The human race needs 350 more years to become a Type I civilization

Then we can finally harness the full power of the sun.
Chris Young
A Dyson spherecokada/iStock

The Kardashev Scale assesses a civilization based on its capacity to harness the energy of the cosmos. The higher up the scale, the better the civilization is at using the abundant energy of its surrounding stars.

A new paper, published in preprint server ArXiv, looks at the potential for humans to reach the lofty category of Type I civilization.

To do so, we would need to fully harness the energy that reaches Earth from the Sun.

The Kardashev Scale

The Kardashev Scale was proposed by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964 as a means to measure a hypothetical civilization's level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy it is able to harness from the surrounding universe. 

Kardashev categorized civilizations into three types: planetary, stellar, and galactic. A Type I species is able to harness the same amount of stellar energy that reaches its home planet. Type II species can fully harness the energy of their host stars, and Type III are able to harness the energy of their home galaxy.

Some scientists believe that Type III civilizations may already be out there. One team from Leiden University, for example, is looking for infrared signals that they believe could be the exhaust emissions of hypothetical Dyson spheres — massive machines that harness the power of a star. 

Interestingly, humans don't actually qualify as a Type I civilizations. What's more, as we are yet to detect the presence of intelligent alien life, these types of civilizations are only hypothetical. Approximately 1016 Watts of solar power reaches Earth on average, and humanity currently harnesses about 1013 Watts, meaning we are still some way off.

How far down the scale is humanity?

Carl Sagan, the famous science popularizer, suggested Kardashev's scale could be turned into a spectrum, in order to accommodate human civilization. According to Sagan's idea, humans would currently be at about 0.73 on that scale, meaning we are arguably not incredibly far off from being a Type I civilization.

In their paper, the team of scientists looked at humanity's three main sources of energy: fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable. They estimated the potential growth for each of these by analyzing the physical limitations of each type of energy source balanced against the need to limit the effects of climate change and other environmental concerns such as pollution.

The scientists found that, even when taking into account realistic limitations, it is possible for humanity to become a Type I civilization. However, according to their estimates, we won't reach that goal until at least the year 2371.

Of course, this is a very rough estimate that simply can't account for the possible innovations that could occur over the next few decades. However, it draws attention to the inextricable link between the question of averting the climate crisis and becoming a Type I civilization that is capable of exploring the cosmos on a mission to harness the immense amount of energy that is out there.

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