Earth Day and the Fermi Paradox

Our future bleak; do intelligent species destroy themselves-

Today is Earth Day, the 43rd since its inception in 1970. Earth Day is always a day for some celebration, thought, political and social action, and fear for the future of life on the planet. For example, this Earth Day is also the last day to comment on the Keystone XL pipeline.

In the last couple years, despair seems to have increased as we experience the actuality of climate change, but at the same time our political and economic systems become less pliable. Our institutions seem to have become more and more indifferent, even hostile, to measures that might save the plants and animals of the one known place with life in the universe, including intelligent life. Talk of an apocalypse by both the religious and the secular has increased.

In fact, it is very unlikely the all life on Earth could be destroyed. For instance, we have recently found life fills even the clouds and lives miles deep in the rock of our planet’s crust. However, these are microorganisms. Our primary personal interest is larger plants and animals, especially our own kind.

Despite the proliferation of life to every corner of Earth, we know of none anywhere else although there are many reasons to suppose life is inevitable and abundant in the universe. For example, it has been recently discovered that Mars was probably quite hospitable to life several billion years ago. We don’t know, however, if this hospitality ever welcomed any life.

The last centuries have seen our view of the Earth going from being seen as the center of all things beneath heaven to less than a speck among billions of galaxies and perhaps a septillion stars. Now we are discovering that most stars have planets too, and some lie in what astronomers call the “Goldilocks zone,” a distance from the star that is not too hot or cold (like our distance from the sun).

It seems hard to believe that life has not evolved elsewhere, including intelligent life.

The Fermi Paradox-

Enrico Fermi was a famous atomic scientist. Back in the 1940s he asked his colleagues why in the innumerable planets he supposed were out there, have we not heard from (been contacted by or detected) anyone? It seemed strange, and still does.

Since his day we have done a lot of looking for, and accidentally and on purpose sending signals into space. Most folks have heard of  the SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  So far the results are nothing found.

Fermi proposed an equation to estimate the number of possible intelligent races out there. Its elements (variables) can yield from very few to an enormous number, depending on what you plug into the equation’s variables. In general, however, the result of nothing found  is explained by two arguments. They are (1) it’s hard to get life started and then to develop into intelligent life. (2) Intelligent life destroys itself in short order.

We have made it past (1) and perhaps the universe is destined be ours alone, or almost so. If it is (2), however, we might not have much time left given all the apparent threats.

This is why Earth Day is both celebratory of wild animals, plants, air and water, and people (argument 1), but also prone to despair (argument 2) with our dysfunctional institutions, self-defeating ideas and cultures, and also bad people maybe leading us to disaster, made even more tragic with the seeming rarity of intelligent life in the universe.

Much more can be, and has been written. Today is a time to dwell on the question.








  1. Dean Malencik Avatar
    Dean Malencik


    Considering item #2, there is always the energy problem.

    Many scientists feel that fusion is the only hope to meet the world’s energy demands. They are scared about the future energy of the world. They don’t know where it will come from. Ultimately there is only one answer—fusion. Fusion is CO2 free, it’s essentially unlimited, it has no environmental impacts says Raymond Orbach scientist at the Department of Energy. Most fusion scientists think a climate crisis is inevitable anyway. Depending upon when this realization takes place; too late and man is extinct. Further down the line, after humanity has learned its lesson, we’d better have a set of technologies ready. It is going to work; this line of thinking goes, because it must.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Dean Malencik,

      All intelligent races will likely develop energy problems, and fusion is almost always offered as the ultimate solution, it seems to me.

      I read the other day that development of sustainable fusion has been pretty disappointing so far, with a new facility yielding much worse results than predicted by computer models.

      I notice Obama’s budget suggests cutting the federal budget for fusion power research.

      These are things I did not want to see, but perhaps the future will bring success.

      1. Dean Malencik Avatar
        Dean Malencik


        When I was at Caltech 40 years ago, fusion was supposed to be a reality in 25 years. When I returned there recently, they were talking 50 years. Oh so near but so far away.
        In one talk the subject of solar energy came up. The person noted that if energy growth from 1700 to 2000 were increased proportionally in the next 300 years, we would have to capture every beam of energy from the sun that strikes the earth every day. Needless to say the earth would be vastly warmer approaching Venus’s temperature. Malthus was correct, just off by a few years.

  2. Louise Kane Avatar

    Fro you Ralph….”and also bad people maybe leading us to disaster, made even more tragic with the seeming rarity of intelligent life in the universe.”

    and to add even more tragic with such intelligence all around us and their intelligence, wisdom, charity, and compassion being ignored by the “bad people”. It is tragic to think about this huge, vibrant, planet being systematically degraded, denuded, and destroyed. I hope the good people start winning.

  3. Larry Avatar

    Re: Item #2

    It seems to me that to say intelligence will be the cause of destruction opens up a very subjective arena. For instance if intelligence is the root cause why then are the brilliant ones among us not able to change that outcome? Are they not brilliant enough? It can only be said that the less intelligent among us out number the brilliant so much as to render them ineffective. Therefore the brilliant (I’m not one of them) cannot think up a way to convince, compel and motivate those that cannot see the wisdom and intelligence of which they speak. There has to be a class in the middle (me I hope) that has reason and logic and can see the brilliance in the brilliant and support and work for it. It is those that cannot see beyond their nose that are in such volume as to outnumber those of the intellectual class as well as those of us in the middle. In other words they are the dog and the intellectual class (hopefully me just barely again) are the tail. The tail cannot wag the dog.

    But there must be something else at work in the intelligence sector that makes that sector even more of a minority and therefore can be held mute by the majority. I believe that something has to be empathy or sympathy or respect or whatever you want to call it. Intelligence alone does not an earth savior make. I believe the attributes of empathy together with intelligence is what contributes most to those we call brilliant in the work toward saving this world’s health. There are brilliant scientists in all fields of science but some are not able to use their vast knowledge in a positive way. When we conclude that empathy is a necessary component with intelligence that produces reasoning to nurture the earth then we narrow the field even more; that is why I believe that if the earth is to be doomed it is because those with the absence of empathy will be seen as the final rulers by sheer volume.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      ” For instance if intelligence is the root cause why then are the brilliant ones among us not able to change that outcome? Are they not brilliant enough?”

      Not trying to be a smartass, but $$$$$$$! As long as $$$$$, can profitably squeezed from fossil fuels, those are the folks who will be in control of the decision making.

      I believe the Saudis have enormous solar energy projects up and working/in the making. They are in the energy business. As Monsanto morphed into a agricultural biogenetics giant, the Shell Oils and Exxons will metamorphosize into alternative energy giants, but not til the $$$$ is right. Doesn’t matter if we are doomed or not.$$$ speaks

      1. Larry Avatar

        Immer Treue:
        The point I was trying to make and didn’t do a good job because I’m not brilliant is that there are not enough brilliant people (they are a minority)to lead the rest of us through the right answer to the problem. And with regard to fusion; that will probably come only as we realize that energy is not the limitation to our carrying capacity. Our carrying capacity may become limited due to the massive number of idiots comprising our population. My definition of idiot is one who seeks only to satisfy ones’ immediate self satisfaction and thereby ignores the overall need for restraint for the greater good. I can look back and see more times than I care to admit that I’ve been an idiot. (If you call me an idiot for what I’ve written I will not admit I wrote it.)

        1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
          Kirk Robinson

          Brilliance is good, but wisdom is better – it implies good judgment and self-control. Lack of selfishness would be better yet. There aren’t enough brilliant, wise and beneficent people. Or rather, there are too many who aren’t brilliant, wise and beneficent.

          If we could just get human beings to only produce limited numbers of offspring that are brilliant, wise and beneficent, we’d have our problems licked in a generation or two. Good luck on that.

          Considering this, and observing that selective forces didn’t favor the dominance of these characteristics among the human population, I think an “intelligent” species such as our own is likely determined by its own genetics to an early demise whatever planet it might occupy.

          1. Larry Avatar

            You are right. Empathy and restraint begets wisdom.

        2. Immer Treue Avatar
          Immer Treue


          I agree. The gene pool has been flooded with those whose critical thinking skills are at an 8th grade level, or below. And a lot of the “brilliant” people are either in the $$$ game, or, in research and development for all the wrong things. Do we really need more advanced all-purpose fighter aircraft? The naval vessels under design would bankrupt most nations. Most the R&D is in the wrong places.

          We could join many of the brilliant minds to put a man on the moon in the sixties. We could put brilliant minds together to decode the human genome, and yes….the atomic bomb in the 40’s. One would think with the minds and technology out there, we could really begin to tease apart the riddle to our future energy needs. However, I believe as long as there is to be a profit rung out of fossil fuels, you won’t see it happen.

          1. Larry Avatar

            You are right. As they say, “Follow the money”, trouble with that though is it seldom if ever equates with finding wisdom.

          2. Immer Treue Avatar
            Immer Treue

            The gene pool has been flooded with those whose critical thinking skills are at an 8th grade level, or below.


            Should read general population has been flooded ….

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I don’t know that our native intelligence has increased in the last thousands of years, but collectively we know a lot more and have been able to accumulate our knowledge and direct it to create technologies that can help us, save us, and/or destroy us.

      Maybe it is as you say, a lack of empathy in all this that threatens us so. Perhaps it is that we have developed too many defective social and political institutions — ones that provide incentives to do things that grievously harm the whole while benefiting ourselves or our group.

      1. Larry Avatar

        This is an energizing philosophy discussion. I just keep going back to that attribute of empathy. It may be that that attribute trumps all others, even intelligence. I like to think I exhibit empathy when I leave brush piles for wrens or weasels and do not neatly trim my tree limbs because I see them as “furniture” for birds. But I buy way too much ‘stuff’ so I probably erase my empathy footprint. I don’t have the intelligence of the many bird or mammal scientists that contribute in this forum but I try to address creature comforts when I can. I ponder sometimes where we would be if empathy were exhibited by all, even the slow to learn as me and how the world would be a slower paced venue. We wouldn’t have near the environmental degradation that we have now because empathy would trump profits. But then we open the door to an all different philosophy because mankind (and all species) are wired to out do the neighbor. So we have to have a little levity or we will go nuts. One thing I believe for sure is that we will implode eventually at the rate we are going but only my dust will be here.

  4. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Very interesting speculations, but only speculations. I don’t so much doubt the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life as our ability to know with any significant degree of probability that there is, or what it would be like assuming there is.

    Are there forms of highly intelligent life that we are capable of communicating with? We don’t know. It seems to me that these life forms would have to be very much like us indeed in order for us to carry on a conversation. As Wittgenstein famously observed, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” (PI, p. 223)

    Lions and other highly evolved mammals are intelligent life forms, come to think of it, but we cannot communicate with them except in very basic ways and at close proximity. We tend to forget that all language presupposes a shared “form of life” involving shared practices and propensities. The reason we can’t have conversations with lions is not that they lack the right anatomy to enable them to articulate their thoughts like we can.

    But of course we are talking here about communicating with other beings at very great distances, or finding artifacts that can only be explained by the existence of beings very much like ourselves that at one time visited Earth or that are broadcast through interstellar space. What do we really expect, something like the gold tablets that the Book of Mormon was allegedly translated from? Of course that seems preposterous, but do we really have any clear idea what we should expect. I suggest that we don’t. We can imagine all sorts of things, but being able to imagine something isn’t the same as having a clear idea of a real possibility. We can imagine lions talking in fairy tales.

    On a purely personal note, I like the idea of there being a septillion stars and maybe twice that number of Earth-like planets, with maybe a quadrillion or so of them that have evolved or will evolve life forms, but with none of them being so similar to Homo sapiens that we could ever communicate with them even discounting the distance/time problem. Partly I like this idea because it is a bit discomfiting and I think we should be discomfited; partly because I think we had better start worrying about the future of Earth if we are going to be concerned about the future of Homo sapiens.

    1. ZeeWolf Avatar

      One of my favorite quotes…. “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” (1927) – J. B. S. Haldane (British geneticist and eveolutionary biologist)

      Arthur C. Clarke would paraphrase this, replacing the word “queerer” with “stranger”.

      1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
        Kirk Robinson

        ZeeWolf: Thanks for the quote. I remember reading it a long time ago! Do you think there are wild wolves on another planet somewhere? If so, think how much else there must be on that planet that would be familiar to us.

        When I was younger and watching wildness disappear from Earth, I sometimes fantasized about scientists discovering a planet just like Earth was a few hundred years ago, and how I would volunteer to be taken there to live, assuming I wouldn’t have to age during the voyage, and assuming a comely young maiden for a companion. A couple of dogs would be good too.

        1. ZeeWolf Avatar

          Kirk: Wolves on other planets? Hmmm… I suppose it would fall into two different possibilities that I can think of; of course, there could be more. One would be that there are “wolves” on other planets, but these so-called “wolves” would be a product of convergent evolution, meaning that those hypothetical “wolves” have evolved to resemble and perform the same ecologic function as wolves here on earth. In that scenario, the other critters on the planet may or may not resemble earth critters. Maybe they look like wolves, act like wolves but instead of iron based blood theirs is copper based (like horseshoe crabs here on earth).

          The second possiblity would be that wolves are found and, lo and behold, they are actually wolves! Canis lupus, right down to the genetic code. I have heard speculation that human beings specifically and all life generally arrived on earth from another source. There is, as far as I know, no proof of this at all and it is merely speculation of course. But, wouldn’t that be fascinating? To find an earth like planet that is already inhabited by not “earth-like” flora and fauna but rather by exact replicas.

          Personally, I believe in the infinite. That whole thing with put enough monkeys in front of typewriters typing for long enough time and eventually you get Shakespeare. Following that line of thought leads me to believe that there are other planets with wolves, etc….

          I totally hear you about another planet being discovered in a relatively virgin and unexploited state. My scenario would involve a planet with no native life forms but suitable for life. Subsequent to discovery, it would be terraformed using North American fauna and flora – that’s my interplanetary spaceman fantasy. I sometimes also hope that interplanetary travel is made easy for the masses and that earth becomes a “backwater” of sorts when all the people leave for the moon, Mars, etc… and that the Earth could be rewilded and made a true paradise with a smaller and technologically adept human population. Neither scenario is likely to happen in my lifetime!

          I don’t know much about spacetravel except what I’ve seen in popular culture; that it would involve suspended animation so that the living beings onboard wouldn’t age. The real problem is that as you travel at interstellar speeds (at or approaching light speed) you are in suspended animation but everything you left behind ages rapidly.

          1. Mark L Avatar
            Mark L

            Not sure about all that ‘same animal on a different planet’ stuff, but an animal/creature that takes the same niche as a wolf would absolutely make since in an equivalent ecosystem. Heck, look back in time to some dinosaurs that basically filled the same niche as wolves. You are what you eat.

            1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
              Kirk Robinson

              I think the most probable scenario would be something like parallel evolution producing suites of “animals” and “plants” that are more or less like some on Earth. The example of dinosaurs in earlier Earth history is illustrative. I guess you could call this convergent evolution. And given the vastness of the universe, it does seem probable that it has occurred many times over. So there probably are wolf-like creatures on other planets somewhere else in the galaxy or universe. And presumably they will prey on elk-like creatures. The more the alien wolves are like our wolves, the more the selection pressures that molded them must be like the ones that did/do the job here in Earth. Right? Likewise for all creatures, I should think, but especially ones occupying predator or prey roles that are highly specialized.

              But “intelligent” beings evolving on another planet separately from our own evolutionary history (assuming humans evolved on Earth), and that we can figure out how to communicate with (as we can immerse ourselves in a foreign culture and learn the language, customs, etc.), is another matter. In my opinion it is not impossible, but is much less probable than, say, lion-like or wolf-like or elk-like creatures evolving on another planet. As I said in another post, being able to communicate with a being (as in talk, converse, carry on a conversation) presupposes a lot more than just having a big brain and a mouth and lungs. Back briefly to Wittgenstein’s lion: Imagine a lion talking, actually speaking apparent English and carrying on a conversation with a human being. It looks like a lion and acts like a lion in every way, but it communicates with us using articulate language just like a human being. I guess this happens in the movie The Lion King, though I haven’t seen it. Can we really conceive of such a thing? I suggest not, for we wouldn’t know how to understand its “words” and therefore couldn’t communicate with it. If it said, “Nice talking to you. Goodbye, I’m going out to hunt a zebra now,” then roared and ran off to hunt a zebra, I doubt that we could be confident that we actually had a human-like conversation with the beast. Certainly it would be a very “queer” experience, but maybe it would be more like “talking” to a parrot than talking to a human being.

              And even if some planet somewhere has living beings that build huge “cities” or can travel to other planets and colonize them, and seem to communicate effectively with each other; and even if we can learn what some of their “communications” mean to them, it doesn’t follow that we will be able to communicate with them! After all, we cannot communicate in the relevant sense with bees or ants, and they do very much the same kind of thing I just described.

  5. mikepost Avatar

    If the animal kingdon is a guide to #2, then what we will see is the same thing that happens to an animal species when their populations spike and they overuse resourses: major population crash due to disease/conflict/starvation. Then the strongest/most resilient survivors start over.

    All these armmegedon fantasy films are really futurist forcastings….

  6. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Gamma ray bursts get most everyone in the end (Draco kill shot, etc.) …it’s just a matter of time.
    There are monsters out there we just DON’T want to meet.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Gamma Ray bursts, asteroids, supernovas, etc. become less common with time because there are fewer star systems that can cause them.

      One type 1 argument is that we are one of first intelligent species — it took 13 billion years for one (us) to evolve and survive astronomical catastrophe. In another billion years there will be many species.

      I am very skeptical of this argument though.

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue


        Somewhere I have an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, and though not ruling out the possibility, he wrote that the probability of all the variables necessary for the type of life we have on Earth are infintesimally unlikely to occur.

        Even that said, as you alluded to, if there is other life out “there”, we might have had a head start on other systems. Even then, now that we know that the moon is not composed of green cheese, nor are there canals on Mars, any other possible life is hundreds if not thousands of light years away. That in itself is a metaphorical moat separating us from anyone “else” out there.

      2. Kirk Robinson Avatar
        Kirk Robinson

        For one thing, the argument relies on the assumption that it takes 13 billion years for intelligent life forms such as ours to evolve. This is not an insignificant assumption. It is totally arbitrary so far as I can see. Why not eight billion years?

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan


          I wrote 13 billion because that is the supposed age of the universe.

          The age of the Earth is (from Wikipedia) 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years.

          My assumption, which could be wrong, was that the Universe was generally too dangerous for life to develop before 4 or 5 billion years ago.

          “The oldest evidence for life [on Earth] may be 3.5-billion-year-old sedimentary structures from Australia that resemble stromatolites. Stromatolites are created today by living mats of microorganisms (mostly cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae)” from

          Clearly this has been interrupted, but not completely? destroyed a number of times by asteroid bombardment, volcanic outbreaks, and other things. Similar setbacks probably have occurred elsewhere (so the argument goes). Therefore, only recently (last couple hundred million years) has the universe become save enough for the steady evolution of life into intelligent life.

          I’m not saying I buy the argument because it assumes the Earth is in one of the safest places and also that evolution of intelligence is very slow.

          1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
            Kirk Robinson

            Thanks for the reply. Yes, I know about the cyanobacteria and the algal mats. I went back to school and got a second bachelors degree a couple of decades ago in Earth Sciences, with the idea that I might become a high school teacher. That didn’t happen, but I enjoyed the geology and other classes a lot, as I had concentrated almost exclusively on the humanities the first time through.

            You are right. The 13 billion (or now 13.8 billion) year figure for the age of the universe as necessary for the evolution of intelligent beings such as Homo sapiens is not totally arbitrary. No doubt it took several billion years for solar systems to form that included planets where life could evolve, safe enough from gamma rays, asteroids, etc. Still, I would say that the hypothesis that it takes 13+ billion years for intelligent life such as Homo sapiens to evolve is woefully underdetermined by the evidence. I think it still has to be reckoned an assumption without a lot of support. Is there enough evidence to suggest strongly that it couldn’t have happened in, say 12 billion years? In which case, like Fermi, one has to wonder why we haven’t detected the existence of such beings. 1+ billion years is a long time, after all – a long enough time surely for intelligent beings, if there are any sufficiently intelligent and enduring, to make their presence known to similar beings in the galaxy. So I think the assumption that this argument depends on is pretty weak. And an argument is only as good as its weakest premise.

            1. Mark L Avatar
              Mark L

              Kirk Robinson says,
              “Still, I would say that the hypothesis that it takes 13+ billion years for intelligent life such as Homo sapiens to evolve is woefully underdetermined by the evidence.”
              Makes you wonder how many times intelligent life may have already evolved HERE, and didn’t ‘go’ anywhere.

              1. JB Avatar

                “Makes you wonder how many times intelligent life may have already evolved HERE, and didn’t ‘go’ anywhere.”

                Exactly. It seems to me that the evolution of intelligence requires the right set of environmental factors to render higher forms of intelligence adaptive. This could have happened millions of years ago on earth. That is, once life forms were complex enough to have evolved something similar to our “modern” brains, all that was needed was the right set of environmental conditions to drive natural selection toward greater (and greater) intelligence. This could have happened about the time whales or dinosaurs emerged.

  7. Marc Bedner Avatar

    I have subscribed to theory #2 since I first heard it from biologist George Wald. It may have been at the original (1970) Earth Day, which was a serious of mass rallies, not the corporate nonsense it is today. But I recall the problem being described as technological advance. A species with deliberately destroys itself, and everyone in its path, can hardly be described as intelligent. A better description would be infinite stupidity

    1. Marc Bedner Avatar

      (correction of typos above:)
      a series of mass rallies … species which deliberately destroys itself

  8. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Ralph Maughan says,
    “Gamma Ray bursts, asteroids, supernovas, etc. become less common with time because there are fewer star systems that can cause them. ”
    True, but the ‘less common’ argument is in a way self-defeating. As a species, and over time, if we don’t pay attention to those things that can kill us off, we get ‘suprised’ in the end. Take the case of birds on islands. Introduce a predator , even a small one like a rat, and the polulation is decimated by it. This doesn’t happen as much with non-islanders because there is a constant pressure on the “species’ memory” to fight the predator.
    This is a long term parellel for us in either outside influences (Chixulub, Draco kill shot, etc.) or inside (population, energy, stupidity with nukes, etc.)
    If you are on a planet without a ionosphere, magnetosphere, etc. you are just out of luck (over a long time or just to begin with). This is 99.999+ percent of all planets that we know of, btw. Odds are getting slimmer as we look around. Each planet ‘found’ actually slims the odds even more in a way.

  9. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Ralph Maughan says,
    “Gamma Ray bursts, asteroids, supernovas, etc. become less common with time because there are fewer star systems that can cause them. ”
    True, but the ‘less common’ argument is in a way self-defeating. As a species, and over time, if we don’t pay attention to those things that can kill us off, we get ‘suprised’ in the end. Take the case of birds on islands. Introduce a predator , even a small one like a rat, and the polulation is decimated by it. This doesn’t happen as much with non-islanders because there is a constant pressure on the “species’ memory” to fight the predator.
    This is a long term parellel for us in either outside influences (Chixulub, Draco kill shot, etc.) or inside (population, energy, stupidity with nukes, etc.)
    If you are on a planet without a ionosphere, magnetosphere, etc. you are just out of luck (over a long time or just to begin with). This is 99.999+ percent of all planets that we know of, btw. Odds are getting slimmer as we look around. Each planet ‘found’ actually slims the odds even more in a way.

  10. Brian Ertz Avatar
    Brian Ertz

    If a man points a gun at me, am I justified in defending myself ? If I catch him in the act of burning down my house – is it wrong of me to forcefully prevent him from doing so ?

    What about a political and economic system that poisons our water, degrades our Earth, and warms the very atmosphere to the degree of prompting the 6th Great Extinction and threatening our kids’ way of life – our species very existence ? Is there nothing more than a BS vote every 2 or 4 years (for one lying politician or the other – either of which will serve the same monied interest anyway).

    It seems to me that our political and economic system have us not just advocating, but acting as accessories to wholesale violence – watching our soldiers and the brown people on the opposite side of their guns, underneath their video-game drones, die en mass – to say nothing of the consequent casualties (of cancers, poisons, pollution etc.) – in order to keep the spigot open on but one (oil) of the many principle sources of unprecedented violence brought down on entire peoples and all life …

    … and we sit around waiting for absent/fraudulent political leadership, incremental and wholly infinitesimal (given the actual gravity of the crisis) judicial injunctions (which shrink in their affect as fast as the politicians can spend their time eradicating those laws that may have meant something in a previous generation), signing internet petitions, and willing for perhaps enough hippies to congregate and hold hands oming hard enough to change it some day.

    all of these approaches are good, but if history is any indication – it seems to me nothing will change until there is a parallel contingent that is dramatically radicalized demonstrating a competency and legitimate ability to threaten a more widespread social upheaval.

    Our American history books and popular culture celebrate Mahatma Gandhi but make no mention of Bhagat Singh or Chandra Shekher. They celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. but pass over, even ridicule Malcolm X. We are taught that King, Ghandi, and other pacifists managed to effectively change things — but the lessons abstain from the very practical mention that such opportunities for meaningful reform were not catalyzed in the absence of the very real and organized, radicalized/militant calls for revolution.

    Is the gravity of this threat to the various forms/systems of life, our health, our kids’ future not on par with those struggles ? Is it not as deserving of direct and fundamentally uncomfortable confrontation as any other historical struggle with which significant (albeit rarely anywhere near majority) numbers of people made actual and direct sacrifice to bring about change ?

    No ? … bummer.

    Ommmmm … Ommmm …

    1. JB Avatar

      “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

      The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

      (Somehow, this seemed appropriate?)

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine


    2. DLB Avatar


      I’m sure you realize that the power structures which fill the void left behind by most successful revolutions mostly do not represent the ideals that started the revolutions in the first place?

      We as humans have displayed a capability to make occasional modest improvements to our own self-governance. We have also displayed a capability to chip away from those improvements. I really can’t think of a revolution that resulted in the radical political and socio-economic change that you are eluding to. I can however, think of many instances where the idealists driving the revolutions in their early phases were envisioning change of that magnitude, only to be brushed aside.

      What does that tell me? That we as a human race aren’t capable of making the changes that you would like to see. At least not capable of making them in time to save the planet from an uncertain fate, anyway. The very foundations of our society could be crumbling away and there would be a large segment of the population who would still hold on to their self-destructive ideals.

      Occasionally I talk to someone – or read material from someone, who puts a crack in this armor of realism that surrounds me most of the time. I savor those fleeting moments before I plunge back into an environment that is driven by money, power, the deceivers, and the deceived.

      I don’t think I’m alone in acknowledging that I enjoy your posts and it’s unfortunate that you don’t have the time to participate here as much as you did before. I probably wouldn’t have much time for it either if I were busy pursuing an advanced degree.

    3. Mtn Mamma Avatar
      Mtn Mamma

      Brian, Thank you for sharing. I share similar opinions as yours, I am just not an eloqent writer. I have tried/try to “Be the Change” within the SYSTEM. However the SYSTEM is broken and not many seem to want it fixed. I for one am getting tired of fighting battles without ever winning.How do we rally more troops? I frequently recall this quote of Leopold’s…

      “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
      ― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

  11. WM Avatar

    On this Earth Day + 1 day, I am compelled to think back those 43 years since the first in 1970. What is different? Why is there not a greater emphasis on what seems to be a planet more crowded, more polluted, and at greater risk for long-term sustainability?

    By 1970, Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) had been well publicized and on the NY Times best seller list for some time, and used in college class rooms across the country; another book by Paul and Ann Ehrlich, “The Population Bomb,” warning of mass food shortages within 10 years from uncontrolled human population expansion, was also a common text in college classrooms, where ” environmental science” offerings were popping up on course curriculums; there were the focused stirrings of the need for environmental improvement, in the US at least. Congress couldn’t ignore some of this.

    Environmental Protection Agency was in its infancy in the first year of operation, and there was an idealism born on the wings of a bulging bunch of baby boomers who thought they could change the world. Momentum for this change was being manifested in a variety of ways,and there was a belief that America’s youth could change the world. They had swung the sentiments of the Viet Nam War (because some were avoiding the Draft, or not and dying or being injured in the war). And with the invasion of Cambodia, the catalyst was there to make it increasingly unpopular on a grand scale. I have the memory of student strikes on college campuses across the entire country (the first of those strikes would happen post Earth Day, in the first week of May, as did the killing of 4 Kent State students by National Guardsmen two weeks after Earth Day). The momentum was there and change to improve the environment was a fantastic diversion from the politics of a war in Viet Nam (for both national elected officials and the populace). I expect some political scientists have written about this phenomenon at length.

    What has happened? Today we get our news from so many sources, not three national TV networks all on the same political wavelength; we are tied to computers and many people don’t actually interact with others; we have seen the results of not having jobs, or a future with jobs, and that bulge of the baby-boom population has grown old and complacent, and vested in the status quo. My sense of many of the youth today is one of an entitled future, which is dominated by material wealth, and they want it now, so again the status quo is the mantra.

    Although to some degree environmental improvement creates jobs, in the larger picture, it acutally costs jobs, because it increases the cost of production of goods and some services. I learned that in my first environmental economics class those 40 plus years ago. Job creation is what motivates politicians because their constituents want them. And, now the rest of the world is waking to the idea that jobs are good things too. It allows more personal comforts for people wherever they are, if it is in China, India, Africa or South America – these places are the ones to really worry about, because the sensitivity for environmental improvement and the will to accomplish it is even more tenuous than in Europe or North America.

    I think collectively, we (all across the world, not just the US) have to some degree, become desensitized to the urgency of need for change. If it didn’t hurt me yesterday, as was predicted and we were warned so harshly by those folks in the early 1970’s, it probably won’t hurt me or my family tomorrow. In the meantime, I don’t have to worry about my job and can continue to pursue material wealth, and I will convey that to those who lead and make decision for my community and country. And, by the way, I think those that make decisions are controlled to an even greater degree by Corporate America and the military-industrial complex even more than in 1970. And, that takes us back to the money and the jobs.

    This is why Ralph says, “This is why Earth Day …..with our dysfunctional institutions, self-defeating ideas and cultures, and also bad people maybe leading us to disaster, made even more tragic with the seeming rarity of intelligent life in the universe…”

    I think we were told the “sky is falling,” 43 years ago, and it hasn’t…, and we have grown accustomed to the fact that it hasn’t, so there is no reason to change our behavior…yet.,

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      The sky is falling in subtle ways though. All you have to do is look around, but people don’t seem to want to see it. Bees are dying off, and people in China can’t breathe the air on most days. That’s one of the things that bugs me about so-called ‘green’ energy. Profits and job creation are still paramount, not the actual reason for going green – a cleaner environment. Further, jobs are being promised to get a foot in the door, and still going overseas in the new tradition of corporate business. Nothing given back, only taking. Creating a project just to make jobs that either isn’t needed or in a terrible location. What about our infrastructure improvements? Improvements to our transportation systems would go a long way to create jobs and become more environmentally conscious.

    2. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      Although to some degree environmental improvement creates jobs, in the larger picture, it acutally costs jobs, because it increases the cost of production of goods and some services

      A 2009 study estimated that $520 billion invested in energy efficiency today would net $1.2 trillion dollars in energy cost savings through 2020. $2 in savings for every dollar invested.

      “Better Buildings Initiative … – which will significantly reduce pollution in our air – is set to reduce companies’ and business owners’ energy bills by about $40 billion per year. It will save energy by reforming outdated incentives and challenging the private sector to act. And when we talk about “challenging the private sector to act,” we’re talking about creating good jobs.

      health protections mean a more productive workforce, fewer sick days for employees and consumers that are spending less on medical bills and more on the economy. The Clean Air Act alone – just one signature environmental and health law – has provided trillions of dollars in health benefits to the American people. And since its inception, air pollution has dropped over the last 40 years while our national GDP has risen by 207 percent. The total benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to more than 40 times the costs of regulation. For every one dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return.

      Recent EPA research on a number of reputable economic studies has shown a clear connection between reasonable health safeguards and job creation. Our research indicates that environmental protection – in the form of safeguards and standards that protect our health, and that the American people demand – is responsible for net positive job gains all across the country. In other words, environmental protection creates jobs – 1.7 million of them as of 2008. The environmental protection industry has grown steadily between 2000 and 2008, yielding approximately $300 billion in revenues.

      The bottom line is this: we can protect the health of millions of American families and do so in a way that will benefit the economy. We can do that by out-educating, out-building and out-innovating our competitors. And by using commonsense regulations to spark innovation, reduce toxic pollution, and put people to work protecting our health and our environment.

    3. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      I think we were told the “sky is falling,” 43 years ago, and it hasn’t…, and we have grown accustomed to the fact that it hasn’t, so there is no reason to change our behavior…yet.

      The reinsurer has built up the world’s most comprehensive natural catastrophe database, which shows a marked increase in the number of weather-related events.

      globally, loss-related floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes. This rise can only be explained by global warming.


      U.S. Drought 2012: Farm and Food Impacts

      About 80 percent of agricultural land experiened drought in 2012

  12. CodyCoyote Avatar

    The Fermi Equation is still notabale only because it was first to ask the question of probability of ET civilizations amid the swarm of stars and other galaxies out there.

    The much more refined equation by Frank Drake in 1961 is more intuitive and better reflects discoveries in astronomy since Fermi’s time twenty years earlier.

    It’s really not a mathematical or statistical ” equation” per se , but rather a means of stacking the relative questions in an inverted pyramid of logical filters to slowly eliminate all the civilized worlds that are not detectable for one reason or another

    I do not believe the Drake Equation has been improved upon by real scientists since, since it is as much philosophical abstract as it is numerical. The junk scientists and religious zealots have their own ” computations” which are more entertaining than enlightening , if only they did not take themselves so seriously.

    Ever the cynic , I would say that one planet full of humans is one too many , but twelve is not enough…

  13. alf Avatar

    Very thoughtful and beautifully written essays, Ralph and Brian Ertz

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Thanks alf,

      To follow up on what Brian Ertz and others have been saying, it might be that the biggest threat to our existence is the sudden Great Recession and counterproductive move to austerity accompanied by (and maybe caused by) the growing inequality of wealth. It is an inequality that rewards a small class of people who are gathering up the dwindling resources of the Earth even as they do little real work and let public services and “ecological services” (hate that term) decay.

      This feeds into Larry’s comments about empathy. We suffer from the growing lack of it among the most powerful.

      1. timz Avatar

        to Ralph’s point about inequity and the recession.

        The U.S. economy has recovered for households with net worth of $500,000 or more, a new study shows. The recession continues for almost everyone else.

        Wealthy households boosted their net worth by 21.2 percent in the aftermath of the recession, according to the study released today by the Pew Research Center. The rest of America lost 4.9 percent of household wealth from 2009 to 2011.

        Pew attributed the disparity to gains during that period in the stock and bond markets, benefiting affluent households, while the housing market’s decline hit others harder. The report underscores the nation’s growing income inequality, with the top 13 percent of households recovering their losses from the 18- month recession that ended in June 2009, and the rest of the country continuing to hemorrhage wealth.”

        1. JB Avatar

          Yep, and if you track the gap between wealthiest and poorest, you’ll find it really takes off in the mid-1980s, after Republicans finally succeeded in lowering the tax bracket for the wealthiest Americans–and it’s been increasing ever since. It’s also relevant that the so-called “debt crises” starts about the same time (the debt to GDP ratio had been tracking downward prior to 1981, and then began increasing when we cut taxes for the wealthiest).

          Check out these figures:

        2. Larry Avatar

          I have thought much about what you wrote above and certainly do not find the figures surprising at all. The thought that comes to me is that it is a reflection of what has been since the beginning of time. It used to be that survival of the fittest meant who could run 21% faster or if you were injured it could mean you lose 4% of what you used to be able to acquire for food. Survival of the fittest no longer is reflected in a measure of strength and intelligence, now, pretty much just intelligence. So it becomes paramount how we use our intelligence because that will define our future generations and our environment. There has never been a time when it has been MORE important to metamorphosize intelligence into wisdom. As it has been said here many times over, intelligence may well doom us. I believe wisdom can save us if not out numbered by so many intellects. Something I point out to someone when they play the “dominion over the earth biblical card” on me is, Job 12:7-13. I despise someone using religion to justify harm to the environment and then calling it intelligence and that is the only comeback I usually can muster before I walk away. I also measure wisdom by seeing the wrongs of the past and correcting them. I only hope I live long enough to see ALL the wrongs I initiated in my past and correct them. I have corrected hunting thank goodness, lots more to go and so little time.

        3. Immer Treue Avatar
          Immer Treue

          Money begits money. The “W” tax cuts enabled the waitress an extra bag of groceries each week, while the moneyed minions had tens of thousands to reinvest. Remember this was not long after dot com, and the market crashed again post 9/11, then the real estate bubble. I’m sure those earning 20-40K made a killing. (sarcasm intended)

          1. JB Avatar

            Sarcasm detected, and felt. I lost my job when the dotcoms went belly-up, and lost 15% of my first home’s value when the housing bubble burst. No money in the market at either time–all of our cash was tied up in living expenses. I suspect many other young[er] folks were similarly situated.

  14. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Probably a suitable thread for this.

    Compliments of the International Space Station.  Lots to see on a planet anything but peaceful.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan