Beyond the Kardashev Scale

10 May 2011


Kardashev Scale

The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring an advanced civilization's level of technological advancement... first proposed in 1964 by the Soviet Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev... a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy. (from Wikipedia)

I have mentioned the Kardashev scale for ranking the technological achievements of civilization based on their ability to utilize energy resources in several posts: A Quick Note on Heideggerian Cosmological Eschatology, Two Conceptions of Civilization, Humanity’s Responsibility for Itself, and Intimations of Mature Civilization. Kardashev was thinking big when he formulated this civilizational metric, and that gives his idea a visionary dimension.

In A Half Century of Human Spaceflight I mentioned Kardashev again, and then went on to suggest my own technological measure of civilization based upon space travel metrics. There I formulated the following:

A Stage 0 spacefaring civilization is a non-spacefaring civilization in which life is largely dictated by regional geography.
A Stage 1 spacefaring civilization has the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon.
A Stage 2 spacefaring civilization might be defined as one that had established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of its biological origin.
A Stage 3 spacefaring civilization would have achieved practical and durable interstellar travel.
A Stage 4 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical and durable inter-galactic travel.
A Stage 5 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical and durable travel within the multiverse (i.e., among discrete universes).

I have gone into much greater detail on these stages of spacefaring civilization in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight.

Not surprisingly, I prefer my own measure to that of Kardashev’s for several reasons. One of the reasons that I didn’t mention in the post in which I developed this idea is the ambiguity of the Kardashev metric in terms of actual vs. comparable energy usage. A carefully constructivist account of Kardashev would insist that a Type II civilization is “a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star” (from Wikipedia) and that all of this energy must in fact come from that star. In other words, given a strict conception of a Type II civilization, a civilization utilizing energy quantitatively equivalent to but not identical to the actual energy produced by a single star would not constitute a Type II civilization. I have read some accounts that confuse tapping the power of a star with harnessing the energy equivalent to a star. These are very different measures, but apparently these kind of conceptual slips routinely go unnoticed.

My formulation avoids this ambiguity that follows from a failure to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive conceptions. However, what these two measures of civilization — Kardashev’s and mine — have in common is that they are technological measures, and that they are readily quantifiable.

The obvious alternative to a quantitative measure would be a qualitative measure, though how any metric could be fixed on a qualitative measure is difficult to say. Many people have pointed out that the greatest poets aren’t always the greatest builders, with the implied contrary that the monuments we see now of past civilizations that were great builders represent building only, and that there may have been civilizations of great poetic monuments who left no similarly impressive remains. (A technological metric for measuring civilization is implicitly a principle of technological selection, i.e., a kind of observation selection effect.) We certainly couldn’t measure the achievement of a poetic civilization in terms of the quantity of poetry produced, since production may be in inverse proportion to quality.

Perhaps even more elusive would be a measure of civilization on moral metrics. This is not only elusive, but, like any qualitative measure, would be highly controversial. I have discussed this in posts such as The Very Idea of Higher Civilization. It is considered impolite and impolitic to measure and compare the moral or aesthetic worth of distinct civilizations, mostly because representatives of Western civilization did this so loudly and abrasively up until the nineteenth century.

There is, however, a conceivable “moral” measure that is at least in part quantifiable and perhaps slightly less controversial than any measure of aesthetic excellence or virtue in conduct. What I have in mind is a measure of the extent to which we take responsibility for our own destiny, rather than simply riding the wave of history like a surfer on the crest of a wave he did not create and which he does not control.

Whether we call it the cunning of reason (as in Hegel) or the invisible hand (as in Adam Smith) or the unconscious (as in Freud), there has been a recognition among subtle thinkers that human beings are following promptings and drives and instincts, scarcely knowing what they are doing (this position is sometimes equated with soft determinism). If it happens on occasion to add up to civilization and to great works of art, we’re ahead of the game. If it also happens, on occasion, to issue in cataclysmic wars and ingeniously diabolical forms of suffering, then it becomes a little more difficult to glibly assert that we are ahead of the game.

In other words, human beings are mostly subject to events that befall us, and even when we carefully plan for the future, and take proactive steps to shape our lives and the destiny of the world, the unintended consequences of our actions often are more profound and far-reaching than the intended consequences that we planned to bring about.

It seems to me that a truly mature civilization could be measured by the extent to which both individuals and social groups take responsibility for their own destiny, and moreover pursue this proactive sense of responsibility to the extent that unintended consequences are understood to count against our efforts, and that the only honestly measurable “success” of a civilization are those intended consequences brought to fruition with a minimum of unintended consequences. Further, a mature civilization (or the measure of a mature civilization) might also involve steps taken in the amelioration of unintended consequences.

Even on the intuitive and practical level of ordinary life we are not ignorant of the possibility of this degree of self-responsibility. For example, among people who are serious about playing pool, and not just hitting balls into pockets, you must name your shot (“eight ball in the corner pocket”), and if some other ball goes into some other pocket as an unintended consequence of your shot, this is dismissed as “sloppy” and the ball is extracted from its pocket and put back on the table.

Are we prepared, as a civilization, or will we someday be prepared, to aspire to the ethos of the pool hustler?

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I have gone into Kardashev in much more detail in my Centauri Dreams post What Kardashev Really said.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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