Michio Kaku
Professor of Theoretical Physics, CUNY

The Birth-Pangs of a Planetary Civilization

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The Internet, the European Union, and the Olympics are all signs that, within the next 100 years, mankind will become a truly planetary civilization.

Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku is a futurist, popularizer of science, and theoretical physicist, as well as a bestselling author and the host of two radio programs. He is the co-founder of string field theory (a branch of string theory), and continues Einstein’s search to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one unified theory. He holds the Henry Semat Chair and Professorship in theoretical physics and a joint appointment at City College of New York and the Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Kaku launched his Big Think blog, "Dr. Kaku's Universe," in March 2010.


Question: How long will it take to reach a type one civilization at our current rate of advancement? (Submitted by Miguel Godinez)

Michio Kaku: Miguel, you ask an interesting question about the future of civilization itself. Nikolai Kardashev, a Soviet Astrophysicist in the 1960’s, was frustrated trying to analyze signals from intelligent life in outer space. What are we looking for? So he began to rank civilizations on a scale of Type I, Type II, Type III.

Type I civilization is truly planetary. They absorb all the light coming in from their mother star and they control all planetary forms of energy. For example, they might be able to modify the weather. They may be able to control earthquakes and volcanoes. That’s Type I.

A Type II civilization is stellar. They control the entire energy output of a star. Type III is galactic, they control the energy output of the entire galaxy.

Now to put things into perspective, Flash Gordon, or Buck Rogers would be… would be living in a Type I civilization where they control all forms of planetary energy. They can simply rocket anywhere on the planet Earth at ease.

Type II might be “Star Trek.” The Federation of Planets has only colonized a few neighboring planetary systems. They can barely manipulate the energy output of a single star, so the Federation of Planets would be Type II.

But even Captain Picard and William Shatner live in fear of a Type III galactic civilization, and that is The Borg or the Empire of the “Empire Strikes Back” or the aliens of “Independence Day,” They would be truly galactic in scope, able to harness the energy of black holes, for example. And there might even be Type IV. Type IV is extragalactic, for example, on “Star Trek” we have the Cue. The Cue might be a candidate for a Type IV civilization.

Now what are we on this scale? We are Type 0. That’s where we rate. We get our energy from dead plants, oil and coal. Now Carl Sagan tried to refine it a bit, he estimated that we’re actually about a .7. If you are a .7 civilization, that means you are about 100 years from attaining Type I status. This means we can see evidence of this everywhere we go. The internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system. We’re privileged to be alive to witness the beginning of a telephone system of the next hundred years.

The European Union is the beginning of a Type I economy. Why do we even have the European Union? Of course, these countries hate each other; they’ve been warring with each other for thousands of years, ever since the ice melted in Europe. Why are these countries, these mortal enemies, ganging together to fund the European Union? Well, to compete with us. And who are we? We are NAFTA. So, we are seeing the beginning of a gigantic global trading blocks.

English will probably be the planetary language, you can go anywhere on the planet Earth and the educated already speak English, they are bi-lingual, and on the internet, the number one language on the Internet is English, followed by Mandarin. We’re seeing the beginning of a planetary culture. Everywhere you go you see rock n’ roll, you see Gucci bags, you see high fashion, you see a very similar global culture. A culture of high fashion, Hollywood, glitz, Rock n’ Roll, blue jeans. That same kind of culture, youth culture, the culture of the rich, is now going around the planet Earth.

You see the beginning of planetary sports, the Olympics, soccer games. Realize that in the old days, you had competition between tribes. Tribal rivalry sometimes led to wars, so they would have games between them. Now we have games not just between small provinces, but games that envelop the entire planet Earth.

Now this doesn’t mean that the transition to Type I is going to be easy because there are forces that are opposed to this transition to a planetary civilization. Look at nuclear proliferation. The bomb is proliferating to some of the most dangerous, unstable areas of the world, for example, the Middle East. Not only that, but terrorism is fundamentally based on living in a society opposed to Type I. A Type I civilization is scientific, it is pluralistic, it is multi-cultural, it is tolerant because it is global. However, terrorists do not want to live in that society. They would rather live in the year 1000 AD rather than in the next century.

So, I would say that we have 100 years to go before we attain Type I status, it’s not inevitable, but every time I open the newspaper, I see the birth pangs of Type I. Every single headline points to the birth pangs of a Type I civilization. So when historians of the future look back at the 21st Century, they’ll say, “Well, gee. All the crises of the 21st Century it’s obvious. There’s a direction, there’s a pattern, the birth of a Type I civilization.

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