Kardashev Scale: Getting to Level 5

The Kardashev scale is a speculative model that was designed to explain the scale of difference between humankind and possible alien societies that may exist. “May” is the key word here. So before I begin my answer, I want to make clear that this is all pure speculation. And it can’t be anything more than speculation in the absence of hard data that serves as evidence of life in outer space and/or on other planets.

According to the Kardashev Scale, civilisations may be rated on a scale like this:

  • Type 1: A civilisation that can harness all the energy of the planet it exists on.

  • Type 2: A civilisation that can harness all the energy of its nearest star.

  • Type 3: A civilisation that can harness all the energy of the galaxy it exists in.

A more detailed explanation of the Kardashev scale can be found here.

Kardashev himself did not go beyond speculating about Type 3 civilisations. It was later thinkers who added to the scale and took it up to Type 5. Here is what they added:

  • Type 4: A civilisation that can harness the energy content of its entire universe.

  • Type 5: A civilisation that can harness the energy content of all universes — the multiverse.

I would like to address just the early levels of the scale, because speculating about Types 4 and 5 makes my head hurt while simultaneously making me laugh like a hysterical maniac.

But first…

Let me first come to the words “our race” in the question. What does it mean exactly?

Think about it. Human beings, as we know them, can be said to have existed for something around 200,000 years. We are descended from an ape-like ancestor which no longer exists. But can we consider that ancestor a part of “our race”?

Imagine that ape-like ancestor wandering about on Earth in search for greener pastures and better climate and resources. Imagine that one night she went to sleep in a state of frustration and dreamt of a future where “her race” has occupied large parts of the planet and no longer has to worry about things like food, shelter, and safety on an everyday basis.

And now there is us. We do occupy such a space in the order of things. Our days are no longer spent looking for food and running away from predators. We lead relatively easy lives and we go to sleep in relative comfort every night.

But when we think back about our ancestor, we do not think of her as a member of “our race”. She is gone. She is distant history. She is from a time before we started defining ourselves (and each other) as “us”.

Perhaps, one day, we will become a Type 3 civilisation. But it won’t really be “us” who reaches that stage. The people who find themselves in the future that the Kardashev Scale proposes, will probably think of us just as we think of our distant proto-human ancestor. They won’t consider us a member of “their race”.

Having said that…

A good way to measure how far we have to go is to appreciate where we are right now.

In all honesty, we would be exaggerating if we call ourselves a Type 1 civilisation. Humankind has a long way to go before ALL the energy of this planet is at our command. Right now, we are managing somehow by burning oil and coal. We do a little bit of windmilling and a little bit of solar celling. We don’t really use the heat emanating from the planet’s core and we don’t turn matter into energy in any meaningful way.

And we have been defining ourselves as “us” for a relatively short period of time. Modern human civilisation is a few thousand years old. Industrialisation is only a few centuries old. In the overall scheme of things that the Kardashev Scale presents, we are flea-bitten savages who write science fiction.

The rate at which our understanding of nature is advancing may seem mind-blowing to us with our small frame of reference. But on the scale at which Types 2 and 3 operate, this speed of progress is little more than a blip. Even if this speed grows at an exponential rate, we are looking at a few centuries to full Type 1 status and around one thousand years before humankind becomes a Type 2 civilisation. And I am erring on the side of optimism here.

So… Umm… Is there anything we can do to speed things up?

It took us more than a thousand years to become capable of putting objects in Earth’s orbit. It was only in recent memory that we have uncovered a few aspects of the universe — the quantum world for example, and the true nature of gravity. We did it by being realists — by not lying to ourselves about what we know and what we don’t.

The greatest hurdle in our path was not our ability to find solutions to the problems we face. It was our unwillingness to make the changes required. It’s not that we are too stupid to know war is a bad thing or that we really do need the environment in working order to survive on Earth. We know these things and we know what we need to do to make life better for everyone.

We don’t take these steps because we are hesitant to accept our true place in the order of things. We don’t want to believe that we are small and vulnerable and in constant danger of being wiped out by diseases, evolutionary pressures, and cosmic events. We would rather believe that we are special and that we are taken care of by deities and that nothing bad can ever happen to us. If we die out, it will be because we didn’t dream big enough and because we didn’t value the chances we have.

Of course, we might also fail due to reasons completely out of our control and that would be equally unfortunate. We might never learn a way to travel to the farthest stars. We might never find a way to transcend the barriers imposed on us by the laws of nature.

But at least we would have tried. And try is all we can do really.