I once heard that the United Nations had appointed a scientist to be the Official Liaison for Outer Space Affairs. It was said that her job was to be the first contact in the event that an extraterrestrial species tried to make contact with Earth. Basically, she is the person that the aliens want to talk to when they say “Take me to your leader.” While it may seem slightly ridiculous, I thought this was a great idea. You never really know if or when an alien species will attempt to contact us, and if/when they do, it’s best to be ready. And often, as so many science fiction stories and movies like to point out, when the Earth is on the receiving end of an Outer Space visit, it probably means that whoever is coming has far more advanced technologies than we do, which puts us at a very vulnerable position.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the story was somewhat of a hoax. Yes, Dr. Othman is the head of the UN’s Outer Space Affairs division, but extraterrestrial contact is not part of her job description. She mostly handles problems that arise with a stray meteor that could potentially harm the Earth. But with all the publicity that was made when the story first came out, it’s a wonder why the UN didn’t decide to appoint someone to be the first contact for aliens, or at least appoint a group of people. Countries spend so much money on space exploration and yet don’t think very hard about the consequences. What if we do find life on another planet? How are we supposed to go about contacting those life forms in the most peaceful way without any possibility of miscommunications? Plenty of science fiction stories out there cover this topic, and many of them describe what happens when things just go plain wrong.
I for one believe that the first people to make formal contact with an alien species should not be political world leaders (I am a skeptic of politics I admit) but should in fact be the world’s intellectual leaders, the people who are leading the ways in not just space, but life sciences and technologies as well. The rational people who understand that not everything is about who has the most advantageous position in a relationship, but understand that alien contact is something that should be dealt with calmly and professionally in order to bring out the best for both parties involved. This also touches on my thoughts about leadership positions and such, but I that’s for another time.
A couple of years ago, Hollywood came out with a remake of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. I had watched the original when I was really young, so I don’t actually remember much of the plot, other than that it dealt with a giant robot and an alien that was warning the humans about messing with nuclear weapons. But the remake (starring the extremely expressive Keanu Reeves) dealt with issues about the environment and pollution – a more pertinent topic for our generation. The movie didn’t do too well if I remember correctly, I know I didn’t watch it in the theatres, but like many science fiction movies, it still made me think. As usual, the humans didn’t deal with an alien new comer very well, but there is one scene in the movie where Klaatu has a discussion with Professor Bernhardt about Klaatu’s mission to destroy the human race to allow the Earth a chance to recover from the harmful effects of humanity. Professor Bernhardt then tries to convince Klaatu to stop his plan.
Professor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem.
Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.
Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.
Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.
Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.
Klaatu: Most of them don’t make it.
Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?
Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.
Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threated with destruction that you became what you are now.
Professor Barnhardt: Well that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don’t take it from us, we are close to an answer.
I found this scene highly intriguing because this was one of the few times I saw such a scene where logic was used to help convince a possible enemy. Here, Professor Barnhardt is asking Klaatu to give the human race a chance to change, because it is only when given the chance at the breaking point that humans find the will to change. Evolution occurs when we are forced to make a decision, where one result is extinction and one result is life. It’s a very interesting topic of discussion. How we only change not when we have been warned countless of times, but when the danger is imminent, in our face, that we force ourselves to actually do something about it, otherwise we end up facing death.
Professor Barnhardt makes a good point, one that I agree with. I really do believe that humans as a whole don’t often change, individuals rarely change, and they only do when faced with some immediate danger or something like that. If you watch the TV show HOUSE, you’ll know that one of Dr. House’s mantras is that “People don’t change” (along with “People always lie” and “It’s not lupus”). Despite how much we want certain things to have a profound impact on us, there’s a good chance it won’t, simply because it wasn’t really up-in-our-face. Also, in Firefly, there was one episode (I don’t remember) where one of the villains says something along the lines of “You can spend your entire life with a person and never really know him until he faces the very brink of death.” It appears that only when faced with impending doom do we actually change, and then afterwards, when the danger is no longer immediate, we once again return to our relaxed selves, forgetting how we felt during that situation that made us drastically change who we were for that period of time. (You can tell I learn a lot of my life lessons from television shows, ah, isn’t our generation great?)
A recent TED talk also covered this issue to some degree. Paul Gilding’s talk entitled “The Earth is Full” discusses that fact that right now the human race as a whole is living unsustainably, and if we keep up this trend of growth (or even maintain this level of consumption), the system is going to break down, and we’ll all be screwed. And yet, Gilding wonders why nothing has changed? We’ve known the signs of this outcome for over 50 years. We know what will happen if we keep on this trend, and yet here we are, trucking along with barely a hesitation in our step. We’re not even slowing down. Gilding calls on us to stop our denial and realize that this time, we can’t wait for the precipice to evolve, to change, we have to realize it now so that we can prepare to face the precipice with a plan already in mind. Gilding admits that “It takes a good crisis to get us going” but even right now, when there are numerous crises out there, not much has changed, simply because those crises are not affecting us here at home, directly affecting our loved ones. And those that experience direct loss feel that there simply isn’t enough of them to make a change that matters. But when we look back, thanks to the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we’ll realize just how foolish we’ve been.
“So, in 2012, Mom and Dad, what was it like when you’d had the hottest decade on record for the third decade in a row, when every scientific body in the world was saying you’ve got a major problem, when the oceans were acidifying, when oil and food prices were spiking, when they were rioting in the streets of London and occupying Wall Street? When the system was so clearly breaking down, Mom and Dad, what did you do, what were you thinking?”
We know all of it was happening, yet we kept going? Why? Well, perhaps we simply do not feel as if this is our precipice, our breaking point. We may not know it yet, but we’re in some pretty monumental times of change. Technology is accelerating at an every increasing rate, country-wide protests are becoming almost the norm, and we are surrounded by warning of drastic environmental problems. Gilding calls on us to realize that even if the threat is not imminent, it is still very much there. But because of this, we aren’t going to change anytime soon. We’re going to keep on going, until the system collapses. Which makes me wonder, at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still (SPOILER…but its predictable, so I don’t feel bad) Klaatu decides to cancel his mission to destroy the human race, even going so far as to sacrifice himself to save them after witnessing that humans actually do possess some – for lack of a better word – ‘good’ in them. But is Klaatu’s sacrifice worth it? By saving the humans from an imminent doom, will the Humans actually change their way of life? Humans are an extremely paradoxical race in my opinion, not just in negative aspects but in positive ones as well. It is that paradoxical nature of hope that fuels us. That despite the fact that we know we will fail, we know we cannot prevent poverty, we know that we cannot end world hunger and disease, we try anyway. We think that just by us actually doing something about it, we will have some sort of affect, that as long as there is some sliver of hope, we will keep going, we will keep fighting, despite the looming shadows and dark clouds above us. It’s what makes for great stories and actions of heroism and the “American Dream,” fighting despite all the odds, being the underdog, simply because we had that small sliver of hope and we took it, knowing full well that we probably would fail.
So will we change? At a point where the danger is not imminent, will we make the decision to change the way of life that we are currently living. To at least stop and wonder, examine, “Why are we doing what we are doing? What does this mean for future generations?” I am depressingly inclined to say no, even with people like Mr. Gilding showing us all the signs. The fact of the matter is that people have been showing us the signs for years, and still nothing changes. But what makes us change? What caused such transitions as the civil rights movement? We can undeniably say something changed after those events, and have remained so to this day. But what caused this permanent change? And why is this change, this change to save our world, so much more difficult? Simply because we are not faced with the imminent threat, I think the change will be all the more difficult, maybe even impossible. We need that imminent threat to make us evolve. I wrote a short story (a very short story) touching up the idea, and hopefully with a lot of free time, I can expand that story even more. But I am sad to say that is what I think.
And yet, just as I had mentioned before, just like all humans, I am a paradox. I still cling to that increasingly small sliver of hope. I know that there’s a very good change that we’re all going to fail. But you know what? I’m going to keep trying anyway. I’m going to make sure that what I do is something that convinces myself that I have an impact. That I at least have the illusions of impacting the way we affect the world, that I matter and I have some form of control. It may be selfish of me, to do something only because it’ll make me feel good at the end, but perhaps that’s what we all need. To convince ourselves that despite all odds, the fact that we are doing something instead of nothing matters. So perhaps the way to make us change isn’t to present a clear threat and crises, but to make us all understand that the crises will come, and let everyone find their own way to deal with it.
So I’ll end with another brief scene earlier in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Where Klaatu convers with a fellow alien-in-human-form Mr. Wu (in slightly garbled Chinese, but hey, props for trying) about the human race, and whether or not Klaatu should go through with his mission.
Klaatu: You’ve been out of contact for a long time.
Mr. Wu: I had a dangerous assignment. This is hostile territory.
Klaatu: I’ve noticed. I was hoping I could reason with them.
Mr. Wu: I’m afraid they are not a reasonable race. I’ve been living amongst them for seventy years now. I know them well.
Mr. Wu: Any attempt to intercede with them would be futile. They are destructive, and they won’t change.
Klaatu: Is that your official report?
Mr. Wu: The tragedy is, they know what’s going to become of them.
Mr. Wu: They sense it. But they can’t seem to do anything about it.
Mr. Wu: I’m staying.
Klaatu: You can’t stay here.
Mr. Wu: I can and I will.
Klaatu: If you stay, you’ll die.
Mr. Wu: I know. This is my home now.
Klaatu: You yourself called them a destructive race.
Mr. Wu: That’s true. But still, there is another side. You see, I… I love them. It is a very strange thing. I… I… I can’t find a way to explain it to you. For many years I cursed my luck for being sent here. Human life is difficult. But as this life is coming to an end… I consider myself lucky… to have lived it.
So even without an immediate threat, a precipice, to force us to adapt and change will you consider yourself lucky to have lived the life you lived? Because the threat is very much there, even if we don’t see it.