What If Kardashev Was Wrong? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Is the Kardashev Scale REALLY the best way to measure a growing society? In this video, Unveiled uncovers the DARK SIDE of the Kardashev Scale... and we look at some of the alternative ways in which the future might unfold, instead. What do you think... are you a fan of the Kardashev Scale? Or are there better models available?

What if Kardashev Was Wrong?

The Soviet astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev devised the Kardashev Scale back in the 1960s, as a way to determine how advanced a civilization is or could be. His scale originally included three Types: a civilization with all the energy on its planet; one with all the energy produced by its star; and one with all the energy produced by its galaxy. But is this really the best way to measure a growing society?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if Kardashev was wrong?

As much as the Kardashev Scale has helped to shape how we view the universe for decades now, it isn’t without its critics. The biggest issue that most have… is the fact that it relies entirely on available power as a means to determine how advanced a civilization is. On the Kardashev Scale, more energy equals more advancement, with the assumption that every advancing civilization would want to expand further and further outwards. But are there other ways of looking at it? While generating lots of power is one hallmark of an advanced society, are there also different paths to take?

After all, there are plenty of problems with the prospect of a society that just endlessly expands. For a start, what is all the power it’s generating actually going to do? Is it evenly spread, or stockpiled by an elite few? Is it used to build communication links and trade routes with other parts of space? Or is it actually used to ruthlessly invade? In many ways, the Kardashev Scale implies that the only way to get along in the universe is to try and take it over. To move up the Scale you have to first tame a planet, then a star system, and then become masters of whole galaxies. It seems as though all a Kardashev civilization can ever really care about is itself.

Regardless of how you view this approach, though, many argue that it just isn’t feasible anyway - for any hypothetical civilization, anywhere. And the logistics do seem to be a bit of a nightmare. Imagine taking over a galaxy and inheriting billions of stars’ worth of energy… and then just going about your daily life. Living, breathing, burning through a supernova’s worth of fuel just because you can. Just because you live in a Type Three time. Such a civilization could go from not having enough energy to having far too much of it… and stretching (rather than restricting) itself to unsustainable levels.

The move between Type Two and Type Three is where most critics feel the Kardashev Scale falls down. Consider the enormous leap between mastering a star system and mastering an entire galaxy. In the Milky Way alone, there are anywhere from 100 billion to 400 billion stars. Kardashev’s Type Two controls just one of them; Type Three controls all 400 billion of them. Could it ever really be possible to make such an incredible upgrade? And, for any civilization advanced enough to even try it, might there be better ways of reaching the next level?

Though the Kardashev Scale suggests that somewhere out in space there should be galaxies where there’s a Dyson Sphere around every star, siphoning every last drop of stellar energy, for many that’s all just a bit too blatant. And also inefficient. The star-mining megastructures would make that civilization far too easy to find. And, given their advancement, being found would probably be something a high-ranking civilization would like to avoid. Success on the Kardashev Scale generally means being a far-reaching and power-hungry force, blazing your trail across the cosmos. But critics argue that a truly advanced society will have gone beyond those expansionist goals.

Having a physical empire wouldn’t be so important… and could actually make you vulnerable. Earth’s own history shows that empire-building entails suffering and war and destruction - none of which would you expect in an advanced world. History also shows that all Empires fall eventually, so why would a space-faring super-people go in this direction? Imagine that you have one galaxy. One group of billions of stars, and potentially trillions of planets. Even then, on the map of the universe, you take up just a tiny, tiny fragment of it. So, wouldn’t it be better not to attract the attention of other galactic forces by building easily detectable megastructures everywhere? So, not only could it be more sustainable, but it would also be safer not to reach Type Three. Not to adhere to the Kardashev Scale.

Unsurprisingly, then, there are alternative and revised models by which to gauge how advanced a society is. For Kardashev, it’s about how much stuff it controls… but for the famous cosmologist Carl Sagan, we should also judge a civilization by how much information it can store. It’s something Sagan calls information mastery. Letters - rather than numbers - are assigned to the levels on this civilization ladder, with Sagan suggesting when he first proposed the model in 1973 that humankind was at Level H. Level Z is the most advanced a civilization can become based on this model, at which point it’s able to store 10 to the power of 31 unique bits of information. Interestingly, modern day humans are already much closer to the apex of this system than they are to the end of the Kardashev Scale. We’re fast-tracking our progress with digital, data-storing technology, beyond almost all predictions made in the late twentieth century.

Alternatively, another cosmologist, John D. Barrow, suggested that the hallmark of a civilization wasn’t that it could manipulate large objects, like stars and galaxies as per Kardashev… but smaller ones, like cells and atoms. Barrow called this approach microdimensional mastery, and humans are progressing reasonably well by this measure, too. Barrow’s scale of advancement begins with having the ability to mine and build, which we’ve had for centuries. It then zooms in, passing through the manipulation of genes, and then molecules, then individual atoms, and eventually to spacetime itself. For Barrow, we should be doing the opposite to expanding outwards in search of greater power; we should be looking inwards and exploring the tiniest parts of reality.

Sagan and Barrow’s alternative systems don’t have the same ecological effects that the Kardashev Scale does, either. Environmentalism has been a growing, mainstream issue since the industrial revolution led to unsustainable practices on this planet. Apply it on a star-system or galactic-wide scope, and is the Kardashev Scale really fit for purpose? Does it produce a sufficiently advanced civilization? If we take it that to ascend the Kardashev Scale you have to use all the available energy, then no it isn’t and no it doesn’t.

A Type One civilization would mean using all the power on the planet, which sounds great but could be terrible. It could mean burning through any and all remaining fossil fuels. It could mean transforming every possible aspect of Earth into a renewable energy generator. Something like desert greening has a number of benefits for life on Earth, but if we greened all the deserts, we will have killed off all the wildlife that lived there. A Type One planet is a power-producing machine, yes, but is it still balanced? And is it for the best? Expand outwards, and a Kardashev Type Two drains it’s star system dry. And a Type Three drains a galaxy. That’s billions and billions of environments, all converted as standard for more and more energy generation. The darker side of the Kardashev way.

But there’s still one last issue with the Kardashev scale: The Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is the fact that we can’t reconcile the strong chance that aliens exist with the fact that we’ve never found evidence of them. So… if the Kardashev Scale provides an accurate trajectory for all advanced civilizations across the universe, then it doesn’t make sense that we haven’t been able to detect anything. With or without the physical, glaring megastructures to guide our way like star-sized breadcrumbs through space, the fact that an advanced Kardashev civilization would be so powerful and energy-hungry should have made itself known to astronomers. There should be some kind of imprint or shadow on space. Similar to how we know dark matter exists purely because we can see the effects it has on gravity… it figures that we should be able to see some evidence of a galaxy-conquering species (if it exists as the Kardashev Scale suggests that it should). But, so far, we’ve found nothing. No sign or signature from any star or galaxy that it might be having all of its energy harvested by a supremely intelligent and expansionist force.

Perhaps Dyson Spheres, and devices like it, are too advanced for anything in the universe to build them. Maybe the distances between stars are so huge that a Type Three civilization (or anything big enough for us to see) just hasn’t emerged yet. Or perhaps relentless expansion really is a bad way to build a civilization, and information or microdimensional mastery are the true indicators of advancement. Regulars on this channel will know all about the Kardashev Scale, and we’re not turning our back on it just yet! But, when contemplating the future and the universe, it pays to keep an open mind.