The ultimate global superpower

Lets assume for a moment that the technology now coming along will allow us to get on top of climate change with only comparatively minor issues such as increased flooding and storms to cope with. If so, what might our long-term relationship with the Earth be like?

Our species' self-awareness, planning and technology are already allowing us to alter the Earth far faster than other species, or non-living processes such as erosion or plate tectonics. And, as we have seen, we already corral a goodly percentage of the Earth's natural processes for our own consumption. But we are also reaching a more subtle point where even the wild parts of the Earth are only wild with our consent. It is welcome that an increasing amount of the Earth, including large areas such as the Antarctic, is being set aside as wilderness free of extensive human development. The same applies to more modest local and national parks around the world. But our decision to act in this way means that we are taking the whole world into human management, ensuring for the first time that all the big decisions about the Earth, even decisions to leave parts of it alone, are taken by one species. As Bill McKibben puts it in his book The End Of Nature, we could let human activity alter the climate so that a hotter-than-before day is essentially a human artefact. But if we take steps to stop altering the climate, a normal cool day is also an artificial event which we have decided to create.

Some Gaia theory enthusiasts think that we are now damaging the Earth so much that it might decide to do without us, and drive us to extinction. But James Lovelock, the originator of the idea, disagrees. His view is that our self-awareness and the way we view the Earth as a whole adds to Gam's abilities and makes us vital to its future.

If our role is becoming that of planetary “overseer”, managing the Earth as a whole for our own ends and at the same time preserving it for other species, how might this role develop further in the future? One intriguing series of possibilities is raised by the Russian space scientist Nikolai Kardashev, who has suggested a three-fold typology of civilizations known as the Kardashev scale. We have not yet got to Type I, in which all the energy arriving at a planet is under control, so that (say) the weather can be managed accurately. But tens of thousands of years beyond that comes a Type II civilization, whose members have control of the whole energy output of a star. Type III (the last one he suggests) would control the energy output of an entire galaxy of billions of stars, a form of civilization so mind-numbing that even science fiction has rarely grappled with it. In simple numbers, a Type I civilization would use about 1010 watts of power, in other words 1 followed by 16 zeros. At the moment, the energy we use is equivalent to about an hour a year of the solar power we receive. Satisfyingly, Types II and III would get through 10?° watts and 10?° watts respectively.

The trajectory of human development so far, especially in the last few centuries, may suggest that we are indeed on track for at least Type I status, and Kardashev has speculated that we could reach that stage within 100 years. Observers of contemporary globalization sometimes claim that the emergence of global trade and communications, the arrival of multinational institutions such as the UN, or even the establishment of the Euro, are signs that a coherent Type I civilization may be on its way. However, anyone who sees the problems the UN faces, or observes the stubborn way in which most political power stays in national hands, might not agree. Kardashevs own view is that getting to Type I is the toughest transition. A glance at the TV news suggests he is right, but we have no information on how tricky the next two transitions would be.

If we did attain Type I status, it would be a benign result for the Earth because it would turn humanity into a solar-powered society with few long-term demands on the Earths own resources. This might seem a far-fetched idea. But one in which history went into reverse and human expectations shrank would be even more surprising.

Whatever change the future holds, one thing we know for sure is that our future is intimately connected with that of our planet. It is no surprise that we find it uniquely beautiful and fascinating. The human race is exquisitely adapted to life on Earth, as a result of more than 3 billion years of evolution here by us and our ancestors, and there is no place like home.