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Why Humans Might Never Become A Type One Civilization: Part 1 | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Sean Frankling
Will humanity ever reach Type I on the Kardashev Scale? In this 2-part special, Unveiled rates our chances of ever being able to harness all of the power from our home planet, Earth... because, only then can we hope to fully explore the rest of the solar system and the rest of the universe!

Sure, we can use the Kardashev Scale to dream of a far-future time, but will those dreams ever become reality?
Transcript

Why Humans Might Never Become a Type One Civilization: Part 1


It feels like humans are always inventing new things. And forever needing more energy and power to make it all work. And, in theory, any civilization that continues to grow for long enough will eventually need access to all of the energy on their home world… so, where does that leave us?

Welcome to Unveiled, and today we’re exploring the extraordinary possibility that humans might never become a Type One Civilization... And, heads up, this is a two-part episode, so check out Part 2 via the link in the description!

By Type One Civilization, we mean Type One on the Kardashev Scale, a system devised by the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in the mid-1960s. Although it has since been extended, the original scale goes up to Type Three, which relates to any civilization which has harnessed the power of its entire galaxy. To make it to Type One, however, all you need to do is gain total control over the energy and power from your home planet; from Earth, in our case. And so, now that the scene is set, our hypothetical future awaits.

Picture this: The year is 2120 (by the most optimistic predictions) and humanity has finally done it. We’ve built the solar panels, the geothermal collectors, the windmills, and are finally on the brink of officially becoming a Type One civilization. We’ve got just one last solar collection satellite left to launch, and we’re primed to celebrate in parties all across the globe. But as the countdown to that momentous moment hits zero, the satellite doesn’t launch. Instead, there’s an explosion in the distance, the lights go out and, as you gaze up into the darkness, you see eerie, unearthly ships descending from the sky above…

…Okay, so an alien invasion might not be the most likely reason why we’ll never make it to Type One on the Kardashev Scale, but we can’t completely strike it off the list of potential reasons either. And, to understand why, we need to talk about something called the Great Filter.

First proposed by the economist Robin Hanson, the Great Filter theory suggests that an unknown something happens to most civilizations in the cosmos, when they reach a certain level of advancement. It’s usually proposed as a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox - the idea that given the many billions of planets there are in the universe, it’s strange that we haven’t discovered aliens yet. In the context of the Fermi Paradox, the Great Filter is what prevents an alien species from reaching a level at which we (or any other civilization) might discover it. In the context of the Kardashev Scale, the Great Filter is whatever prevents us from moving up it.

The problem is we don't know what the filter is, if it even exists at all. And, in fact, one argument is that we may have already passed it; that abiogenesis - the very emergence of life - is the filter, and we’ve already beaten it (and that’s why life is so rare). But another argument is that the Great Filter actually comes into play in our future, potentially somewhere between where we are now on the Kardashev Scale - a lowly 0.7 - and the fabled Type One. After all, what better moment could there be for it to reveal itself than when we essentially complete life on Earth? So, here are four of the dreadful (but also dreadfully interesting) Great Filter candidates that could await us, ready to block our way to the stars. Two in this video, and two in Part 2.

The first Great Filter candidate is that we’ll simply run out resources. History shows us how we’ve generally needed to go through the coal age to get to the nuclear age; or how solar panels have been made using petrochemicals; or how nuclear power uses the same basic turbine as a steam engine does, only without needing coal. The point is that, as much as we’re now left wishing we’d never used fossil fuels, it would have been pretty hard to get to where we are now without them. And we’re not done yet. If we’re ever going to Type One-style harness all the energy our planet has to offer, we’re going to need more gigantic leaps forward with the likes of wind, geothermal and solar power. But collecting all that juice requires infrastructure, and that means a huge initial outlay of, well, energy. And, until we achieve true carbon neutral living, a lot of that energy’s still gained using fossil fuels - which 1) pollute, and 2) run out.

Through the lens of the Great Filter, that second one could soon be a major issue. Because, what happens if we use all of the fossil fuels up before we’ve got enough sustainable energy sources to replace them? Estimates vary (sometimes wildly), but we could have somewhere between just half a century and a century-and-a-half before there’s literally no more gas left in our planet’s tank. That is, not enough oil, coal and natural gas left in the ground to keep the global economy running even like it is - let alone like it could be in the future. If we run out at any stage without a solution, we can kiss our hopes of getting to Type One firmly goodbye. In fact, we could quickly be moving backwards, as all our existing industries would grind to a halt.

There is a solution, though… and it effectively amounts to; let’s be smart with what we’ve got. It’s been said, for example, that it is possible to gather enough solar energy to power the whole world’s electricity. Again, estimates vary, but with panels over a surface area of somewhere between forty thousand and two-hundred thousand square miles, we could do it. Take that surface area and place it in the middle of something vast like the Sahara Desert, and we could theoretically build for ourselves a power hub for the entire planet. If a project like this were to be completed quickly and efficiently, then we still could replace fossil fuels before they run out; we needn’t rely on a limited source.

But, of course, in the meantime, fossil fuels pose arguably an even greater threat, still - not only are they running out, but they’re threatening our survival as they do. Our second Great Filter candidate, then, is self-annihilation.

Now, if this one was to play out with humanity in the near future, it wouldn’t necessarily be only our use of fossil fuels that was causing it. There are other ways we can self-annihilate. But, regardless, most climate scientists agree we’re now beginning to see the more serious effects of global warming come to the fore. Most obviously, we’ve seen weather extremes happen all across the world map - from widespread fires to devastating droughts to mass flooding. And many of the measures we use to gauge our planet’s health are heading in the wrong direction, too - including ice coverage (which is decreasing) and average temperatures (which are increasing). One reason humanity might never become a Type One civilization, then, is that we ourselves contribute to the environment on Earth no longer being able to host us.

But we also know that polluting our way off of the planet isn’t the only self-inflicted apocalypse on the table, either. Looking into the future, and we still have the familiar spectre of a potential nuclear apocalypse to contend with, plus other warzone concerns like bioweapons, as well as a series of new, but also extremely worrying plausibilities like the prospect of a rogue AI. All of those things ultimately amount to by-products of our technological advancement, though, so might it be possible that the real reason we’ve never discovered aliens is that all species eventually, inevitably create a technology that becomes their death sentence. When you consider that there’s an estimated 14,000 nuclear weapons on earth, today - enough, under certain circumstances, to systematically destroy the total landmass of our planet - there’s an argument that humanity is already on this particular precipice; that it’s route to Type One will one day be ended by a disaster of our own doing.

So how do we solve this one? There’s a saying that; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And that’s one approach, here. Unfortunately, nuclear, chemical and even robotic weapons are now all known about. They’re here, and while many nations and organizations have scaled back, it’s not as though the knowledge of them will disappear. But, still, the more smart and responsible decisions we make now, the less likely we are to blow ourselves up tomorrow. In theory, at least.

Ironically enough, however, another way to sidestep this whole self-annihilation thing lies in becoming a Type One civilization in itself. While something like the nuclear destruction of planet Earth would clearly be a devastating blow for humanity at any time, for Type One humanity it needn’t be terminal… and that’s purely because we wouldn’t all, necessarily, be on planet Earth. Instead, we’d be busy trying to become a Type Two society and spreading ourselves across the solar system. And, the more people we have off-Earth, in space stations and on different planets, the easier it should be to ensure the collective survival of humankind. So, self-destruction is a reason why we might never become Type One… but our becoming Type One could also be the reason why it never happens.

And that’s your first two scenarios that might cause humanity never to become a Type One civilization; running out of resources, and self-annihilation. Maybe the outlook for our species improves in the second part of this two-part special? Maybe it doesn’t? You’ll have to watch, to find out!
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