Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Problem for the United Nations

The recent media hoo-hah over the United Nations role in preparing for First Contact is quite instructive. It gives a bare glimmer of the possible fallout if First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization was to occur. The problem? The United Nations faces criticism for merely existing. In the eyes of many folks on the conservative end of the political spectrum world government is something to be feared and that makes the U.N. a threat.

It’s not hard to find problems with the U.N. It has been a body in search of something to do for many years now.

So, enter Dr. Mazlan Othman, by all accounts an intelligent and respected astrophysicist. As director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs she spends most of her time brokering treaties and agreements concerning objects in near Earth orbit. This is important work, as it helps to deter missile platforms in space and other world security threats.

The London Sunday Times reported last weekend that Dr. Othman gave a talk at a scientific conference saying that she was to be officially charged with developing plans for how to deal with First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The story crisscrossed the globe, exploded on the Internet and became a prime target for conservative commentators. Some of the concern is legitimate. If Dr. Othman has such an important job in ensuring the safety of near Earth orbit, then what is she doing wasting her time with extraterrestrial contact issues? I suppose we would actually need to hear from Dr. Othman about this. Perhaps she believes she can handle both duties at once? Perhaps she feels that interested academic volunteers might help take the lead on developing some of these First Contact strategies? We may never know. It seems likely that in the face of the furor the United Nations will further back away from developing First Contact strategies.

The sad part is that First Contact would be the one event that would finally propel the United Nations into a whole new role: representatives of the planet. They would have a clear mandate.

Of course, it’s not just the conservatives who are critical of the U.N. and this current extraterrestrial debacle. My favorite comment came from a blogger for the Economist who suggested that in a First Contact event the United States and China would simply take control of the situation behind closed doors. Wonderful. So much for having the rest of humanity participate in this world-altering event.

There is one ray of hope. On October 4 and 5 the Royal Society is holding a conference to address the societal science aspects of First Contact. It features an impressive line-up of speakers and promises to tackle some important issues: Calling ET, or not even answering the phone? Societal questions raised by the detection of extra-terrestrial life. What could studies of extra-terrestrial life tell us about the future of humanity? Extra-terrestrial life and arising political issues for the UN agenda.

That last topic should be pretty interesting given the latest media spectacle. Dr. Othman is scheduled to attend the conference and I wish her the best. It seems that First Contact preparation will have to go back into the shadows for a while. Hopefully, Dr. Othman will retain her keen interest in the subject, even if the United Nations doesn’t give her official approval to examine First Contact in public.

What does this mean for First Contact? If it ever does occur we will be in for a wild ride here at home.

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