Monday, July 29, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Great Debate

Humans tend to have a monolithic and yet shallow view of First Contact.  This is especially true of Direct First Contact, a scenario in which aliens make contact in close proximity to Earth, or on Earth, thus enabling humans and extraterrestrials to have an actual conversation and begin a relationship. Such an event would be extraordinary and most of us agree that it would have a profound impact on the human civilization. But after the awe and wonder we will have to move forward. So, I ask- what happens next?

The optimists would say we would go skipping down the path to a grand new future. The cynics say we would be destroyed, either by aliens with evil intentions, or by ourselves, as our society in thrown into chaos. As with all extremes, both of those poles seem rather unlikely. What does seem likely is the messy middle- a little of this and a little of that, much that we never expected, and plenty of serious challenges. Those challenges are likely to be based on the great debate. The topic for discussion: What do we, as a human society, do next? Do we open relations with extraterrestrials or keep them at a distance? How much access do we give them in communication? Do we control who they communicate with? Who does all of this deciding, anyway? Does the United Nations take the lead? Do scientists lead the effort? How much is this situation about diplomacy and how much is it about science? What do we ask the extraterrestrials to tell us about themselves? Do we want scientific information? Do we want information about their technology? Who decides what we want to know about? Do they even care what we want? How do we deal with that?

I could go on for a good bit. You get the picture. There would be a million questions and many of them quite pressing in a Direct First Contact situation. Decisions would have to be made. In the end, one hopes anyway, those decisions probably wouldn’t be made by a small group of people. If news of Direct First Contact does indeed reach the entire human population, humans from all corners of the globe will rightfully demand some sort of input into what decisions are made. We would most likely rely on our national governments to relay those concerns and expect governmental leaders to act on our behalf. Those concerns may be wide ranging and divergent. People in one nation, and from a certain culture, could feel very differently about First Contact from people in another nation, and from a different culture. We may have 20 different opinions about any one particular question. And most likely nations and cultures would be divided in opinion within themselves.  

If national governments are the only representation for the people of planet Earth, there would need to be a forum for governments to debate the options and decide a path forward. The most logical forum would be the United Nations, as it is made up of most nations on Earth. Other International groups are less representative or designed for specific tasks- such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Scientific groups, such as the International Astronomical Union, while representing scientists worldwide, do not have experience in diplomacy or wide-ranging international policy. They would be hugely helpful for input and expertise, but no scientific body is designed to debate policy and make governmental decisions. That only leaves one real choice.

There is a regular debate in the United Nations on many different issues. The framework and infrastructure for debating issues of extraterrestrial contact are in place and ready to go, even if that particular subject has never been seriously considered. Sure, there would be plenty of additional work to set up additional committees and sub-committees, but even some of these already exist. One would imagine that the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space might be a good place to start (even if they have failed to plan for this eventuality).

The discussion needs to involve all nations and come from many different perspectives.  It should not be controlled or dominated by powerful governments or institutions. There is no doubt that nations such as the United States, Russia and China will have a huge role in the post-First Contact decision making. However, they would need to respect other nations, listen to the diversity of opinions, and then allow the General Assembly to make decisions.

It will be hard, because there will be a lot of different voices. The fringes would need to be heard, despite how unsettling their points of view may be to the majority.  Diversity would be critically important and we would actually have to listen to each other. We might even change our opinions as a result and come up with new ideas. This would be the fruit of the process. In this particular debate there would be no precedent to examine. Perhaps some finer points could be gleaned from examining our past, but for the most part we will need to look towards the future with imagination and using critical thinking. We will be making decisions that could affect many generations to come.

There will be a big internal struggle. Post First Contact decision making cannot be controlled by politicians, corporations and those seeking to keep power or acquire new power. If that sounds like a tall-order, it would be. After all, who appoints representatives to the United Nations?  Governments.  And that, of course, means politicians and bureaucrats. Politicians and bureaucrats are heavily influenced by corporations and lobbyists- it’s how most governmental systems work. It will be impossible to stop all influence, and of course, corporations and interest groups deserve to be heard as well.

If it all sounds like a nightmare, it certainly could be. Post First Contact decision making will need to be led by tough and rational facilitators who have a greater calling: the betterment of humanity. Once again, I point to the formation of the United Nations. This is their charge. This is why the body exists. Would First Contact challenge an already at times beleaguered and often maligned organization? Most likely. This would be the time for the United Nations to step up and make a difference. If the body has been searching for a purpose, as critics have implied, contact with extraterrestrials would appear to be a pretty good reason for existing. Will the United Nations need to change, become more responsive and better administered? Of course. But all of that would have to start somewhere.

Time for you to chime in with your criticism of the UN. Join the conversation on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.

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