World leaders meeting in Davos (Jan. 23 -27) discussed the unforeseen challenges the world may face in the next decade. Working with the journal Nature, WEF proposed five "X Factors" as "unheralded dangers" the world may face in the next ten years.
The attendees at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting were presented with an analysis of the "unheralded dangers" in an 80-page document that highlighted several unforeseen risk factors facing the world and how global cultural outlook with regard to humanity's conception of its place in the universe may need to evolve to adapt to some of the most exotic of these unforeseen challenges
Nature.com comments on how unforeseen and unacknowledged risks threaten humanity collectively:
"When policy-makers consider global risks, they tend to extrapolate from headlines. Troubles in the eurozone could spiral out of control, conflict in Syria could spark wider unrest, the H5N1 bird-flu virus could mutate and spread from person to person in a global pandemic. Those dangers and many others are clear and present; society is well-advised to prepare for them, and takes good advice on how to do so...
"There is, however, another category of risk: the unheralded dangers that sneak up on us. Many are the unforeseen consequences of progress, of humanity’s scientific and technological quests."
According to Nature.com, WEF asked its editors and journalists to identify five of the most potentially disruptive of the "unheralded" risks, which they dubbed ‘X factors.'"
The report put together by Nature, titled "Global Risks 2013," came up with a list of five "X factors" that world leaders need to prepare for to avoid what it described as "systemic shocks and catastrophic events." The "X factors" are described in the reports as factors that "no country alone can prevent."
The report illustrates the notion of an "X factor" as an "unheralded" event that may suddenly confront humanity:
"Neuroscientists, for instance, are avidly pursuing drugs and devices that could deliver real cognitive enhancement — not just sharpening our alertness and ability to focus, as certain drugs already do, but upping our intellectual firepower.
"Climatologists have more mixed feelings about schemes for geoengineering — deliberately altering the climate system to combat the effects of rising greenhouse-gas emissions. In one scenario, high-flying jets or balloons would release a haze of sulphate particles into the stratosphere, dimming the Sun’s rays and cooling the planet.
"The other X factors that Nature staff identified are no less dramatic: the societal burden of the millions of people who, thanks to progress against killer diseases, will join the ranks of the disabled and those with dementia; catastrophic climate feedback such as the collapse of an ice sheet; and the possible social consequences of contact with alien life. [emphasis mine]"
The report asserted that humanity may have to face "the possible social consequences of contact with alien life" and discussed its significance in the context of its discussion of the need for "national resilience" in response to global risks in the next 10 years.
According to Exopolitics, the report argued that in an increasingly interdependent and hyperconnected world a nation's failure to address a global risk can have a ripple effect on others.
The report, according to Exopolitics, based its discussion of the "X factor" risks on two premises:
Global risks are expressed at the national level.
No country alone can prevent their occurrence.
The report stressed the need and explains how world leaders can “share insights and ideas that improve national and organizational resilience to global risks.” It listed what the authors considered five "X factors" and discusses how world leaders may prepare for them. Among the "X factors" identified was “Discovery of Alien Life." WEF.org says: "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?"
WEF.org continues its discussion in a historical context: "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."
Contemplating the consequences of discovery of extraterrestrial life is difficult because of its unprecedented nature. But Exopolitics refers to a previous effort in that direction in the 1961 Brookings Report commissioned by NASA and written by the Brookings Institution for presentation to the US Congress. The Brookings Report titled "Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs,” discussed what might happen if humanity were to suddenly encounter, unprepared, technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations:
"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."WEF.org speculates on what might happen if astronomers one day find chemical signs of life on another planet:
"Money might well start flowing for new telescopes to study these living worlds in detail, both from the ground and from space. New funding and new brain power might be attracted to the challenges of human space flight and the technologies necessary for humanity, or its artificial-intelligence emissaries, to survive an inter-stellar crossing."WEF.org notes that while such discovery would be momentous it would not change the world immediately because it would have immediate impact on science itself and not directly on society at large: "Scientists will immediately start pushing for robotic and even human missions to study the life forms in situ – and funding agencies, caught up in the excitement, might be willing to listen."
But in the long run "Discovery of an Earth 2.0 or life beyond our planet might inspire new generations of space entrepreneurs to meet the challenge of taking human exploration of the galaxy from the realm of fiction to fact."
"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."
The Global Risks 2013 report recommended that if leaders develop the necessary "national and organizational resilience" in anticipation of such discovery and implement "basic education and awareness campaign," the social disintegration scenario need not be the consequence of humanity's discovery of extraterrestrial or alien life forms.
The Global Risks 2013 report recommended that a "paradigm shift concerning humankind's position in the universe" would be required to prepare humanity for the encounter.
According to Exopolitics, the world leaders meeting at the Davos World Economic Forum were optimistic that humanity could be prepared for the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life within the next 10 years.