“As children of the Earth, we are also children of the stars…. Through the light of the stars, through what they teach us about other worlds and the possibilities of other civilizations, we can learn what path through adolescence we must take. And in that way, we can reach our maturity. We can reach our full promise and possibility.
We can make the Anthropocene into a new era for both our civilization and the Earth. In the end, our story is not yet written. We stand at a crossroads, under the light of the stars, ready to join them or ready to fail. The choice will be our own.” – Light of the Stars
I have had the book The Light of the Stars on preorder for months, authored by astrophysicist Adam Frank. I tore through this book in less than three days, and it has left my head spinning. I wanted to discuss my impressions. I really enjoyed this book!
More than that, it has been really relevant to the work I have been doing right now. I know it might not seem like it just yet, but I am working towards a synthesis of a lot of different ideas right now. These ideas cut across huge categories, and spin out from my understanding of animism. What I am working on now cuts across cosmology, ecology, science generally, as well as anthropology and animism. I am exploring many questions that cover our place in the Cosmos, the future of our civilization, and how science and animism are two complimentary ways to understand these topics.
Adam Frank’s book lands solidly across all of these ideas. If the quote at the top of this page is any indication, the scientific and animistic aspects of this book are very present. Even though this book is about science and not animism, there are plenty of implications for the latter. As I have written about many times before, my animism is scientific, and has implications for almost every discipline. While science tell me about the world, animism is how I relate to that world.
Which is why I was so struck by Frank’s book. I would recommend you pick up a copy, because I will not be able to cover even a portion of it here for length reasons. If you want a short version, there is a great Youtube video that outlines the basic ideas, and plenty of news articles are at the bottom of this post. Yet, in brief, the bulk of the book is about astrobiology, exo-civilizations (alien civilizations), and what we can learn from the fate of other worlds, and the possible civilizations that might dwell there.
A good portion of the book is about how an high-tech, high energy civilization would change the climate of the planet. In short, this book is about the Anthropocene, and the fate of our civilization when faced with realities such as Climate Change, and what, if anything, we can do about that?
“But we should recognize that creating climate change wasn’t done with malevolence. We are not a plague on the planet. Instead, we are the planet. We are, at least, what the planet is doing right now. But that is no guarantee that we’ll still be what the planet is doing one thousand or ten thousand years from now.
…that Carl Sagan already understood, is that humanity and its project of civilization represents a kind of “cosmic teenager.”.. But like a teenager, we lack the maturity to take full responsibility for ourselves and our future.” – Light of the Stars
(Graphic from Here)
One of the great parts about this book, is that Frank and others have just started modeling the various trajectories our civilization could take. I have included a graphic that plots out each of these trajectories pretty clearly.
The first is the die off, which is in many ways similar to Greer’s Long Descent. It means that climate change starts to take a serious toll on our populations, and basically humans start dying off. It’s disturbing that Frank identified this as one of the most common scenarios. But that is not a pleasant future, nor one to be hoped for. It is hard for me to imagine 7 out of 10 people I know and love have perished. That I think is a future that is best avoided, if we have any control over the matter. Which, of course, I think we do in some measure.
The second scenario is my preferred trajectory, the sustainability curve. It means we have acted with enough forethought and wisdom to prevent either slow, or catastrophic collapse. I think we as a civilization and as a species still have the ability to carve out this future for ourselves. We have the technology today, what we need is the will, and as Frank points out, a better narrative on what we want that future to look like.
The last two scenarios are the full extinction scenarios. That means we so overshoot the capacities of the planet, that regardless if we change to renewables or not, that the collapse of our civilization and probably the extinction of our species is our fate. That is a grim future indeed, and one that also serves best as a warning.
“If we take the astrobiological view and start thinking like a planet, we see there’s no such thing as “no impact.” Civilizations are built by harvesting energy and using that energy to do work. That work can be anything from building buildings to transporting materials to harvesting more energy.” – Light of the Stars
I have talked a lot about the Kardashev Scale quite a bit on this blog before, and something Michio Kaku has explored in some depth. I’m not going to go into any real depth about that here, but Frank certainly uses it to build his central themes. For example, a Type 1 civilization can access all the energy resources of their home planet. Civilization as a project turns energy into the capacity to work, whether that work is building, farming, or exploring space.
Our civilization is not yet a Type 1, as we are about a type 0.7, with 100-200 years to go until we are Type 1. That means we have a fair bit of energy at the disposal of our civilization, but Frank makes a very important point about the Kardashev Scale. Energy use of a civilization must obey the second law of thermodynamics. There is no such thing as a free lunch, as the use of energy creates feedback, primarily in the form of waste, and especially heat.
As we know from the science of climate change, that waste heat can be trapped in the atmosphere by carbon and other greenhouse gases. Obviously, the carbon and the heat are both products of our fossil fuel driven civilization. As Frank points out, the greater the energy use of a civilization, the greater its entropy; mostly in the form of waste heat.
This does not mean we cannot, or should not, chart out a course towards a Type 1 Civilization. Only that, as Kaku and Frank seem to agree upon, is that we are navigating a very crucial bottleneck right now. How we chart that course has massive implications for our future.
“That sounds pretty good. In just a couple of centuries, we are going to become a true Type 1 cosmic civilization. The problem, of course, is that we may never get there. Our project of civilization has a bottleneck to navigate right now, and our progress through it is anything but assured.” – Michio Kaku
There are nor guarantees about our future, but if we are to have a future at all, we must look a little beyond the Kardashev Scale. As Frank rightly points out, we need to consider our civilization against the capacities and limits of the planet. As such, Frank proposes another way of looking at our planet.
“Sustainable Civilizations don’t “rise above” the biosphere, but must, in some way, enter into a long, cooperative relationship with their coupled planetary systems. But what does that look like?”
What Frank proposes, is another way to classify our civilization as part of the whole planetary system. We need to consider more than just the energy usage, but also how the feedback of energy use on our planetary system. We need another kind of map to a Type 1 civilization, a more long-term and sustainable vision.
Frank proposes a different means to classify planets and their energy use. He uses five Classes of planets, 1 through 5.
A Class 1 planet is similar in many ways to Mercury. The energy systems of the planet are fairly simple, so the planet as a whole limits work (energy use) and system complexity. It’s pretty much a dead planet. A Class 2 is a world with an atmosphere, but no life. Venus and Mars are great examples of a Class 2 planet. Sunlight and atmosphere allows for gas and water flows, and more work to be done in the energy system.
Class 3 planets have a thin biosphere. Life has gotten a start on these worlds, and life has an effect on the planetary systems of energy flow. But life does not dominate the planet. Earth during the early Archean was approximately a Class 3 planet. Frank also points out if life was present on early Mars, that too would be an example of a Class 3.
Frank describes a Class 4 planet as a planet that has been “hijacked by life”, with a thick biosphere. These are deep ecological networks that all feed into one another, and feedback into one another. Earth, up until the appearance of human civilization, has long been a Class 4 planet.
Across the first four classes, we see an increase in complexity and energy flow as Frank rightly points out. A Class 1 planet doesn’t do much work with the energy it received from the sun. By contrast, a Class 4 takes all that solar energy and puts it to use in the networks of life; growing, eating, dying, and back again. This relationship between complexity, work, and energy flows granted Frank and his collaborators the vision to speculate on what a Class 5 planet might look like.
Just as a Class 4 world channels more energy into work and complexity than a Class 3, a Class 5 would go beyond the energy capacities of a Class 4. A Class 5 planet is a world with a planetary civilization, that not only has more energy at its disposal, but also has the agency of a complex civilization. Frank calls a Class 5 world an “agency dominated” planet, a planet that has intelligence. A Class 5 is where the biosphere has become part a noosphere, an area of networked intelligence. It is the where a world starts to “wake up”, and becomes more like a single organism.
“Class 5 Planets might be seen as worlds that have evolved a noosphere. The pervasive wireless mesh of connections that constitute today’s internet has already been held up as an initial version of a noosphere for Earth. Thus, we might already make out the contours of what a sustainable world will look like.”
An Awakened Planet, Towards a Class 5
“So, we cannot bring the world to heel. Instead, we must bring it a plan. Our project of civilization must become a way for the planet to think, to decide, and to guide its own future. Thus, we must become the agent by which the Earth wakes up to itself….
Science has given us a new perspective, a new vision, and a new story to help us find a way forward as we face the challenge of the Anthropocene. But this can only happen if we listen carefully and truly make this new story our own.
It is time to grow up.”
If a Class 5 is an “awakened planet” Frank goes on to ask the question, where do we stand right now? Well, just like on the Kardashev scale, we are between a Type 0 and a Type 1 (Type 0.7), on Frank’s on classification system, we are between a Class 4 and a Class 5, a hybrid planet.
The planet has not fully “awoken” just yet, and that it contains a civilization that is not yet sustainable. We are a hybrid planet, clearly leaving a Class 4 as we move into the Anthropocene, but our civilization is not yet a fully integrated and sustainable part of the planetary system. It might never be, as failure is certainly an option. We not ever make it to a Class 5 Planet, just as Kaku said there is no guarantees of ever seeing a Type 1 civilization.
Our cybernetic (of life and machine) Gaia is stirring, but it is not yet out of the birth canal. The transition from Type 0 to Type 1, and from Class 4 to Class 5, is not yet assured, and we are still in the weeds as a species. Energy flow, complexity, and the work we do as part of the planet must be sustainable. A Type 1 civilization must be sustainable, a integrated, networked, extension of the planetary system. As Frank so eloquently puts it;
“To truly come into a cooperative coevolution with a biosphere, a technological civilization must make technology – the fruit of its collective mind – serve as a web of awareness for the flourishing of both itself and the planet as a whole.”
It is time for our species to mature, as part of our planet. We are still in our adolescence, but we can see young adulthood in the distance. That is the next step in our planetary evolution, if we have the wisdom to make it through this transition.
In my next post for this series, I want to start filling in the details. I want to synthesize the ideas of Kaku, Bar-Yam, and Frank in a more unified way. From there, I want to continue refining this vision down to more specifics…
What does a cooperative, sustainable relationship with Earth actually look like?
Thanks for reading!
Light of the Stars, by Adam Frank. 2018.