We can measure the progress of human civilization in several ways. Like population growth, the rise and fall of empires, our technological ability to reach the stars. But a simple measurement is to calculate how much energy a human uses at any given time.
With the expansion of humanity, the ability to use energy has become one of the most useful technologies. Assuming that civilizations on other planets have similar skills, the energy consumption of a species is a good rough measure of its technological capabilities. This is the idea behind the Kardashev scale.
What Is the Kardashev Scale?
Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev proposed the scale in 1964. He categorized civilizations into three types: planetary, stellar, and galactic.
- Planetary or Type I species are able to harness energy on a scale equal to the amount of stellar energy that reaches its home planet.
- Stellar or Type II species can harness energy on the scale of its home star.
- Galactic or Type III can harness the energy of its home galaxy.
The idea was further popularized by Carl Sagan, who suggested a continuous scale of measurement rather than simply three types.
What Is The Type Of Our Civilization?
Even though we use a tremendous amount of energy, we don’t even qualify as Type I.
Around 1016 Watts of solar energy reaches Earth on average, and humanity currently uses about 1013 Watts. On the Sagan sliding scale, that puts us currently at about 0.73.
Can We Reach Type I Civilization?
This question is studied in a paper recently posted to the arXiv. The paper looks at the three primary sources of energy: fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable, and calculates their potential growth over time.
But reaching Type I seems pretty easy. Just by making the production of energy our top priority, we get there in the end. But each type of energy source has its limitations.
What Are The Limitations Of Each Source?
Extreme cases include burning every ounce of fossil fuel we can. It could lead to a level of climate change that could end us all in a so-called Great Filter. You can’t become a Type I civilization if you’re extinct.
The team took a new approach by analyzing the physical limitations of each type of energy source, and balancing them against the need to limit climate change and pollution levels as outlined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency.
What Did They Find?
The team found that even with realistic limitations, it is possible for humanity to reach a Type I level. The downside is that we won’t reach that level until at least 2371.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Kardashev scale is a very blunt tool for measuring the scale of human technology. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Not necessarily bad. The Kardashev scale is a very crude tool for measuring the scale of human skills.
Advanced civilizations require important amounts of energy, but advances in low-power computing and improved efficiency continue to advance technologically, and we have seen ways to reduce or smooth energy consumption.
This study shows how we can become a Type I civilization, but when we realize that we don’t need it, there is actually a possibility that we may move forward.