Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ascent Towards a Type I Civilization

As a species that is in the midst of more than a century of massive technological evolution, homo sapiens, with all of their blinking gadgets and other paraphernalia, rarely fancy themselves as primitive.  It comes then as a surprise to most to find out that we have still yet to attain a civilization status of Type I.  That's right!  Take that, fragile collective ego of mankind.  Despite all that you may feel your species has accomplished, you presently belong to a Type Zero civilization, as did your cave-dwelling ancestors.

While we do indeed have access to vastly superior technology than homo sapiens have had in their long history, we do not yet qualify as a Type I.  We are, however, well on our way.

So, what is this civilization classification system, and who established it?

The system measures the technological advancement of a civilization by assessing the amount of space it takes up, and the extent to which it utilizes the energy resources within that space.  It is known as the Kardashev scale, and can be expressed in terms of the order of magnitude of power that a civilization extracts for its personal use.  This very forward-thinking and pragmatic scale was proposed in 1964 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev.  A civilization that has attained a certain level of technological development is described as follows:

Based on these definitions, it is quite clear that mankind has not attained Type I status.  We may think we are masters of our planet, but in reality we are at its mercy.  We have yet to meet our power and material needs in a sustainable way.  We have yet to extract the unbelievable wealth of thermal energy stored in a relatively endless reservoir within our planet.  And, "Control the weather...?"  We can barely predict it with confidence one week in advance.

How about power usage?  In 2012, man converted about 20,000 TWh of energy of various forms into electrical energy for its use to power everything from lights to the aforementioned blinking gadgets.  Such energy production occurs in power plants.  If you add all of the energy conversion that takes place locally (internal combustion engines in cars, solar panels, etc), that global energy use number goes up considerably.  Let us say that the grand total figure came in at 40,000 TWh.  As there are 8,760 hours in one year, that translates to an average global power use of about 4.6 TW, which is order 1012  Watts.

This means that we are a factor of about 100,000 away from a Type I civilization in terms of power.  That may sound like a lot, but science has made gaps of similar magnitude close rather quickly in the past.  Before the industrial revolution, there was no real large scale energy production... If you wanted to know the power of mankind measured in horsepower, you could simply count the horses.

There are only two ways in which man can undergo a quantum shift in power extraction in the foreseeable future to the tune of five orders of magnitude.  One way is to unlock nuclear energy in a more substantial way.  Converting mass into energy holds so much promise, of which we have yet to scratch the surface.  The other way is to effectively tap into the massive reservoir of thermal energy stored within the Earth's core.

In any case, nobody reading this in 2012 will live to see mankind reach Type I status; however, they will likely see a notable ascent towards it.  Mankind may reach Type I within a few centuries. 

It is probably for the best that innovations on this scale not happen for a while.  As a colleague of mine put it last week, "I don't think I want to live in a Type I civilization."  I think what she meant is that mankind, in its present sociological form, is completely unprepared for such physical power.  A student of mine recently expressed a similar fear: mankind has much power already, but so little responsibility.

This has been and will continue to be our plight: our scientific technology has and will continue to race ahead of our socio-political maturity.  Physicist Michio Kaku has expressed on numerous occasions that mankind, for the past fifty years and for the near term future at least, has been and will continue to be in a very fragile state.  The moment in time when a civilization develops a nuclear bomb represents a critical line in the sand: it is when extinction at our own hands becomes realistic.

The stability of our species (and others on this planet) is under continuous threat; when substantial power is available to a species that cannot quite 'get along', the potential for danger becomes inevitable.  The interesting thing is that the risk of extinction does not necessarily increase as a civilization matures beyond Type I.  We are currently in greater peril than were our ancestors some millenia ago, but if we manage to make it to Type I, our situation will likely improve.

A Type I civilization does not need to fight over resources, as they are plentiful.  Thus, peace on Earth becomes realistic.

In the end, we are presented with three choices...

1.  We stop our technological evolution and continue living off of our planet unsustainably.

2.  We somehow eradicate our technology and move towards a more primitive civilization.

3.  We continue to evolve in the hopes of reaching a Type I civilization.

No good can come of option 1.  The status quo will likely drive us to extinction or close to it in less than a century.  Our death as a species could come either at the hands of nations fighting over resources and/or ideological differences, or as a result of a lack of resources due to the continuous degradation of our biosphere.  In fact, these two threats are connected, and a "laissez-faire" approach will ascertain the occurrence of both to a certain degree.

While option 2 can place us in less immediate danger, I think that if it occurs, it will be due to some cataclysmic event, and not by way of a collective decision.  Living more primitive lives by choice goes against human nature.  Imagine living in a box for years, being let out of the box for a while, and then being offered the box again.  I want to be clear here - there is a stark difference between being minimalists and being primitive.  A technologically advanced civilization can and should seek to minimize its consumption (such efforts expedite future advances).  Option 2 deals with a technological devolution, where we rid ourselves of key advances in areas like energy production and modern medicine - I cannot fathom such a scenario playing out.

It is clear to me that option 3 is the only way to go.  However, a continued journey towards a Type I civilization promises to be as tumultuous as were the past hundred years. 

On the one hand, we can view the road ahead as frightening, but on the other, we may also view it as a very interesting time to be alive.  Compare the complexity of modern day life to the existence of a hunter gatherer.  Some millenia ago, one could live a lifetime without noticing any real change in civilization from birth until death.  Anyone born in the past century who has lived a full life, has seen dramatic changes in our civilization during the course of their life.  The science fiction books of one's youth become surpassed by the same adult's reality.

The way I see it, when we left our caves in the pursuit of greater power, we made a commitment.  We cannot retreat now - we need to see it through.  We need to increase our level of technology in the hopes that we can craft sustainable global living conditions.  And, throughout this technological advancement, we need to not kill ourselves.  In a sense, we can think of our world leaders as people who buy time for our scientists to figure out a solution.

I think that I would like to see a Type I civilization, and am a bit saddened by the fact that I will not live to see one.  On the bright side, I feel lucky to be here to witness this rocky road as it plays out.  Indeed, pondering the future of man can make one feel anxious, but you have to hand it to us: we certainly never let it get too dull around here.  


Chelsea said...

This is an interesting as well as a frustrating topic of discussion for me. To begin, I can’t seem to align a Type 1 civilization with being a good thing, simply for the horrendous path we’re taking to get there. Yes, it would be great to live sustainably and to harness the planet’s natural powers in a healthy manner, but there’s no way of doing this without destroying the environment and all life first (there is a way but human’s would never go through with it as they always need immediate gratification), which then removes any chance of actually becoming a Type 1 civilization. As a species, we don’t have the common sense, logic, maturity, or compatibility with each other to ever reach this Type 1 stage.
History shows us that civilizations wipe themselves out time and time again. Self destruction. Easter Island, WWII, genocide…wait until the water wars! Any discoveries that we believe to be astonishing or miraculous are, in my view, cancelled out by our ridiculousness. The power struggle to reach a Type 1 civilization will kill us; there will always be the haves and the have not’s. The very nature of human beings is to search and destroy, search and destroy, always looking for the next best thing. It’s unfortunate that the #2 option you present of eradicating technology and reverting back to a more primitive lifestyle isn’t an option for humans as a whole. We always need something more, something to relate to, another living being out in space, something to affirm that we aren’t alone and that we’re here for a reason. Why can’t we just be? Like you said,
“the risk of extinction does not necessarily increase as a civilization matures beyond Type I. We are currently in greater peril than were our ancestors some millenia ago, but if we manage to make it to Type I, our situation will likely improve.”
True, but it’s more likely that a big oooops will happen before then, and humans will have to kiss this beautiful planet that they endlessly take advantage of goodbye. What can I say, I’m a pessimist!

The Engineer said...

Your passion on the topic comes through Chelsea...

I have optimism that man will make it to Type I, but not before some near extinction events. It has everything to do with our maturity as a global population... Our world leaders and all citizens need to work together to buy time for our scientists to do their thing.

I know it is hard to have faith in humanity, considering our track record. But, without hope, we essentially throw in the towel. There is nothing wrong with being a pessimist, but let us act in a way that is productive, even if those actions are small.

I relate to your frustration. Mankind can be so irresponsible, yet at times, so noble and good. Let us hope that, over time, our collective responsibility improves so that our virtues begin to define us.

Yekaterina Kobtseva said...

"Ascent Towards a Type I Civilization" touches upon a very philosophical question: how advanced can the mankind become, and what kind of effect that advancement will have. Sometimes one thinks how great will it be: controlling weather, being the masters of the Earth, maybe, even making of our time machines!.. At the same time, indeed, no one can predict the consequences of our progress. Referring to some similar examples in science fiction, such as 'Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow' by Kurt Vonnegut, we can observe how evolution, in fact, transforms into devolution. In brief, the story is telling how people were able to invent a medicine, called Anti-Gerasone, that halts aging process and allows you to live as much as you want until you are consuming the medicine. Anti-Gerasone is made out of mud and dandelions; it is inexpensive and wildly available. One can look at this situation with a sense of excitement and impression in how far medicine has advanced; however, on the other hand, we can look at how the invention of Anti-Gerasone resulted in overpopulation (imagine 22 people living in a three-room apartment!), using up of resources (gasoline, furniture, etc.), and shortages in food supplies - almost everyone ends up eating processed seaweed and sawdust! In other words, everybody can live longer, but nobody is happy. Was that really worth it?..
Also, referring to 'Robot Dreams' of I. Asimov, in which people, while making androids, themselves became android-like: they've lost pity, compassion, as if they were possessing the positronic hearts.
As to establishment colonies on other planets, one can remember 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' by Philip K. Dick: people colonized Mars, but they still weren't enjoying life there too much.
Therefore, I suppose, we can ask ourselves a question: if the time of Type I civilization occurred, would the civilization be able to handle all the progress and responsibility? :)

Iain said...

When Humanity migrated from burning wood & whale blubber for energy to the much greater energy densities of coal & oil, our society took a number of profound steps forward not just in technological terms, but in social and moral ones, too. in 1899 20% of the american population was completely illiterate, today it's .6%. in 1899, less than 1% of households had electricity in their houses or central plumbing for toilets. Today, all houses in America have these technologies; hell. The Toilet ALONE is one of the SINGLE BIGGEST contributors to the dramatic increase in health in America. in 1899, a person of color could be shot to death in the lower 1/2 of the country just for using the wrong drinking fountain or looking at a white person in a way they didnt like. Rape was still considerd a "woman's fault", and if you were Gay & found out, you'd probably be killed. There was absolutely NO regard or thought for protecting the environment like there is today; companies would literally just dump chemicals like cyanide into a stream, river, or the back of their property.

The point im making is, while we have ALOT of problems in 2013, we have made ENORMOUS improvements over the last 120+ years, and it directly correlates to our increased generation of electicity & thermal energy for industrial purposes.

If we want to end the problems we face today, and keep the many improvements to our Society going, we need to increase our electricity & thermal energy generation by 1 million times, but in a way that doesn't generate CO2.

"Renewables" will NEVER get us there, they are far too energy diffuse & intermittent.

We need Gen IV Nuclear Fission reactors, ideally fluid fueled instead of solid fueled, and using the Thorium Fuel Cycle instead of Uranium.