The universe does many things. It makes galaxies, comets, black holes, neutron stars, and a whole mess more. We’ve lately discovered that it makes a great deal of planets, but it’s not clear whether it regularly makes energy-hungry civilizations, nor is it clear whether such civilizations inevitably drive their planets into climate change. There’s lots of hope riding on our talk about building a sustainable civilization on Earth. But how do we know that’s even possible? Does anyone across the cosmos ever make it?
Remarkably, science has now advanced to a point where we can take a first step at answering this question. I know this because my colleagues and I have just published a first study mapping out possible histories of alien planets, the civilizations they grow, and the climate change that follows. Our team was made up of astronomers, an earth scientist, and an urban ecologist.
It was only half-jokingly that we thought of our study as a “theoretical archaeology of exo-civilizations.” “Exo-civilizations” are what people really mean when they talk about aliens. Astronomers refer to the new worlds they’ve discovered as “exoplanets.” They’re now gearing up to use the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments to search for life by looking for signs of “exo-biospheres” on those exoplanets. So if we have exoplanets and exo-biospheres, it’s time to switch out the snicker-inducing word “aliens” for the real focus of our concerns: exo-civilizations.