The human mind is under no obligation to seek a global perspective. It was trained for survival under local threats and dangers. Over the timescale of millions of years characterizing human history, natural selection provided no persistent advantage for engaging with tribes beyond your own, responding to global conditions on Earth, or venturing to other habitable environments in the Solar system, near other stars or within other galaxies throughout the vast Universe. In fact, such global aspirations are often regarded as a distraction from local politics and the comfort brought about by the immediate environment of a loving partner, a loving family or the local tribe. I am often asked in interviews why space exploration should be funded while we face much more pressing problems in our local economy, public health and education.
The Jewish scholar Hillel preached for living a simple life, and reasoned: “The more property, the more anxiety” (Pikei Avot 2:7). This extends also to intellectual property and global awareness. Reading the morning news about the troubles of the world raises our level of anxiety without an immediate local benefit. It is therefore not surprising that we prefer to focus our attention on the local pleasures of good food and the company of friends than on global existential risks. A local life is more likely to be a happy life because it involves fewer independent elements where something might go wrong.
This attraction to local circumstances is evident from touring around the world and visiting close-knit communities. Each local community has its own traditions and rituals based on its local history. And each cultural bubble often regards its way of living as the “way things are supposed to be,” while discouraging its members from seeking alternative belief systems. The latter strategy seeks self-preservation, as communities willing to adapt to a changing world have disappeared by now.
Three decades ago, I visited with my parents the village of Netze near Frankfurt, Germany, where my father was born almost a century ago and where a street is named after my grandfather, Albert Loeb, whose name I carry (since Albert=Abraham=Avi). When we walked down the street with the village mayor, local people greeted my father even though he left the village sixty years earlier at age 11. During lunch at a local restaurant, we noticed a display of newspapers from the past century, celebrating memorable village events. It felt as if time had a limited impact on this local environment despite the huge transformations encountered around the world.
Cultural bubbles are stable as long as they do not come into conflict with each other. Throughout human history, confrontations triggered hatred and war. But even with these dangers in mind, conflicts emerged when local interests clashed.
The focus on local affairs explains why it is so difficult for humanity to grasp the danger presented by global risks, like a worldwide pandemic or climate change. The local political instinct of the Chinese government was to limit information about the COVID-19 pandemic when it emerged in the Wuhan province. Similarly, not enough is done by the international community to mitigate climate change. The blindness to global existential risks tends to persist until they inflict immediate wounds and change the lifestyle of communities at the local level.
The phenomenon of cultural bubbles might extend to space exploration in the future. One can imagine the Artemis program of NASA resulting in a close-knit community of people on the Moon that will develop local rituals in a very different way than a community on Mars or the traditional communities on Earth. And if fragmentation into cultural bubbles is a universal trait, it might also apply to other technological civilizations throughout the Milky Way galaxy and the Universe at large. Intelligent species are likely to separate into independent bubbles even as they travel into interstellar space, with limited attention dedicated to global collaboration.
Although the common focus on local affairs works in the short term, it brings existential risks in the long term. Local cultures are likely to underestimate the risk of a global event that would wipe them out. Their ability to cope with an unprecedented global challenge is compromised by their focus on local traditions and historical pride, leading to a reluctance to cooperate with global partners. In the long run, natural selection favors those who adapt to changing circumstances; indeed, most of the time the changes are local but sometimes they are global, like the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
The universal nature of scientific inquiry breaks the mold of our local state-of-mind. The US Congress tasked NASA two decades ago to identify most near-Earth objects larger than the size of the football field, a planetary protection lesson from the dinosaur extinction event.
But scientific curiosity extends farther. Astronomers care about stars and black holes that pose no existential risk to humanity. In fact, I just published today a new paper in collaboration with my postdoc, Fabio Pacucci, on the discovery of a supermassive black hole with three million times the mass of the Sun in the dwarf galaxy, Leo I, at the outskirts of the Milky Way, about a million light years away. The avalanche of emails I received this morning implies that many astronomers are excited by the finding, because Leo I has a thousand times fewer stars than the Milky Way, yet they host a similar mass black hole at their centers. The level of excitement has nothing to do with any local interests or concerns.
In this vein, astronomers wish to figure out the nature of dark matter which has no presence inside near Earth meteors. They study compact stellar remnants in the form of neutron stars or white dwarfs, as well as the extreme environments of spacetime near black holes and the Big Bang. In my recent paper with Sunny Vagnozzi, we analyzed the gravitational waves produced in the earliest moment after the Big Bang as a new method of ruling out the paradigm of cosmic inflation. There is no existential risk from this Big Bang relic.
Of course, astronomers are also curious about whether extraterrestrial life exists and if so what level it reached in its most intelligent incarnations. If we ever discover it, we might find a close-knit extraterrestrial culture that cares little about us; just like an isolated tribe on an island, enjoying the local fruits without being concerned about what lies beyond the horizon. It would be inappropriate for us to impose our global scientific interests on them. They may follow wise counsel from their own Henry David Thoreau, advocating the benefits of less is more in living a simple life in cabins near their local Walden pond and never transmitting radio signals or venturing into interstellar space.
This realization would offer a new twist to the interpretation of Enrico Fermi’s paradox: “Where is everybody?”. In this case, the answer might be: “Relax. They are enjoying the good food and company of friends on their own habitable planet in the outskirts of the Milky Way. They have newspapers describing historical events from the past billions of years on display in their local restaurants. Cheers!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in June 2023.