The Kardashev Scale

Some of you may be asking what is the Kardashev Scale and why is this guy talking about it. Good questions. I’ll try to answer both.

First, I’d like to point out that the scale was a thought exercise by a Russian astrophysicist, Nikolai Kardashev in 1964. It originally had four levels, and has since been expanded to six. It is not an absolute law of the universe, it is just a convenient way to look at and understand civilizations based on energy consumption. I find it useful as a writer so that I can understand the civilizations in my stories.

Type Zero – Planet bound

This is us, the human race. Yes, our technology is so pathetic we haven’t even really gotten onto the scale yet. Some scientists believe that if we survive long enough, we’ll move into Type One in the next century or two. The present reliance on inefficient fossil fuels is holding us back. We need better power sources, and we need them soon.

All of human evolution, science, philosophy, technology, everything, has been at the bottom of the scale. One of the hardest things for people who are beginning to study anthropology to understand is how we went from something much like a chimpanzee to where we are now in just a few million years. The most startling evolution of our species has been in the last fifty thousand years.

That is so short in evolutionary terms. To understand that, you need to understand evolution, which is probably a whole blog post in itself, and you need to understand what technology really is and how it has driven us. Our ancestors banged rocks together and created the first tools. Since then, technology has driven our evolution. The creation of tools gave them an advantage. Making and using better tools was also an advantage. Technology selected humans for evolution. We made tools and tools made us. Keep that in mind as we explore what future technology might look like.

Type One – Planetary

This level of civilization utilizes the energy output of a star. We need to produce or collect a hundred thousand times the energy we have available now to be at this level. A Type One civilization would almost certainly have control of the natural processes of its home world. Most futuristic science fiction sits at this level. This is the level of science of most of the civilizations in my novels, with a couple of notable exceptions, of course. Think of the Krell from Forbidden Planet. Technology without instrumentality, right at the bottom of the scale. What would this do our evolution? Would we stop evolving or evolve even faster? There is no easy answer, but one thing is certain, we would be forever changed.

Type Two – Stellar

You thought Dyson sphere (not the vacuum) civilizations were pretty awesome, but they are near the bottom of the scale. At this level a civilization can control the energy of entire stellar system. Enclosing stars, and even moving planets is available with this much power. If you’ve read E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman, you’ll be familiar with an early idea of this level of civilization. They would probably feel like the ultimate masters of fate, and yet, they have so much to learn, so far to go. Would they even be recognizable to those Type Zero civilizations? Maybe not.

Type Three – Galactic

I know some of you may be asking if this isn’t the scale of the Galactic Patrol in Lensman. No. No, it isn’t. None of those civilizations harnessed the power of an entire galaxy. You’ll need to read some books by Stephen Baxter to see this in action. Some theories about civilizations at this scale propose networks of Dyson spheres linked to bring power back to a home system. The scale is staggering, as are the implications of technology. The technology would really be pushing evolution faster at this point, and we are only halfway along.

Type Four – Universal

These civilizations would harness the power of an entire universe. Possibilities include harnessing the expansion of the universe for power. They would have technology that would look like magic to us, and they aren’t even at the top of the scale. I won’t linger here, I think most civilizations that reach this point won’t either. Surely with much power, knowledge, and technology, a civilization will expand into other universes.

Type Five – Multiverse

What does this even look like? A civilization that harnesses not just the power of its own universe, but of other universes as well. They might even harness the power of all of them. All universes. They would seem as gods to us. We couldn’t understand their technology even if we could communicate with them. This is one of the subjects I explore in my books. What would this look like? What would they be like? How long can they stay at this level? How would evolution have shaped them?

For most purposes, anything beyond Type One is pointless to even think about, but it is fun, isn’t it?