The government has to plan for every contingency: disease, famine, political instability, drought, weather, aliens, the plot of Armageddon coming true and protecting super-evolved man from his primitive cousins. There are actual plans for every one of those scenarios. There are entire real government programs devoted solely to thinking up ways to counter weather-themed supervillains and other outlandish threats normally relegated to the realm of science fiction. Like these:
5Talking to -- or Covering Up -- Extraterrestrials
Are we alone? If not, what will happen when we finally meet creatures from another planet? Will they be peaceful? Hostile? Will we be able to mate with them, Captain-Kirk style? If not, why not?
Seriously. Why not? One reason.
These are questions movies and television shows have been asking for decades. And, somewhat inexplicably, the government has been as well. It's not so far-fetched: After all, while the chance of finding life out there other than ourselves is infinitesimal, we have been trying it for years. We've been sending radio waves into space with SETI, Voyager 1 has reached the edge of our solar system and is still moving out into deep space, and we pretty much call all alien life forms pussies in countless movies that we then beam out in every direction. It's practically inevitable that they're coming.
This film will be the blackface of the 24th century.
So what is the government doing about it?
Way back in 1960, when Americans were first getting a boner for all things to do with space (hereby shortened to "the Space-Boner era"), Congress commissioned an official report on what sorts of things could happen once we launched ourselves out of Earth's atmosphere. This was called "Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs," or the Brookings Report (because PSIPSAHA is kind of a sucky acronym).
It sounds kind of like the noise you make when you stub a toe.
Most of the report was pretty snooze-worthy, but there was one section, called "Implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial life," that made people sit up and take notice. And then void their bowels, upon reading such reassuring findings as:
"If superintelligence is discovered, the results become quite unpredictable." "[There are] many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies." "How might such information ... be presented to or withheld from the public?"
Yep, the whole thing pretty much reads like an X-file. All it's missing is a righteously indignant Mulder screaming about the truth while giving sultry looks to the camera.
But America is far from the only nation worried about meeting ET. Even the Vatican is devoting serious thought to an idea formerly relegated to trailer parks and hill-folk. Father Jose Funes, speaking for the Vatican after its official conference on astrobiology (wait, what?), stated that the church has concluded that the existence of life on other planets would not invalidate anything in the Bible. And Guy Consolmagno, one of the pope's astronomers (wait, double what?) said that he would be delighted to baptize any extra terrestrial life that comes his way, but "only if they asked."
And promised to put the probe down first.
4Leaving Warning Messages for Humans of the Far Future
Major civilizations come and go over the course of history. Even ones that dominate for thousands of years will eventually fall into dust. But they always leave shit buried in the dirt. Since the statute of limitations for littering is probably just short of a few thousand years, we accept that fact and use these leavings to study them. One day, in turn, somebody will be studying us the same way.
"... What our early ancestors needed with one-fingered gloves, we may never know."
And we're probably going to kill them for it.
See, unlike previous civilizations, where the biggest worry was uncovering somebody caught rubbing one out while Vesuvius erupted, our society is capable of leaving things that will stay dangerous basically forever. Like Yucca Mountain, the giant, soon-to-be glowing mound in Nevada and America's possible storage facility for nuclear waste. If we do end up dumping tons of radioactive material there, any future people (or aliens) who dig it up are going to seriously regret messing with the past. Hey, it's like we're setting up our own mummy's curse! Awesome!
"Bjorn, no one would go to the trouble of hollowing out a mountain if they weren't hiding some real cool shit."
So what is the government doing about it?
Assuming that we are an altruistic people and don't want the people of the future to all die horrible deaths (although they do kind of seem like dicks, all smug with their hyper-cars and stupid transmogrifiers), we need a way to warn them where not to dig. So it's a good thing the U.S. Department of Energy has been paying people to think about this issue for years. What's so hard about that, though? Just slap up a sign explaining the damn thing and be done with it. The only problem being that the Environmental Protection Agency has demanded that the warning signs be visible and understandable by anyone who might seen them ... for the next 10,000 years.
Iconography, cultural touchstones and language will all be entirely different in 10,000 years. Communicating anything to people of the far-flung future is nearly impossible. For example, according to the government, our current nuclear waste symbol sort of looks like an angel. It could be misconstrued as a religious sign, or a message of peace, right up until they start digging into all of our poisons.
Eh, either an angel or Lady Gaga's Tomb Palace.
So we can't mark nuclear waste sites with that sign, lest we want future-us's children doing snow-angels in rotten plutonium. That's why the Department of Energy gathered a group of intellectuals from a huge variety of backgrounds, including history, risk analysis and engineering, to brainstorm solutions to the problem. Dubbed the Futures Panel, they came up with ideas like the "landscape of thorns": a visual warning made up of gargantuan, 50-foot-tall concrete pillars with spikes jutting out of them. That, or else just littering the place with human bodies. Because subtlety does not translate well over millennia.
Of course, as with most government projects, the bad-ass ideas were discarded for cost restrictions. If the Yucca Mountain project goes through, the current plan is to build large "earthen berms" (in layman's terms, piles of dirt) to warn people of the future. Because large piles of dirt might not be foreboding, understandable or long-lasting, but man are they DIRT cheap. Ha-ha! (But seriously, you'll die if you fuck with that dirt, Future.)
"You guys know what this would be good for? Storing drinking water."