What kind of civilisation do we want to be?

Earth as photographed by Apollo 17 mission crew in 1972.

Around 3.5 billion years ago, something extraordinary happened in the realm of the observable universe. From non-living matters emerged living organisms that started to occupy the surface of planet earth. Tiny particles like quarks and electrons formed atoms to molecules in various sizes, in such combinations from which emerged living cells. These cells went on a journey of billions of years of evolution leading to numerous kinds of species. After a considerable length of time, life reached a certain species so capable that it could change the face of their home planet.

Humankind, a species that evolved out of the African savannah, has invaded their planet, polymerised it in every manner possible. Human species rose above all other species, and having no other beings to compete with, they developed a sense of superiority. But for thousands of years, humankind fought against many natural forces and even between themselves. They were helpless to famine, diseases, and even gruesome wars. Ultimately, thanks to human ingenuity and scientific development in the last century, humankind achieved amazing feats and found themselves in an unprecedented position. There are still natural threats to consider but those have largely transformed from being an uncontrollable force of nature into something preventable. The collective knowledge and the beginning of greater cooperation among nations have helped them significantly.

What, then, is the human civilisation trying to achieve or become? A plausible answer may lie in a model called the Kardashev scale. The Kardashev scale, proposed by Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, categorises advanced civilisations by taking into account their capacity to harness and utilise the energy available to them. It is a semi-quantitative way to define a civilisation's advancement. The energy consumption part is merely a guideline, and there are other factors as well.

 "Type 0 Civilisation"is one that can harness the energy available to its home planet, but not to its full potential yet. Human civilisation is currently at 0.73 on this scale. It is expected that it will reach Type 1 in about a century. The Kardashev scale didn't have any civilisation categorised as Type 0, but this is where the human civilisation is currently poised. Moreover, most of the energy consumption of our civilisation largely depends on the low-tech harnessing of fossil fuels rather than renewable energy sources.

"Type 1 Civilisation" is a planetary civilisation that can harness all the energy available to its home planet at the fullest efficiency, keeping the planet habitable. A Type 1 civilisation can control a planet's weather, influence the climate, and prevent natural events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. They are also capable of interplanetary travels.

"Type 2 Civilisation" is a stellar civilisation that can harness the total energy output of their home star. They are capable of building structures at a planetary scale and also capable of interstellar travel. They could avoid catastrophic events that may lead to their extinction, like a supernova explosion, by moving to other star systems.

"Type 3 Civilisation" is a galactic civilisation that can harness the energy of an entire galaxy. They can mine and transport stars and manipulate black holes. Type 3 is the most advanced stage of civilisation defined by Kardashev, with the ability of a galactic magnitude. Its people can make intergalactic voyages, and deal with energy levels of the magnitude of a galaxy. This civilisation could survive everything short of the end of the universe.

Currently, the human civilisation is set to make the transition from Type 0 to Type 1. But any attempt to measure how advanced the human civilisation is, and how advanced it might become in the future, must be linked to the factor of avoiding extinction. Eventually, the graduation from Type 0 and the intermediate period of "technological adolescence" is not going to be easy. It's not clear if we're going to make it. As per a mathematical equation, there should be thousands of Type 1, 2, and 3 civilisations in the galaxy but when we look at outer space, we detect no evidence of any whatsoever. Maybe they couldn't make it in the outer space either—since the transition from Type 0 to 1 is the most arduous and important of all transitions, not because of the tremendous technological achievements that are needed but because of the challenges of building a planetary civilisation tolerant of many cultures. It's a race against time and tendency. As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, "On the one hand, we have the forces of integration, the forces of tolerance, a multi-cultural fabric emerging before our eyes. On the other hand, we have weapons of mass destruction, germ warfare, nuclear warfare, also the rise of international terrorism." Add to that the incompatible values of exponential growth and sustainability among nations and within cultures. These are the obstacles to reach Type 1 civilisation.

Ironically, there is no natural famine these days on the planet, but only political famine. If any human being dies on the planet earth because they don't have enough food to eat, it's not probably for any natural cause. At least not in its entirety. It may be because some political leaders or governments or ideologues want them to starve to death. Human civilisation has reached a point where there are more threats resulting from politics and incompetence than the uncontrollable natural forces. However, as always, there is recognition and denial at the same time. The tenuous attempts to reconcile and manage this contradiction of exponential growth and sustainability are falling apart.

The contradiction may not be as fallacious as it seems, however. Contradictions are civilisation's engines, pushing forward creativity and dynamism of human species. Incompatible values are still an essential feature of human civilisation. As historian Yuval Noah Harari put it: "Consider the gradual acceptance of two conflicting values like freedom and equality. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction." Since the industrial revolution, human civilisation has been dealing with questions of exponential growth and sustainability. Human civilisation teeters on the edges of these two imperatives in which it can be understood best. There is the urge for negotiation and dialogue between these imperatives but polarisation is surging as well.

This fury of polarisation left human civilisation baffled. Nations around the planet stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. The threat of these weapons is still severe, and stories of close calls over the past decades only show how lucky we have been. But luck doesn't protect a species indefinitely. Humankind has done embarrassingly little about global threats like climate change. The global population is going through a sense of horror as they are bombarded with news of the threats of climate change, environmental pollution, extremism, terrorism, technological disruptions, pandemics, and whatnot. Traumatised minds get further afflicted by the repetitive cultivation of talks about the problems created by humans instead of what human civilisation is capable of doing to negotiate with these civilisational crises.

What institutional and political preparations are there to overcome this? Are we expecting history to wait for us to reach an agreement? Is the delay due to our perpetual hunger for power? Or short-sighted nationalism? Can we handle the growth in physical power, survive our chaotic technological adolescence, and mature into a species with a chance of reaching old age? Or shall we become the reason for our own extinction because our technology has progressed more rapidly than our wisdom? Maybe there is a hidden urge for conflict in human nature leaving a wound on the face of human civilisation.


Debashish Chakrabarty is an artist and a photography graduate of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka.



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