Taking Aliens Seriously (...Seriously)
It is a cringey topic by necessity. Ancient Aliens has efficiently painted anyone who dare broach the subject as a frizzy-haired fanatic. Aliens are still more science fiction than science, and it behooves both governments and the public to point out alien conspiracy theories for what they are: conspiracy theories.
Recently publicized sightings of unidentified flying objects—UFOs—by multiple U.S. military personnel has renewed discussion on this shadowy and often silly subject, however. It is pertinent to remind ourselves that UFOs are neither explicitly terrestrial nor extraterrestrial; they are simply unidentified. In an era with slightly more transparency from the U.S. government about aeronautic anomalies, keeping that distinction in mind is key. Leading military powers are funding both covert and overt moves in air and space that could change how we think about the skies above and the final frontier. In all likeliness, these UFO sightings will become more frequent. That does not mean they are aliens.
But what if they were?
Many scientists think it would be silly to completely discount the possibility of having otherworldly neighbors. After all, life on earth came from somewhere. Why not from space? Scientific ideas such as the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox similarly posit that alien life most likely exists and, specifically per Fermi’s Paradox, is abundant. Humans are keenly aware that we don’t know whether we are alone, but one day we hypothetically could learn the answer. From political and philosophical standpoints, it is worth giving serious thought.
In considering some of the most destabilizing phenomena in global politics, alien invasion or even just news that aliens were real could be the winner. In the current era, climate change is credited as being the next big destabilizing force that will change life for the worse for most people on earth. In the past, war, famine, plague, natural disasters, and economic collapse have all had their fair share in shaking the human species. In the wacky world of post-2016 politics, some have joked that aliens could be the only thing that would surprise them. Those people may be more right than they would like.
In an interest to avoid mass mayhem, governments and civil society alike should initiate a discussion about how to proceed in the event of an interplanetary soirée. This would start as first step—taking the concept of aliens seriously in public—and would soon branch out into many different arenas of society and governance. Obviously security is a primary concern of our species, as highlighted by films such as Annihilation or even Independence Day. Security vis à vis alien species is hard to study, however, if we have no idea who these alien species would be, what they would want, and what their technological capabilities would be.
In the meantime, the “softer” components of tackling the alien question are both more manageable and more complex. How do we as a society teach our children that they should at least consider aliens as a potential reality when we, the adults, have been taught our whole lives to cast away the discussion as nonsense? This is an extreme and somewhat inaccurate exaggeration, but imagine trying to teach yourself that Santa Claus is indeed real. This would require a massive undertaking at schools, places of worship, homes, and beyond. It would mean both hard changes to many academic disciplines and softer changes to the way humans have fundamentally thought about themselves for millennia.
From a social standpoint, how do we prepare for different scenarios in which we discover and even interact with these alien species? As Daniel Drezner writes in a recent opinion piece, our anthropocentric view of earth’s sovereignty is both fundamental to our species and deeply problematic. It would be a massive philosophical and psychological undertaking to acknowledge that we are no longer the apex predator. The forced humility and fear of that realization would trigger our most basic instincts to attempt to destroy that which we don’t understand. If our extraterrestrial visitors have more sophisticated technology than we do, I shudder thinking about the consequences of our fear untamed.
Aside from violence toward the unknown, I think about other ways in which humans behave under duress and what it would mean to prevent the most destabilizing of those. Suicide rates skyrocket during serious economic calamity. Would that be something to consider? In the event of so much chaos, governments might be inclined to enforce strict martial law, a situation that would be draconian at best and deadly at worst. In the globalized economy, restrictions on the freedom of movement and working hours would damage the economy and socioeconomic wellbeing of those who work and live outside the standard nine-to-five workday.
Basic game theory à la tragedy of the commons is also worth considering. Humans quickly lose all sense of civility and calm in situations that are only borderline problematic. Moderate inclement weather, bank runs, and even tempting Black Friday sales regularly cause violence and shortages. If humans can’t handle 50% off PlayStation 4 units, how are we supposed to look one of the greatest unanswered questions that our species has in the face? Because of how collective action problems work, even if I personally am unconcerned about news of aliens being real, others would likely panic. They could stop going to work, triggering shortages in vital goods and services, and finally making such shortages more acute by buying stores out of all their products. Because of this, I am also incentivized to panic and do the same. I can’t help but wonder if any or all of this is preventable.
There are a plethora of complex social, political, and economic questions to be answered in regards to alien-human relations outside of missiles and fighter jets, and I don’t know how many hypotheticals I can feasibly ponder here. I would like to believe in a humanity that can rise above its instincts and preemptively tackle the many consequences of learning that we are not alone. I would also like to believe in a humanity that vaccinates their children against horrible, contagious diseases, but that has proven to be a tall order. It doesn’t mean that starting a conversation about the alien question wouldn’t be worth it, however.
Sophia Freuden is a Fulbright recipient, a former intern for the U.S. Department of State, and a graduate of Lewis & Clark College’s international affairs program.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech and in the public domain.