In Davos Switzerland, a prominent ski resort, the world’s business elite are meeting to discuss what to expect over the next 10 years. This year, the annual World Economic Forum meeting runs from January 23 to 27 and business leaders are joined by prominent politicians and central bankers. For 2013, an 80-page analysis of 50 risks for the next 10 years was distributed to attendees. The Global Risks 2013 report is lengthy list of prognostications of what world leaders need to plan for to avoid “systemic shocks and catastrophic events”. Among the list are five X factors that according to the report, “no country alone can prevent.” One of the X factors is the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

The Global Risks 2013 report begins by outlining the importance of "national resilience" in response to anticipated global risks over the next 10 years:

Global risks would meet with global responses in an ideal world, but the reality is that countries and their communities are on the frontline when it comes to systemic shocks and catastrophic events. In an increasingly interdependent and hyperconnected world, one nation’s failure to address a global risk can have a ripple effect on others. Resilience to global risks – incorporating the ability to withstand, adapt and recover from shocks – is, therefore, becoming more critical. This special report is organized around two axioms:

Global risks are expressed at the national level.
No country alone can prevent their occurrence.
The report goes on to explain ways in which world leaders can “share insights and ideas that improve national and organizational resilience to global risks.”

Among the list of global risks are five X factors developed in collaboration with Nature, a leading science journal. The Global Risks 2013 report recommended readers “to consider a set of five X factors and reflect on what countries or companies should be doing to anticipate them.”

The last of the five X factors is the “Discovery of Alien Life”. The World Economic Forum report begins this section as follows:

Given the pace of space exploration, it is increasingly conceivable that we may discover the existence of alien life or other planets that could support human life. What would be the effects on science funding flows and humanity’s self-image?

The report goes on to explain:

It was only in 1995 that we first found evidence that other stars also have planets orbiting them. Now thousands of “exoplanets” revolving around distant stars have been detected. NASA’s Kepler mission to identify Earth-sized planets located in the “Goldilocks zone” (not too hot, not too cold) of sun-like stars has been operating for only three years and has already turned up thousands of candidates, including one the size of Earth. The fact that Kepler has found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests that there are countless Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy. In 10 years’ time we may have evidence not only that Earth is not unique but also that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

What would be the national and global impact of such a discovery according to the Global Risks 2013 report?

The discovery would certainly be one of the biggest news stories of the year and interest would be intense. But it would not change the world immediately…. Over the long term, the psychological and philosophical implications of the discovery could be profound. If life forms (even fossilized life forms) are found in our solar system, for example, the origin of life is “easy” – that any place in the universe life can emerge, it will emerge. It will suggest that life is as natural and as ubiquitous a part of the universe as the stars and galaxies. The discovery of even simple life would fuel speculation about the existence of other intelligent beings and challenge many assumptions that underpin human philosophy and religion.

Through basic education and awareness campaigns, the general public can achieve a higher science and space literacy and cognitive resilience that would prepare them and prevent undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery and paradigm shift concerning humankind’s position in the universe.

What would be the “undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery?” For an answer, one can look to the 1961 Brookings Report that was commissioned by NASA and written by the Brookings Institution for eventual presentation to the US Congress. The Brookings Report, titled “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs,” described an alarming scenario of what might happen to society if humanity was not sufficiently prepared for the discovery of technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations:

Evidences of its [extraterrestrial] existence might also be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets. The consequences for attitudes and values are unpredictable, but would vary profoundly in different cultures and between groups within complex societies; a crucial factor would be the nature of the communication between us and the other beings…. Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behavior.

Is social disintegration what the Davos Global Risks 2013 report has in mind if extraterrestrial life is discovered? The simple answer is no, if leaders develop the necessary “national and organizational resilience” to such a discovery, and implement “basic education and awareness campaigns”. The Global Risks 2013 report shows how far humanity has come over the last 50 years since the Brookings Report was written. World Economic Forum organizers are far more optimistic and believe that humanity can be sufficiently prepared for a “paradigm shift concerning humankind’s position in the universe.” World leaders currently meeting at the Davos World Economic Forum are themselves being prepared for the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life within the next 10 years.

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