Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sees two major trends today. One eventually leads to a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society that will expand beyond Earth in the name of human progress. The other trend leads to fundamentalism, monoculturalism, and — eventually — civilizational ruin. Whichever of these two trends wins out will determine the fate of mankind. No pressure, everyone.
Question: What is the likelihood that mankind will destroy itself?
Michio Kaku: I say looking at the next 100 years that there are two trends in the world today. The first trend is toward what we call a type one civilization, a planetary civilization, a civilization that resembles something out of "Buck Rogers" or "Flash Gordon." A type two civilization is stellar. They consume so much energy they can play with stars. That is for example the Federation of Planets in "Star Trek." "Star Trek" would represent the typical type two civilization. Then we have type three, which is galactic like the Borg or "Independence Day" or the empire of "The Empire Strikes Back." That is a type three civilization, which is truly galactic. Now by the time you reach type two, you are immortal. Nothing known to science can destroy a type two civilization. Comets, meteors, earthquakes, even a supernova a type two civilization would be able to survive even a supernova.
The danger is the transition between type zero and type one and that’s where we are today. We are a type zero civilization. We get our energy from dead plants, oil and coal. But if you get a calculator you can calculate when we will attain type one status. The answer is: in about 100 years we will become planetary. We’ll be able to harness all the energy output of the planet earth. We’ll play with the weather, earthquakes, volcanoes. Anything planetary we will play with. The danger period is now, because we still have the savagery. We still have all the passions. We have all the sectarian, fundamentalist ideas circulating around, but we also have nuclear weapons. We have chemical, biological weapons capable of wiping out life on earth.
So I see two trends in the world today. The first trend is toward a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society and everywhere I go I see aspects of that birth. For example, what is the Internet? Many people have written about the Internet. Billions and billions of words written about the Internet, but to me as a physicist the Internet is the beginning of a type one telephone system, a planetary telephone system. So we’re privileged to be alive to witness the birth of type one technology, a planetary telephone system. What is English? English is the beginning of a type one language. Everywhere I go around the Earth, people speak English because that is the lingua franca of science, technology, business. They all speak English. It is the number one second language on the planet Earth. And what is the European Union? The European Union is the beginning of a type one economy. And how come these European countries, which have slaughtered each other ever since the ice melted 10,000 years ago, how come they have banded together, put aside their differences to create the European Union? Well to compete with us and who are we? We are NAFTA, so we’re beginning to see the beginning of a type one economy as well.
Then we’re beginning to see the beginning of a type one culture. Everywhere I go you turn on the radio and what do you hear? Rock 'n' roll, you hear rap music. You hear youth music. Youth music is now planetary, knows no boundaries around the planet earth. Everywhere I go I see high fashion: Chanel, Gucci bags. We’re witnessing the birth of a planetary fashion. Also sports, take a look at the Olympics. Take a look at soccer. We’re seeing the beginning of a tribal initiation rite called sports being turned into a planetary initiation rite that unifies the entire planet.
So whenever I open the newspaper every headline I see in the newspaper points to the birth pangs of a type one civilization information. However, every time I open the newspaper I also see the opposite trend as well. What is terrorism? Terrorism in some sense is a reaction against the creation of a type one civilization. Now most terrorists cannot articulate this. They don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about, but what they’re reacting to is not modernism. What they’re reacting to is the fact that we’re headed toward a multicultural tolerant scientific society and that is what they don’t want. They don’t want science. They want a theocracy. They don’t want multiculturalism. They want monoculturalism. So instinctively they don’t like the march toward a type one civilization. Now which tendency will win? I don’t know, but I hope that we emerge as a type one civilization.
Now in outer space we look for signs of intelligent life in outer space. So far we find none. Civilizations like type one should be commonplace in the galaxy. Some people assume therefore that type zero civilizations are rather common, but only a few of them make it to type one because that society for the first time in its history has the ability to commit planetary suicide, so maybe that is the reason why we don’t see aliens in outer space. Maybe they never made it. Maybe one day when we have starships and visit them we’ll see atmospheres that are irradiated because they had a nuclear war, atmospheres too hot to sustain life because they had a runaway greenhouse effect. Maybe when we go in outer space we’ll see the corpses of type one civilizations that never quite made it. Who knows?
Recorded on September 29, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman