We Can Avoid the ‘Great Filter’ That Ends Advanced Civilizations

25th November, 2022.      //   The End of Humanity  // 

end of the world, artwork

In a new, non-peer-reviewed paper, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) brings together an eclectic team of researchers to examine the biggest existential threats to humanity and how any might become the “Great Filter” event. Like mass extinctions of the past, these scenarios posit a catastrophe that will filter out life on Earth until very little or even none remains. And while previous mass extinctions were caused by naturally occurring climate change or freak asteroid impacts, today we have a much larger portfolio of self-created potential disasters.

Jonathan H. Jiang is an astrophysicist and atmospheric physicist who works for NASA’s JPL in the Los Angeles area. He studies aerosols and atmosphere, in the form of things like cloud cover, reflectivity of different aerosol particles like atmospheric black carbon, and climate and weather systems.

In a 2020 oral history interview, Jiang described how he peered at the sky from his childhood home in Beijing: “I was born in the middle of the 1960s—there was a cultural revolution, so everything was quiet. At that time in Beijing, at night we didn’t have a lot of city lights, no skyscrapers, nothing, so there were a lot of stars. After dark we saw the sky. So I was wondering about that. I think, after I became ten years old, I wanted to study the sky.”

At JPL, he’s done just that for decades. And his interest isn’t just climate or astronomy. He has also collaborated on half dozen or more papers about the Great Filter, bringing together very different and eclectic scientists and other contributors to discuss humanity’s progress into space, our nature as a potential Kardashev Type I civilization, and more.

You may know about the Fermi Paradox, which basically states: if there are infinite planets in our universe, how can it be that we’ve never heard from another civilization? Where is everyone? Theorists wonder if the reason we don’t see anyone anywhere else is that each civilization has gone through an event that eliminates virtually every candidate from advancing to the next level. What if just 1 percent—or even only .01 percent or .00001 percent or .00000001 percent—make it through this Great Filter? No wonder there are no neighbors.

“The idea of being alone in a universe vaster than our creativity can touch is terrifying to fathom: a feeling of cosmic isolation,” the paper states. “And the postulation of a phenotypically unique organism having the intelligence to communicate, or at least leaving evidence of substance, is fascinating. If an octopus opening a jar or an elephant brushing some paint strokes is enough to catch the eye of billions, discovery of sentience beyond our biosphere would send global shockwaves.”

But in order to find and contact fellow Great Filter survivors in the universe, we can’t destroy ourselves in the interim. This is how Great Filter discussion folds into the general conversation about existential risks, which are the potential events that could risk the existence of humanity or of Earth itself. Our survival depends on living long enough to either preserve and care for our planet into the far future or to successfully move onto other planets and thrive there.

The development of nuclear weapons made the entire world aware that it could destroy itself at any time. In that instant, the risk of destruction in war turned into a risk of total extinction. And for human civilization, that would mean the loss of everything we ever worked for and the possibility of contacting any other living things in our universe. Pandemics, climate change, and the other Great Filter risks could do the same thing over similar time frames.

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