Do we need Strange Encounters of the Third Kind to solve Humankind’s Critical Problems?


Just the other day I saw a rerun of a 1977 science fiction movie titled Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It relates the story of an everyday blue-collar worker, whose life changes after an encounter with an unidentified flying object (UFO). The title suggests close encounters with aliens in which the third kind denotes human observations of aliens. As usual the movie got my thinking adrenalin pumping.

Films of this genre make it quite obvious that humans are terrified at the prosperity of coming into contact with aliens. There seems to be an inherent psyche built into themes of these science fiction films that aliens want to usurp planet earth and annihilate its inhabitants. The belief that aliens are evil and are bent on destroying or enslaving planet earth and its human inhabitants is the predominant portrayal in our popular culture as well, where little has changed since H.G. Well’s science fiction classic War of the Worlds, in which humans and aliens battle it out over the future of the human race and planet earth. The perception of aliens as evil and destructive remains prevalent today.

Many alien invasion stories explicitly address our anxieties that a more advanced species would treat us even worse than we have treated each other. In movies like ‘Independence Day,’ aliens just show up and use their superior weaponry to try and destroy earth. In ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ the invaders arrive on earth and engage in ground battles to capture the planet’s territories, reminiscent of two world wars. In a more recent award winning movie, Arrival, earthlings are prepared to go to war with aliens who have actually arrived to help humanity. Certainly, there are many such movies that portray alien invasions. In essence they are reflections of human fear and shame about the history of contact between societies at different levels of global development. The history of the colonisers’ contact with native communities in Africa, Asia, South and North America and Australia exemplify this ‘guilt’ syndrome.

Even renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has cautioned about making contact with aliens for fear that such contact with an advanced civilization would be the equivalent of Native Americans encountering Columbus. Hawking thinks that if biological life evolved elsewhere in the cosmos as it has here on earth, then there is a good chance it will have a similar territorial and predatory nature as do most creatures on this planet. He goes on further to suggest that invading aliens having used up the resources of their home world would search for suitable worlds to ‘conquer and colonise,’ using them up as well and then moving on to the next set of viable extra-terrestrial targets.

The history of the world informs us that as a human race we are far from being united. We fight about race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, region, resources, money and assets. Similarly, whenever we experience conflict, we unite against common enemies, especially against someone who is not like us and we would do really bad things to them. Generally humans do not know how to regulate power and as a result they become egocentric and preoccupied with self-interest which ultimately eclipses their awareness of the interests of the world at large.

The fact is that planet earth does have existential risks – where humankind as a whole is imperiled by many exigencies such as those arising from human activity. In particular, most of the biggest existential risks seem to be linked to climate change, food and water insecurity poverty, inequality and potential future technological breakthroughs that may radically expand our ability to manipulate the external world or our own biology. For example, there appears to be significant existential risks in some of the advanced forms of biotechnology, molecular nanotechnology, and machine intelligence that might be developed in the decades ahead. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for now and in the future. Moreover, to date we have not been able to deal with these problems and challenges substantively as individuals and independent nation states.

What if we really did have ‘a strange encounter of the third kind’? What if aliens did really come to earth? Would we dehumanise them and would this make humanity feel more united and would we learn to cooperate on a global scale against a common enemy? As humanity, would we abandon our egocentricism, prejudices, hostilities, conflicts and wars and quickly focus on our shared identity as humans in order to protect ourselves and mother earth which provides us with shelter and sustenance?

In dealing with some of the major contemporary challenges confronting planet earth such as sustainability, poverty, inequality, racial prejudice, homelessness, destruction of ecosystems and a myriad other issues, would the metaphor of an ‘extra-terrestrial war’ assist us in solving the problems of existence and development within the context of a fragile planet and its finite resources which we have been contending with since time immemorial?

In hazarding a guess, I would assert that the majority of the countries and populations of the world would abandon their prejudices and unite to ‘fight’ a common enemy – an adversary threatening the very existence of humankind. This is the global history of struggle – the struggle of good against evil.

However, under normal circumstances humans are reticent to cooperate, especially if it is not in their personal interest. Global history is replete with ‘tragedies of the commons’. As an example, the issue of climate change continues being a major planetary problematic because humans are self-serving and cannot see how their selfish actions contribute to the compounding of a major global calamity. Ultimately, we do what’s in our best interest, not the group’s. Yet we are aware (not all of us) that climate change will eventually come back to haunt us. Even when it is in our best interest to work together, most of the time we don’t.

The critical rhetorical question which arises then, “Is there any way humans can overcome their biases and collaborate on a large scale?” Surely, if we can unite against an imaginary extra-terrestrial enemy, then we could unite as a collective to deal with some of the most pressing and intractable global problems and challenges facing humankind. In short, to deal with some of the world’s most challenging existential problems we need the equivalent of a unified global governing body or a unified global government, which could regulate, provide clear communication, include superordinate goals and provide reinforcement.

We need something akin to the global government or governance structure that emerged in the science fiction movie Star Trek’s World War III or something similar to that which John Rawls a famous  philosopher who wrote extensively global justice and the need for global governance. Together with other social scientists, he argued that realising a peaceful and ecologically sound future will require supranational institutions and organisations that limit the sovereignty rights of states more severely than is the current practice. He further argued that the path to peace, environmental safety and dealing with the more substantive global issues of existential risks lies in promoting the development of well-ordered global governance structure which is democratically representative, responsive and responsible and has central coercive mechanisms of law enforcement that could have ultimate political authority.

Equally, there have been various other postulations for a global governance structure, specifically to deal with questions of social justice and the major problems and challenges confronting our planet. However because of constraints of space they will not be dealt with in this submission, except to state that the concept of a global governance structure is not new and could be used with further refinements as a real possibility to deal with global existential risks.

In reality what is required is a global governance structure to which independent states could cede some of their traditional rights of sovereignty to a supranational institution in areas such as the use of military force, the management and protection of the environment and natural resources, and the distribution of wealth, the establishment of a global political authority. Such a global governance structure must have ultimate decision-making authority over nation-states, especially over jurisdictional issues. The United Nations (UN), the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) could be the precursors for such a global governing body.

The ICC, for example already has the jurisdictional powers to try individuals, including heads of state for offences such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is a treaty-based international institution, and its jurisdiction is limited by the concept of “complementarity,” which allows the Court to exercise its jurisdiction only when domestic national courts fail to prosecute due to lack of will or incompetence. In principle the ICC does not threaten to undermine the authority of well-functioning domestic legal orders, and may simultaneously limit and enhance state rights and responsibilities. Global authority thus need not undermine national authority structures.

Indeed if we have the rudimentary beginnings of a global governance institution then what is keeping us as humans to move for its formal establishment? For after all in dealing with some of the existential problems that earth is currently confronted with, we have the equivalent of an ‘extra-terrestrial war’ which could wipe out humankind. We urgently need a global governance authority which can effectively promote environmental protection, develop authoritative mechanisms for disciplining the use of force by non-state actors as well as by the world’s most powerful states and serve the interests of the poorest of humanity who barely eke out a living, even if it means demanding a small sacrifice from the fortunate fifteen percent of humankind living mainly in the world’s high-income economies.

Requiring countries to work together under the banner of a global governance institution would probably be the best way to transact and accomplish superordinate goals. This was notably demonstrated in Muzafer Sharif’s ‘robbers cave’ study where groups of boys who hated each other learned to get along when they had no choice but to cooperate to access resources. Remember how connected the world felt during the moon landing in 1969? Can we do the same in dealing with problems such as inequality, poverty, climate change, discrimination and abuse against women and children? Imagine if there was a global catastrophe, will humans come together out of empathy for each other? Certainly we would.

Why then are we in a state of paralysis when dealing with some of the world’s major problems? It would seem that we are mentally wedged in a position that makes it almost impossible for us to free ourselves. Is it because the problems are huge and complex?

For example, let us consider the issue of poverty which is arguably the most far-reaching, long-standing cause of chronic suffering on planet earth. The magnitude of poverty is ironic in developed countries where poverty is rife. Even in South Africa, latest statistics show that poverty has stricken about half the country’s population. How can there be so much misery and insecurity in the midst of such abundance? In part poverty exists because the economic system is organized in ways that encourage the accumulation of wealth at one end and creates conditions of scarcity that make poverty inevitable at the other.

Clearly, patterns of widespread poverty are inevitable in an economic system that sets the terms for how wealth is produced and distributed. If we’re interested in doing something about poverty itself – if we want a society largely free of impoverished citizens – then we’ll have to do something about both the system people participate in and how they participate in it. But public debate about poverty and policies to deal with it focus almost entirely on the latter with almost nothing to say about the former.

Because social problems are more than an accumulation of individual woes, they can’t be solved through an accumulation of individual solutions. Poverty is a global problem and seems to be exacerbating all the time. Consequently we must act in unison through the auspices of a global governance structure to tackle the problem of poverty and the system that engenders it. We must include holistic solutions that take into account how economic and other systems really work. This means that the market economy can no longer occupy its near-sacred status which holds it immune from criticism. It may mean that a market economy is in some ways incompatible with a just society in which the excessive well-being of some does not require the misery of so many others.

It won’t be easy to face up to such possibilities, but if we don’t, we will guarantee poverty, its future and all the conflict and suffering that go with it. Similarly, if we do not explore more plausible collective options to confront global existential problems then we will continue the way we are. We most probably will have to wait for the equivalent of a ‘strange encounter of the third kind’ to work as a collective in resolving a major global crisis. This, however, could be a case of ‘too little, too late’.

In life many personal eccentricities such as when we are born, to whom we are born, the family we are born into, the country where we are born and our ancestry are all predetermined. In essence by the time we are old enough to start making decisions for ourselves, a lot of things in our lives are already in place. It’s important, therefore, that we focus on the future, the only thing that we can change. It is time to re-imagine how life is organised on planet earth. We’re accelerating into a future shaped less by countries than by connectivity and networks. Humankind has to adapt to a new maxim. Working together in the interest of all who live on planet earth is the new destiny. We do not have a plan B.

Professor Dhiru Soni is the Director of Research & Innovation at REGENT Business School