The Kardashev scale, designed by astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev, was created to assess how advanced a civilization is by taking into consideration multiple factors, including population growth, technology, and energy demands. The idea is that the more advanced the people are, the higher and more complex their energy usage will be. When we first appeared on Earth 200,000 years ago, for example, our species was few in number, and the extent of our energy source was, really, just fire. We now number in the billions and use a combination of wind, solar, and nuclear energy sources, though our main energy supply comes from fossil fuels (it really seems like we just moved on to burning bigger and badder things). The International Energy Agency estimates that each year our societies use an estimated 17.37 terrawatt-hours.
All of this may sound fairly advanced — we’ve come a long way from just using logs to fuel our everyday lives. Yet in reality, we’re really quite primitive compared to where we could be. We still get the majority of our energy from dead plants and animals, a source that will eventually run out sooner or later, and which is helping destroy our planet in the process.
So where do we place on the Kardashev scale? We’re a zero: 0.72, to be more exact. Here’s what we need to move forward.
To become a Type I civilization we would have to harness all the available energy of our home planet at 100% efficiency. This means capturing the energy of every wave, every beam of sunlight, and every bit of fossil fuel we can dig up. To do that without rendering the entire planet uninhabitable, we’d have to use nuclear fusion. And to create all the energy we need via this method, we would require 280 k/s of hydrogen and helium every second, or 89 billion grams of hydrogen per year. You can gather more than that from one square km of ocean water.
With this ability to harness all energy from Earth also comes the ability to control all of the planet’s natural forces, including volcanoes, geothermal vents, earthquakes, and climate. At 100,000 times the energy usage we have now, we’d have access to 10¹⁷ watts of energy as a Type I civilization. Consider, for example, the ability to control a hurricane. One such storm can release the power of hundreds of hydrogen bombs.
While controlling the weather may sound very fantastical, physicist Michio Kaku theorizes that we’ll reach Type I status in the next 100–200 years, as we continue to grow in population at about 3% per year.
After we’ve been able to harness all the energy from our home planet, we’ll move on to harnessing all the energy of our home star, the sun. One way of doing this is to build a Dyson swarm around the star, or a group of panels capable of reflecting light into small solar power plants which could then send those light beams to Earth for our use. Similar to the work of controlling the forces here on Earth, we’d be able to control the star as well, including the manipulation of solar flares. Another way to get enough energy for a Type II civilization would be to build a fusion reactor on a huge scale or to use a reactor to essentially drain the hydrogen from a nearby gas giant, like Jupiter.
At this point we’re a few thousand years into the future and using 10²⁶ watts of energy. A stellar civilization capable of gathering energy on this scale has become immune to extinction.
We’ve gone from controlling all the energy of our home planet to our home star and, now, our galaxy. Take the Dyson swarm proposed above and extend it to cover all 100 billion stars of the Milky Way. A civilization this advanced, and with access to this many resources, would truly be a master race, having at their disposal 10³⁶ watts of energy. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of years of evolution would mean that we as a race would look very different, both biologically and in terms of merging with our technology in becoming cyborgs or even fully robotic.
To colonize all the stars we could use self-replicating robots that would assemble and maintain the Dyson swarms, though it’s likely we’ll have found a new energy source by then. This could include tapping into the energy of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, or even using gamma ray bursts. Another possibility, though they have been yet undetected, would be to find a white hole and to use the energy that emanates from it.
The trick for a galactic species would be the constraints of the laws of physics — how can they be united when their colonies are light years away? They’d have to find a way to move at the speed of light or, even better, create wormholes to other locations.
Kardashev ended the scale here because he didn’t believe it could go any further, stating that any civilizations beyond Type III would be too advanced to even fathom. But other astronomers have since extended the scale to include Type IV and Type V.
Type IV and V
A Type IV civilization would be undetectable to us. It would be able to harness the entire energy of the universe and move across all of space, appearing as nothing more than a work of nature. Some speculate that giant voids in space, like the one 1.8 billion light years across and missing 90% of its galaxies, could be proof of a civilization making use of the universe. But a civilization this advanced might not even harness energy as we know it anymore, choosing instead to move into more exotic substances, like dark energy. They might also live inside black holes, controlling 10⁴⁶ watts of energy. These feats are very sci-fi and, as far as we know, impossible to accomplish. But then again we’re a lowly Type 0 civilization with no idea what may lie ahead.
It gets even more fantastical when one considers a Type V master race that would function like gods, able to harness energy not only from this universe, but all universes in all dimensions. Its energy usage and access to knowledge would be incomprehensible.
The micro-dimensional mastery extension to the Kardashev scale was proposed by John D. Barrow, a scientist who decided to take civilization ranking in the opposite direction, choosing instead to base his scale on how small a people’s control could reach. This scale is outlined differently:
Type I-minus: controlling matter at the observable level, that is, being to manipulate things we can see and touch.
Type II-minus: controlling genes
Type III-minus: controlling molecules
Type IV-minus: controlling atoms
Type V-minus: controlling protons
Type VI-minus: controlling elementary particles, like quarks
Type Omega-minus: controlling fundamental elements of spacetime
Whether using the original or micro version, the beautiful thing about the Kardashev scale is that it’s not just full of fascinating and alien concepts; it’s also a blueprint for where we could go if our species could just make it the next 100 years. Will the human race emerge from our planet and thrive in the universe just as we emerged from Africa and grew to thrive around the world?