In the Star Trek universe, the date of First Contact with alien life is fast approaching. According to canon, an affable if a little unhinged scientist called Zefram Cochrane will catch the attention of the Vulcans in 2063 with mankind’s first warp drive. There seems to be little argument that there is intelligent life out there, and some of it may be more advanced than us. But have we ever stopped to think that perhaps the little green dudes are maybe just not that into us? Here is why.
1. We Are a Hot Mess.
Let’s say you are an advanced alien species watching earthlings to work out whether a partnership was a good idea: Where would you get your information? You’d tap into our communications infrastructure and have access to literally thousands of news reports per second about how horrible we are as a species – to ourselves, to each other and to every ecosystem on the planet.
My friend Joe points out that in the Star Trek timeline, we have World War III before we get to First Contact, which only happened when Vulcans – the universe’s philosophical, peace-loving monks – figured mankind had gone beyond war and was therefore advanced enough to earn their friendship. I don’t see us getting to that point in less than 50 years – do you?
2. We Struggle to Rise Above Fear, Racism and Xenophobia.
The new neighbors are different from us. They talk differently, they eat weird things and the grocery store has changed how they do things because of our neighbor’s religion. What about my religion? Why can’t they just fit in?
Sound familiar? Do you really think aliens want a dose of the bullshit we dole out every day to each other?
3. We Botched Our First Impression.
In 1972, the Pioneer 10 space probe launched, headed for the outer reaches of our solar system. These days, it’s about 10 million miles away and headed for the Taurus constellation. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will be intercepted by intelligent life but I for one hope they don’t look too closely because there is a plaque on board that is, at best, embarrassingly shoddy.
The early and mid 1970s was a heady time for space exploration. We launched 55 satellites and space probes from earth during that decade (by contrast, we sent just 35 from 2000-2010), including many exploratory probes like the Pioneers. During an earlier mission, a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor told space luminary Carl Sagan that it would be cool to put a message on the Pioneer probes, in case intelligent life were to happen upon it. Sagan sought approval from NASA and was granted just three weeks to develop a message appropriate for any life we would encounter. For reals.
Sagan may have been a genius but three weeks was not enough time to fully ponder the implications of what we were trying to achieve, balance the competing goals of the program and design something that was both appropriate to represent us and could be easily understood by intelligent life that may not interact with writing or images in the way that we do. So we made this: Two gold-plated aluminum plaques engraved with images of the solar system, a representation of a hydrogen atom – the most common element in our universe – the space probe itself (like some sort of pointless interstellar postmark, I presume) and the likeness of a naked human man and woman.
That’s right: We sent dick pics in our first message to intelligent life.
In an excruciatingly embarrassing twist, the makers then removed the vulva line from the human female, making it clear how we treat women in this sexist backwater of a planet while also removing any chance of helping the aliens understand that we use sexual reproduction, which was presumably the point of carving depictions of our junk into our spaceship in the first place. Onya, humans. Great work there.
4. We Don’t Play Well With Others.
To get an idea of what First Contact might look like, we can look to our own history of first contacts with peoples across the world. In almost every case, it has been a story of technological might driving expansionism as first world people relegate everyone else to marginal existence while extractive and unsustainable industry drives economic progress that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few. So either they’re more advanced than us, in which case we’re screwed, or the reverse, in which case we really should have but in reality have not learnt better by now.
5. Our Future is more Mad Max than Star Trek.
In the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations, captains Kirk and Picard meet on earth, which is a green and virile place where agriculture thrives and peace appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. In one scene, Kirk rides a horse through a picturesque ranch that is the actor William Shatner’s own in Kern County, California, which is an area known best these days as a drought-stricken wildfire zone. Just last week, a 30,000 acre wildfire ripped through the county, killing two and destroying 100 homes.
As our climate changes, we are physically and perhaps permanently changing the way our ecosystems work. Water sources are contaminated or dry up, prompting fighting, the spread of disease and mass exodus. Previously arable land becomes barren, creating famines and malnutrition. Extreme weather events kill and displace millions. Governments struggle to cope with disease outbreaks and constant warfare, lose their funding base, become rife with corruption and collapse. Lawlessness reigns. Into the vacuum comes despots and crooks, zealots and dictators.
The support systems required for Zephram Cochrane to invent that first warp drive are already crumbling, with science education in the doldrums and investment in clean energy technology going backwards, faster than the impulse engines on the USS Enterprise. It won’t be Captain Janeway that will lead the world we are creating, but rather Mad Max villain Immortan Joe. If you were an intelligent alien life form, would you want to meet him?