October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’d like to think that contact with an alien civilization would unite the world in wonder, fascinate people of all caste and creed at the reality of life outside of our own small world. I’d like to think that the governments of Earth would realize the relative irrelevance of the problems they have with each other in the face of the discovery that we are not alone. I’d like to think that we would take all money out of national defense and reinvest it in a program aimed at establishing friendly relations with the interstellar travelers. Ideally, we would come out of this experience having learned that our disputes are trivial, and what really matters is ensuring the future of the planet and the viability of our species.
I’ve had too much experience in this world to think that would EVER happen.
Alien contact with Earth can only end in the creation of factions, tension, and conflict. In the novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, the world has united to combat the global threat of the Buggers. If the aliens were indeed hostile, I think Earth would have to follow this path to survive the assault. However, not even this possibility would necessarily unify humanity. I think back to the days of the Atlantic slave trade; white slavers played African tribes off each other, used certain groups to capture other groups and hand them over to the slave ships, and generally subjugated West Africa not only through brute force, but also through the tensions that already existed there. In a very similar way, if aliens were to contact us, it would set off an international race to befriend the new race and use them as a powerful ally. Imagine a New Space Race, reaching further than ever before into the depths of the galaxy. The Americans, the Chinese, the EU, Russia, Iran–all would attempt to build the biggest radio transmitters, develop ultra-high-speed space travel, train a force specializing in space combat, and all would attempt to do it the fastest. Whichever group was able to establish the first friendly relations with the aliens would be able to influence their opinions on Earth, gain valuable resources through trade, and hold the threat of immediate destruction by an extraterrestrial force over the heads of all other nations. Such an alliance would be the most valuable ever forged.
The community of scientists would, of course, urge the unification of Earth in the face of an intelligent race from space, but unfortunately scientists gain much of their funding from the governments of Earth. Much as the atomic bomb’s use was strongly opposed by its creators but occurred anyways, the cosmologists and astrophysicists of the planet would plead their case in vain to the power-hungry governments. With the wonderment at ETs absent in the politicians and the focus on beating other countries to the aliens, I wonder if scientists would refuse to continue work. A revolt by the scientific community could become bloody, though, as the warhawks whip the populace into a frenzy and label the scientists as heretics, traitors, and enemies of the state. With such an important alliance at stake, I have a feeling scientists would be forced to participate.
As to the alien response, I could imagine them being amused at Earth’s immature, futile behavior. For a society to develop technology to contact us or even visit us from across the vast emptiness of space, it seems that the necessary ingredient would be either total unity and peace or total desperation. If the first condition were true, the aliens would laugh in our faces, laugh at our inability to resolve our differences, laugh at our prioritization of national defense and ensuring a happy retirement over the preservation of our home. If the second condition were true, the aliens would observe the same things and shake their heads sadly at us, likely having experienced the same problems on their own world. In either case, I could see them leaving us, dismissing Earth as unprepared to either communicate with a more developed race or unfit to help their desperate cause.
The bottom line is, only in a dream world can alien contact end well. We are too competitive by nature to put the interests of the whole planet ahead of national concerns, and the only thing that could change this would be a catastrophe of epic proportions, a la Ender’s Game.
Then again, maybe I’m not giving us enough credit.