In April, NASA Chief scientist Ellen Stofan predicted we would “have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade,” and “definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” Assuming this timeline is correct, how do we ensure the life we encounter—which astrobiologists predict will be non-sentient—will be respected?
“With every passing day, it grows more likely that ‘first contact’ will not take the form of an intellectual or moral back-and-forth between equals,” writes Lizzie Wade, who wrestles with the notion of alien rights in an essay recently published at Aeon. “It will be more like the discovery of a natural resource, and one we might be able to exploit. It won’t be an encounter, or even a conquest. It will be a gold rush.” She continues:
The ethics of encountering non-sentient alien life in our solar systems boils down to a core dilemma, says [Montana State University philosopher Sara Waller. ‘Is it about conservation and preservation? Or is it about our needs, wants, and desires?’ On Earth, natural-resource grabs have a history of bringing out the worst in us as a species. Consider the example of gold. Conquistadores exterminated entire societies in their hunt for gold, when they weren’t enslaving people to mine it. Prospectors in California blasted away mountains with water canons to access it, permanently altering the geology of the state. Today, small-scale gold miners in South America rip apart rainforests and pollute rivers with mercury, trying to sop up the last specks of gold to sell to a market still in upswing.
There’s plenty of reason to believe other planets will be chock-full of resources we’d like to exploit, even if the life forms are microbial – perhaps especially if they’re microbial.
Think of everything we use Earth microbes for: creating and preserving food, treating disease, and processing waste, to name a few. All of that could be enhanced by exploiting a whole new tree of life. Imagine new antibiotics to which Earth bacteria could never evolve resistance, or microbes that excreted a renewable fuel that burns hotter than oil. Or just all the weird cheeses we could make! Synthetic biologists would see their toolkit multiply exponentially the more trees of alien life we discover.