Artists Concept of Dyson Sphere

in Space

Kardashev and the Cosmic Yardstick

Humanity is at a pivotal point in our growth. We’ve only recently gained the ability to completely annihilate all life on the planet at will. Now we’re on a precipice where our technology is outstripping our ability to ethically and safely apply it. Which has led to things like mass species extinction, ocean acidification and global warming. However it’s also lead to the longest per person lifespan humanity has ever known. We’re also the only species we’ve ever seen that’s gone beyond the confines of their planet to explore extra terrestrial bodies.


Technology is Moving Fast

Here’s the thing. Humanity is going to keep advancing. Our lifespan is just a blip in the greater trajectory of possible futures for species in our universe. Assuming we don’t wipe ourselves out. Now is the time future humans will refer back to when they say “This is when we leapt from our nest to finally see if we could fly“. It’s an exciting time for life on Earth. That’s why its important to look forward and guess at what future humans might see. Because it won’t be long (in cosmological terms) until that’s what our ancestors are seeing. Or it could be they’re seeing something crazy and inconceivable that people who exist today couldn’t even dream of.


The Kardashev Scale

Sam the Last Monkey In Space

Sam, One of the Last Astrochimps

In 1964 an astrophysicist named Nikolai Kardashev (guess where the scales name came from) was thinking along these lines. What could humanities future look like? If we ran into an alien civilization what could we expect to see? Would we even be able to understand what they were doing?

At this point man had yet to land on the moon. Monkeys were still occasionally being strapped to rockets and sent into “space”. So Kardashev was looking pretty far ahead of where humanity was (and in many ways still is). He theorized that a species could be defined by its technology and by the scale of its ability to extract energy from its surroundings. Since its assumed that as we advance our technology, we draw more energy. We can say that based off where it draws its energy from a species can be placed on the scale.


Types of Civilizations

Type 1 = Can gather energy on a large-scale from a neighboring star

Type 2 = Can fully exploit the energy of a G class star

Type 3 = One full GALAXY worth of energy at their disposal

Type 4 = One galactic supercluster (around 50,000 galaxies with huge +/-)

Type 4+ = The power of the entire observable universe

Theres a lot more detail in this scale than those types but even the outline paints an eerie picture of whats theoretically possible. There could be civilizations out there well beyond type 3. But they just wait and conserve energy and when a species gets to advanced they wipe them out. So they can support their dominance as the only super intelligent species in the universe. Or maybe they can even go beyond type 4 and harness the energy of all the multiverse or even beyond that.

Humanity just knows so little about the scope of things beyond our rock that its hard to conceive of things that far beyond us. Theorizing about extraterrestrial civilizations veers this article more towards the Fermi Paradox and the question of where is everyone. So instead let’s talk about humanity’s place in all this.


Humanity on the Kardashev Scale

At the very base of that scale is a type 1 civilization. Humanity, for all our millennium of toil aren’t even there yet. According to current estimates using Carl Sagan’s logarithmic version of the Kardashev scale. We’re just over a 0.72. That’s still an appreciable amount of energy we harness and consume but we’re still very limited by our sources. We get our fuel almost entirely from burning old organic matter like coal and oil. But we’re limited by that. Its only so efficient and in using it we’re doing immense damage to our planet’s environment.

Advanced Future CivilizationThe Sun emits as much energy directly on Earth as all of humanity uses in a year. That’s not what it emits into space, its directly on Earth. That is if we had 100% efficient solar panels and covered 1/365th of the Earth in them we’d have the same energy as all our nuclear, coal, oil, wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric systems today. That’s huge and in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t take that much time or energy to get to that level or an appreciable % of it.

We really just need more time. In 100 years everything will be vastly different. Technological progress follows an exponential curve. That is, each bit of new technology we develop allows us to more efficiently advance new technology. And our pace keeps speeding up. Michio Kaku theorizes that within 100-200 years we’ll be a type 1 civilization with all the advancements to health, quality of life and so on that should come with that abundant energy.


The Future is Scary and Exciting

The more we explore possible futures for civilizations and for our own. The more eerie things get. There could be these terrifying galactic powers out there, that are so beyond our capabilities that we can’t even begin to comprehend them. Or there could be millions of civilizations just like us dotting the galaxies of this universe and we’re all in a race to reach galactic supremacy first. The thing is nobody really knows and its very likely that within our (by human standards) incredibly long lifespans we never will know.

But that’s all okay. Theres a certain pleasure in being a part of the chase. In being a part of a generation that helped advance intelligent life. We may just be another brick, another bit of the foundation that makes advanced lifeforms possible but we’re still a part of it all. And with ways the universe could conceivably wipe out life I think that’s a very worthy, and noble cause to pursue. But all of this progress depends upon the hard work of people just like us. Normal people who strive for great things. Normal people who believe that big missions like this are the result of the average person striving to become a little better, to make the world a little better. That attitude, on a mass scale is what will help humanity reach the stars.



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Written by Andrew Walls

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