While discussing story ideas in a forum I frequent, someone mentioned the possibility of a free trade agreement between earth and extraterrestrials getting us out of our current economic problems. I disagreed, saying that any economic relationship between earth and extraterrestrials was far more likely to resemble something between a developed nation and the most impoverished, resource-rich nation on the planet. Any sort of trade would most probably be us selling cheap natural resources for expensive manufactured goods. There’s nothing unique about earth, except for life, and if they can construct spaceships to reach us, they can probably build anything we can. Our most likely use would be to absorb excess production from their own world, paying for their goods with our planet’s resources just to be able to afford them, since anything we could provide could be more efficiently mined by von Neumann machines on Mars or the Jovian moons by them.
I’ve thought about this before, but it really does seem that there are extraordinarily few rational reasons for extraterrestrial contact. Maybe this is the solution to the Fermi Paradox. Put simply, the Fermi Paradox asks that, if aliens exist, where are they? The universe is so old that, even at extremely conservative rates of expansion, if extraterrestrials are at all common, we ought to have encountered them.
But let’s think about possible rational reasons for alien visitation. Obviously, irrational reasons are unpredictable. Aliens could consider Earth their heaven, and be coming here for their eternal reward. Or they could have a hominid fetish, and be planning to abduct us all for brothels. Or they could be benevolent, and just want to help us out from the goodness of their hearts. You can always invent a reason for extraterrestrial contact.
As I mentioned above, there’s no resource unique to earth, except those of a biological nature. Water can be found on Europa, Titan, or comets, and any sort of mineral or element can be found on the other planets and asteroids. It would be downright depressing if they still used oil after traveling across the stars, although that idea might make for a good story, so really life is the only potential resource that might have a use, but what use could that be? Having evolved on another planet, everything on earth would probably be inedible to them at best, downright toxic at worst. They might have a scientific curiosity, but that’s not sufficient for a trade relationship, and they would only need enough to start their own breeding population, rather than continually purchase from the violent apes who run earth.
Worst of all, let’s say they do want to trade. We give them raw materials, they give us advanced technology. When aliens are producing the equivalent of iPhone 200s for $50, how is Apple going to stay in business? We’re going to see the same sort of thing that we saw in India after the Europeans had their industrial revolution. Europe imported cloth so cheaply that the native industry collapsed. Governments would have to massively subsidize electronics and technology industries if they wanted them to survive at all. More probably, we’d become entirely reliant on the aliens for such industrial goods, and then we’d lose any sort of leverage we might have had.
Another possibility mentioned in the forum was as labor. This possibility supposes a sadism on the part of the extraterrestrials so extreme that we’d probably be better off if they simply exterminated us from orbit. It’s preposterous to imagine that humans would make for better workers than the kinds of robots that an interstellar civilization could produce. Even if AI is impossible, and humans are valuable as brains, they’d be better off either piloting the crafts remotely, as drones, or using a special unintelligent enough to plan rebellion, don’t you think?
Maybe the aliens need space, and they want to use earth for it. This is probably the strongest possibility. Earth has a lot of real estate. But it would probably require xenoforming, even if earth were perfect for them, and it’s probable that they could find uninhabited planets, or simply construct space stations on which they could live. While it’s not out of the question, clearing out the native infestation from earth would probably be more trouble than other options, like xenoforming Mars or building artificial habitats.
A fourth possibility is that they visit for militaristic reasons, either to conquer us or protect us or to use as a military base. Protecting us can be ignored, since that would presumably require someone wanting to conquer us. But why conquer earth? As before, we have no valuable resources. It might make sense to use to absorb excess production, as I mentioned above, but that hardly seems worth the required investment. We have no use as a buffer state: planets are harder to hit than to avoid. With no ability to leave our own solar system, we aren’t really a threat to anyone. As for military bases, why put something in earth’s gravity well? Even if our position is ideal, the moon or Mars would be superior.
Two reasons that people have recently suggested, I find more plausible. The first is that earth might happen to be where interstellar trade routes meet, and so finds itself with a good location. This, at least, makes sense. It’s still unlikely, but trade routes have to meet somewhere, why not here? It would also provide earth with an actual benefit. Instead of providing raw materials, we could simply provide accommodations and level tariffs. Easy profit that doesn’t require the reader to believe that earth is somehow the only planet with potassium and that aliens are willing to trade advanced technology for bananas rather than just producing trinkets and beads for our amusement.
The second suggested reason is as a tourism destination. I’ll add that earth might also be a refugee destination, like in the Men in Black movies. This possibility makes sense. It’s possible that earth is in a relatively pristine state compared to other life-supporting planets, with a large biological diversity. Who wouldn’t want to see alien creatures, swim in oceans on another world, and taste food that no one else in your species has ever tried?
So why would aliens make contact? One reason might be preventative, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Humans have thermonuclear weapons. Humans have rockets. Put them together, and humans might actually be able to damage an alien civilization, although not without condemning ourselves to death. Large enough rocks dropped from orbit onto earth would do far more damage than atomic bombs, and would be pretty much unstoppable. But still, aliens might want to ensure that humanity settles its own internal issues before joining the star-faring races.
Another possibility, one that I personally like, and consider the best trade resource between us and any alien civilization, is art and philosophy, things like stories and stoicism. Extremely lightweight, but with a large potential value. If we used a Mars Direct model to reach Mars, and found Star Wars there, half the cost of the trip would be paid for. Just think of how many brand new and unique stories that you’d discover if you visited an alien civilization. Sure, not all of it would be relevant to your audience, but even now, humans appreciate the artwork of other species. I think that some of the stories would be adaptable.
The distances between stars are too great to traverse for no reason, and there’s very little to be found here that couldn’t be found much closer to home. In short, it may simply be irrational to make contact. Any thoughts?