explicitClick to confirm you are 18+

Why Would There be War Between Alien Civilizations?

TsaiSep 29, 2016, 2:03:01 AM

Warring alien civilizations is a common theme in science fiction, but does it make sense that aliens would fight each other? Let's assume that the galaxy is teeming with alien civilizations, and that they develop the technology to visit each other's star systems.

What potential sources of conflict are there between alien civilizations? 

1) Territory, Energy and Resources

This is a commonly cited reason among sci-fi writers. It makes intuitive sense because human civilizations have often gone to war with one anther over land, resources and strategic access points.

But the universe is vast.

A medieval man travelling from Rome to Nanjing can arrive within a few years or decades. To get from the Solar System to Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own, using current propulsion technology, the trip would take thousands upon thousands of years.

Strategic access points have no meaning in space. And there's no sense fighting over territory. There's plenty of empty space to live in, as long as you don't mind living in artificially constructed mega-structures. Hell, you don't even have to do that. There's plenty of barren planets you can terraform.  

As for energy and resources, I don't think these would be in short supply either. To put things in perspective, the total energy usage by humans in 2013 is 3.89 × (10^20) joules per year. The total energy output of the sun is 3.8 × (10^26) joules per second. That means every second, the sun produces a million times more energy than we currently consume in an entire year.

And the sun isn't the only source of energy. There's plenty of hydrogen in H2O (water) to separate out deuterium (heavy hydrogen) for use in fusion reactors. Uranium is rare on Earth, but it's more abundant throughout the Solar System. There's also plenty of methane that we can burn. And since we're talking about a civilization that has mastered faster-than-light technology, they can probably access exotic sources of energy beyond what we can observe (i.e. dark energy).    

Energy is not a problem. No space-faring alien civilization would fight over energy and/or resources as long as they do not engage in rapid, exponential and unrestricted growth.   

2) Rapid, exponential, and unrestricted growth 

Even though the universe and the riches contained within it are vast, they are still limited. Therefore, any alien civilization that engages in rapid, exponential and unrestricted growth will eventually exhaust the universe and crowd out every other alien civilization.

Using our own species as an example, do we engage in rapid, exponential and unrestricted growth?

For a very brief period in time, yeah, our growth was exponential. That's about to reverse. In fact, the most advanced societies on Earth have begun to shrink in population size, and they are shrinking faster with each passing year. Western Europe, Canada, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and even China... most the world is seeing a rapid decline in population. This suggests that advanced societies have no desire to expand exponentially forever, even if they can easily afford to.

Of course, we can't assume that aliens are like humans. So if there is a species out there that engages in rapid, exponential and unrestricted growth, this is a potential source of conflict. (I'm looking at you, Krogans).

3) Ideological Differences

If there is plenty of space, energy and resources, and if everybody agrees to not expand forever, ideological differences would unlikely be a source of conflict. The universe is vast. It's easy to stay out of each other's way if we really hate each other.

If the ideology calls for the conversion of other species as well, that is a potential source of conflict. It is unlikely for an alien civilization to advance to the galactic stage if it holds onto an irrational ideology. However, there is one scenario in which this might happen. If an advanced alien civilization provides access to advanced technologies to a less developed alien civilization, the less developed alien civilization will now have the means to spread its irrational ideology to the rest of the galaxy. This is a potential source of conflict. (Again, I'm looking at you, Krogans. And as for you, Salarians, you should have never uplifted the Krogans!).  


Well, there you have it. These are the areas where conflict is most likely to arise between alien civilizations. Of course, the most likely scenario is that conflict will never arise between alien civilizations because the technology to travel to distant star systems will never exist. Or, it does exist, which means we can create infinite energy out of nowhere because that's exactly what it'll take to achieve FTL travel***. If we can create infinite energy out of nowhere, we can create a whole universe for ourselves and never get into conflict with any other alien civilization.

By the way, the price the Krogans paid for their rapid, exponential and unrestricted expansion was the genophage. Mass Effect isn't just some mindless video game. It's got deep themes. (And no, I don't work for Bioware, and EA did not pay me to write this piece). 


***Well, not quite true if you consider the Alcubierre Drive. The Alcubierre Drive doesn't require infinite energy, but it does require negative energy, which is an exotic form of energy that we do not have the means to create nor contain.