Utopia or catastrophe: How long do civilizations live? (And how can we find another?)

Those questions were raised in, of all publications, Astrobiology Magazine. Why are astrobiologists so concerned about human culture? Because if civilizations can really die out, that affects how many alien civilizations are likely to be out there somewhere:

The longevity of our civilization was the topic of a symposium recently held in Washington DC. The symposium was organized and led by the holder of the NASA/ Library of Congress Astrobiology chair David Grinspoon, in an ornate room that would not have been out of place in ancient Pompeii — before that city was destroyed by an enormous volcanic eruption.

The complexity of answering the question of our longevity was evidenced by the far-ranging discussion that ensued among the panelists and the audience. Beyond science and technology, they discussed the current state of economics and politics, the fate of the environment, and even McDonald’s plastic cups, which were designed to be used for 20 minutes but might outlive us all.

Looking beyond our world, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson stated, “Humans shouldn’t go to Mars to save ourselves, but because it is a project of great interest and beauty.” At the same time, we should preserve our own planet because, in his view, it is fundamental to our longevity — we simply cannot live without it. “We are bubbles of Earth,” he said.

Robinson also was very concerned about the state of current world affairs and what that meant for our future. “Our economic systems are unjust and inefficient,” he said. “We must think of ways to improve them if we are to survive. The one-percent profit from the complexity of the financial system; confusion is a political act. So is simplicity.”

“We can’t just muddle along anymore,” he added. “It’s either utopia or catastrophe.”