In 2014, when he was a guest at Jimmy Kimmel Live, former president Bill Clinton talked about the possible existence of alien species out there in the ever-expanding universe. He finished the interview with a curious sentiment. “It may be the only way to unite this increasingly divided world of ours,” he said. And by “it” he meant an alien invasion from outer space.
This was not the first time this notion was put forward by a major political leader. Thirty years earlier, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, President Ronald Reagan said: “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside of this world.”
In an 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria, New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman argued that an alien threat would help us set our priorities straight and fix the economy in a short period of time. He referenced a Twilight Zone episode as the source of this perspective (but is was actually an episode of The Outer Limits). In that episode, some scientists conjure up such a threat to get people to work together against a global foe.
These sentiments all stem from the fact that countries, societies, and communities are getting increasingly polarized. And the future looks bleak too. Those who govern us, often find it effective to break us up strategically to conquer our attention, loyalty, and votes. Social media and online networks seem to be using our own psychological tendencies to exacerbate and calcify the divides to gain more users, views and profits.
It seems that we are not able to naturally reverse this tide. So, before we further turn on each other, could a strictly external, common adversary do the trick?
The fantastical unifying effect of an alien invasion
Science fiction has, in fact, recurrently played with the notion of uniting humans against a common, alien enemy. Like The Outer Limits, Watchmen, the famous comic-book series and the film based on them, also imagined a main character make up the threat of a hostile alien invasion to prevent a nearing world war. Independence Day, the 1996 movie, envisioned a scenario where that invasion actually happens. And lo and behold, citizens of the world work out all their differences and unite against the common enemy to ultimately defeat it.
How realistic is this notion? Not much, unfortunately. Two top scientists on the topic, Dr. Michio Kaku and Dr. Stephen Hawking recently crashed these dreams of collective heroism against invaders from out of this world. Both agreed that, unlike our perfect track record in Hollywood movies, such an encounter would be disastrous for us, as the invasion would be likely led by aliens that are so advanced that we would be obliterated before we could even think about anything.
Hence, for now, a proper alien invasion as a precursor for a unified and harmonious world is off the table. Yet, a society that respects each other’s views and rights, and refrains from violent conflicts is far from fiction. Humans have time and time again faced the disastrous consequences of social and economic divides, which lead them to establish alliances that align their incentives and help them act in unison.
Could there be other threats out there against which all humanity can unite and actually stand a good chance? Here’s a non-exhaustive list…
“Alien” invasions we could defeat
Speaking of outer space, could an impending asteroid impact do the trick? You may once again recall this scenario from films, such as Armageddon and Deep Impact. While this catastrophe seems possible, it is distant both in space and time. Hence, if it will ever bring peace and balance to society, it won’t happen for some time. Not a very good candidate to help us quickly find common ground.
Does the common enemy always have to come from outer space? Not really. There’s ongoing famine in the world, for instance. One in ten people in the world are currently fighting malnourishment and millions are dying every year due to poor nutrition. The same people are also killed by a wide variety of curable diseases. Their existence is in danger. Unfortunately, however, these are problems that don’t seem to concern those who don’t have them. Thus a unifying common enemy needs to be affecting, at least potentially, everyone.
So, what about incurable diseases? Ebola? Zika? These are problems that for the most part we managed to contain so far, but could become a serious candidate. Can a virus wipe us out? Can we unite against it? Our track record in this domain, unfortunately, is discouraging. For example, quite recently we failed to unite against AIDS. Instead, it even gave rise to severe societal stereotypes and discriminations. Not a great candidate.
War is raging in different parts of the world. Civilians are killed and wounded by tens of thousands due to military conflicts. Yet, these tragedies often remain local. And now that attacks can be carried out by drones, the risks, the losses, and the skins in the game are further reduced for those who use them. Thus, a real common enemy needs to be more global. What about a nuclear war, then? This manmade sudden apocalypse would potentially obliterate millions in a manner of minutes. Yet it is still a war between us. In fact, nuclear proliferation historically expanded and strengthened divides rather than reducing them. So, unlikely to do the trick.
Climate change. Now, here’s a global problem with potential. Our planet may be changing in ways that will make all our lives miserable. Yet unlike a spaceship traveling at the speed of light through a wormhole, it is too slow, at least at this point of its progression. Its fuzzy nature also makes sure that a considerable number of people deny it even exists. World leaders met at the end of 2015 to see if they could find consensus on the issue. The outcome was “meh.” And since that accord, things have not progressed towards more unity, quite the opposite.
What about bacterial resistance? It is approaching faster than anticipated, it will affect everyone, it can take us back in time in terms of medical technology and effectiveness, and it will be a global threat. It can thus shake us to our core and credibly threaten our prosperity and survival.
WHO issued a statement in 2014 that the problem is no longer a future one. More bacteria will soon become antibiotic resistant. These are also called superbugs, microscopic super villains that can dodge all our available medicinal bullets. Until we will be able to devise remedies for them, our advanced treatment methods to treat diseases like cancer, may be rendered less useful, as our immune systems weakened by these treatments will now become vulnerable to this new threat. This is a real possibility, right at our doorsteps.
Finally, artificial intelligence could eventually become a global threat. Currently it is useful because it does what humans program. But who will be in control when these programs learn by themselves how to program others and we no longer know their goals? In time, they could easily question why humans even exist. One could make a long list of versions of such a dystopia, starting with the premise of the film Matrix. Who knows… we may be growing a population of aliens in our very midst.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.