A "Dyson Swarm" surrounding a star

The Kardeshev Scale Explained

Even though this blog is mostly focused on current and emerging technologies, I think it’s important to take a step back every once in a while and try to get a better understanding about where we — as a civilization — are from a “big picture” standpoint. One concept that I’ve found helpful in achieving that goal is called the “Kardeshev Scale”.

The Kardeshev Scale breaks civilizations down into levels (or “types”), based on the amount of energy that the civilization is able to utilize. In general, this results in more technologically advanced civilizations being given a higher type while less advanced societies are given lower types.

kardashev (1)
The man himself: Nikolai Kardashev

The original scale, invented by astrophysicist Nikoloa Kardashev back in 1964, had only three levels, but it has since been extended by various individuals to include one or two additional types. This article will briefly describe all five, but first, I’d like you — the reader — to guess where you’d find our current civilization on the Kardeshev Scale.

Granted, it’s not a fair question since I haven’t yet explained the five types to you yet. Nevertheless, I’d encourage you to take a shot. Think about all of the great innovations we have at our disposal — including self-driving cars, smart clothing, and all of the seemingly magical technologies that are being employed just to bring this very blog post to your backlit device!

Using the new model of five civilization types, I think it would be totally reasonable to guess that the current civilization we find ourselves in might be right in the middle at, say, a Type III civilization. Unfortunately, that guess would be completely wrong.

According to the Kardeshev Scale, the Earth’s civilization is not even a lowly Type I civ yet. That’s right, despite all of the great progress we have made and all of the wonderful, life-changing technologies that we have built, our ability to harness energy is still about as pitiful as it can possibly be, to the point where we don’t even register on the scale! In other words, you can rightfully call us a Type 0 civilization.

So, what does it take exactly to reach Type I and beyond? Read on!

Type I: Civilization can harness all energy on the planet.
This includes controlling weather, preventing earthquakes, and manipulating plate tectonics. Even though this is the lowest level on the scale, I think it’s safe to say we have a while to go until we’ll find ourselves here.

Type II: Civilization can harness all energy of a star
This civilization could capture all energy coming from a star and then use it to power devices with unimaginable capabilities. A very popular, albeit theoretical, way of harnessing this amount of power would be to build a Dyson Structure around a star. This structure would completely enclose the star and then collect all energy coming off of the star, which could then be used to power whatever devices require such an obscene amount of energy.

Type III: Civilization can harness all energy of its own galaxy
If you thought harnessing all energy from a star was excessive, your jaw has probably dropped a little after reading how much energy we’ll need to harness to be categorized as a Type III. It’s worth noting that since the sizes of galaxies can vary, the original idea was that to reach this level, the civilization would have to have access to the amount of energy output by the entire Milky Way galaxy (4×1037 watts). Regardless of the exact definition, I think we can all agree that this is a SERIOUS amount of energy.

This is where the original specification ended. As mentioned, however, there have been a few extensions, which follow:

Type IV: Civilization can harness all energy in the universe
At this stage, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to imagine what a civilization could possibly need this much energy for, but the idea of bending spacetime or other extraordinarily advanced sci-fi concepts comes to mind. I think it’s more likely though that it will be a long time before we have a good understanding about what we would actually intend on doing with this much energy.

Type V: Civilization can harness all energy in multiple universes
I would guess that civilizations at this level would have enough energy to more or less do whatever they pleased. Of course, this “Type” only makes sense if we are indeed living in a multiverse.

So there you have it, that’s the Kardashev scale in a tiny little nutshell.

There’s plenty more to discuss on this subject, including diving deeper into the possible uses of the energy available at each stage. For more on that, I’d encourage you to post in the comments or search around online, including a few resources that I found useful while writing this post:

Wikipedia – Kardashev scale

Veronica Sicoe – The KARDASHEV Scale

Tek.fm – Just My Type: Kardashev Civilizations in Star Trek and Beyond

Michio Kaku – Physics of the Future (Book on related subjects)

Hopefully, this provided some clarity about where our civilization is in the “grand scheme of things”. Highly impressive tech innovations are happening nearly every day, but when judged from the Kardeshev view, we still have a long, long way to go. 

Personally, that’s what I find so fascinating (not to mention exciting!) about technological development.

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