The Fermi Plague


In Pluribus Unum
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Olympia, Washington
Stanley Cramer, in his editorial from the October 1998 edition of Analog, written a year and a half before September 11, introduced the concept of the Fermi Plague. To quote selectively from this editorial:
I think I know the answer. I hope I’m wrong, because what I’m suggesting is scary. But it’s uncomfortably plausible….

The question is the one commonly known as “the Fermi paradox and summed up in three words: “Where are they?” Many lines of scientific research suggest that the evolution of life is a natural and common outgrowth of stellar and planetary evolution, and that interstellar communication and travel should be feasible (though not easy). Playing with reasonable guesses for the relevant numbers makes it seem highly likely that we should by now have had some contact with, or at least clear evidence of, at least one other technological civilization from somewhere other than Earth. There is no generally accepted evidence that we have. So where are they?

A great many explanations have been advanced for our lack of evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations…. Maybe life, for some reason, is harder to originate than we think. Maybe species that could be spacefaring decide not to, for one reason or another. Or maybe interstellar empires avoid contact with us because they fear us or don’t want to interfere with our development.

And so on.

The trouble with virtually all the proposed solutions, according to many people who’ve thought about the problem, is that while each of them can explain why we haven’t heard from some civilizations, it seems unlikely that any of them would apply to every place with the potential for producing a spacefaring civilization….

Is there some one thing that might be so likely to happen eventually to any technologically advanced civilization that it would account for “The Great Silence”?

I may have thought of one, after a series of articles back in February [of 1998] about an anthrax terrorism scare. [Remember this was written before 9/11.] …. No, I’m not going to suggest that every civilization gets decimated by anthrax….

[For] the first time in history, its relatively easy for a single individual to unleash a major epidemic. A small conspiracy, involving a mere handful of individuals, could unleash a really major epidemic.... Natural plagues develop slowly enough, and usually locally enough that some individuals will usually survive and develop resistance to them. A population may be decimated, but enough will remain to let it recover.

Unnatural plagues may be another matter entirely. A combination of technologies, including biological culturing, weapon-building, and rapid global transportation, can make it possible for a very few individual (or even one) to do things that really could wipe out whole populations, possibly even on a planetary scale.

It would not be a sane thing to do, of course, but that does not mean that nobody would ever do it…. If even one [deeply disturbed individual] decides to take everybody else with him, and knows how, that’s all it takes.
And if populations reach into the billions, the chance of one such individual sooner or later arising in any given civilization is disturbingly high. If that happens fast enough, the average life of a technological civilization may be too short for there to be much chance of two of them occurring close enough together in space and time to make contact. Each one may last only as long as it takes to produce one lunatic with too much power at his fingertips.

Any civilization that wants to avoid becoming one of the casualties will have to find an effective answer to the question: How do you prevent any individual from acquiring or abusing that much power?
Cramer goes on to speculate on the unreliably of answers to this question that rely on preventing people from getting access to the various genies that get let out of the box. He concludes

The only really long-term solution, it might seem, is one that many people would reject as an impossible dream. We need to become a world of people who all have the intelligence, mutual concern, restraint, and decency to live together without killing each other, even if we have the means to do so. So I pose the challenge to everyone out there…: How can we make that happen? How can we preserve for everyone as much freedom as possible to build a good life as he or she conceives it, without putting all of us at the mercy of any deranged or evil entity who gets too much power in his hands? ….

Not easy questions, any of them. But they’re questions to which we the best answers we can find.

And we need them now.
What do you think? Is Cramer exaggerating the situation to sell magazines? Or do the natural evolutionary paths of civilization create stresses that almost inevitably lead to its demise?

This much I believe:
  1. The stresses of this particular civilization have alienated large numbers of people across the globe.
  2. The technological and biological means of destruction on a catastrophic scale are increasingly available to the alienated.
  3. That alienation has lead to acts of terrorism with disturbingly increasing frequency and severity and technological sophistication.
  4. The use of force to quell uprisings and acts of terrorism seems to increase elsewhere the intensity of anger and alienation, and consequently the probably of new acts of terror.
  5. On the other hand, ignoring acts of terror tends to encourage its use when the alienated population does not have the traditional military strength to engage in “honorable” war.
So what do you think? Is the Fermi Plague inevitable.