Galactic Civilization and ‘The Filter’ Fallacy

The Filter, in Brief

So, there is this idea of ‘The Filter’, the great divide that separates intelligent species from the galactic civilizations that are their supposed birthright. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • All intelligent species exist on the path to developing technology and culture that will enable them to expand to control their planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems, and then spread throughout galaxy
  • Given the age of our own galaxy, we would expect other intelligent species to have evolved before humans, and to have already begun this colonization process
  • We don’t see any sign of them, and so there must be The Filter, the crisis that prevents intelligent species from moving along this inevitable staircase of development
  • So we wonder – is The Filter behind us, and we’re one of the few intelligent species to make it this far, or is The Filter ahead of us, and we’re doomed?

In thinking about what this Filter could be, one can come up with places it could occur starting all the way back with the origins of life:

  • It could be that it is very unlikely for life to begin at all, and so on planets in their star’s ‘Goldilocks zone’ we will only find various kinds of chemical soup
  • Maybe it is very unlikely for multicellular life to develop, and so that soup will just be filled with simple single-celled organisms
  • It could be very unlikely for intelligence to develop (this one is a hard sell for anyone who has looked at the intelligence of non-human animals)
  • Perhaps run-away feedback loops like climate chance prevent intelligent species from living long enough, or maintaining a civilization long enough, to colonize their solar system
    • Ditto with something like thermonuclear Armageddon, or AI deciding to kill us off, or nanotechnology turning us al into grey goo, etc.
  • Or a lack of any faster-than-light travel solution could make colonizing worlds beyond one’s homeworld economically impossible
  • Or maybe something crazy, like a FTL-capable civilization wipes out all competition, and they just haven’t decided we are a threat yet

Clearly there are a lot of other options, but those above are common.

Flawed Premise

The problem I see in this formulation immediately (and I’m far form alone, nor innovative in doing so) is that it is founded on the premise that all intelligent life will inevitably lead to something like our own technocratic, hierarchical and exploitative way of life. That is, we take the way we happen to live now as a cosmic given, and then reason from there.

That’s insane. That’s a failing grade on your term paper in Philosophy 101. That’s a huge argument build on a sample size of one, when we even have other intelligent species on Earth to look at for other examples. Why not argue that orca intelligence is inevitable, or cetacean intelligence, or chimpanzee intelligence, or the emergent intelligence of insect colonies? We’re not even the only intelligence here. We’re just the most disastrous for every other living thing.


Maybe there is no filter, and we are just caught in the throes of a suicidal trajectory because we are a particular kind of intelligent life in a particular situation. There’s no reason to assume that all life would be in a similar situation, much less to assume that all intelligent life would inexorably seek to exploit their entire planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems.

Maybe as we find signs of life in other places, that life will be living in approximate balance with its ecosystems, like the various species of human did for hundreds of thousands of years before the last ten thousand or so. Maybe they will have developed means to detect us, and have meetings to decide what to do about this one rogue form of intelligent life out there that seems hell-bent on killing itself and everything around it. Can they somehow contain the damage we do? What do the thousands of other intelligent species on other worlds think?

The galaxy could be empty of star-spanning civilizations because of wisdom and no other reason. The “Filter” could exist only in our thinking about the nature of life, and intelligence, and civilization. It seems that we are catastrophically wrong about how to live on our own planet – it stands to reason that we would also be catastrophically wrong about how to live on multiple planets circling multiple stars as well.

Undoing the Damage Bush Has Done

Obama Halts Attack on Gray Wolves, Other Bush Misdeeds

Swooping into office to save the species this week, President Obama started his administration off right by immediately announcing a freeze on publication of all the Bush administration’s last-minute, biodiversity-harming rules not yet put into print. This means the new administration will get a chance to review — and hopefully trash — bad Bush-era policy decisions, including the heinous removal of Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes regions. The freeze will also put stop to Bush’s laughably low fuel-economy standards and a rule that would have injuriously changed the format of the endangered species list to redefine the extent of coverage provided to endangered species.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s move can’t undo the worst of the Bush administration’s latest environmentally detrimental actions: the changes to the rules implementing the Endangered Species Act — eviscerating our country’s most important wildlife protection law — and the relaxation of rules restricting mountaintop removal mining. Reversing those will take a little more work, but the Center for Biological Diversity will work to see it done.

Read more on Obama’s freeze in the Guardian UK and learn what it could mean for wolves in the Idaho Statesman.

Center Fights Bush-era Interference Harming 19 Species in Nine States

Filing a final challenge to the Bush administration over its political meddling in almost 60 Endangered Species Act decisions, last Wednesday the Center for Biological Diversity filed seven lawsuits over habitat-protection decisions wronging 18 species, as well as one notice of intent to sue over the denial of protection to the Colorado River cutthroat trout. The San Bernardino kangaroo rat, Arkansas River shiner, Riverside fairy shrimp, 12 Texas invertebrates, and three California plants were all robbed of federal habitat protections on Bush’s watch — in the case of the Riverside fairy shrimp, more than 97 percent of the area of habitat deemed by scientists as “essential” was removed from protection thanks to interference by Bush administration officials. In all, more than 158,000 protected acres are at stake in last week’s seven suits. The Colorado River cutthroat trout was denied protection despite severe range loss, ongoing threats, and repeated Center action.

The Bush administration’s mismanagement of the Endangered Species Act, now under extensive federal investigation, is the focus of the Center’s Litigating Political Corruption campaign, through which we’ve already had substantial success in fighting to restore proper protections to 59 imperiled species.

Read more in the Desert Sun.

Feds to Revisit Protections for Southern California Fish

Acknowledging the fishiness of one more of its scientifically flawed and politically tainted Bush-era Endangered Species Act decisions, last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and allies over a rule slashing habitat protections for one of California’s rarest freshwater swimmers, the Santa Ana sucker. The small-bodied, big-lipped fish, though highly adaptable, has suffered serious harm from development, water projects, and other threats and is now reduced to just three populations in the middle part of the Santa Ana River. In response to a Center lawsuit, in 2004 the Fish and Wildlife Service protected more than 21,000 acres of habitat along three of the fish’s four home rivers — only to issue a scientifically unjustifiable decision a year later to reduce the protected area to a measly 8,305 acres, eliminating protections from the sucker’s namesake river, the Santa Ana.

Our latest lawsuit for the Santa Ana sucker — filed in November 2007 with Cal Trout, the California-Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, and Friends of the River — is another part of our Litigating Political Corruption campaign. Hopefully, all 59 species we’re fighting for will get the attention they deserve under the new administration.

Check out our press release and learn more about the Santa Ana sucker.

Suit Forces Agencies to Address Warming’s Impacts on Species

Following almost two years of being ignored by the Bush administration after we petitioned for nationwide laws to protect species from global warming, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed suit against six federal agencies to compel a response to our action. In February 2007, we jumpstarted our Global Warming and Endangered Species Initiative by petitioning the Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, and Environmental Protection Agency to integrate opposition to global warming into all major federal decision-making processes and speed the recovery of endangered species from the American pika to the yellow-billed loon. Our suit, filed last Thursday, demands consideration of the requests of our petition, including reviewing species to spot those especially threatened by warming and prohibiting all federal actions from appreciably reducing the likelihood of a species’ recovery.

“Integrating global warming considerations into all levels of government is the challenge of our times,” declared Center senior counsel Bill Snape. “Yet the Bush administration not only refused to provide direction on climate change policy, it prevented agencies from doing so.”

Get more from

Lawsuit Filed Over Habitat Protections for Endangered Caribou

To protect one of the most majestic and endangered mammals on hooves, last Thursday the Center for Biological Diversity joined the Lands Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Selkirk Conservation alliance in suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to gain federally protected habitat for mountain caribou. Though caribou once roamed by the thousands across the northern United States, hunting, poaching, logging, and roads pushed the entire population into the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and British Columbia. Now disturbance from poorly managed snowmobiling threatens to push caribou out of even this last refuge. Conservation groups filed a petition to protect the caribou’s remaining habitat back in 2002, but the next year the Fish and Wildlife Service said it had higher priorities — and went on to ignore the petition.

Caribou, the only member of the deer family in which both sexes grow antlers, are most vulnerable during the coldest months — just when snowmobiles come out to play. They need vehicle-free habitat if they’re to survive many more winters.

Read more in the Seattle Times.

Groups Defend Oregon Streams and Forests From Bush Attack

After the Bush administration issued an 11th-hour decision to let the timber industry decimate public lands in western Oregon, the Center for Biological Diversity and 12 other conservation and fisheries organizations — represented by Earthjustice — filed suit in defense of salmon and old-growth forests. The Western Oregon Plan Revision allows current logging in the area to nearly quadruple, rezoning 2.6 million acres of federal public forests in Oregon tended by the Bureau of Land Management. The Bush administration timber giveaway ignores science clearly showing these dramatic increases in logging will pollute salmon spawning streams, destroy much of Oregon’s old-growth forest, contribute to global warming, and seriously threaten winged residents like the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet.

Get more from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Center Warns Agency to Heed Warming-threatened Seabird

When the Bush administration was three months late responding to our petition to protect California’s rare ashy storm petrel, last Wednesday the Center for Biological Diversity officially warned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service we’ll sue if it fails to investigate the species’ status. The small, smoke-gray seabird resides in the polluted, development-stressed waters near California’s largest cities and is further threatened by offshore energy terminals, shipping, commercial fishing, and oil spills. Worsening matters, global warming is changing the marine ecosystem of the bird’s home state, leaving warmer, less-abundant waters and causing ocean acidification that depletes the sea of the storm petrel’s prey. In the past 20 years, the largest colony of ashy storm petrels decreased by 42 percent, prompting the World Conservation Union and BirdLife International to list the species as endangered. Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to make its decision on our petition to protect the bird, due last October.

Get details in our press release and learn more about our work to save the ashy storm petrel.

Get Fish Smart With “FishPhone” — and Take Action for Oceans

Do you have fish guilt? That is, do you care about consuming sustainably but not know if the fish you’re eating is good for ocean health or your own? Don’t worry. Thanks to New York-based nonprofit Blue Ocean Institute, if you have a cell phone you can use what the group has dubbed “FishPhone.” The next time you’re in the supermarket or sushi bar and find yourself at sea regarding what fish to ingest, just send a text message reading “FISH,” along with the kind of fish you’re considering, to 30644. Instantly, you’ll get a reply on how healthy your choice is for you and the planet. If your fish is fishy, it’ll be red-flagged.

And here’s a more action-packed way to aid our oceans: Tell the National Marine Fisheries Service to ban swordfish imports from countries that aren’t up to par on their fishing practices. The agency hasn’t been enforcing existing law, allowing the importation of fish caught through methods that kill thousands of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds each year. The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Project petitioned the feds to enforce the ban, and now the Fisheries Service wants to hear from you.

Learn more about FishPhone in Scientific American and take action by January 29th against unsustainable foreign fisheries here.

Kierán Suckling
Executive Director

Another Small Victory

Dear Doug Hagler,

Thank you for taking the time to email us as we always appreciate hearing from our customers.

At Loblaw Companies, we strive to offer our customers excellence in customer service alongside offering superior products.

As a company, we are committed to providing our consumers with a wide range of high quality, safe foods that are produced, manufactured and sourced responsibly. We serve a wide range of customers, and are proud of our ability to offer a large variety of choices to meet their expectations.

We have taken steps which we feel support our commitment for responsibly raised and caught fish and seafood products, including a partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). We are in the process of reviewing our policies regarding the sale of critical seafood species and are currently developing a future sustainable fishing policy.The shark fin soup product was a new, limited time item for Loblaw available only in select stores. We appreciate the sensitivities around the item that were brought to our attention, and upon close and immediate review we have now removed it from our shelves directly and the item will no longer be featured in our flyers.

As we value our customer feedback, we hope that we have addressed your concerns today and look forward to continuing to serve you.

Kindest regards,

Catherine S.

Sr. Customer Relations Representative
Loblaw Companies

A Little More Good Guys Winning to Cheer Me Up

I’m thrilled to tell you that Shell announced yesterday that they canceled their 2009 drilling plans in the Alaska’s ‘Polar Bear Seas.’

This is a direct result of our recent court victory ruling that Shell could not start offshore drilling because the Department of Interior did not adequately assess the environmental and social impacts from drilling.Offshore drilling comes at too high a cost to Arctic communities and wildlife that are already facing unprecedented threats due to the effects of climate change.

This is the third year in a row that we’ve blocked Shell from drilling in the Arctic and we’re committed to keep fighting until we see permanent protections enacted in the region. In 2009 we’ll work with our Alaska Native partners to ensure the new administration addresses climate change and invests in renewable energies instead of perpetuating our addiction to oil.

We couldn’t have won this amazing victory without your support over the last year – thank you!

Thanks again and happy holidays,

Whit Sheard
Alaska Program DirectorPacific