A few years ago I visited an old friend at his home in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Apart from its breathtaking grandeur the region is known for a more unexpected reason: local residents have reported frequent sightings of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (more commonly known as UFOs), among the highest in the world.
The region has become a popular hub for UFO enthusiasts ever since hundreds of apparitions started appearing in the mid-1990s. So widespread is the phenomenon that a new government agency called the “Committee for Studies of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena” has been established to investigate UAPs in the region under the auspices of the Chilean Air Force.
My host Guillermo had his own story to tell. While walking his sheep dogs around the range the previous year he observed a weather phenomenon he had never seen before—a wall of fog that extended from the skies to the plains and horizontally as far as the eye could see. A high-pitched sound emerged from the fog and suddenly, out of nowhere, a large oval disc about a hundred feet in diameter flew up and hovered directly above, maneuvering back into the fog a few moments later.
Like many others who have witnessed such phenomena, Gullermo was uncomfortable talking about his experience, acutely aware of the danger of sounding like a kook. But the days of being embarrassed about UFOs may be drawing to a close. On December 16, 2017, the New York Times published an expose about a secret US Department of Defense initiative called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program that was active from 2007 to 2012, dedicated to the investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects.
The bombshell report, co-authored by three seasoned journalists including two Pulitzer prize winners, includes on-the-record statements by Luis Elizondo, the man who ran the program, videos of possible UFOs filmed by the Pentagon, and confirmation of the US Government’s activities from former Senator Harry Reid, who earmarked $22 million for them while in Congress. “Much progress has been made with the identification of several highly sensitive, unconventional aerospace-related findings,” said Reid in a letter to a deputy defense secretary at the time.
In July 2015, a group led by physicist Stephen Hawking launched “Breakthrough Listen,” an initiative that’s claimed to be the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. During the launch of the initiative at the Royal Society in London, Hawking voiced his fears about what might happen in any such encounter, and why humankind needed to be much better prepared for what they might bring:
“We don't know much about aliens,” he told the audience, “but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.”
Science journalist Ann Druyan—who was part of the announcement panel—seemed more upbeat: “We may get to a period in our future where we outgrow our evolutionary baggage and evolve to become less violent and shortsighted,” she said. “My hope is that extraterrestrial civilizations are not only more technologically proficient than we are but more aware of the rarity and preciousness of life in the cosmos.”
Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about the possibilities of life on other planets, it’s here, beyond all the technical details about UFOs and ‘Advanced Aviation Threats’ and what exactly has been witnessed by whom, that the real interest lies. To put it bluntly, if human beings are so ineffective in confronting planetary problems, shouldn’t we seek out help wherever we can find it even if it comes from an inter-planetary source?
With religious and ethnic chauvinism on the rise, self-serving corporations wreaking havoc on the environment, and populist demagogues commandeering significant swathes of the populace, it’s clear that humanity needs an urgent wake-up call—something that shakes us out of our complacency and short-sightedness and forces us to recognize that we all share a symbiotic relationship with each other and with this fragile planet.
Breakthrough Listen and other similar initiatives may be a sign that this tipping point is getting closer, or at least that humanity is becoming more serious in its search for help. Other governments and academics are already studying UFO-like phenomena in the UK Canada, Peru, France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Japan and the ex-Soviet Union.
The SETI Institute in California (shorthand for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”) is gaining increasing credibility under the leadership of Dr. Seth Shostak, an astrophysicist from CalTech, while in India, Kumaresan Ramanathan, a senior technical engineer with a Chennai based IT firm, recently became that country’s first ‘certified UFO investigator.’ Ramanathan is part of MUFON (the “Mutual UFO Network”), one of the oldest and largest civilian non-profits investigating UFOs with thousands of members worldwide that was launched as far back as 1969. He was assigned 60 cases of credible UFO sightings from across the country when he started work.
After a decade studying the phenomenon, Leslie Kean, one of the authors of the New York Times report, published the results of her work as a book in 2010 entitled “UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record.” Aided by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Kean examined reams of government documents, aviation reports, radar data, and case studies corroborated by physical evidence including scientifically analyzed photographs.
Kean’s book contains detailed personal accounts of UFO sightings by a host of high-level sources including US Air Force generals, Fife Symington III, (the former governor of Arizona), and Nick Pope, former head of the British Defence Ministry’s UFO Investigative Unit. Mirroring the increasing seriousness of this coverage, recent Hollywood offerings like Dennis Villeneuve’s film “Arrival,” with its emphasis on new forms of sophisticated, non-verbal communication between humans and aliens, may help to support a more intelligent debate about what might be learned from extra-terrestrial teachers.
The realization that we are not alone in the universe may be exactly what is needed at this stage of our evolution to help unite us in common purpose and actualize the full potential of our shared humanity. With the realization that perhaps we are only one of many civilizations in a vast galaxy comes the need for a broader and more encompassing vision of the future. It may be the catalyst required for our species to develop a planetary consciousness and cast off the old, redundant affiliations that no longer serve.