By now you’ve probably read about the paper — authored by a NASA-affiliated scientist along with two scholars from Penn “Hockey Stick Graph” University — laying out various scenarios that might play out in the aftermath of first contact with an alien intelligence. The paper, published in Acta Astronautica, hilariously suggests that an otherwise benevolent alien race might nevertheless destroy us in a “preemptive” strike designed to stop us from global-warming our way to galactic dominion. You read that right. (Shall we call this manner of preemptive strike the Gore Doctrine?)
In any event, I’ve read the paper (so you don’t have to) and that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. It turns out that any alien race that comes into contact with us will, by the very fact of their advanced state of development, very likely resemble what we mere Terrans think of as progressive liberals. Indeed, one of the answers advanced by the authors to the question of why we haven’t been contacted by aliens already is that we aren’t yet worth their time — that they are waiting until we achieve a “societal benchmark such as sustainable development or international unity” before they pick up the phone.
Once they do reach out and touch us, friendly extraterrestrials might offer us “information on how to avoid technological catastrophe in order to help less developed civilizations succeed” and offer “solutions to problems on earth . . . such as world hunger, poverty, or disease.” (Though the authors do concede that broad biological differences could blunt this impact: After all, “an [alien] society that eats only hydrogen might not have any practical information relating to development issues on Earth.”) Naturally.
And whereas the authors allow that a belligerent alien civilization might “enslave us” and even “eat us,” they also hypothesize that “an advanced society capable of interstellar travel may be less likely to turn to humans as a source of food or labor because they should have already solved these problems through some combination of machine labor, artificial synthesis, and conservation.” Good news everyone! Aliens have perfected left-wing technocracy.
Oh, and they might also attack us because they are religious nuts with a “drive to spread their beliefs through evangelism (akin to the spread of Christianity or Islam).” Or because they are profit-minded capitalists eager to “sell us their products, keep us as pets, or have us mine raw materials for them.”
And there is always merriment and drollery as motivations for planetary subjugation, or as the authors put it, the “desire to use humans for entertainment purposes” much as we humans “use sea lions and seals” to balance rubber balls on their noses. Seriously.
But even cosmopolitan aliens who vest “intrinsic value” in all “ecosystems,” not just their own, could wipe us out in the service of “improv[ing] galactic infrastructure” and “more efficiently us[ing] our resources.” (Here the authors cite novelist Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, wherein Earth is exploded to make way for a galactic bypass.) Similarly, an alien civilization seeking to “maximize” galactic “diversity” could wipe us out to that end, seeing our “rapid and destructive expansion on Earth” as a precursor to similar destructiveness on the cosmic scale. And here’s where we find the money graf. It’s worth reading in full (ETI stands for extraterrestrial intelligence):
But if ETI doubt that our course can be changed, then they may seek to preemptively destroy our civilization in order to protect other civilizations from us. A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilization may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilizational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere (e.g. via greenhouse gas emissions), which therefore changes the spectral signature of Earth. While it is difficult to estimate the likelihood of this scenario, it should at a minimum give us pause as we evaluate our expansive tendencies. . . .
On purely pragmatic grounds, the authors then recommend we cover up our pollutin’ tracks by not transmitting the evidence of global warming into space. On the other hand, they hedge, perhaps these paternalistic aliens would be even more vexed if they caught us in a lie:
Given that we have already altered our environment in ways that may viewed as unethical by universalist ETI, it may be prudent to avoid sending any message that shows evidence of our negative environmental impact. The chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere over recent time may be a poor choice for a message because it would show a rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide from human activity. Likewise, any message that indicates of widespread loss of biodiversity or rapid rates of expansion may be dangerous if received by such universalist ETI. On the other hand, advanced ETI may already know about our rapid environmental impact by listening to leaked electromagnetic signals or observing changes in Earth’s spectral signature. In this case, it might be prudent for any message we send to avoid denying our environmental impact so as to avoid the ETI catching us in a lie.
But maybe the most unintentionally hilarious bit of the paper is the paragraph-long apology for not taking into account how the aliens might be negatively effected by us. This isn’t advocacy of “selfish,” “anthropocentric” ethics, the authors assure us, but rather an expository shortcut, since spelling out the various ways in which we could disrupt and corrupt xeno-ecology would presumably take a much longer paper — or several more Jim Cameron sequels.
Missing from all this is the following suggestion: that the spacemen have elected not to contact us because of papers like this.