“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Two and a half million years ago, our human ancestors began making stone tools. Ten thousand years ago, we began farming and domesticating goats. Last Tuesday, we sent three human beings to the International Space Station.
I set my alarm for 4:15 a.m. to watch the launch. I needed to feel goosebumps. I needed to celebrate our human family, whose power and potential shimmer against the backdrop of deep time, because we aren’t at our best right now.
When I find myself wondering how much I believe in us, sometimes I drop that question into the same well of deep time. Did you know, for example, that for every grain of sand on Earth there are one hundred Earth-like planets in the known universe? Even our small, backwater Milky Way galaxy should be teeming with intelligent life. Where is everyone? is a question that astrophysicists have tried to answer for decades—and that’s where science becomes my primary spiritual text.
Some experts believe that we’re all alone in the universe, because almost no planet can get past the long series of rare biological and chemical occurrences necessary for life. We did! Our astonishing planet had to clear a series of challenging hurdles to get us here (this is called the Rare Earth hypothesis). If there’s a Great Filter that prevents almost all intelligent life from forming advanced civilizations, it seems like our planet made it through. We’re special…right?
Could be. But other scientists believe that many civilizations have already risen up and fallen away, or even self-destructed. In that case—if we’re here alone—the Great Filter wouldn’t be behind us: it’s ahead of us. That would mean that for all the miracles our planet has pulled off, an even more threatening and cataclysmic filter lies ahead. If we fail to survive that Great Filter, life won’t exist anywhere in the Universe.
Are we special or are we doomed? Your answer (and mine) reveals how much you believe in our capacity to heal ourselves—to save ourselves and our blue-green home.
For me, resignation about the futility of escape or rescue isn’t an option. Embracing my faith in us is the choice that empowers me. If I—a night owl—can wake up at 4:15 a.m. to watch three of us hurtle towards the stars, I can wake up on any given morning ready to keep fighting for our human family.
May we—stardust become sentient; passengers and companions through the Darkest Drift of space—never give up on one another and all that we're capable of.
Author's note: This reflection was inspired and informed by the podcast The End of the World with Josh Clark. 🚀 In 1950, physicist Enrique Fermi asked the question Where is everyone?; the resulting debate is known today as the Fermi Paradox.