In 1960, at the height of the Space Race, NASA commissioned the public policy think tank, the Brookings Institution, to “identify and categorize the long range implications for American society of space exploration.” The result was a wide-ranging report with the rather unwieldy title “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs.”

More commonly known today as the Brookings Report, the 219 page document discusses many of the possible consequences of space exploration we now take for granted, including the use of satellites for forecasting weather, the benefit to ordinary Americans of technology created by the space program, using public-private partnerships to exploit space, the effect of space exploration on American foreign policy, and so on.

But the report is best known for one particular reason. It touches on the implications for our society should we ever discover intelligent alien life.

“Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behavior.” – page 183

While I don’t believe there is much risk of disintegration, it’s hard to argue that making contact with an advanced alien civilization won’t have a major impact on our society, for better or for worse.

Brookings goes on to suggest a couple of areas that could be studied further in hopes of mitigating the harmful effects:

“Since intelligent life might be discovered at any time via the radio telescope research presently under way, and since the consequences of such a discovery are presently unpredictable because of our limited knowledge of behavior under even an approximation of such dramatic circumstances, two research areas can be recommended:

Continuing studies to determine emotional and intellectual understanding and attitudes — and successive alterations of them if any — regarding the possibility and consequences of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Historical and empirical studies of the behavior of peoples and their leaders when confronted with dramatic and unfamiliar events or social pressures. Such studies might help to provide programs for meeting and adjusting to the implications of such a discovery. Questions one might wish to answer by such studies would include: How might such information, under what circumstances, be presented to or withheld from the public for what ends? What might be the role of the discovering scientists and other decision makers regarding release of the fact of discovery?” – pages 183–184

Incidentally, the only reason anyone still talks about the Brookings Report these days is because of the sentence highlighted above. This perfectly reasonable question has been co-opted by UFO conspiracy theorists as confirmation that the US government is conspiring to keep the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials from the American people. Of course, simply posing the question isn’t proof of anything, not even in a time when government secrecy is a major concern, but that hasn’t stopped the word “Brookings” from becoming widely-recognized shorthand for a giant government cover-up of various UFO-related activities.

But I digress. Naturally, the report doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the impact of contacting alien life, but it does make some interesting points about how profound and unpredictable its effects could be on certain aspects of human society.

First, there is little doubt that our sense of perspective will change:

“The knowledge that life existed in other parts of the universe might lead to a greater unity of men on earth, based on the ‘oneness’ of man or on the age-old assumption that any stranger is threatening. Much would depend on what, if anything, was communicated between man and the other beings . . .” – page 183

We will finally know, once and for all, that we are not alone. It will be a singular event in human history, and will likely lead to Earth’s recorded history being divided once more into two parts–before contact and after contact. I doubt any sense of unity or ‘oneness’ will last very long once it is clear the aliens are not an existential threat, but it will be a profound step in the evolution of human society, nonetheless.

The report is also right to consider the impact on the various religious communities around the world:

“The positions of the major American religious denominations, the Christian sects, and the Eastern religions on the matter of extraterrestrial life need elucidation. Consider the following: ‘The Fundamentalist (and anti-science) sects are growing apace around the world . . . For them, the discovery of other life — rather than any other space product — would be electrifying. . . .

Sadly, even sixy years after the report was published, those “fundamentalist (and anti-science)” religious sects and organizations are still very much a fact of life in many parts of the world, but if we do make contact, groups who claim Earth is only a few thousand years old and that human beings hold a uniquely privileged place in the Universe will certainly have some explaining to do.

However, I don’t think this will be the big deal many expect it to be. If history shows us anything, it’s that religions are perfectly capable of adapting when confronted with the undeniable. After first contact, religious leaders will pour over their holy books looking for a way to accommodate the new reality of extraterrestrial intelligence, and I have no doubt they will find it and quickly soothe the doubts and fears of their loyal flock.

There will be a few holdouts–those that claim the aliens are demons sent to deceive us–but all the major religions will almost certainly continue as though nothing has changed, though they will likely encounter some stiff competition from a bunch of new religions based on some intriguing aspect of the visiting aliens’ history or culture.

The Brookings Report also talks about the adverse impact first contact may have on scientists and engineers who may suddenly find their expertise hopelessly obsolete. That might be a problem, but an influx of highly advanced science and technology would also make it a very exciting time to be an engineer or scientist. There would be a torrent of new information to digest, leading to a high demand for people who can explain the new technology, and find ways to exploit it. I don’t think they will be too unhappy.

Interestingly, the report fails to mention the one aspect of human society that will almost certainly see the biggest impact from a close encounter with intelligent extraterrestrials–the economy.

We live in a time when world stock markets can nosedive if as much as the wrong person sneezes, so what do you think will happen when our friendly alien neighbors decide to drop by for a visit in their shiny interstellar spaceships brimming with super-advanced technology? How does one assess the value of a terrestrial energy company when we find out the ships in orbit above us are powered by car-sized fusion engines?

It will be chaos. Across whole swathes of industry, existing market valuations will go out of the window. Money and credit will dry up, since nobody will want to invest in existing or new enterprises until they have a handle on how the influx of advanced technology is going to impact the economy.

The knock-on effect could plunge the world economy into a deep depression, and cause a great deal of pain and suffering. It will therefore be critical for world leaders to get to grips with the situation as quickly as possible.

The right solution will depend on the circumstances. It might be best if the aliens refuse to give us any of their advanced technology, or at least delay the transfer until we are better prepared. While that may come as a disappoint to many, it would help restore some much needed confidence in the world markets. On the other hand, the rapid deployment of the aliens’ vast technological resources could mitigate the problems associated with transitioning the world to the new post-contact reality.

Either way, we are an adaptable species, and I have little doubt that we will survive first contact, and will eventually thrive as a result. That’s not to say we’ll come out of it completely unscathed, but then, that’s not likely to happen even if we’re left to muddle through on our own for the next thousand years.

So, on balance, I believe that contact with an intelligent alien civilization will be a net benefit to Earth. It is unlikely for our visitors to have malicious intent toward us, and it is very unlikely they will seek to despoil our planet for their own selfish reasons. I believe both sides will have much more to gain from friendly contact and a peaceful exchange of ideas, but even if that turns out not to be the case, there is very little we can do to stop them.

If, while reading this series of articles, you detected a mix of fatalism and optimism, then you would be correct. I believe that if there are alien ships roaming the galaxy on the lookout for life-bearing planets, they will find us and we will encounter them no matter what we do, but I also believe it will turn out to be a very good thing for human society in the long run when we do.

Will it happen? I don’t know. You often see people predicting the detection of intelligent alien life within the next 20 or 30 years–i.e. conveniently long enough so that they can’t be proven wrong too quickly, but conveniently short enough to maintain the hope of still being alive to see it happen.

I hope they are right, but I’m not holding my breath. Odds are it will be many more decades, perhaps even centuries, before we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that we will detect an extrasolar planet with signs of life on it within the next few years, which in itself, would be a very exciting development.

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