Over the course of thousands of years, humans have harnessed increasingly bigger energy yields, starting with ancient campfires and domesticated animals and progressing to modern sources, such as fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewables such as wind, hydro, and solar.
That said, we are still a long way from producing the amount of energy that Earth receives from the Sun and other natural sources, a feat that would officially distinguish us as a Type I civilization, according to the Kardashev scale, a metric that ranks the advancement of a civilization based on its power-generating capabilities.
Now, a team led by Jonathan Jiang, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has produced a new estimate for when humans might attain this Type I status: the year 2371, or thereafter. The researchers reached this conclusion by analyzing “the consumption and energy supply of the three most important energy sources”—fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and renewable energy—while factoring in our likelihood of wiping ourselves out with these power sources, a concept known as the Great Filter, according to a study published on the preprint server arXiv.
Named after its inventor, the Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, the Kardashev scale starts with the planetary level category, Type I, then imagines a Type II civilization that could access all the energy of its star, before concluding with a Type III civilization that could tap into the power of an entire galaxy. Jiang and his colleagues also invoke a formula developed by the American astronomer Carl Sagan that expresses the Kardashev scale as gradient, rather than as three distinct stages.
“For the entire world population to reach the status of a Kardashev Type I civilization we must develop and enable access to more advanced technology to all responsible nations while making renewable energy accessible to all parts of the world, facilitated by governments and private businesses,” Jiang and his colleagues said in the study, which has not been peer reviewed.
“Only through the full realization of our mutual needs and with broad cooperation will humanity acquire the key to not only avoiding the Great Filter but continuing our ascent to Kardashev Type I, and beyond,” they added.
Humans are likely to be thousands of years away from becoming Type II or Type III civilizations, assuming such enormous energy yields are even attainable at all. Though we are already an impressive 73 percent of the way toward cinching Type I status, that progress has come at an unsustainable price. Fossil fuels primarily power the world, but they are also causing rapid climate change, a trend that is amplifying deadly phenomena such as natural disasters and pollution, all of which threatens to leave us on the wrong end of the Great Filter.
For this reason, the new study assumes that humans must rapidly abandon our consumption of fossil fuels within the next three decades just to survive, let alone become a Type I civilization. Beyond that horizon, alternate energy sources—such as nuclear, solar, hydro, and wind power—must swiftly increase their yields to meet, and ultimately exceed, the power demands of global society. That said, the study also isolates nuclear power as another form of energy that could place humanity at risk if its hazardous byproducts are not properly handled.
“Another major and inevitable concern with the increasing development of nuclear energy are the dangers to all life on Earth posed by such a powerful resource, while trying to successfully avoid the Great Filter,” the team said. “Thus, in concert with significantly increasing the growth rate of nuclear energy generation,” they added, we must adopt “improved technology for even more secure disposal radioactive wastes, all while transitioning to cleaner forms of energy.”
Jiang and his colleagues cite another similar study that estimated when humans might reach Type I status, which came up with the year 2347 as a possible tipping point. But the new study is slightly more conservative in its estimation of the growth rate of clean technologies, resulting in a date a few decades later.
Taken together, the research suggests that if humans are able to switch to renewables within the next few decades, we might expect to earn our Type I stripes sometime in the 24th century. While the researchers acknowledge the difficulties of making predictions about an outcome riddled with so many inherent uncertainties, they suggest that the exercise has value as a means to consider the awesome responsibility of humans to safeguard our planet and all its inhabitants.
“Apart from the uncounted millions of Earth’s species past and present, technological progress has placed in humanity’s hands the future of our world and every living creature upon it,” Jiang’s team said. “Clearly, there can be no turning away from further advancement. How we choose to proceed along that arc is of the utmost importance and urgency.”
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