Contrary to many of the respondents, I do believe in the Great Filter. I also believe that Fermi was a lot smarter and more insightful than 99.999% of his fellow human beings. My opinion is informed by a few factors: 1) I was initially trained as a biologist; 2) by profession, I am a software architect; and 3) I am an avid student of human history. By “opinion”, I mean that no human being has the means to know or to prove or disprove the existence of the Great Filter — certainly not me. For whatever it might be worth to you, here’s why I hold my opinion and why I believe that the Great Filter is ahead of us.
As a biology student at university, I often had the need to culture bacteria in Petri dishes. When conditions were suitable for the particular strain of bacteria, the result was always the same. If there were only one strain present, it would grow and grow until it either ran out of resources or poisoned itself with its own waste products — always, in the end, killing itself. If more than one strain were present, it would grow until it collided with one of the others, compete for space, then follow the pattern in the first example and ultimately die. While I devoutly hope that individual human beings are smarter than an individual bacterium, as a group, our record for taking care of our Petri dish, the planet Earth, is equally abysmal.
As a software architect I have, for going on 48 years, designed and built increasingly large, complex software systems. The thing I have become most certain of is that all systems are made up of, and defined by, the compromises chosen. Pick the wrong compromises and a system will ultimately fail. I have come to the conclusion that human beings, and their governments, are not far sighted or objective enough to be very good at choosing workable long-term compromises.
Finally, as a lifelong student of history, I have observed that civilizations usually follow a pattern not unlike that played out in the Petri dishes. They ultimately destroy themselves and are replaced by new civilizations. My fear is that the current global civilization — which began in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution and has gradually absorbed most of the nations of the world — has reached a tipping point and shows little real interest in stepping back from the brink. The social and economic stresses that its failures have generated are triggering a “me first” political climate that cannot address existential issues such as climate change and financial inequality. We are reaching a point that is eerily reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Global economic and military power are exponentially greater than they were during that cataclysm — and there is no guarantee that humanity would survive a new world war.
I think that the Great Filter tests whether a species has evolved the societal and organizational skills necessary to cope with extraordinary technological power. I think that the Great Filter is in front of, not behind, humanity. The skills, intelligence, and behaviors we evolved to become Homo sapiens included compromises — like generosity vs greed and us vs them tribalism — that were once necessary for survival, but now make it difficult to address today’s problems. Our greatest human strength has been to extend ourselves by evolving our culture to meet our needs. Sadly, recent political events indicate that we are devolving our culture and preventing ourselves from meeting today’s crucial challenges. I fear that the time of the Great Filter is nearer than we think and that we will fail to pass if we continue down our current path.