Guns, Germs and Steel is a very thought-provoking book. One of it's theorems is that certain cultures - largely due to geographical reasons - were incapable of getting past certain technological and cultural development points. For example, one of his references is New Guinea, which has had some sort of civilization at roughly the same level for thousands and thousands of years. And the book's argument is that it wasn't that the people were stupid or incapable - but that they were missing crucial factors like animals to domesticate, efficient crops, and the right kind of land, and that stalled development.

So my question is this - could Earth be a sort of galactic New Guinea? Is it possible that due to factors of the planet - primarily limited resources and our gravity well - that humanity is stuck here, that we'll plateau and not be able to get past that point? Or that our current technology is leading to irreversible changes that will prevent us from continuing to develop, through climate change or hitting peak oil?

I can see how this would be a tricky question to answer, but here's a couple of potential ways I can see:

  1. Analyze the resource costs of space exploration using current technology. What we'd need to do to find another viable planet and colonize it. Obviously if that's within the realm of possibility we're ok (or at least if we self-destruct it's our own fault). A self-sufficient colony in our solar system would be ok, interstellar would be better.

  2. Realistic technologies within our current understanding of physics that would break us out of our current dependence on limited oil reserves, as that should make it at least theoretically possible to colonize the solar system and possibly go interstellar. And would also help prevent self-inflicted doomsday scenarios.

  3. Some other answer that usefully addresses the question - i don't want to limit possibilities, hopefully there are other ways to address this that I haven't thought of.


3 Answers 3


Well, it isn't like New Guineans or native Americans were really stuck. They simply had less favorable geography or ecology than some other people. Without those other people, the New Guinean civilization would have spread until it gained access to those more favorable circumstances. In the absence of other competing civilizations the models in the book do not really mean anything other than a temporary delay. Presumably the same would apply, if you extend those models to the whole Earth.

Same applies to those issues you list. Unless they kill us, eventually we'll figure out how to get over them. Or around them. That is how life works. Only issue that life can't get around given time is that, if no further improvement is possible. In this context that would mean not having anything of interest outside the planet we already have. This is possible, but not terribly likely and not really relevant to what you are asking, I think.

So I guess the question could be rewritten as: "Is it plausible that some unknown alien civilization had such an advantage over us that we get stuck here and never develop past a certain point?"

I think it is plausible for an alien species to have a large advantage over us. For example, they could have gained sentience long before us. I think a billion year edge is stretching it, but something like "We had interstellar civilization when your planet was ruled by dinosaurs" would be plausible.

Another easy advantage would be having two habitable planets in the same system. A civilization like that in roughly the same technical level we are now would be putting lot more resources in space technology and have much better future prospects.

Same applies to having several star systems with suitable planets or resources close enough for STL colonization. Could be a big boost in the time table of developing an interstellar civilization. Or not, if it turns out FTL travel is practical.

  • $\begingroup$ An entirely relevant news story from today indicates that two habitable planets in a solar system may be more common than one: theregister.co.uk/2015/02/05/… $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    Feb 5, 2015 at 13:50

Peak oil is surmountable problem. Renewable electricity from offshore and prairie winds, together with solar, can power continental transportation (electric railroads long distance, cars and trucks powered by compressed air for last few miles). With little more investment, we can even grow fuel: scientist identified algae which creates butanol (which is oil good for diesel engines and can be skimmed from vat surface, no distillation needed). It just needs water, CO2, sun, and some organic leftovers to grow on.

Climate change is substantially harder problem. Increase of sea level (200 feet - 70 meters over next 800-1000 years) will drown lots of productive farmland, coastal cities which were cradles of our cultures, whole countries like Netherlands or Bangladesh, and desertification will destroy much of the rest of productive land. Carrying capacity of the planet might go down to 1 billion people - imagine what war for water could be. But this is also surmountable - in about 15-20K years, excess methane and CO2 will be absorbed by rocks, and climate will return to more productive status. So it will be not fun, but enough humanity will survive (barely) to keep current level of civilization (avoiding regress).

Escaping Earth's gravity well is also surmountable: establish a colony on Moon, with manufacturing base. Use electric-powered rail sled to place material to moon's orbit, from there everything is easier. Use the same butanol as rocket fuel to get there.

Bigger danger is so called grey goo (nanomachines), green goo (genetically modified bacteria), or runaway AI, but these are more speculative. One suggestion is to fight them with "blue goo" - nanomachnes or bacteria designed to fight green or gray goo.

Even more speculative: I read some sci-fi (I forgot name) describing situation where part of Galaxy settled by human race is by some cloud restricted to sub-light travel. One human colony, few hundred lightyears from Earth, got to edge of the cloud, some lightyear or so, so it is visited by adventurous and patient outworlders every decade or so. Outworlders travel FTL, and cannot be bothered to visit areas where FTL travel is not possible.

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    $\begingroup$ The book you're thinking of is A Fire Upon the Deep. Or something else in the Zones of Thought series by Vernor Vinge. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Feb 3, 2015 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ I think you underestimate the magnitude of the problem presented by global warming. Most projections (that I've seen, anyway) don't consider effects beyond the end of the current century. I think that's because when you consider the knock-on effects on an already over-stressed ecosystem, the most likely outcome is a P-T level extinction, with humans numbered among the extinct species. Which neatly explains the Fermi Paradox: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 4, 2015 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ I am very concerned about global climate change, especially how it will affect capacity of Earth to feed human population. That's why I said that only 1 billion people will be able survive on Earth 1000 years from now - it is 90% loss. But I am confident that humans as species is proven as resilient and adaptable, and even if 90% of the terran species will go extinct, 10% of humans will survive, and it is enough to keep knowledge of technology intact. But you are right, if it will be just 8% off, humanity can go extinct. $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2015 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter Masiar: I think you are either a) overoptimistic; or b) unacquainted with/ignoring the long-term effects of current environmental degradation. I'd argue that even absent the consequences of global warming, the maximum sustainable human population is around 500 million or less. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ 500M is pretty bad. Do you have some links to substantiate such number? It also depends on diet - vegetarians are easier to feed than beef-eaters. $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2015 at 21:51

Going to space is a matter of engineering, not one of fundamental limitations. We aren't stuck here.

The solar system is another matter, with current technology we are stuck in our star system. I have a hard time believing this is a permanent barrier, though--either life extension or uploading/downloading our minds would let us go to the stars. While we only have a few glimpses of the first and no answers on the second both are things that should be developed in time. (Although I'm not sure life extension would be developed if easy upload/download was developed. Bodies might become throwaway items rather than repair items.)

While we are facing issues that will be a problem we aren't looking at any natural limits that will stop us. If we fail it will be due to human factors (and unfortunately, the Fermi Paradox says it's likely we will be done in by human factors), not the planet we were dealt.

  • $\begingroup$ The problem with 'going to space', though, is that there's no place to actually live out there. Unless/until we can terraform some of the other planets, human presence in space will be rather like working on an offshore oil rig or nuclear sub. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:52

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