Kardashev scale

The Kardashev scale is a general method of classifying how technologically advanced a civilization is, first proposed in 1964 by the Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev. It has three categories, based on the amount of usable energy a civilization has at its disposal and increasing logarithmically:

  • Type I - A civilization that is able to harness all of the power available on a single planet, approximately 1016 W. The actual figure is quite variable; Earth specifically has an available power of 1.74×1017 W. Kardashev's original definition was 4x1012 W. (It was identified as a "Technological level close to the level presently attained on earth", "presently" meaning 1964.)
  • Type II - A civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star, approximately 1026 W. Again, this figure is variable; the Sun outputs approximately 3.86×1026 W. Kardashev's original definition was 4x1026 W.
  • Type III - A civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single galaxy, approximately 1036 W. This figure is extremely variable, since galaxies vary widely in size. Kardashev's original definition was 4x1037 W.

All such civilizations are purely hypothetical at this point. However, the Kardashev scale is of use to SETI researchers, science fiction authors, and futurists as a theoretical framework.


Usage and examples

Human civilization is currently somewhere below Type I, as it is able to harness only a portion of the energy that is available on Earth. The current state of human civilization has thus been named Type 0. Although intermediate values were not discussed in Kardashev's original proposal, Carl Sagan argued that they could easily be defined by interpolating the values given above. He calculated humanity's current civilization to be 0.7. He used a power output of ~10TW and the formula

<math>K = \frac{\log_{10}{W}-6} {10}<math>

where K is a civilization's Kardashev rating and W is its power output in watts. Note that Roman numerals are still used for the integer part of a civilization's rating, while the fractional part is written in decimal.

A possible method by which Earth can advance to a Type I civilization is to begin the heavy use of ocean thermal energy conversion, wind turbines and tidal power to obtain the energy received by Earth's oceans from the Sun. However there is no known way to successfully utilise the full potential of Earth's energy production without complete coating of the surface with man made structures. In the near and medium future, this is an impossibility given humans' current lifestyle.

A hypothetical Type II civilization might employ a Dyson sphere or other similar construct in order to utilize all of the energy output by a star, or perhaps more exotic means such as feeding stellar mass into a black hole to generate usable energy. Alternatively, it may occupy a large number of solar systems, absorbing a small but significant fraction of the output of each individual star. A Type III civilization might use the same techniques employed by a Type II civilization, applied to all of the stars of one or more galaxies individually, or perhaps might use other mechanisms not yet proposed.

A common and recognisable example of a fictional civilization capable of entering a Type III level is the Galactic Empire which features in many works of space opera. These civilizations utilise energy on a massive scale, generally being in between Type II and Type III.

Possible timeline

Humanity's current history indicates a timeline roughly shown here. These values are approximate, and include future predictions, from 0.8 onwards. They use Sagan's extrapolated version of the scale.

Missing image

Type 0 Development of Civilization Missing image

0.25 (3 108 W) Roman Civilization 0.5 (1011 W) Industrial Revolution 0.6 (1012 W) 1891 to 1938 technological expansion 0.7 (1013 W) c. 2000: Nuclear Weapons and Fission power 0.8 (1014 W) c. 2100: Fusion power? 0.9 (1015 W) c. 2200: Space elevators, the creation of an Ecumenopolis? Type 0 to Type I transition: Civilization self-destructs or achieves a Technological singularity?
<math>\Longrightarrow<math> Increasing levels of technology, Up to 0.5, increasing levels of fragmentation, increasing energy usage, increasing area of habitation
<math>\Longleftarrow<math> After 0.5, Decreasing levels of fragmentation

Function as a teleology

When transformed from a scale of energy use measurement into a predictive, or normative, description of desirable future technology the Kardashev scale becomes teleological: it predicts an "end of history". As a description of past and future human history it should be compared with the Marxist theory of modes of production which makes similar assertions about combinations of technological and social structures, albeit across a shorter time span.

Weakness by supposition?

Missing image
Energy Consumption from 1989 to 1999

It has been argued that, because we cannot understand advanced civilizations, we cannot predict their behavior; thus, Kardashev's visualization may not reflect what will actually occur for an advanced civilization. Theories like this are discussed at Carbon chauvinism. This central argument is found within the book Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life1

It is also possible that the unique conditions on Earth allow for specific technologies to develop which would take many times longer for a civilization not having these conditions to achieve. The list of presumably unique conditions on Earth, and of related discoveries, is quite long. Some examples:

It is possible that the conditions for the creation of hydrocarbons, coal, or natural gas would not exist on other planets. These fuels were essential for us to move past dependence upon wood and animal based energy systems. Although waterwheel, wind, and solar energy technologies existed, they were not developed further until suitable industrial techniques were found to produce better materials. These techniques consume massive amounts of energy, and therefore could not be powered by the unimproved technologies. A similar argument could be made that without fossil fuel technologies, more powerful technologies, such as nuclear reactors, could not develop.

Counter-argument: abundance of alternative sources

Human perception has a natural bias towards the known energy development paths of Human civilization. It must also be noted that during both the 1973 energy crisis and the 1979 energy crisis highly industrialized societies continued to function; many moved towards developing alternative energy technologies on a massive scale under the assumption that these could provide the energy needed to continue industrial and commercial processes should fossil fuel supplies be compromised in some critical way.

Given this development, it is possible that a society could develop without a stage where fossil fuel based energy production occurs. This version of Buckminster Fuller's argument on Current solar income conforms with Paul Hawken's idea of restorative economy, stating that fossil fuel based energy production is not essential nor desirable given the effects and alternatives. Also, it must be noted that the principles behind the fuel cell were discovered by Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838, and were applied by Sir William Grove in 1843, before there was widespread usage of fossil fuels other than coal. This raises the possibility that for alien civilizations fuel cells could be used in place of hydrocarbon fuels. It was only in the 1850s that the first industrial petroleum extraction was started by Edwin Drake.

Civilization implications

Missing image
Possible Kardashev Scale Expansion of Human Civilization from Long Term History (http://www.darkage.fsnet.co.uk/LongTermHistory.htm)

There are many historical examples of civilizations undergoing large-scale transitions, such as the Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance. The transition between Kardashev scale levels could potentially represent similarly dramatic periods of social upheaval, since they entail surpassing the hard limits of the resources available in a civilization's existing territory. A common speculation suggests that the transition from Type 0 to Type I might carry a strong risk of self-destruction since there would no longer be room for further expansion on the civilization's home planet. See Malthusian catastrophe for an example of such a speculation.

Many individuals have pointed to the faster upheaval of civilization periods as indicative of an upcoming change over to Type I civilization. Further discussion of this can be read at Long Term History (http://www.darkage.fsnet.co.uk/LongTermHistory.htm), though the factual accuracy of this source must be taken lightly.

Contact constraints

For pre-Type I civilizations, it is costly to attempt contact with other more advanced civilizations because of the energy output needed. It has been predicted that in order to provide a reliable contact beacon of sufficient power to be noticeable to a Type II civilization, it must output such high energy levels that the cost would be between $1 trillion to $10 trillion in energy. The latter figure is the approximate GDP of the United States at the end of the 1990s through the beginning of the 21st Century. Further discussion can be found at Interstellar Probes: A New Approach to SETI (http://www.rfreitas.com/Astro/InterstellarProbesJBIS1980.htm); the consensus is that civilization must advance high into Type I before the energy required for reliable contact with other civilizations becomes sufficiently low that it does not drain a civilization's economic resources.

Once civilizations have discovered each others' locations, however, the energy requirements for maintaining contact and exchanging information can be significantly reduced through the use of highly directional transmission technologies. In 1974, the Arecibo Observatory transmitted a message toward the M13 globular cluster about 25,000 light-years away, for example, and the use of larger antennae or shorter wavelengths would allow transmissions of the same energy to be focused on even more remote targets. See SETI for extensive discussion of these possibilities.

Hypothetical extensions

The exponential structure of the scale allows ready extrapolation to higher types. For example:

  • Type IV: control of the energy output of a galactic supercluster; approximately 1046W.
  • Type V: energy control over the entire universe; approximately 1056W. Such a civilization approaches or surpasses the limits of speculation based on current scientific understanding, and may not be possible. Frank J. Tipler's Omega point would presumably occupy this level.

Fictional extensions

These extensions are mainly used in science fiction. They are not "official" and may differ from source to source. For example, some authors would class a "Type V" civilization as Type IV instead. Further examples of extensions of the scale follow:

  • Type VI: Energy control over multiple universes; a power level that is technically infinite
    • The civilization may have gained the ability to alter physical laws across multiple universes
    • These civilizations can escape a dying universe, and thereby become eternal; it is possible that less advanced civilizations can do so as well.
  • Type VII: Hypothetical status of a deity, able to create universes at will, using them as an energy source
    • It is interesting and important to note that as of yet, no science fiction literature characterizes beings with energy usages in the range of Type VII. Type VII though is well beyond the stage of understanding that humans can incur beyond a technological singularity.

Hypothetical futures

Science fiction, having extended these values has also provided guides for possible future changes associated with the fractionalized version of the Kardashev scale. One possible future is presented here. The majority of the assumptions presented here are derived from scientific literature. Nikolai Kardashev's article On the Inevitability and the Possible Structures of Supercivilizations (http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/ETI/Authors/Kardashev-NS/OtIatPSoS.html) where he explains that with increasing energy levels, come increasing technology, decreasing cohesiveness, and varying likelihood of survival and contact, largely is a guide to this section. These civilizations and the changes within them are also referenced in Kardashev's papers Cosmology and Civilization (http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/ETI/Authors/Kardashev-NS/CaC.html) and Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations (http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/ETI/Authors/Kardashev-NS/ToIbEC.html). The last framework for these explanations can be found at ENERGY AND CULTURE (http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/ETI/Authors/Freitas-RA/Xenology/Chptr15/Chp15.html). This article provides a much more detailed explanation than that which exists here. It presents a theoretical way to describe trends within more advanced civilizations, along with a specific description of different civilization types. It should be noted that this section takes this article as a guide work, but not as a source, for any such derivation would be plagiarization of the specific descriptions of the different types of civilizations.

Type I

Kaku quotes Dyson as calculating that Earth will achieve a Type I civilisation around the year 2200. This estimate is based on a simple extrapolation of the current development rate of Earth's energy budget.

Missing image

Type I Single Planetary Civilization Missing image

Early (1016 W to 1019 W) Middle (1020 W to 1023 W) Late (1024 W to 1026 W) (debatable)
near space colonization, near space industry, Asteroid mining, Planet Mining for fuels and energy First Interstellar travel Stress caused by size of civilization, at this point it can fragment into multiple planetary civilizations—reversion from single civilization early in type 1 (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0009CDEA-33FC-1C74-9B81809EC588EF21&pageNumber=1&catID=2). Construction begins on Dyson Sphere or Alderson disk.
<math>\Longrightarrow<math> Increasing levels of technology, Increasing levels of space exploration, space based energy sources increase, offworld civilization centers increase, increasing energy usage, increasing area of habitation
<math>\Longleftarrow<math> Decreasing levels of centrality, societies and civilizations increasingly are not the same, due to time differences breaking single social bonds 1 (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0009CDEA-33FC-1C74-9B81809EC588EF21&pageNumber=1&catID=2)

Type II

According to Kaku, Kardaschev has estimated the development of such a civilisation at the year 5200.

Missing image

Type II Civilization has extended to the entire Solar System 2 (http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/ETI/Authors/Freitas-RA/Xenology/Chptr15/Chp15.html) float
Early (1026 W to 1029 W) Middle (1030 W to 1033 W) (debatable) Late (1034 W to 1036 W) (debatable)
Dyson Sphere completion, Exploration and colonization of nearby star systems 1 (http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/ETI/Authors/Freitas-RA/Xenology/Chptr15/Chp15.html). star lifting and Shkadov thrusters, Stress caused by size of civilization, at this point it can fragment into multiple solar system based civilizations—reversion to single star based civilization early, Automated galactic or intergalactic colonization effort may begin 3 (http://www.rfreitas.com/Astro/InterstellarProbesJBIS1980.htm)
<math>\Longrightarrow<math> Increasing levels of technology, Exponential growth in stars that are colonized, centralized systems increasingly draw resources from further systems which have not had their resources harvested–– driving increased expansion
<math>\Longleftarrow<math> Decreasing levels of centrality, increasing likelihood of fragmentation into single star systems if resources cannot be adequately transferred from central sources, resource based wars may remerge after disappearance during Type I

Type III

According to Kaku, Kardaschev has estimated the development of such a civilisation at the year 7800.

Missing image

Type III Colonization of the Milky Way Galaxy has completed Missing image

Early (1036 W to 1039 W) (debatable) Middle (1040 W to 1043 W) (debatable) Late (1044 W to 1046 W) (debatable)
(Continued) colonization of nearby galaxies. Highly hypothetical at this point, there are no proposals for this or higher levels.
<math>\Longrightarrow<math> Increasing levels of technology, centralized systems increasingly draw resources from further systems which have not had their resources harvested–– driving increased expansion
<math>\Longleftarrow<math> Slow growth in galaxies that are colonized due to speed limitations, making centrality impossible

Type IV & V

Missing image

Type IV Colonization of the Local Supercluster (1046 W to 1056 W)

Can escape the universe via creating a black hole. End (http://www.universetoday.com/am/publish/printer_advanced_civilization_become.html)

Type V Colonization of the Visible universe (1056 W to 1066 W)

Current values

Given past and projected values for planetary power production from the International Energy Agency, it can be shown that:

Year Energy production Fractional Kardashev
scale equivalent
exajoules/year terawatts Quads2 mtoes3
1900 21 .67 20 500 0.58
1970 190 6.0 180 4500 0.68
1973 260 8.2 240 6200 0.69
1985 290 9.2 270 6900 0.70
1989 320 10 300 7600 0.70
1993 340 11 320 8100 0.70
1995 360 12 340 8700 0.71
2000 420 13 400 10000 0.71
2001 420 13 400 10000 0.71
2002 430 14 410 10400 0.71
2004 440 14 420 10600 0.72
2010 510 16 480 12100 0.72
2030 680 22 650 16300 0.73

Literature describing different Kardashev Types

These categorizations are not firm, and are neither complete nor absolute. Science fiction writers do not specifically write their works with Kardashev classification in mind.

The postcyberpunk graphic novel series Transmetropolitan portrays a near-future society which borders on dystopia. Innovation has focused more on genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology than space exploration. At one point, a video narrator explains, "We can make magic with engines smaller than a virus"—but in one city alone, a dozen people die every day by walking into the wrong district. Placing Earth on the Kardashev scale, the narrator concludes, "This remains a zero society."


1 A more controversial discussion can be found at Future Hi: Exotic Civilizations: Beyond Kardaschev (http://www.futurehi.net/archives/000106.html).

2 mtoes: million tonnes (metric tons) of oil equivalents

3 Quads: 1 quadrillion BTU

See also

External links


Template:Sustainability and energy development groupde:Kardaschow-Skala pl:Klasyfikacja cywilizacji według Kardaszewa


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