I worry a lot; probably more than I need to but stuff happening in the world just concerns me and I worry about it. I worry about global warming and how much energy we use. I worry about soft-drink companies sucking pure water out of the ground, putting it in non-biodegradable containers and coercing us to buy it back from them at a price higher than jet-fuel. I worry about the replacement of tracts of rainforest with Palm Oil plantations so that money can be made from women looking like male fantasies. I worry about excess in my daily life, like the flowers or fruit in my local Waitrose having been air-freighted from Africa or South America and I worry about poverty and corruption in countries that are less than a day’s flight away. These are big issues and I feel helpless when I consider the awful mess we’ve got ourselves into. And it all seems to be getting worse, not better. I think that’s why I worry and why I spend so much time thinking it.
It seems to me, though, that there are some root causes that are more or less common to all the pitfalls on the road to utopia; arrogance, selfishness, greed and, something that we have ubiquitously developed into an art-form; stupidity. I’m certain that if we eliminated these fundamental human failings there would be a basis for going a long way towards putting right all the wrongs. Of course, that would require a dose of humility larger than most people, in the west at least, could stomach. But it does happen. Every now and then you hear something about a pressure group changing something here or a small environmental success there, maybe a scientific discovery or even – God forbid – a political statement that generates a hint of optimism. Now if only that local victory or small success could be reflected in appropriate action, a significant gesture or concern on a national or even international level then we’d all have cause to be a lot more optimistic.
Step forward that great force for international consensus, the United Nations. With its unique mandate for being able to deliver good and make real changes to a world that is ominously circling the celestial plug-hole it has taken a giant leap for mankind. No, this doesn’t involve the burgeoning population, energy use or food shortages; last month it designated the individual who, on behalf of Unoosa – the United Nation’s Office for Outer Space Affairs – would be the first point of contact for extraterrestrial visitors. Can you believe it? The news caused a flurry of interest in the media – especially the Sunday Times – and the extreme edges of the blogosphere when it was widely reported that astrophysicist Mazlan Othman would manage ‘first contact’. She had previously spoken to fellow scientists and was quoted as saying, ‘The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination’. Just to put that into context and illustrate how the UN has its finger on the pulse of celestial developments it is worth noting that the first scientific paper on using radio waves to transmit information over interstellar distances – i.e. preparing the ground for first contact – was published in 1959. But back to the future; The Guardian, presumably because it missed the scoop, spoiled the story by reporting that Ms Othman had later denied the specific task of being the first contact ambassador but a quick look at Onoosa’s webpage suggests that we should be no means rule it out. In fact, in a series of statements of good intent that are linked to further recitations of unspecific nonsense emanating from The Committee for The Peaceful Uses of Outer Space the UN sets out its position very well. Without being specific as to what its position is, of course. What it does do is to cover all possible options without actually setting out a mandate for managing the glad-handing of little green men.
I was disappointed by Kofi Annan as UN Secretary-General; soft-spoken appeasement and being careful to avoid offence sounds good in BBC or CNN sound-bites but doesn’t instil fear in transgressors. And it wasn’t surprising when some embarrassing revelations came to light when he denied having met someone who had made substantial payments to his son after winning a huge contract under the UN’s oil-for-food programme. Under intense questioning, he remembered that he did meet him – twice – and that clearly scared some of the senior members of the UN. So, instead of appointing a replacement that was strong and beyond reproach we got Ban Ki-moon. Here’s a man who’s learned from Kofi’s experience; when he gets some difficult issues to deal with – like process problems in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] at the 2007 Bali Climate Conference or concerns raised by 166 experts at the UN Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 – he simply ignores them. No chance, then, of ‘forgetting’ a meeting or two that might be embarrassing a few years later.
How is it then that these increasingly ineffective bureaucrats and purveyors on quasi-legislative nonsense are allowed to unilaterally expand their remit, add increasing layers of administrative navel-gazing and smugly advise the rest of us [in an ultimately deniable way, of course] that they will manage first contact? The answer is because the big players – still the USA and Russia but more likely to be China and even [pause for breath] India – are happy to let them do so. Until, that is, silver bullet-shaped objects glide over our cities or red, flaming fireballs begin to hatch three-legged war machines. When that happens I don’t see our leaders waiting for a UN sub-committee to gather in Vienna to debate and suitably word a galactic resolution that will set out a protocol for greeting and avoid offence or misunderstanding. No, I suspect they’ll look at national interests, major companies and financial implications, which is why it makes absolute sense for them to allow the UN to spout this meaningless nonsense.
Setting out these thoughts sort of implies that a need exists to manage first contact but I wonder about that. If we assume that the Earth will be visited then we also have to assume that the alien visitors will represent a civilisation that is far in advance of this one as it will have mastered space/time travel and, if it hasn’t come to assimilate us, will communicate at a fairly sophisticated level. The SETI institute [Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence], which was established in 1984 and has some history in the field of alien contact, understands this. It estimates that a rocket leaving Earth would take around 60,000 years to travel the 4.2 light-years to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star. That suggests that traffic is likely to be one-way as far as meeting aliens goes and, in support of that, SETI has set out a Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence. So no need to get the UN involved at all.
The question that occurred to me was if anybody was giving any sort of serious consideration to managing first contact then why not involve the people that already know how to go about it? Gene Roddenberry is regrettably no longer with us but what about Steven Spielberg or Patrick Stewart? I’d even settle for William Shatner in preference to Ban Ki-moon, so long as we were able to avoid any physical contretemps.
It seems to me that if the UN wants to be taken seriously and treated with the respect that an international cooperative for peace and good deserves then it needs to put its house in order and stop wasting time and money on nonsensical issues like this. I am left breathless at the idiocy of grown-up people of international repute believing that if galactic beings do arrive on the White House lawn – no one seems to think they’ll land on a municipal housing estate in northern England or Soweto – the reception committee representing you and me should be armed with a resolution drawn up by individuals from third-world nations that is delivered in halting English.
Better that we put the right stuff in front of them and show that we are not to be trifled with. Forget first contact ambassadors from Unoosa; line up a serious welcoming committee – they’ll get my backing.