Automobiles and the Drake Equation

Earth as dot in space

As Carl Sagan once explained, the odds for the existence, out there in the cosmos, of intelligent life-forms we might someday meet or talk to can be guesstimated using the so-called Drake Equation.

Ironically, at least in Sagan’s view, the main determinant of whether there are probably millions of existing advanced extraterrestrial civilizations or few-to-none “comes down to economics and politics and what, on Earth, we call human nature.”

On those planets that yielded intelligent life and complex civilizations, did the smart beings we might someday encounter manage to avoid destroying themselves, in the heady and naive early days of their sciences, with their own clever inventions?

Such self-destruction might be, Sagan observed, “the overwhelmingly preponderant fate of galactic civilizations.” And our own collective life-course could certainly not yet be taken as evidence against this thesis:

“And it is hardly out of the question that we might destroy ourselves tomorrow.”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, pp. 318-319

TCT holds that one of the cardinal technologies that seems quite likely to embody the kind of deadly species adolescence that worried Sagan is the supposed freedom machine we call the automobile.

Barring the invention of a truly sustainable technology for turning sunlight into electricity or liquid fuels on the needed scale, the idea that every individual commuter ought to maintain for their own personal use a complex and fragile two-ton machine has certainly always been a rather wild gamble with the universal laws of physics.

And yet, led along by our capitalists, we have — especially in this, the world’s dominant society — watched this wager be built into the very stuff of our social, economic, and geographical affairs. If we are ever to retract this living bet, it will cost us very dearly, as it will require a thorough-going reconstruction of our spaces and places, as well as our social relationships.

As of 2019, it is not looking hopeful for such a sober move. The topic of cars’ centrality in American life still goes, as the would-be radicals dwell on symptoms and the car ads roll merrily on, all but unmentioned.

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