RATAN 21.33 is a curatorial concept, addressing the theme of life and afterlife of the world's largest radio telescope, RATAN-600, located on the territory of the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science in the village of Nizhniy Arkhyz, Karachay-Cherkess Republic.
This project’s manifesto is directed on shifting the traditional angle on RATAN-600, perceiving it not even through the prism of art, but as an art piece in itself. Representing the identity of the region, unique aura of this construction, spreads much further than it might be recognized by virtue of its scientific characteristics. The on-going curatorial intervention brings another dimension to the visibility of RATAN-600. It reveals its importance and compatibility to the world’s most significant land art.
The diameter of the RATAN-600 is 576 m. The circumference - 1809 m. The average speed of an adult is 1.4 meter/sec. Which means that in 1293 seconds you can walk along the circumference of the RATAN-600, which is approximately 21min 33sec.
Inspired by the actual footprint of the radio telescope, curators used the sound piece by one of the researchers from the Backcasting K1 team as a key to unlock the claim mentioned above. The music was assembled simultaneously with the Backcasting K1 moving image project – manipulating samples, found sounds and using software synthesis to add a further dimension to their experiments in place-making: listening as an alternative way to imagine future versions of civilisation on Earth.
The specificity of the sight has enhanced the awareness that the project has to be strictly site-specific.
RATAN 21.33 describes the relationship between physical location and the human body. The duration of the sound walk is set by the circumference of the RATAN-600 and the length of the accompanying musical composition.
Backcasting K1 is a project by a group of researchers from The Terraforming, Strelka Institute, about energy, civilisation and planetarity. It repurposes a scale, invented by Soviet astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev in 1964 to classify extraterrestrial civilisations, to assess what planetary civilisation means here on earth. The Kardashev scale proposed that huge amounts of energy would be a fundamental requirement of any advanced technological civilisation. The centerpiece of Backcasting K1, 2020, is a two-channel video installation. It depicts four scenarios for the development of our civilization. The video is accompanied by the voice of the narrator, who describes the two variables: the first is whether most of the energy produced is used on Earth or in space, the second is the method of generating energy. The researchers made a “hindsight” for each of the scenarios, tracing the chain of events backwards from 2600 to 2020.
The suggested vision re-contextualizes the known role of the RATAN-600 structure, mobilizes the site-specific and the human domains, functioning on the intersection of art, science, architecture and performance. This immersive element plunges us into the field of performativity of architecture.
RATAN-600 as a metaphor endows the concept behind the structure of the radio telescope with supplementary meanings, which it is up to the visitor to delve into or to bypass.
BACKCASTING KARDASHEV ONE
A scale to classify extraterrestrial civilisations reveals the necessity of rethinking energy and planetarity on earth.
Energy, Civilisation and Planetarity
Narratives of “degrowth” or “sustainability” suggest that human civilisation will need to use less energy in future. But what if instead the trend is heading in exactly the opposite direction, on a trajectory of ever-increasing energy use?
At some point, we would enter the near-fantastical levels of energy usage envisaged by the Kardashev scale: a theoretical means of classifying civilisations proposed by a Russian astrophysicist in 1964 as part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Given that we have not found any evidence of such extraterrestrials, we propose repurposing the Kardashev scale to assess what planetary civilisation means here on earth.
In that context, we ask: where are we on the scale and what does that say about our level of advancement? What might be the thermodynamic and civilisational consequences of advancement on the Kardashev scale? What is the scope of our agency as we head towards many possible futures, and what might those futures look like? And finally working backwards from them, what might we learn about inhabitation of earth during our current anthropogenic crisis of energy metabolism?
Let’s start with Earth – as a planet, not an experiential “world” or a hollow “globe”. A planet of spheres. From the surface, inwards through the lithosphere and the asthenosphere into the meso- sphere’s mantle and core. Not just deeper inwards but deeper outwards through the geosphere, pedosphere, biosphere.
We explicitly include the technosphere – the sum of all humans, our technology, institutions and infrastructure – all thirty trillion tons of it: highways, airpods, sewers, art, landfills, science, cities. Outwards, not just to the edge of the stratosphere but further extending the planetary boundaries past the Karman line demar- cating space to the orbiting cloud of satellites and techno junk.
Having found a tentative and temporary boundary, where do we situate this planetarity? What is the final and correct vantage point? None, or rather, all of them. Every angle, at every size, at every timescale. Geological, chemical, biological. Subatomic particles rushing around the Large Hadron Collider, smashing into each other, the results disappearing in a zeptosecond – an answer just long enough to suggest a different question. The whole planet seen by the Cassini probe, Earth as a tiny white-blue dot that barely appears let alone smiles. And from the planet itself: newly arranged into a camera, taking its first ever picture – of a black hole.
The Terraforming is a comprehensive project to fundamentally transform Earth’s cities, technologies and ecosystems. Of course, the Anthropocene – imagine whichever text you like here, qualifying or problematising or doubling down on the term – reveals our ongoing, headless, irrational, unethical terraforming project. That is to say: the technical means to terraform, particularly in relation to the climate, clearly already exist.
While to date this has been partial and unintentional, the consequences are widespread and meaningful. But what if we imagined a future version of the planet that spawned a civilisation for whom the complete ordering and reordering of its physical state was not just a theoretical possibility but material reality?
That would be a planet, that makes a civilisation – which in turn remakes the planet.
One absolute requirement for such a planetary civilisation would be the ability to command immense amounts of energy. Which is key to how its level of advancement might be classified, and indeed how it might even be detected by a listener across the vastness of space.
To make sense of such a future involves returning to the past.
In 1964, Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scale to classify technologically developed civilisations. This was part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and as such the key consideration was detectability: to find something, we need to first decide what to look for. Even the nearest stars are extremely far away, and space is full of background noise. The transmission of an extraterrestrial information signal detectable on earth would require huge amounts of energy, and therefore could only be sent by a highly developed technological civilisation.
So Kardashev proposed three levels of civilisation based on energy. According to his initial classification a Type I civilisation represented a technological level and energy consumption close to that then (in 1964) attained on the Earth, roughly 4×1012 Watts. A Type II civilization would be capable of harnessing the energy radiated by its own star, around 4×1026 Watts; and a Type III civilization would be in possession of energy on the scale of its own galaxy, 4×1037 Watts.
This original scale has been updated and redefined along the way, perhaps most notably by Carl Sagan in 1973. He proposed redefining the energy values of the three types and switching from roman numerals to decimal numbers, resulting in a loga- rithmic scale on which intermediate values could also be calcu- lated. Type 1 was defined as 1016 W, Type 2 as 1026 W and Type 3 as 1036 W. This also had the effect of “downgrading” 1973 human civilisation to roughly 0.7 on the scale.
For the purposes of our research, we define the scale as follows:
This generally follows the schema set out by astronomer Guillermo A. Lemarchand, but with a more accurate value for solar insolation on Earth to seek to reflect the now-conventional concept that a Type 1 civilisation would be able to control all the energy available on its planet5. In our view total solar energy received at Earth’s upper atmosphere constitutes the “true” value for the energy resources of Earth. Consequently, a Type 1 civilisation – K1 – would be something far beyond Kardashev’s original conception.
Points on a scale
So where are we now? Human civilisation as at 2018 was producing around 18.4 Terawatts of power , placing us at just over 0.6 on the Kardashev scale as we’ve defined it (≈0.73 on Sagan’s version). The scale is logarithmic, and as such while 0.6 may appear close, K1 energy consumption would be around 9,450 times higher than current levels. That is a phenomenal amount of energy. Let’s put it in perspective.
Given that our 2018 figure is only around 28 times more than that of 1800 – a world of around one billion humans, where the most advanced technology was James Watt’s steam engine – it’s clear that four orders of magnitude is a difference so large that it’s difficult to overstate. In fact, finding a point in the planet’s history where the totality of human civilisation commanded four orders of magnitude less power than today is literally impossible. When humans collectively metabolised 10,000 times less energy was certainly before the neolithic (agrarian) revolution which began circa 10,000BC. This was a time when we were hunter-gatherers whose most advanced technology comprised a sharpened stone. Civilisation, as we commonly define it, simply did not exist.
So extrapolating the other way – from now to Kardashev Type 1 – shows us that from today’s perspective such a civilisation would command a staggering amount of energy. Its technology and therefore its society and culture would likely be so unfamiliar as to be impossible for us to properly comprehend.
“...the increase in power consumption of human civilization has been exponential, at least during the last two centuries, so any reasonable projection at timescales negligible in astrophysical terms will lead us very soon to the Type 1 and subsequently – barring a global catastrophe – to the 1.x status.”
Milan M. Cirkovic, “Kardashev’s Classification at 50+: A Fine Vehicle with Room for Improvement”, Serbian Astronomical Journal (2015)
Just like the Kardashev scale itself, historical energy growth rates have been exponential. If this trend continues into the future, there will be significantly less than 12,000 years between us and K1 civilisation.
In fact, taking the average annual growth rate of world power consumption over the past 165 years (2.6%) and projecting it into the future, we would reach a Kardashev Type 1 civilisation in around 2370. Using a more conservative growth rate – the slight- ly lower 2% level since 1975 – K1 would be attained in 2470.
The point here is not to predict the year in which we become K1. But rather to demonstrate that getting there eventually is inevitable as long as the growth rate stays positive.
The feasibility of producing such a huge amount of power relies on continuing a similar rate of technological progress that took us to this point. This could involve fairly exotic space-based solar mirror arrays or anti-matter generators. But equally, if we successfully harness nuclear fusion – the same energy source that powers the sun – that would provide more than enough energy to reach K1.
Of course historical growth rates relating to technological ability and energy consumption do not prove that future growth rates will remain permanently above zero, on an inexorable upwards trajectory towards K1. But there may well be ongoing underlying factors driving such a pathway. Factors we don’t even control.
One of these relates to the technosphere. This complex planetary megasystem of technology, institutions, and humans – effectively every element of civilisation, including humans merely as subcomponents – is considered by scientist Peter K. Haff, who coined the term, as an emerging autonomous global paradigm beyond our control or detailed understanding. Put simply, our civilisation is a gigantic machine with its own logic. While currently reliant on humans to keep it functioning, it is too large and complex for us to fully direct.
Haff refers to the principle of maximum entropy production (MaxEP), which “asserts that sufficiently complex dynamic systems will evolve to a state in which usable energy is consumed as fast as possible, consistent with extant constraints”. Key concepts of non-equilibrium thermodynamics are difficult to precisely define and generalise, and as such MaxEP may not be falsifiable. It has however been used to successfully describe and predict complex earth systems and as such may be better considered a powerful explanatory tool – a widely applicable method of inference rather than a physical law.
“If a state of higher energy consumption can potentially be realized, that is, if there are no constraints that prohibit a faster rate of energy consumption, then [MaxEP] suggests that the technosphere will tend to evolve towards increased appropriation of usable energy, bearing its human parts along in the process.”
Peter Haff, “Technology as a geological phenomenon: implications for human well-being”, Geological Society of London Special Publications 395(1):301-309, May 2014. (Emphasis ours.)
So what are possible constraints? For Peter Haff, the key concept is human acquisitiveness. He suggests that if the inclination to acquire is not eventually saturated, energy growth simply continues. So while humans might not be in full control of the technosphere, our desire to obtain more and more goods and services is what ultimately drives its growth.
It may be a structural, or infrastructural, question. Perhaps civilisation will act as a bulwark, a limiting force against our more destructive innate urges. The track record of existing “globalised” society is of course rather poor in this regard. Through capitalism, civilisation in fact institutionalises greed and insists, against the odds, on eternal growth fuelled by unappeasable demand.
The best candidate is likely to be environmental (physical, chemical) constraints. So far, technology has come to the rescue, allowing us to avoid apparent environmental constraints. The most famous example relates to Thomas Malthus’ prediction that humanity was heading towards collapse as a consequence of exponential population growth colliding with linear food production increases. The credit for such a collapse being avoided lies largely with technological developments, in particular the Haber-Bosch process, currently responsible for half of all human food agriculture.
As the discussion of the technosphere strongly suggests, we are likely not in control of technology or its development on a civilisational scale. No person, no government or institution in fact, is in a position to permanently switch off the power grid or stop research into nuclear fusion or space-based solar arrays. This may be due to the sheer scale and complexity of the technosphere, and the attendant impossibility of direct interface with any functional control surface.
Whether desire can reach such a saturation point could also be a primarily biological question. Will a fundamental drive – formed across evolutionary timescales when scarcity was the norm and temporary abundance would be fully exploited – at one point find its natural maximum and level off?
This leads us onto a slightly different suggestion: that beyond practical matters or systems theory, in technology we have simply revealed a force much older and much greater than us, with its own inescapable logic.
“The obsolete psychological category of ‘greed’ privatizes
and moralizes addiction, as if the profit-seeking tropism of a transnational capitalism propagating itself through epidemic consumerism were intelligible in terms of personal subjective traits. Wanting more is the index of interlock with cyberpos- itive machinic processes, and not the expression of private idiosyncrasy.”
Nick Land, “Machinic Desire”, in Fanged Noumena (2011)
In this reading, human greed is not a “human” trait at all. Rather, an unavoidable, inevitable expression of machinic desire, of technocapital, in fact of processes of expansion and consumption that started before we existed. Humans are vectors of that pro- cess, not agents. We’re simply along for the ride.
In other words, it may be the case that we are not in control of the factors driving ever-increasing energy consumption.
If ascending the Kardashev scale is a goal (and it is for some) its inevitability might seem desirable and exciting. But it’s not the case that an upwards trend guarantees a safe landing. If humans are being carried along an exponential trajectory of more and more energy production, there is a risk of collapse along the way. We might see climate change now as an example of that phenomenon: energy consumption has increased exponentially while the associated waste – principally CO2 – has accumulated to a point where both the biosphere and technosphere face severe consequences.
A civilisation approaching K1 would face a form of climate change on an even greater scale.
“Elementary thermodynamics and energy balance dictates that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. If we consider a “steady state” scenario wherein we assume most energy acquired is not stored over very long periods of time (see, e.g., Wright 2014b), then the energy we use is inevitably released as thermal infrared energy into the biosphere and radiated into space. It is not an issue of energy efficiency, but a matter applying the conservation of energy over the entire Earth system.”
Mullan and Haqq-Misra, “Population Growth, Energy Use, and the Implications for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, Futures 106 (June 2018).
Before the heat is released into space it warms the surface of the planet, in an effect known as direct heating. This form of climate change is currently negligible compared to the impacts of greenhouse gases but would drastically increase as energy use approaches K1 levels.
A few degrees of global warming might yet prove catastrophic for the biosphere and human society. With direct heating, Mullan and Haqq-Misra predict that we would face a “doomsday” event of 12 ̊C warming before we even reach K1. While this might not represent the end of days, it would be “a time limit by which transformative changes in population growth, energy use, and/ or some other structuring of civilization are required to ensure survival.”
If humanity relies only on non-solar sources of energy such as fossil fuels, nuclear, and biomass, a direct heating doomsday would occur at around 1016 W of total power consumption. If instead we exclusively relied on solar power, our total output could be higher before doomsday is reached, but it’d still be before K1. Either way, as civilisation on earth starts to reach these types of energy levels, the only way of preventing such a direct heating doomsday scenario is by levelling off or reducing that usage.
But if increases are inevitable, what could be done? A civilisation facing such a scenario could opt to use a significant proportion of its energy outside earth’s atmosphere. This important dilemma gives us the first parameter to analyze how different possible K1 civilisations might be: where do they generate and use the majority of their energy, on earth, or in space?
And as we’ve seen, the second important factor would be the way in which civilisation produces energy, as this affects the direct heating timeline. If it optimises the surface of the planet mostly for solar energy absorption, covering it with photovoltaic elements and excluding other uses (labelled black in the diagram above) or if instead it uses other sources like fusion or solar power satellites and leaves some of earth’s surface free (labelled blue).
Based on these variables we speculated on many possible scenarios for a future K1 Earth civilisation. To get a sense of the contrasts, we set out the results of the more extreme versions at the Backcasting Kardashev One website.
They represent only four K1 scenarios, based on two primary variables – the type of energy production and the location of its consumption – combined with a limited set of secondary variables such as population and land use. Even so, they result in radically different potential K1 futures.
And there are of course many more possibilities, both for those futures and the pathways leading there. To explore these pathways we backcasted from each of the scenarios, tracing the chain of events in reverse to build one detailed but tentative timeline of how each of these these scenarios could come about. In doing that, we connect them to where we are now.
The Kardashev scale was invented in the search for extraterrestrial civilisations. Aliens consuming the energy of galaxies. But still have no idea whether such intelligences exists, or what they might value or plan. So perhaps it was never about other civilisations, but about us. Not us as humans, per se. But as the planetary civilisation that invented this scale, imagining the future, after billions of years of automated planetary processes created us with that capability.
Moreover, it’s meant to be a scale about civilisational advancement. Let’s look at ourselves, not even a one on the scale, and recognise that we are not as advanced as we might sometimes imagine. Indeed, developing incredible technology, or using godlike amounts of energy, might not make us advanced either. As we make clear in the scenarios depicted on our website, other factors matter; not least, the thermodynamic, metabolic flowsinvolved.
K1 might not even be our choice. We may be carried along an exponential trajectory by forces we don’t control, risking collapse all along the way.
Direct heating shows that physics and chemistry will get us in the end, but we already knew that. Sooner or later, climate change requires a deep look into what it would mean to be advanced. And reveals the necessity to respond to this anthropogenic climate change with an equally artificial planetarity.
That is to say, a planet, that makes a civilisation, that remakes a planet.
It must do so first by imagining its end state.
In other words, a plan.