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Our species is at a turning point in human history. Either we develop the technology to safely use the energy needed to escape our planet, or we will destroy ourselves in some great cataclysm, a poignant new study claims.
But as the new paper argues, if we can achieve the former and avoid the latter, then we could become a truly interplanetary species in as little as 200 years.
“Earth is a tiny dot surrounded by darkness,” study lead author Jonathan Jiang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told Live Science. “Our current understanding of physics tells us that we are stuck on this tiny rock with limited resources.”
To permanently leave our planet, humans need to dramatically increase their use of nuclear and renewable energy while protecting these energy sources from malicious use.
And the next few decades will prove decisive: if humanity can safely move away from fossil fuels, it may have a chance, the study suggests.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
In 1964, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a measurement scheme, later modified by Carl Sagan, to assess the technological capabilities of an intelligent species. It all comes down to energy and how much of it (from any source) a species can use for its own purposes, whether it’s exploring the universe or playing video games.
On the subject: 9 strange scientific explanations why scientists have not yet found aliens (will open in a new tab)
A Kardashian Type I civilization, for example, can use all the energy available on the species’ home planet, including all energy sources in the earth (such as fossil fuels and materials that can be used to fission nuclei) and all energy. fall to this planet from its parent star. For Earth, this is somewhere around 10^16 watts.
Type II civilizations consume 10 times more energy and are able to use the full power of a single star. Type III species can go even further and use most of the energy in the entire galaxy.
Needless to say, the human species is well below the Type I threshold, but our energy consumption is increasing every year. More people are consuming more energy per capita, but that power comes at a price, namely the threat to our biosphere from carbon emissions. (will open in a new tab) and pollutants, as well as the risk of using powerful energy storage and delivery facilities for destructive purposes such as nuclear bombs.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC))
The danger associated with increased energy consumption may explain why scientists have not found evidence of the existence of highly advanced alien civilizations. If the Earth is not so special, and the development of life and intelligence is not so unique (and there is no reason to assume that it is), then the galaxy should be teeming with intelligent creatures. Of course, from an astronomical point of view, we exist not so long ago, but the Milky Way is billions of years old. Surely, by now, someone somewhere must have reached the Type III stage and started to seriously explore the galaxy.
This means that by the time humans became sentient, there must have been someone there to meet us, or at least leave a welcome gift.
But as far as we can tell, we are alone. Life, and especially intelligent life, seems extremely rare. So perhaps some set of processes is removing intelligent life from the scene before civilization can reach higher stages of development. Most of these so-called “great filters” are various forms of species self-destruction.
Indeed, we are already capable of self-destruction as a species, and we have not even cracked the first rung of the Kardashev scale. A handful of countries now have the nuclear capability to destroy every single person on the planet.
“We are our own Great Filter,” Jiang said.
The trick is to avoid self-destruction while we ramp up energy consumption to the point where we can reliably exist on multiple worlds at the same time, even if it’s only in the solar system, Jiang said. The presence of man on more than one planet serves as a strong bulwark against self-destruction. But to achieve multi-planetary status requires a huge amount of energy, not only to create short-term colonies, but also to maintain full-fledged self-sufficient cities.
Blade of knife
Jiang and his team explored the best way to achieve Type I status in an article uploaded in April to the journal’s arXiv preprint server. (will open in a new tab). The researchers followed the recommendations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which clearly outlines the consequences of the continued relentless use of fossil fuels. In short, if humanity does not quickly switch energy sources to nuclear and renewable energy sources, we will cause too much damage to our biosphere to continue climbing the Kardashev scale.
The study also assumed a 2.5% annual growth in renewable and nuclear energy use, and found that over the next 20 to 30 years, these forms of energy use will steadily displace fossil fuels. Nuclear and renewables have the potential to continue to increase production without placing additional strain on the biosphere, and if we continue our current consumption rates, we will reach Type I status in 2371, the team found.
Jiang acknowledges that the calculations involved many assumptions and that the estimation uncertainty was likely around 100 years. Calculations had to come from the fact that we would find safe ways to handle nuclear waste and that the increased possibilities of using energy would not lead to a catastrophe. However, if we can stay on this course, we can set the stage for the potential protection of our species for future generations over the next few hundred years.
Originally published on Live Science. (will open in a new tab)