How would humans rank against other alien civilizations? Physicists have devised a new civilization classification scheme based on the effect a civilization has on a planet’s evolutionary development.
While the Fermi Paradox may shed doubt on the existence of intelligent life beyond our world, the Drake Equation goes in the other direction.
If we refer to Drake’s famous formula and apply knowledge accumulated since the 1960s, the Milky Way alone could be harboring anywhere between 252 and 1008 alien civilizations.
That’s a steep drop from previous estimates (anywhere from 1000–100,000,000), but it’s still a big and more realistic number.
How advanced any intelligent civilization would be is another question to answer. For this, we need to bring another theoretical method to get a sense of it: the Kardashev Scale.
Humanity on a Cosmological Scale
It took billions of years for Earth to gather all the necessary ingredients for life to emerge and thrive.
Then, it took Homo Sapiens over 300,000 years to develop a technological civilization able to emit electromagnetic signs, like radio and TV signals, into space.
Humans have been able to milk the planet’s resources to make their life more easygoing. Now, to try to give it a meaning, we have started venturing into the cosmos.
We could argue that the human civilization is the most advanced one there is simply because we’ve yet to find evidence ours is not the only one.
Let’s look at Drake’s Equation again.
If we put minimal values into each of the equation’s variables, we get an estimate of 280 civilizations with detectable electromagnetic signals in our galaxy.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean these civilizations are easily contactable or even to find. Some of these civilizations could be just at the beginning of their industrial revolution while others could be thousands of years ahead of where we are today.
It’s important to note that life is fragile, especially in the society we have today. Nuclear winters, global warming, and even disease outbreaks can send a civilization back to square one in the blink of an eye.
These “Great Filters” could be the reason behind us not finding any other alien life so far. Or, it could merely be that we’re completely alone in this corner of the galaxy, which is just as likely, if not bleak.
But, even if we were to find another alien civilization, how would we be able to conceptualize their level of development?
In 1964, Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev proposed a method for categorizing intelligent civilizations based on the amount of energy captured and consumed.
Without getting into much theoretical and mathematical aspects of the method, the Kardashev Scale classifies civilizations into three types.
- A Type I civilization can use all the energy available in its home world.
- A Type II civilization can harvest all the energy of its host star.
- A Type III civilization has access to all energy available in its host galaxy.
Immediately a question arises: where are we on the Kardashev Scale?
Well, we haven’t yet broken even into the first class, but we might be close.
Carl Sagan did some calculations and estimated that the human civilization scores 0.72 on the Kardashev Scale.
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts that humans will reach a Type I civilization in one to two hundred years.
According to Nikolai Kardashev, it will take around 3,200 years for a Type I civilization to reach the next level, and another 5,800 years to get to the last.
Some civilizations may not have enough time to haul themselves further up the scale due to various reasons. It is important to note that these are only predictive models, but they could be indicative of the future direction of our species.
Maybe some civilizations, like certain countries on Earth, just happen to be in a poor region of the galaxy where resources are scarce, or they mismanage them through lack of science application and good governance.
But how do we measure our development on a smaller, less long term scale? Recent studies may help us answer this question.
We Could be Heading Toward a Hybrid Earth
If you feel like we’ve been left out from the concert of civilizations in the cosmos, a group of researchers has been working on a new scale to better conceptualize our current level of development.
On this one, we do a little better on the podium, yet still not in a good way.
Unlike the Kardashev Scale, which is based on the amount of controlled energy, the new schema is based on the level at which a civilization disrupts the energy systems in a world.
The team calls it “non-equilibrium thermodynamics” or the study of energy flows within a planet that hosts intelligent life.
On this new classification method, we find a range of planets from those bereft of atmosphere, “agency-dominated biospheres”, and planets with a “technosphere”.
We, as a species, have completely altered the layout and makeup of our planet’s land, sea, and air.
Our growth and development are changing the way animals evolve, how weather patterns develop, and even how our planet looks from space. Scientists have begun to call this period the Anthropocene Era to describe the period of time where humans directly affected the layout, makeup, and future of planet Earth.
The model focuses on how humans have disrupted the evolutionary flow of the Earth and will form as a model for any other potential alien species we may find.
In their study, published in the Anthropocene journal, the authors described how:
“the beginning of the Anthropocene can be seen as the onset of the hybridization of the planet – a transitional stage from one class of planetary systems interaction to another. For Earth, this stage occurs as the effects of human civilization yield not just new evolutionary pressures, but new selected directions for novel planetary ecosystem functions and their capacity to generate disequilibrium and enhance planetary dissipation.”
Do we Have to Destroy Earth on our Progress March?
We are a sub-planetary civilization on the Kardashev Scale because we have yet to be able to harvest all the energy in our home planet.
Claiming a Type I status does not mean exhausting the resources of a planet. Instead, it means utilizing renewable resources to further the progress of a civilization.
To reach this stage, we have to capture power from every photon of light that reaches us, every wave, every blast of wind, and from every source available in the planet that we can.
Would there still be a planet to call it home after that, especially regarding our history at managing the stability of ecosystems while looking for energy?
For eons, the only way to produce power was burning things. In fact, we’re still burning things, only in a more efficient way in coal and fossil fuel.
However, our capabilities for capturing and using clean energy from different sources are growing slowly but steadily.
After we exhaust all the resources on Earth, we’ll probably set our eyes on the Sun and its tremendous, yet finite, power output. Maybe we’ll even build a Dyson sphere.
If we get to the point where we need to lay a technosphere, for example, over Earth, it’d be long since the planet’s face has changed and ecosystems within disrupted, at least.
From a statistical point of view, it’s only a matter of time before we deplete all the planet’s resources. But, this doesn’t becessarily mean that Earth has to be completely destroyed, though it will certainly be irreversibly altered.