The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Toward a Type I Civilization

July 21, 2009

To solve our energy problems we need more than new technologies,
we need a new type of civilization

Last week I reviewed the first half of my lecture at TAM 7 (The Amazing Meeting 7) on rising above traditional left-right politics. The second half of my lecture was based on my belief that in order for our species to survive we need to make the transition to a Type I civilization. This visage of our future is based on some work I did last year, that resulted in an opinion editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

Our civilization is fast approaching a tipping point whereby we will need to make the transition from nonrenewable fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy to renewable energy sources that will allow us to flourish indefinitely into the future. Failure to make that transformation will doom us to the endless political machinations and economic conflicts that have plagued our civilization for the past half millennium. We need new technologies, but without new politics and economics we cannot make the transition. The transition to what? To a Type I civilization. Let me explain.

In a 1964 article on searching for extra-terrestrial civilizations, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev suggested using radio telescopes to detect energy signals from other solar systems in which there might be three different types of civilization: Type I can harness all of the energy of its home planet, Type II can harvest all of the power of its sun, and Type III can master the energy from its entire galaxy. Based on our energy efficiency at the time, in 1973 the astronomer Carl Sagan estimated that we are a Type 0.70 civilization. Current estimates put us at 0.72. As the Kardashevian scale is logarithmic — where each increase in power consumption requires a huge leap in production — we have a ways to go to make the transition.

Fossil fuels won’t get us there. Renewable sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal are a good start, and coupled to nuclear power could eventually get us there, once the technologies are developed. But the problem is not just a technological one. We have a proven track record of remarkable technological solutions to survival problems, as long as the political will and economic opportunities allow them to flourish. We need a Type I polity and economy, along with the technology, in order to become a Type I civilization. What is a Type I polity and economy? Global democracy and capitalism. We are close. Consider how far we’ve come in the long history of our species from Type 0:

Type 0.1:
Fusion-fission groups of hominids living in Africa, where group membership is fluid, technology consists of primitive stone tools, within-group conflicts are resolved through dominance hierarchy, and between-group violence is common.
Type 0.2:
Bands of roaming hunter-gatherers who are related to one another as a kinship group, with a mostly horizontal political system and an egalitarian economy.
Type 0.3:
Tribes of individuals linked together through kinship but with a more settled and agrarian lifestyle than bands, with the beginnings of a political hierarchy and a primitive economic division of labor.
Type 0.4:
Chiefdoms consisting of a coalition of tribes into a single hierarchical political unit with a chief or big man at the top and with the beginnings of significant economic inequalities and a division of labor in which lower class members produce food and other products consumed by nonproducing upper class members.
Type 0.5:
States as a political coalition with jurisdiction over a well-defined geographical territory with its corresponding inhabitants over which it rules, with a mercantile economy that seeks a favorable balance of trade in a win-lose game against other states.
Type 0.6:
Empires as states that extend their control over peoples who are not culturally, ethnically, or geographically within its normal jurisdiction, with a goal of economic dominance over other empires through colonies.
Type 0.7:
Democracies that divide the sources of power over several institutions that are run by elected officials voted for by some citizens, with the beginnings of a market economy.
Type 0.8:
Liberal democracies and free markets that gave the vote to all citizens and began to embrace a nonzero win-win economic game through free trade with other states.
Type 0.9:
Democratic-Capitalism, now spreading across the globe through democratic movements and free trade agreements.
Type 1.0:
Globalism that includes worldwide wireless internet access, all knowledge digitized and available to everyone anywhere any time, a global economy with complete open economic borders and free markets where anyone can trade with anyone else without interference from states or governments, and where all states are democracies in which everyone on the planet has the franchise.

The forces at work that could prevent us from making the Great Leap Forward to a Type I civilization are primarily political and economic. The resistance by non-democratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Type 0.4 chiefdom status. The opposition toward a global economy is substantial, even in the Industrial West, where economic tribalism still dominates the thinking of most politicians, intellectuals, and citizens.

For thousands of years we lived in a zero-sum tribal world where the gain of one tribe, state, or nation meant the loss of another tribe, state, or nation, and our political and economic systems have been designed to live in that win-lose world. But now we have the opportunity to live in a win-win world and become a Type I civilization by spreading liberal democracy and free trade.

I am optimistic because in the evolutionist’s deep time and the historian’s long view, the trend-lines toward achieving Type I status are inexorably upward. That is change we can believe in.


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