't we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of other species?"

Human-caused climate change, ocean acidification and species extinctions may eventually threaten the collapse of civilization, according to some scientists, while other people argue that for political or economic reasons we should allow industrial development to continue without restrictions. In a new paper, two astrophysicists argue that these questions may soon be resolvable scientifically, thanks to new data about the Earth and about other planets in our galaxy, and by combining the earth-based science of sustainability with astrobiology.

In their paper, which appears in the journal Anthropocene, Frank and co-author Woodruff Sullivan call for creation of a new research program to answer questions about humanity's future in the broadest astronomical context. The authors explain: "The point is to see that our current situation may, in some sense, be natural or at least a natural and generic consequence of certain evolutionary pathways."

To frame these questions, Frank and Sullivan begin with the famous Drake equation, a straightforward formula used to estimate the number of intelligent societies in the universe. In their treatment of the equation, the authors concentrate on the average lifetime of a Species with Energy-Intensive Technology (SWEIT). Frank and Sullivan calculate that even if the chances of forming such a "high tech" species are 1 in a 1,000 trillion, there will still have been 1,000 occurrences of a history like own on planets across the "local" region of the Cosmos.

"That's enough to start thinking about statistics," says Frank, "like what is the average lifetime of a species that starts harvesting energy efficiently and uses it to develop high technology."

Employing dynamical systems theory, the authors map out a strategy for modeling the trajectories of various SWEITs through their evolution. The authors show how the developmental paths should be strongly tied to interactions between the species and its host planet. As the species' population grows and its energy harvesting intensifies, for example, the composition of the planet and its atmosphere may become altered for long timescales.

The image below is a schematic of two classes of trajectories in SWEIT solution space. Red line shows a trajectory representing population collapse whereby development of energy harvesting technologies allows for rapid population growth which then drives increases in planetary forcing. As planetary support systems change state the SWEIT population is unable to maintain its own internal systems and collapses. Blue line shows a trajectory representing sustainability in which population levels and energy use approach levels that do not push planetary systems into unfavorable states.

Frank and Sullivan show how habitability studies of exoplanets hold important lessons for sustaining the civilization we have developed on Earth. This "astrobiological perspective" casts sustainability as a place-specific subset of habitability, or a planet's ability to support life. While sustainability is concerned with a particular form of life on a particular planet, astrobiology asks the bigger question: what about any form of life, on any planet, at any time?

We don't yet know how these other life forms compare to the ones we are familiar with here on Earth. But for the purposes of modeling average lifetimes, Frank explains, it doesn't matter.

"If they use energy to produce work, they're generating entropy. There's no way around that, whether their human-looking Star Trek creatures with antenna on their foreheads, or they're nothing more than single-cell organisms with collective mega-intelligence. And that entropy will almost certainly have strong feedback effects on their planet's habitability, as we are already beginning to see here on Earth."

The image below is a plot of human population, total energy consumption and atmospheric CO2 concentration from 10,000 BCE to today. Note the coupled increase in all 3 quantities over the last century.

"Maybe everybody runs into this bottleneck," says Frank, adding that this could be a universal feature of life and planets. "If that's true, the question becomes whether we can learn anything by modeling the range of evolutionary pathways. Some paths will lead to collapse and others will lead to sustainability. Can we, perhaps, gain some insight into which decisions lead to which kind of path?"

As Frank and Sullivan show, studying past extinction events and using theoretical tools to model the future evolutionary trajectory of humankind--and of still unknown but plausible alien civilizations--could inform decisions that would lead to a sustainable future.

The Daily Galaxy via University of Rochester



Thanks for this post, TDG.

"...Are we the first and only technologically-intensive civilization in the entire history of the universe? If not, shouldn't we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of other species?"

It's nice that scientists are discussing this issue, but it would be even better if they cared enough about the future of our civilization to try to learn from the experiences of past civilizations.

If you have any doubt that advanced technological civilizations are already here, and have been observing and interacting with us--and that the U.S. and other major governments have been lying about this for many decades--then try asking the scientists who wrote this paper, and the SETI folks, etc., and--most importantly--your space agencies (NASA in the U.S.) the simple question posed in this article:


Would you welcome a message, or at least an undeniable demonstration of presence from the advanced spacefaring civilizations who are here now, and have long been in our solar system?

Or not?

And if they (you) can't answer the question with a simple 'Yes' or 'No'--why not?

Do you really believe our civilization is more likely to survive and prosper in the coming years and decades by ignoring the mistakes of past civilizations?

Money quote: "call for creation of a new research program". Literally. All else is padding for it.

This is a very poor article and the author should disambiguate political stances from the science, if there is any.

Daily Galaxy being demoted, again, on list of interesting astronomy sites. sigh.

A technology based civilizations could lasts forever.
The religious and idiot based civilizations is short living.

i really don`t believe that one can make an assumption like this based on a technology-based-civilization evolved from apes...we still act like apes most times sadly...i strongly believe that in the near future a genius genetics doctor will create a virus powerful enough to wipe all the human race , as opposed to the insignificant pilot that took down with him 150 souls yesterday... unless we expand to other planets, we will selfdistroy sooner or later , remember what guys like russians or koreans are menacing us with lately - nuclear weapons...

The article refers to an "image below" but there is no included image! What gives?

Basically, I believe a technological civilization could last 12-42,000 years, i.e., 30,000 years beyond Earth's present stage of development or end at 8-12,000 years younger than current human technological civilization.. (These estimates are based on Earth's development to date as a normative model).

This would mean, given the huge number of earth-like exoplanets in the Milky Way Galaxy, there is a possibly a large number of relatively super-advanced civilizations around us in our home galaxy.

First, what do we mean by 'technology' ? Do we mean a level of tool use just above 'found' or in-situ tools... which would add perhaps several million years of technology-possession. Or, do we mean fabrication of tools using secondary, 'powered', machines, i.e., by water, wind or animal power. I suggest we define 'technology' as the use of at least secondary machines to make tools from rough, in-situ materials (plant materials, i.e., trees; rocks). From what we know of human history, such technology was first evidenced in late neolithic human settlements perhaps 9-11,000 bce. So, until this moment, the duration of Earth's technological civilization has been roughly 12,000 years. (This construct assumes no 'pre-historic civilizations existed older than 11,000 bc.)

As a more liberal estimate, we might say technology started when humans first showed self-awareness and used tools to demonstrate their new consciousness, i.e., at the time of paleolithic cave art, around 35,000 bc. So, a broad estimate of Earth's technology might be 12-35,000 years

But then, we have to assume that Earth's example is only one data point in a distribution of perhaps many (millions) of exo-civilizations possessing technology, as we've defined it, until they crashed or went on indefinitely (perhaps exiting their planet). but let's assume for the ensemble as a whole the distribution is Gaussian.

Given only one data point, one's choice is guaranteed to be 'Fuzzy'? But, using Earth's model as we currently understand things, we could use say a 30,000 year span since technology appeared here represents an average model

The problem then becomes one's choice again. What might be a standard deviation from the 'norm'. Assuming, again, Earth's development as a norm (3 sigma), a technological civ might be expected to last as long as 30,000 years beyond Earth's present level of technology. But, what about a 6 or 9 sigma span - although the 9 sigma defines a limit above which a minuscule fraction of civilizations might exist. Nevertheless in this galaxy alone, with a currently estimated 400 billion earth-liike exoplanets, the group size beyond 9 sigma could be numerically substantial.

Until the first rogue state with nuclear weapons is successful in lofting high-megaton nuclear weapons over the geographic domains of the dominant technical cultures on the planet, using EMP effects to destroy civilization.

Wait for it ... it WILL happen.

A simple hypothetical chain of events - we have the ability to make accountants obsolete. We have horrendously over complicated taxation systems in many western countries. However with the use of accounting packages and electronic receipts it is possible to fully automate company and personal accounts and the submission of associated tax returns. It takes accountants, engineers and coders to put the system together but once done the accountants become redundant. However the system, after a few years, becomes unmaintainable as there are no longer the accounting skills available, or there is only one university with an accounting course. This same deskilling situation exists in many areas.

Since we recognize the treat from global warming I imagine we could also see other developing threats and do something about them! (i.e. asteroid impacts)

Again an AGW-polluted paper! When will this scam cease to lure western science from real issues? Don't smile, AGW scam will destroy population's respect of Science, leading new politicians to cut future scientific funding.
Fortunalely for Mankind, others terrestrial civilizations are resisting this AGW virus.

I've never written a comment on here before but this time I felt I'd make an exception. If any of the "intellecturals" think the american empire is capable of "learning" from other species your all fucked in the head. The majority of americans are completely divided on the simplest issues, political or otherwise, and can't see truth with a magnifying glass. Many of them believe in a six thousand year earth, question evolution, and don't mind invading and torturing their way into a brighter tomorrow. I mean, universal healthcare is as big a mystery as the cosmos to them. And several nations have been providing such services for decades. WHICH MEANS THEIR'S DATA.
Yet it's a mystery. I guess war is expensive, not a lot left in the jar on the fridge I suppose. I know there experimenting with obamacare, (just the name of it tells you how disconnected they are), but i doubt it will take, especially when a new bobble head is "elected." Before I get rambling, my point is this, I won't hold my breath on an american epiphany. They will drag our species into the grave, and their's nothing left but to enjoy the show. So if they can't learn from their neighbours on earth, with all types of available data, what the hell could they possible learn from alien species?

HI Guys, the research has already been done and the answer is not one that foresees the longevity of our civilisation.

Read Jarod Diamonds 'Why Civilisations Fail' (or Collapse). He didn't look to outer space for the answer he deconstructed the collapse of about five earlier civilisations and found about 8 common denominators that are still with us today. From memory we've crossed off about five of the eight - future not looking very bright.

How long a civilization can last depends on what the underlying foundation of that civilization is, the Roman Empire lasted about a thousand years, towards the end their underlying foundation was built entirely upon military conquest, once they no longer had the resources to pay their soldiers desertion ran rampant and they began losing territory, they could no longer sustain what they were ultimately about and they faded into history. Ancient Egypt lasted at least 3000 years probably more, it's harder to say what they were about given the precious few surviving records of the time, but glorification of the Gods was a big part of it, dating of the magnificent architectural wonders they left behind show that the youngest pyramids are 4,000 years old, this leaves about a thousand year gap in which the Egyptians stopped building incredible mind-bending structures, they apparently lost what they were about or at least chose to go in a different direction, not long after that they were conquered and made a vassal of Rome. The United States has been in existence for 240 years now, more than anything what we appear to be about is non-secular ideology; freedom, liberty, security, and a never ending hunger for cultural and technological advancement, how long we last will be determined by the appeal these ideals have for future generations, if as we do they find value in them they will choose to stay the course and the United States will go on for quite a long time, if not, we've already seen what happens to Rome.

When will these writers get with the data and realize ET's - very advanced ET's, perhaps thousands of years or more ahead of us technologically - are ALREADY HERE! I have witnessed an ET Craft, but there is plenty of reputable, photographic evidence, & corroborated witnesses, which is irrefutable. Let's admit that, before we go on and on about Mankind and "is he the only species.. blah, blah, blah." We ARE NOT the only species - not by a long shot. How long we last means little to the ones who will remain.

The underlying foundation of the modern society is quite simple. Resources. With resources, we derive energy, build infrastructure, develop technology, put down buildings, do commerce. Much of it is interlinked, and much of the world's resources is exploited to the point that it is burdened too heavily, leaving little to none for future generations at current rates. What is unprecedented in history, is a huge population that consumes an ever greater volume of resources of which there is only a limited, or a replenish able amount.

Living sustainable with the amount we can afford now, will require a stop to the world's population growth and control the consumption of resources. Whenever I see tonnages of different kind of material streams deemed as waste slip into the seas, I always think it will most likely be lost forever, and will never be recovered in a practical or economic sense for it to be put to use in other industries. In addition, it will also adversely affect the current ecosystem. The abundances we take for granted today, will not necessarily be there tomorrow. Being smart and poisoning or wasting as little of our valuable resources as possible will be key to a long civilisation. Future generations will depend on those as we do now.

If you think in a box, you will live in a box. Planet this or planet that. F the planet. There are zillions of planets coming out of Odin's anus.

@Warren Peace, REALLY??? sorry pal but there aren't any ET's visiting earth, get a grip on reality.

@freddy, what you say just is not true. There is no limit to resources for a species that can create the means to use them that did not otherwise exist before. For example if our ancestors continued to burn wood to fuel our civilization in the past then all of the trees and we would have perished long ago; that is far from the case however because we have been constantly moving to higher modes of energy since then (wood > coal > oil > nucleur > fusion > ?). Take a a peek at what the new Asia Investment Bank is talking about and how it intends to raise the living standards of its populations living within it's BRICKS block of nations. When the green scourge that has been strangling our global economie's for almost 50 years is diverted from its obvious genecidal intention then the true nature of man can make its mark on our solar system and beyond.

Hi Folks,
To help you fully identify the enormous personal and global magnitude of the attached life-dependent document, a quiet place with a comfortable seat and sufficient uninterrupted time is recommended because the document is about a particular type of action that ca easily disable the mind-control systems responsible for Humanity’s rapidly expanding volumes of global suffering and environmental destruction.
Web links:

I have my own insight to this question, I believe civilizations die out because of internal fighting, alienation, and social-economical collapse from too many people, with too many cultures and too many different ethnic groups all fighting for control, money, and not sharing a common culture, language, and heritage, ensures that those civilizations don't survive and eventual return to a preindustrial state, where they then go extinct due to some natural disaster.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)