The Kardashev Scale
Guest Writer: JuimytheCybershark
What distinguishes an advanced civilization from a primitive one? There are many answers to this question, such as: time, different societal norms, scientific knowledge, population, satisfaction of needs and the like.
For example, let us take the time it takes to develop a civilisation. Our civilization arose thousands of years following year 0 AD and we can see the differences between then and now clearly. Plus time is quantifiable so it might seem like our go-to indicator. But no, for a few reasons: we as humans have little to no idea what time itself is even though physicists are hard at work about it and, most evidently, time isn’t really an absolute indicator, since there existed civilizations that arose before year zero which weren’t as advanced as ours and from the perspective of those living during year zero these were ancient times themselves.
Let us take the population. The more a civilization is advanced the more they’d be able to provide for their people, leading to greater populations right? After all, currently we stand as the dominant species on earth with more than 7.8 billion individuals and counting. Unfortunately it’s not a good indicator either, since the most populous countries are those of the second and third world, which compared with their first world counterparts have a lot of catching up to do in terms of advancement.
Societal norms, scientific knowledge and satisfaction of needs are relatively good indicators of a civilization’s advancement, however they have the defect of being more or less subjective and not uniform.
So, how to solve this? How can there be a scale of a civilization’s advancement? A relatively valid answer was supplied by soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, who developed the scale based on the energy available to the given civilization and their mastery over it. The scale was then perfected by astronomer Carl Sagan who developed a formula tying the numbers of the scale to the energy consumed by a civilization through a logarithmic formula:
How can this be helpful to worldbuilders? This scale can provide an excellent frame of reference to design advanced civilization, both ability wise and timescale wise, providing various degrees of realism to the overall design if one was concerned with it, plus it can greatly ease up the design process in any case.
The standard kardashev scale goes from type 0 to type 3, for about four levels.
- Type 0-This is where we are. Our civilization ranks at a 0.72-3 level on the kardashev scale, meaning that we are still quite far from calling ourselves a type 1, due to the fact that we haven’t yet managed to perfect our understanding and control of the planet’s dynamics nor perfected any means of employing it’s immense energy, not to mention that we largely rely on fossil fuels. However, according to current estimates humanity could reach type 1 in a couple of centuries, then type 2 in a few millennia and finally type 3 in anywhere between hundreds of millenia to a million years.
- Type 1-Is a civilization that achieved mastery of their homeworld and can access all of its energy, which would be a thousand times our current energy consumption, earning the title of ‘planetary civilization’. Besides the access to that staggering amount of energy and all the benefits related, this civilization would be capable of controlling all the planetary dynamics such as weather, tectonic movements and even the biosphere itself, making feats of geoengineering such as terraforming possible. With this incredible energy baggage such a civilization could reach other worlds within their solar system and apply the same procedure, further increasing the energy at their disposal for their transition to type 2. Examples are:
- The united federation of planets (Star Trek)
- Several Mass Effect Civilizations
- Gaia from Horizon Zero Dawn
- Type 2-Is a civilization that achieved mastery of their entire star system including their very star for a staggering total of 10^26 watts available, about ten billion times the energy available to a type 1, earning the title of ‘stellar civilization’. All this energy could be harvested using expedients like a dyson swarm, which consists of billions of satellites enclosing the sun or any given star harvesting the energy it emits. A civilization with this amount of energy at their disposal would be capable of easily crafting megastructural habitats within their solar system, allowing them to be independent of planets and even reach out to other star systems with ease since propelling vessels to relativistic speeds would become trivial. Reaching other star systems they’d be able to repeat the process again slowly transitioning to type 3.
- The galactic empire (Star wars)
- The borg (star trek)
- The empires of Warhammer 40k
- Imperium of man
- Aeldari empire
- The forerunners (Halo)
- Type 3-Is a civilization that achieved mastery of their entire galaxy for a grand total of 10^36 watts available, ten billion times the energy of a type 2 and ten billion times ten billions the energy available to a type 1, earning the title of ‘galactic civilization’. It is difficult to say what a civilization of this level would be capable of but feats such as star engines, star lifting, star ignition, construction of entire solar systems and even intergalactic travel come to mind.
- The precursors (Halo)
- The human federation (Warhammer 40k)
- The old ones (Warhammer 40k)
Beyond type 3 there are other, more esoteric levels, going from 4 to 7, which are subjects of debate given that they’d often require a knowledge of the universe that is beyond our current understanding and hinges on a few assumptions, making their very feasibility dubious. One could say that here is where the magic happens.
- Type 4-An intergalactic civilization. A civilization that managed to reach other galaxies within it’s cluster and harness their energy.
- Type 5-A universal civilization. A civilization that managed to reach all the galaxies within their universal event horizon (aka the observable universe) and harness their energy.
- Type 6-A multiversal civilization. A civilization that managed to tap into other universes besides it’s own. Hinging on the possibility that there is a multiverse.
- Type 7-A transcendent civilization. A civilization that achieved a level that is far beyond our understanding, by combining all realities it accessed into one achieving a god-like status and all related abilities. Hinging on the possibility that a complete understanding of the universe is possible and that it can be so thoroughly manipulated.
Alternative scales to the kardashev exist, combining or substituting the access to energy with things like the information a civilization would have access to and how deeply they can affect the world around them. Examples are:
- Planet mastery (Robert Zubrin): Metrics other than pure power usage have also been proposed. One is 'mastery' of a planet, system or galaxy rather than considering energy alone. Mastery means how thoroughly a civilization has understood and can influence their world’s dynamics (such as weather, composition, tectonic movements and even orbit).
- Information mastery (Carl Sagan): Alternatively, Carl Sagan suggested adding another dimension in addition to pure energy usage: the information available to the civilization.
- He assigned the letter A to represent 106 unique bits of information (a bit being the fundamental units of information available to the civilization and can be anything between computer data to words) and each successive letter to represent an order of magnitude increase, so that a level Z civilization would have 1031 bits.
- In this classification, 1973 Earth is a 0.7 H civilization, with access to 1013 bits of information.
- Sagan believed that no civilization has yet reached level Z, conjecturing that so much unique information would exceed that of all the intelligent species in a galactic supercluster and observing that the universe is not old enough to exchange information effectively over larger distances.
- The information and energy axes are not strictly interdependent, so that even a level Z civilization would not need to be Kardashev Type III.
- Microdimensional mastery (John Barrow): John D. Barrow observed that humans have found it more cost-effective to extend their abilities to manipulate their environment over increasingly small scales rather than increasingly large ones. He therefore proposes a reverse classification downward from Type I-minus to Type Omega-minus:
- Type I-minus is capable of manipulating objects over the scale of themselves, which means what they can percept and interact with using their natural senses alone: building structures, mining, joining and breaking solids;
- Type II-minus is capable of manipulating genes and altering the development of living things, transplanting or replacing parts of themselves, reading and engineering their genetic code;
- Type III-minus is capable of manipulating molecules and molecular bonds, creating new materials;
- Type IV-minus is capable of manipulating individual atoms, creating nanotechnologies on the atomic scale and creating complex forms of artificial life;
- Type V-minus is capable of manipulating the atomic nucleus and engineering the nucleons that compose it;
- Type VI-minus is capable of manipulating the most elementary particles of matter (quarks and leptons) to create organized complexity among populations of elementary particles; culminating in:
- Type Omega-minus is capable of manipulating the basic structure of space and time.
- Human civilization is somewhere between type III-minus and type IV-minus according to this classification.
- Civilizational range (Robert Zubrin): Robert Zubrin adapts the Kardashev scale to refer to how widespread a civilization is in space, rather than to its energy use.
- In his definition, a Type I civilization has spread across its planet.
- A Type II has extensive colonies in its respective stellar system, and
- A Type III has colonized its galaxy.
Title image by Euderion and used with their kind permission.