Kardashev Cusp
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Basic Information

The transition from one type to another on the Kardashev Scale is likely to be very challenging and harrowing. expected to be a tumultuous time, with social upheavals at least as major as the Industrial Revolution was for us. The transition represents having reached the limits of the available resources within the culture's domain, after all. It's the point where society can progress no further (and possibly not even self-sustain) without major technology being developed to allow efficient expansion into larger territory.

In fact, one likely explanation for why our universe is not teeming with some intergalactic civilization is that it's just possible no form of intelligent life ever avoids extinction long enough to reach Type I. Humanity is at 0.7 or so, and we've come pretty close to doing ourselves in a few times.

The Type-0-to-Type-I transition in particular is likely to be the biggest challenge a society or species ever faces. When you stand on that cusp, you're facing all kinds of troubles. Most pressing of these may be that you'll almost certainly hit the need for the power resources of a Type I society before you've actually got the technology to generate that much power. Another big issue is that of maturity - can an entire species cooperate enough, and take the dangers seriously enough, to have a shot at survival?

Dangers facing you at the cusp between Types O and I:

All the while, these problems will be pushing towards societal conflict and even societal collapse. The haves and have-nots will struggle and war. Resources will be horded. Ideologies and Philosophies will be in open competition. Dangerous memes will spring up, and dangerous technologies will become more accessible and uncontrolled. One crazy person with a home genetic engineering kit might wipe out the world. As things spiral out of control, some people will decide the end is nigh, and stop caring about the long-term survival of the species. New religions and political movements will appear, and the old systems may have to adapt or be left behind.

If a society survives to achieve Type I status, it's probably safe for a while. Getting there is a big step, that took foresight and cooperation. You can assume any society that manages as much is likely to have strong moral fiber, or at least strong motivations. It's also now got the ability to start colonizing other worlds, which greatly improves the odds of long-term survival.

However, you're not completely out of the woods. Societies change, a Dark Age is still possible, and when you hit the cusp between later stages there's bound to be further upheaval. Unless the Technological Singularity has occurred and brought immortality, it'd be easy for future generations to forget the lessons learned at the first cusp.

Later and Constant Dangers:

These are dangers that may still face you at Type II or later. An unlucky species attaining sentience late in the life of their star or galaxy could fall victim to one of these problems before they ever reach Type I.

The transition between Type II and Type III needs to be planned out well in advance, or else another threat of Malthusian Catastrophe will rear it's head. In order to get to Type III, you need to travel to other stars. If there's no FTL by then (and science doesn't think there ever will be), then it'll take decades (at least) to spread out.

How to get past that Cusp:

There's two requirements.

  1. You need people to quit being destructive, so your civilization can survive.
  2. You need to tap in to bigger power sources.

Powering the Transition to Type I:

A well-developed space program is a big help towards achieving this goal, but not, strictly speaking, necessary. It will be needed later, however, in order to make any real progress towards transitioning to Type II.

Powering the Transition to Type II:

Transitions to higher states (Type III or IV) would probably use the same methods, but on larger scale. Dyson Swarms for everyone!

Another way of looking at this conundrum involves the version of the Kardashev Scale that gives both a number and a letter scale, where the letter corresponds to how much information the society has. Transitioning to the next Number requires increased science that corresponds to at least one transition in Letter. Until you discover new science and technology, you won't be able to advance. Attempts to raise the Number prematurely (in advance of the Letter) will result in disaster.


1. NonFiction: Hyperspace by Michio Kaku

Game and Story Use

  • The transitional stage at the Kardashev cusp makes for a great RPG setting. It's the End Of The World As We Know It - in space!
  • Perhaps our universe is teaming with high-Kardashev civilizations, but they cloak themselves with Dark Matter to achieve Stealth In Space for some reason.
  • The City was founded in Haiti as part of the rebuilding effort. With multinational corporations, world powers, and locals alike pitching in, it soon became an embodiment of what the world was working towards - a much contested center of technological advancement and commerce which struggled to maintain it's own independence. A saying emerged there: "As the the City goes, so goes the world." On the surface, the dream remains alive, but underneath that surface a different picture emerges: The City has become a place reminiscent of film noir movies as the criminal underworld, the City's administration, corporate and national interests, a growing luddite/populist revolt and an AI seeking to rule humans for their own good fight over control of the city. All of this is a microcosm of the struggle that is happening in the rest of the world. The PCs can choose to fight for any one of these sides, or strike out on their own. Whatever they do, the fate of the City and the world is in their hands.
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