01 April 2010

Articles of Faith: Parameters of the Last Ark — Pt. 2

(cont'd from previous post)

In his book Physics of the Impossible (2008), Michio Kaku (no, not the book reviewer for the New York Times) refers to Nikolai Kardashev's theory of the stages of civilization.
"If we look at the rise of our own civilization over the past 100,000 years, since modern humans emerged in Africa, it can be seen a the story of rising energy consumption. Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev has conjectured that the stages in the development of extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe could also be ranked by energy consumption. Using the laws of physics, he grouped the possible civilizations into three types:

1. Type I civilizations: those that harvest planetary power, utilizing all the sunlight that strikes their planet. They can, perhaps, harness the power of volcanoes, manipulate the weather, control earthquakes, and build cities on the ocean. All planetary power is within their control.

2. Type II civilizations: those that can utilize the entire power of their sun, making them 10 billion times more powerful than a Type I civilization. ... A Type II civilization, in a sense, is immortal; nothing known to science, such as ice ages, meteor impacts, or even supernovae, can destroy it. (In case their mother star is about to explode, these beings can move to another star system, or perhaps even move their home planet.)

3. Type III civilizations: those that can utilize the power of an entire galaxy. They are 10 billion times more powerful than a Type II civilization. ... They have colonized billions of star systems and can exploit the power of the black hole at the center of their galaxy. They freely roam the space lanes of the galaxy." (145-46)
I'm not interested in science fiction or extraterrestrial civilizations; such creatures may have developed efficiencies that render the Kardashev typology obsolete or, interestingly, not chosen such a materialistic path. This typology can, however, help us understand our own situation because it is based on the model of our own civilization's progress, i.e., energy consumption.

Based on this scale, Kaku and others have postulated that we Earthlings are still a Type 0 civilization—0.72, to be exact. In his earlier book Hyperspace (1994), Kaku states:
our Type 0 civilization is "one that is just beginning to tap planetary resources, but does not have the technology and resources to control them. A Type 0 civilization like ours derives its energy from fossil fuels like oil and coal and, in much of the Third World, from raw human labor. Our largest computers cannot even predict the weather, let alone control it. Viewed from this larger perspective, we as a civilization are like a newborn infant. ... [Yet] [g]iven the rate at which our civilization is growing, we might expect to reach Type I status within a few centuries. ... Our technology is so primitive that we can unleash the power of hydrogen fusion only by detonating a bomb, rather than controlling it in a power generator. However, a simple hurricane generates the power of hundreds of hydrogen bombs. Thus weather control, which is one feature of Type I civilizations, is at least a century away from today's technology." (278)
However, the progress of human civilization is by no means a given. For example, our own nature might be our worst enemy. As a species, human beings may ultimately have a suicidal bent, allowing our fears and prejudices to paralyze us in our struggle for life. As a Type 0 civilization
"we use dead plants, oil and coal, to fuel our machines. We utilize only a tiny fraction of the sun's energy that falls on our planet. ... [But our civilization is] still wracked with the sectarianism, fundamentalism, and racism that typified its rise, and it is not clear whether or not these tribal and religious passions will overwhelm the transition [to a higher order civilization]." (PI 146)
{This raises an interesting question—one I hope to address at some point down the road—as to whether Life itself is necessarily wedded to homo sapiens sapiens or whether we are only a stepping stone for Life to evolve/create a more advanced form of itself. Life, I suspect, has no need of us; we, however, are utterly and abjectly dependent on Life and should constantly bear this in mind.}

Now I am sure that President Obama has weighed the costs and benefits, the risks and rewards of his newly announced policy to allow some off-shore drilling for oil and natural gas—environmental, economic, political, etc.—and made the judgment that the upsides ultimately outweigh the downsides. I do not pretend to be privy to these deliberations nor to the weights assigned to any of the factors that entered into his decision. Nor do I claim to understand his strategic thinking. I feel reasonably safe, though, in assuming that his calculations, unlike those of his predecessor, gave greater consideration to the costs and risks to the coastal and oceanic environments: maybe not as much as I would have wanted, but certainly more than Bush. At least I would hope that it did and that his ultimate goal is to move us toward a more sustainable energy basis, toward an even grander environmental goal.

Solar, tidal, wind, geothermal: these are stepping-stone forms of energy that, when tapped, could raise the present state of our civilization to a higher order. Their prevalence would render obsolete the sorts of destructive resource wars that have plagued us throughout our history. Their abundance would fuel intellectual, creative, and peaceful progress—potentially even evolutionary advances as we find ourselves overcoming some of the struggles for mere survival that have made us so bellicose to begin with. Their cheapness would make such projects as desalination of sea water feasible (even now corporate and state actors are moving to privatize and control potentially potable water resources; there was even a rumor that the Bush family [alongside, apparently, the Sun-Yung Moon enterprise], inveterate oil resource hogs, has bought up 100,000 acres of land in Paraguay on top of the central aquifer for all of the South American continent).

I have long advised my teen-aged children that they are entering a new era, an era where focus on green, sustainable energy technologies will be the path to job security and financial well-being in the future—as well as making this world a better place. My sense is that, as with personal computers in the late '70s, we are at the starting line for an entrepreneurial boom in this area that will not so readily go bust.

The Anthropocene epoch arrives perhaps too soon. The paradox of human nature is as yet unresolved. I worry we have not yet shaken off the existential insecurities that accompanied the rise of our civilization over the last 10,000 years. And with those insecurities come the sorts of fears and animosities that drove us into the global wars and genocides and environmental disasters that reached near apotheosis in the last century.

We have to ask whether humanity is essentially Life-affirming, or whether its dark undercurrents will once again surface in this new epoch. I hope and, at base, believe that, though it is not inevitable given human nature, we as a race will ultimately stumble into a solution that works to preserve our environment, ourselves, and, thus, Life itself.

1 comment:

Frances Madeson said...

As a human who has had her own resources simultaneously exploited and go untapped, your post made me feel like one with the planet. Total identification and a quiet epiphany. Profound gratitude to you.