There are several ways in which we can measure the progress of human civilization. Population growth, the rise and fall of empires, our technological ability to reach for the stars.
But one simple metric is to calculate how much energy humans use at any one time. As humanity spreads and develops, our ability to harness energy is one of our most useful skills.
If one assumes that civilizations on other planets might possess similar skills, a species’ energy consumption is a good rough measure of their technological skills. This is the idea behind Kardashev scale.
The scale was proposed by the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev in 1964. He classified civilizations into three types: planetary, stellar, and galactic.
Type I species are able to harness energy on a scale equal to the amount of stellar energy reaching their home planet. Type II species can harness the energy at the scale of their parent star, and Type III can harness the energy of their home galaxy.
The idea was further popularized by Carl Sagan, who proposed a continuous scale of measurement rather than just three types.
So what kind of civilization are we? Even though humans use a tremendous amount of energy, it turns out that we don’t even qualify as being type I.
On average, about 1016 watts of solar energy reaches the Earth, and humanity is currently using about 1013 watts. On the Sagan sliding scale, this currently puts us at around 0.73.
Not bad for a group of well-developed primates, but it does raise an interesting question. Can we even get to the first type? After all, we can’t capture all the sunlight that reaches Earth and still have a habitable planet.
This question has been studied in paper It was recently published in arXiv. The paper looks at the three main sources of energy: fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables, and calculates their potential growth over time.
On the other hand, getting to the first type may seem very easy. Make energy production a top priority, and you’ll get there eventually. But each type of energy source has its limitations.
In an extreme case, like burning every ounce of fossil fuel we can, could lead to a level Climate change We could all end up in what’s called cool filter. You cannot become a Type 1 civilization if it becomes extinct.
So the team takes a more nuanced approach, analyzing the physical limitations of each type of energy source, balancing them with the need to reduce climate change and pollution levels as outlined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency.
They found that even with realistic limitations, it is possible for humanity to reach the first level. The downside is that we won’t get to that level until at least 2371.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Kardashev Scale is a very sharp instrument for measuring the scale of human technology.
While advanced civilizations require significant energy, we have seen how advances in low-power computing and increased efficiency allow us to reduce or flatten our energy consumption while continuing to advance in technology.
While this study shows how we can become a Type I civilization, it is possible that we can really advance when we realize we don’t need to.
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