Our species is facing a pivotal moment in human history. Either we develop technology to harness the energy needed to safely escape our planet, or we kill ourselves in a major catastrophe, a stark new study claims.
But the new research paper argues, if we can achieve the former and avoid the latter, we could become a true interplanetary species in less than 200 years.
“Earth is a small point 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 trapped on this small rock with limited resources.”
To leave our planet for good, humans need to significantly intensify the use of nuclear and renewable energy, while at the same time protecting these energy sources from being used for harmful purposes.
And the next few decades will be crucial: The study suggests that if humanity can safely switch away from fossil fuels, it may have a chance.
In 1964, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a measurement scheme, later modified by Carl Sagan, to estimate the technological capability of an intelligent species. It all comes down to energy, and how much (from whatever source) a species can use for its own purposes, whether those are exploring Universe Or play video games.
A Type I Kardashev civilization, for example, could use all the energy available on the species’ home planet, including all of Earth’s energy sources (such as fossil fuels and materials that can be used in nuclear fission) and all energy falling on this planet from its parent star. For Earth, that’s somewhere around 10^16 watts.
Type II civilizations consume 10 times the amount of energy, and are able to exploit the entire energy output of a single star. Type III species can go further and use the most energy in an entire galaxy.
Needless to say, the human race is well below the Type I threshold, but our energy consumption is growing with each passing year. More people use more energy per capita, but that power comes at a cost: the threat to our biosphere from releasing carbon pollutants, and the dangers posed by the ability to use powerful means of energy storage and delivery for destructive purposes, such as nuclear bombs.
The great candidate
The danger posed by increased energy consumption may explain why scientists have found no evidence of advanced alien civilizations. If the Earth is not very special and the evolution of life and intelligence is not unique (and there is no reason to assume that it is), then the galaxy must be teeming with intelligent creatures. Sure, we haven’t been around for long, astrologically speaking, but Milky Way It is billions of years. Surely now someone, somewhere should have reached the stage of the third type and begin to explore the galaxy in earnest.
This means that by the time humans get smart, someone has to be there to meet us, or at least leave a welcome gift.
But as far as we can tell, we’re on our own. Life, especially intelligent life, seems extremely rare. So perhaps a set of processes would remove intelligent life from the scene before civilization reached higher stages of development. Most of these so-called “big filters” are different forms of the species’ self-destruction.
In fact, we are already capable of self-destruction as a species, and we have not even reached the first degree of the Kardashev scale. A handful of countries now have the nuclear-armed capacity to wipe out every human on the planet.
“We are our great candidate,” said Jiang.
The trick is to avoid self-destruction while ramping up our energy use to the point where we can reliably exist in multiple worlds at once, even if only in Solar SystemJiang said. Man’s presence on more than one planet is a powerful bulwark against self-destruction. But to achieve a multi-planetary situation would require an enormous amount of energy, not just to establish short-lived colonies, but to maintain fully self-sufficient cities.
Jiang and his team figured out the best way to arrive at Type I status in a paper uploaded to April to prepress server in arXiv. The researchers followed the recommendations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which charted clear consequences for the continued unabated use of fossil fuels. In short, unless humanity quickly shifts its energy supply to nuclear and renewable options, we will do significant damage to our biosphere to continue climbing the Kardashev scale.
The study also assumed 2.5% annual growth in renewable and nuclear energy use, and found that in the next 20 to 30 years, these forms of energy use will steadily replace fossil fuels. The team found that nuclear and renewables have the potential to continue to grow in production without increasing pressure on the biosphere, and if we continue our current rate of consumption, we will reach type 1 in 2371.
Jiang admits that the calculations included many assumptions, and that the uncertainty about the estimate was probably around 100 years old. Calculations should have assumed that we would identify safe ways to deal with nuclear waste, and that increasing the capacity to harness energy would not lead to disaster. However, if we can maintain this path, we can pave the way to protect our potential human race for generations to come within the next few hundred years.
Originally published on Live Science.