The Next Level

According to the Kardashev Scale of technological advancement (not to be confused with Douglas Adams’s three stages of civilization), on a scale of I through III, we are at 0.7. The Kardashev Scale is a measure of the level of civilization based on energy usage. The assumption is that more advanced civilizations will be able to tap ever greater sources of energy. Each one-tenth on the scale is ten times the one before, so on reaching level 0.8, we would be using ten times as much energy as now. At level I (1.0), we would be using 1,000 times what we are now, more or less the total amount of solar energy that falls on Earth.

Greydon Square – “.7” The Mandelbrot Set:

Of course, in order to become more advanced, a civilization has to survive. If we are going to deal with threats like killer asteroids, we first have to not destroy ourselves. So far, we have managed to avoid sending ourselves back to the stone age with a nuclear war, and we haven’t completely destroyed our own environment, yet. We did manage to not start WW III. It required some high level diplomacy, and we aren’t completely in the clear yet. A nuclear terrorist attack is still possible, but we seem to have headed off a world-wide conflagration. We are, however, facing another threat that we must deal with, a threat that is a product of our own progress.

According to the platform of the Green Party, “Our current economic system is … premised on endless economic growth and destruction of nature.”  For a long time, the endless growth model worked, but now we have essentially filled the Earth and can no longer grow by acquiring new land and harvesting resources. That doesn’t mean growth is impossible. I can think of three ways we could potentially continue to grow our GDP:

  • We could steal someone else’s resources. That’s a zero-sum game, of course. We gain, someone else loses, which means they are going to fight back. Eventually, we would be spending a substantial portion of GDP fighting and defending, with no net gain.
  • We could make technological advances—a much more efficient solar cell, for instance, or some source of cheap energy we haven’t even thought of. That may well keep us going for some time, but it is impossible to predict when the next invention will occur, not to mention whether it may have unintended negative consequences.
  • We could expand our territory into space and other planets. That’s an exciting idea, and not impossible, but we won’t see much return from it any time soon. There are good reasons to explore space, and we will benefit, just not in terms of profit; at least not in the short run.

The reasonable choices for now are either to invent some fantastic technology, or find ways to more efficiently use what we have, or do the politically unpopular thing, the inevitable thing—give up on the endless economic growth model. If, rather, when we adopt a model of development that fits our Earth, does that meant we have to give up progressing along the Kardashev Scale?

How much do we have to give up? On reaching level I on the Scale, we would be using about as much energy as the Earth gets directly from the Sun. It is reasonable to assume that we would have to be well established in space to harvest that much energy. The real question, then, is can we reach that level of competency in space travel while being good stewards of the Earth?

It’s a good question to try to answer, because, if we expect to stay around for a least another few thousand years, we need to find a way to head off cosmic disasters, like asteroids colliding with Earth. At the same time, we need to keep Earth habitable for us and our food sources. The immediate goal is adapting to a sustainable lifestyle, and perhaps finding a way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. As we start to get that under control, we need to think about how to colonize space without trashing the environment back on Earth. Any ideas?

Title image credit: Astronomy Picture of the Day

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