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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.

A logarithm to calculate your civilisation's energy consumption.
A logarithm to calculate your civilisation's energy consumption.

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.

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.

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:


Title image by Euderion and used with their kind permission.