Here's What Might Happen When We Meet Aliens
There are a few possibilities
It's very unlikely that we're alone in the universe. (That is, unless you think that something happened to everybody else.) There are a lot of possible scenarios that might play out when we finally meet E.T. Which ones are we most likely to experience? Read on...
1. We Trade Diseases
In his ground-shaking 1997 book, Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies, Jared Diamond describes a robust, thriving pre-Columbian New World. Societies, empires, cultures, and nations rose, fell, made peace, made war, traded, crafted, and learned together. But by the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, the great Native American societies were in ruins—even the ones that had never experienced the misfortune of a Cortez or a Pisarro. Why?
Because of germs! Europeans had spent generations in packed cities, often living in close proximity to farm animals from whom they caught diseases like smallpox and influenza. Other than llamas, some small rodents, and dogs, domesticable animals just weren't prevalent in the New World. This was a piece of bad luck for Native Americans. Without exposure to the germ vectors of hogs, chickens, and cows, they didn't have the chance to develop the kind of anti-microbial resistance that Europeans took for granted. Illnesses that were minor to the invaders were deadly to the natives. Plagues brought from Europe wiped out up to 90 percent of some indigenous nations before the Pilgrims even embarked from England.
This scenario might be a good analogy for what might happen if technologically advanced aliens reach Earth. Who knows what kinds of diseases they've developed? We could face anything from superplagues that evolved in megacities to nanobots left over from cosmic wars. This assumes that we're similar enough to the aliens to share diseases, which of course isn't a given. But in a scenario like this, it wouldn't matter whether E.T. were friendly or not. We'd have to keep our distance until we figured out how to interact without getting sick.
It's worth considering that there may have been diseases that Native Americans gave to Europeans too. Syphilis, for example, might have come from the New World. H.G. Wells theorized that humans could destroy invaders with nothing but a common childhood infection. Maybe the aliens would be just as interested in disease prevention as we are!
2. They Raid Us For Resources
If there's one thing that human beings have discovered, it's that stuff is valuable. Planets are finite sources of metal and water. If we use up what we've got, we could find ourselves in a corner someday. Imagine a world that has run out of zinc! There's also a chance that we could pollute our air and water so much that we'd need to go off-planet to find new sources of these vital keys to life.
Whether aliens make the same environmental and resource allocation mistakes as us, there's a good chance that they're dealing with limited resources, too. The drive to find new raw materials could even be the whole for an E.T. space program. Materials that aliens find important could include elements that are common in the universe, like water, or they could be more specific to planets with life. Oxygen and oil, for example, are by-products of planets with microbial activity.
If aliens come to Earth for a resource grab, we humans might find ourselves in deep trouble. If the resource that the aliens want is critical to life, like oxygen, then we might have to fight for our very lives against a technologically superior foe. On the other hand, E.T. might want to trade instead. This would work out well if what they want is valuable, but not critical. (For example, we have alternatives to oil and could probably trade that.) Earth's economy would become an engine that supported an alien hunger for the desired resource.
Depending on how smart we were about it, this kind of setup might be beneficial for us in the end. Consider the example of Iceland. Having found some surprise oil in their territory, this small and politically unimportant country shepherded its bonanza, carefully saving the profits. Knowing that they wouldn't have crude deposits forever, Iceland invested wisely and eventually became a more powerful nation.
If humans ever meet resource-hungry aliens, we could use the profits from our economic relationship with them to prepare for the moment when that resource expired.
3. We Take Advantage Of Them
We tend to assume that aliens would be superior to us in every way. That would not necessarily be the case. Their emotional and mental lives might be very different from ours. Maybe we'll be the first aliens they've ever encountered.
While it's possible that aliens will be as competitive as we are, there's also a chance that they'll understand social relationships much differently. In the animal kingdom, we see many examples of societies, like ants, where individuals work together for the good of the whole rather than that of the individual. If such a society encountered us, our human ability to lie and act contrary to the greater good might confuse them. It would be the perfect opportunity for humans to show our new interstellar neighbors just how un-neighborly we can be.
In a case like this, it seems likely that humans would first steal some alien travel technology. Whoever gets their hands on the secrets of interstellar flight could become very rich and powerful. If it were possible to easily lie or cheat aliens out of that advantage, some human somewhere would definitely try. After that, medical and computing advances would be most valuable, and eventually, someone would become curious about alien biology and behavior. As a species, we don't have a great track record when it comes to experimentation on other living things. While many humans fear being "probed" by extraterrestrials, it's quite possible that we'll become the bogeymen in the end.
4. They Make Us A Project... Possibly With An Agenda
Let's face it: we've really messed up our planet. Aside from the obvious—overfishing, deforestation, strip mines—we're also constantly at war with ourselves. While Stephen Pinker thinks we've gotten more peaceful over the past several thousand years, we still struggle to resolve the us v. them conflict. This is why we still have war, racism, and genocide. For every two steps forward, we seem to take one back.
Alien "humanitarians" might find us a very appealing case. After all, if they can save our benighted planet from itself, who knows? Maybe the universe isn't such a cold place after all.
Just like with our other examples, we can take a page from the book of human history when we're considering this scenario. We have a word for outsiders who come in to assist less developed societies: missionaries. Organizations like the Peace Corps and the Mormon Church take a lot of criticism for trying to roll over other cultures and turn them American or Christian. Proponants may argue that the Peace Corps is just trying to improve people's lives, but improvement can look a lot like conversion. Let's not forget that the Peace Corps started during the Cold War, a time when the US needed to manufacture allies. "Converting" smaller nations to the American Way by giving them amenities that their own governments couldn't afford would have been a very good way to buy people's loyalty.
If E.T. is anything like us, we might want to look askance at any unilateral offer of help. Maybe the aliens are just altrustic. On the other hand, they might just want to recruit new adherents of their religion or way or life. Maybe they're even in a Cold War of their own.
5. They Just Watch
Say what you will about human beings, but we are absolutely fascinating. Whether you imagine Uatu the Watcher, an alien Nature Channel, or the universe's most interesting anthill, aliens might just prefer to spectate. It's the least work, and frankly, imagine the ratings. If they use money, whoever makes human news and entertainment broadcasts available galaxy-wide will be rolling in it. With all the new superhero shows and movies coming out, humanophiles universe-wide will have plenty of binge watching lined up without having to come down and meet us. Humans are already plenty entertaining. Why mess up a good thing?
Maybe that's not the worst way to interact with extraterrestrials.