Tuesday, November 5, 2019 7:12
I notice it most when I drive: everything is so congested these days. I took a trip into downtown Nashville the other day and it compared to my traffic nightmares in Boston and New York. It was a far different experience from when I first moved here 15 years ago. I could blame it on the population boom in the city or the increase in tourists, and certainly those are issues impacting traffic, but congestion is a problem for many places here on Earth. The primary reasons are simple: there are more humans on the planet and those people are increasingly living in cities.
The numbers are staggering: the world population increased by 400 percent in the 20th century. It doubled from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to five billion in 1987. There are many factors driving that trend, aside from more people making more people. There has been a decline in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy. Those are good things, of course. Another positive is that thanks to birth control, the percentage of increase in the world population has been decreasing since the 1960s. Still, the United Nations projects that by 2100 there will be just over 11 billion humans on the planet. There is also a rise in urbanization. Rural areas are frequently left out of economic growth and that causes people to move to cities. In 1800 three percent of the world population lived in cities. Currently 55 percent of the world population lives in an urban area. That is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050.
The population of Africa is estimated to double by 2100.That figure may be unsustainable, meaning that many Africans may have to migrate to other countries to survive. Immigration fuels a non-cooperation sentiment that is currently evident in the United States, Australia, and Europe. You can call it nationalism, but that may be too simple a term. Studies of nationalism stress that such movements are often made up of many different components. Florian Bieber points out that two causes of protectionist behavior are polarization and marginalization of large segments of the population. Bieber’s 2018 article in the Journal of Ethnopolitics suggests that nationalism is indeed undergoing a surge in many countries, but the reasons for such reactions are not always the same. Many public sentiments that are actively categorized as nationalistic may be a more complex reaction to changes in society. Population growth is going to cause more change.
The ironic part of this discussion is that many first-world nations will need more people soon. Japan is already facing a population decline problem and the United States and Europe are not far behind. Population decline can be dangerous for growth-based economies. It would seem that immigration could help to solve the problem, however that will depend on our ability to accept the change that accompanies immigration.
I believe that these stresses and strains are part of the consideration of extraterrestrial contact. How so? Human reaction to alien First Contact will likely be tied to how we feel about our own world. Problems relating to over population and urbanization dictate the public perception of other issues, such as protectionism, national politics, and international relations. If we are in conflict with each other, it will be tough to have a thoughtful dialog about moving forward in a new relationship with aliens. Xenophobia and religious fundamentalism would almost certainly play a part in the human reaction to First Contact. Even if the majority of the human population were to view such an event as positive, many fringe groups would have a negative perception.
What can we do? Clearly we have important issues in human society to tackle whether or not aliens ever become part of our reality. However, if First Contact does occur someday, understanding the cultural, political, and religious climate here on Earth will be important to determine how best to move forward. Even the most vehement reactions to extraterrestrial contact may come with reasonable concerns. Groups that already feel marginalized may feel more so. People with low incomes could be worried that First Contact will leave them behind economically. In the wake of First Contact, world leaders, analysts, and the media will have to listen carefully to many different people, in many different countries, to get beneath surface level reactions, and find what human issues may be driving negative perceptions towards aliens.
Many people hope that communication with extraterrestrials could help us solve our problems here on Earth. The sharing of technology could help, if handled carefully, and if aliens want to share. However, First Contact, if it includes significant information sharing, will also increase stresses already inherent in human society. The first weeks and months after such an event could be a tumultuous time in human history.
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