Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 2

Letter To My Granddauighter: Part 2

By Roger Payne

This blog takes up where the previous one left off. It is the second part of  what I wrote to my granddaughter when she asked me to answer two questions that her school had assigned for her to ask of a grandparent.

Dear Luna,

You asked me to name two major, memorable, historical, world or national events. The second one, Number 2, was when I first heard the songs of humpback whales and realized that they could melt the heart of anyone. I stopped what I was doing with Owls and began studying whales and working for their conservation. For the next seven years I was involved with a wave of extraordinary people who came and went (but many of whom stayed) as they let their interest in helping stop the wholesale extinction of non-humans take over their lives and their destinies.

For more than those seven years, that effort kept me in a kind of jubilance that came from seeing more and more people starting to take up residence in the company of wild species—dedicating their lives to protecting non-human lives. Our family moved to Patagonia, and helped to build a field station there, and lived with whales, and albatrosses, and Mora eagles, and sea lions, and cormorants, and lizards, and elephant seals and giant petrels and martinetas and calandrias. And I got to watch the health of the wild world flow into my children’s lives—including your mom’s. And later I got to watch her and her siblings spread out across the world while creating families and destinies of their own—fascinating lives that never could have existed for a family of our modest means in the years before my children were born.

That filled me with hope. But with age comes an increased comprehension of how hard an uphill battle it is to get others to do something, even when it’s clearly in their deepest interests to do it. Now, as I watch the world drifting towards the rocks, the hope that those years helped to build is becoming tinged with despair.

But with ever-fewer years of life ahead of me, I get wonderful glimpses, thrilling moments, whenever I see people of your generation rise to the challenge of doing something—any damn thing—on behalf of the wild world. Yet, I still fear that humanity is too blind, too selfish to save itself and with it the rest of complex, charismatic life. And I worry that because of its crafty, shifty, cleverness that our wiseacre species may manage to be among the last megafauna left standing.

However, if we achieve that we will also have triggered another problem that will kill us. It is based on the fact that we are entirely dependent on a suite of species that keeps the Earth habitable for us. Alas, we can’t name them all yet, but if we inadvertently bring any crucial member of that suite to extinction we won’t make it—even if it is some single-celled species that has never been named or even recognized.

I can imagine no way that complex life, no matter how alien, could exist without similar, interdependent species and so I propose that once a “smart” species has done as much damage to the stability of its planet as we have done to ours that it will find that it has destroyed the ability of its life-maintaining species to keep its planet habitable for complex life.

If such fates await earthlings and smart-species in other elsewheres in the universe, then no wonder we have so far failed to contact any intelligent, non-human life—even though love the attempt to do so and think of it as one of our most far-seeing moves.

As I see it, it only took our species about 500 years to develop and exploit the benefits that science can bring our species while at the same time devastating much of world with overconsumption. Therefore, I think it is likely that complex life on any planet that eventually includes a big-brained adopter and practitioner of the scientific method, will probably require something like 500 years to get to a similarly chaotic point in their history as we have already reached in ours.

However, even if that comes to pass and the world goes back to single-celled life or even early multicelled life, I suspect that after several tens, or hundreds of millions of years the world will produce another Eden of wildness in which there will be a very different, smart species. But because that species will inevitably be shaped by the selfishness for which blind evolution selects, I fear that it may turn out to be just as incapable of avoiding the short-term benefits of destroying its less-heedful neighbor species as we are, and have ever been, and that it therefore will shatter the complex life that developed along with it. And because it will be entirely interdependent with that life, just as we are with non-human life, its fate may be the same that I fear is most likely to be ours — self-destruction.

The reason for this gloomy prediction is that the power of the scientific method to reward its practitioners will always be apparent long before the slow, long-term, negative consequences of such short sighted behavior become menacing enough to compel “smart” species to awaken to the need to change their behavior. If I am right, it is likely that no smart species anywhere is likely to be able to survive a largescale adoption of the scientific method for much longer than our species has—i.e., about 500 years.

Howerver, in comparison with geological time 500 years is a brutally short time—the history of life is at least 7 million times longer. So if you think that a thousand years is a fairer estimate of how long it may take for the scientific method to enable smart species to destabilize its natural world, I’m glad to accept that number; it does no significant damage my argument; a thousand years is but 3.6 millionths of the history of life on Earth.

But no matter how you look at it, there is a vanishingly small chance that two such relatively short time periods would co-occur on Earth and on some planet circling a nearby star—a star close enough for earthlings to detect evidences of the existence of the aliens on that planet. Close enough means it would have to be one of only a handful of stars, for there are only a few close enough to the sun to enable anything that might be considered practical communication. The problem is the requirement that smart earthlings and smart planetings would both have to be in the final few years of the roughly 500-1000 year period when both had arrived at enough understanding to make serious attempts to look for evidence of each other, but before either had caused enough chaos on their home planet to render it incapable of supporting the stable infrastructure and well-ordered civilization required for any serious attempt at interplanetary contact. That is pretty much the same as saying that each civilization must be at the same point in their intellectual and social development at the same moment in universal time. Pretty big requirement!

The absurdly low possibility of co-occurrence in time between a close-enough star and Earth may even explain the famous Fermi paradox, first proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Enrico Fermi. The story is that during an informal meal with colleagues Fermi argued as follows:

  • There are billions of stars in our galaxy similar to the Sun, many of which are billions of years older than the Sun and its planets.
  • There’s a high probability that tens of millions of Sun-like stars have Earth-like planets (an assumption that has since received strong support).
  • If the Earth is typical, then many non-Earth planets in our galaxy should have evolved civilizations that have adopted the scientific method and may also have mastered interstellar travel.
  • And even if they have found no way to go significantly faster than we believe to be the practical speed limit, enough time has passed for some of them to have crossed the Milky Way galaxy, which means that even millions of years ago, the Earth could well have been visited by aliens from other-worlds—though there is no evidence yet that that ever happened.

Fermi was curious about the complete lack of evidence for such visits or the existence of aliens, and it was during this informal discussion that he asked, famously: “Where is everybody?”—the question now known as the Fermi Paradox.

My dear Luna, I am sorry this is so much of a downer, but I assume that you wanted to hear what I believe is the truth even though we both know my beliefs are very likely to be wrong or to contain only a moiety of truth. However, I do believe that anyone can deal with anything no matter how unpleasant, as long as it is presented as close to the truth as its advocates can offer it up.

To me the bottom line is that as of now I feel the chances we humans can save ourselves from our self-inflicted folly will only exist if we respond to the need to change with global urgency. That is why I hope that you and your generation will recognize and respond to what has been called “the fierce urgency of now.” For if you manage to achieve a global response, you will someday be able to boast that you saved the world from the blindness of that generation that preceded you… ours.

All love, dear Luna,


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