Are one-planet civilizations lame?

David Sasaki
6 min readMar 3, 2024

Every four years we are gifted an extra day, the 29th of February, allowing our unique little planet an additional 24 hours to complete its orbit around the sun. Isn’t it comforting to know that we (and our planet) get an extra day to catch up?

Anyhow, just how unique is our little planet and its 365.25-day orbit around the sun? One of my favorite pieces of online writing is Tim Urban’s explanation of the Fermi Paradox from 2014. At nearly 5,000 words, it takes about 20 minutes to read — a worthwhile way to spend 1.4% of our bonus day. The Fermi Paradox asks where in the hell are the aliens. Tim writes:

Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life. And imagine that on 1% of those planets, life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe. Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

He then points out our planet’s comparitive youth, and that others had a head start:

The technology and knowledge of a civilization only 1,000 years ahead of us could be as shocking to us as our world would be to a medieval person. A civilization 1 million years ahead of us might be as incomprehensible to us as human culture is to chimpanzees. And Planet X is 3.4 billion years ahead of us. [Emphasis mine]

Basic math and common sense suggest we should be surrounded by intelligent alien civilizations. There is no way that we’re the most intelligent species in the galaxy. So where are they!? The rest of Tim’s post explores competing theories as to why we haven’t had alien interactions.

Or perhaps we have? Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, straight-faced talk about UFOs was like bringing up Hillary Clinton’s role in child sacrifice at a Washington DC pizzeria. So, it was illuminating to read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s sober New Yorker piece, “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously.” At 13,000 words, he profiles the eccentric folks dedicated to researching UFO sightings and compiles a long list of unexplainable sightings from credible sources, mainly in the military.

Despite the fact that most adults carry around exceptionally good camera technology in their pockets, most U.F.O. photos and videos remain maddeningly indistinct, but the former Pentagon official implied that the government possesses stark visual documentation. According to Tim McMillan, in the past two years, the Pentagon’s U.A.P. investigators have distributed two classified intelligence papers that allegedly contain images and videos of bizarre spectacles, including a cube-shaped object and a large equilateral triangle emerging from the ocean.

I remain skeptical of the alleged UFO sightings. I assume that they are likely the testing of top-secret equipment that the military would prefer mistaken for UFOs.

But I’m not dumb and common sense says our galaxy should be teeming with intelligent life.

At the start of the pandemic, the former CEO of Open Philanthropy, Holden Karnofsky, began writing a series of thought-provoking posts titled “The Most Important Century.” He ended up writing more than 200 pages to persuasively make two main arguments:

  1. In the 21st century, “we will develop technologies that cause us to transition to a state in which humans as we know them are no longer the main force in world events. This is our last chance to shape how that transition happens.”
  2. “Whatever the main force in world events is (perhaps digital people, misaligned AI, or something else) will create highly stable civilizations that populate our entire galaxy for billions of years to come. The transition taking place this century could shape all of that.”

Karnofsky anticipates that over the next 75 years, the convergence of artificial intelligence, neuroscience, genetic engineering, and space travel will lead to a multi-planet civilization. Science fiction, yes. But also, kinda plausible.

Yes, I do think it’s plausible that our species will begin to colonize the galaxy by the end of the century. I know, it’s weird! But it’s even weirder if we became the first to do it. How is it possible that thousands of other civilizations from older planets in our galaxy didn’t get there first?

Are we really going to get there first? Or is there some kind of “Great Filter” preventing intelligent civilizations from multi-planetary expansion? Another theory mentioned by Tim Urban is that “all intelligent civilizations end up destroying themselves once a certain level of technology is reached.”

Hmmm. That sounds frighteningly plausible too.

While driving through the lunar landscape of northern Mexico in mid-December, I listened to a 150-minute conversation between Elon Musk and Lex Fridman that was fascinating and frustrating. During one of the fascinating sections, they discussed aliens:

Elon: I suspect that if we are able to go out there and explore other star systems, that there’s a good chance we find a whole bunch of long-dead, one-planet civilizations that never made it past their home planet.

Lex: That’s so sad. Also fascinating.

Elon: I mean, there are various explanations for the paradox. Do you become a multiplanet civilization or not? And if you don’t, it’s simply a matter of time before something happens on your planet, either natural or man-made, that causes us to die out like the dinosaurs. Where are they now? They didn’t have spaceships.

Lex: I think the more likely thing is that the aliens found us and they’re protecting us and letting us be.

Elon: I hope so. Nice aliens. Look, I think the smart move is that this is the first time in the history of Earth that it’s been possible for life to extend beyond Earth. That window is open now. It may be open for a long time, or it may be open for a short time, and it may be open now and then never open again. So I think the smart move here is to make life multiplanetary while it is possible to do so. We don’t want to be one of those lame one-planet civilizations that just dies out.

Lex: No, those are lame.

What if Elon Musk — with his thousands of satellites, rocket ships, advanced robots, brain-computer interface, and artificial intelligence — is the one to lead some of us to multi-planetary expansion this century? Holden Karnofsky suggests (again, rather persuasively) that “Whoever is running the process of space expansion might be able to determine what sorts of people are in charge of the settlements and what sorts of societal values they have, in a way that is stable for many billions of years.”

Yikes. 😬

Are one-planet civilizations lame? Should we explore the cosmos? Or should we focus all of our energy and attention on caring for the planet we already have? Also, does it have to be either/or?

I don’t have a strongly formed opinion, though I feel that it’s worth spending part of 2024’s bonus day to give it some thought. After all, this is my time capsule for me to look back at in 20 years. I wonder what I’ll find.

What do you think? Are the UFO sightings real? Are we the only ones out there? Are one-planet civilizations lame? I’d love to hear your thoughts — either in a comment below or a reply to the email.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Tim Urban’s 2014 post, a humbling reminder of how little we know and how much there is yet to learn:

The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other — reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

Originally published at The Time Capsule



David Sasaki

Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.