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Lessons from nuclear waste management could help us move beyond shortsighted climate thinking

Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now

Vincent Ialenti
MIT Press
208 pp.
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Before we were worried about fossil fuels and plastic pollution, nuclear waste stretched our minds to think about our place in geological time. When asked about the most challenging aspect of her work, one expert charged with finding a final resting place for this waste observed, “We have to build canisters that are supposed to last hundreds of thousands of years. Nothing has lasted so long, nothing.”

In Deep Time Reckoning, cultural anthropologist Vincent
Ialenti would have us look to such experts for inspiration. Rather than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of humanity’s effects on the planet, he proposes that we see nuclear waste storage as he does, as a case study for how to extend our intellects and acquire habits associated with extremely long-term thinking. “I am a techno-optimist,” he writes, “but just barely.”

Because of the myriad challenges of the Anthropocene, Ialenti tells us, deep time reckoning is no longer the province solely of geologists, evolutionary biologists, or astrophysicists. It is now our collective responsibility, and we need the tools to do it.

Ialenti spent time in Finland between 2012 and 2014 observing employees of Posiva, a nuclear waste management firm. To obtain permission to operate a permanent storage facility in the Olkiluoto area, Posiva needed to demonstrate that the nuclear waste would pose no threat to future generations.

The project was depicted in a 2010 Danish documentary, Into Eternity, which Ialenti thinks was too focused on existential dread. “My informants never quoted philosophical works on the sublime or the uncanny,” he notes. Instead, they were mostly focused on engineering, regulation, financing, and systems modeling. Ialenti emerged from his fieldwork motivated to develop “long-termist intellectual calisthenics” for a scientifically informed public.

Posiva’s “safety case” experts—the individuals charged with assessing the project’s risks—often worked by analogy, he observes, analyzing the remains of a 2100-year-old human cadaver in China, for example, or ancient Roman nails found in Scotland, or a bronze ship’s cannon embedded in sea ice in order to predict the fate of radioactive waste canisters. A comparable activity in which we might engage would be to read books such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us and then to go into outdoor places and imagine their distant pasts and futures, suggests Ialenti. Inspired by scientists’ models of future biospheres, he introduces readers to “deep time heuristics,” which might include doing research on climatological forecasts and comparing them to predictable patterns in everyday routines.

One of Ialenti’s informants draws an analogy to Peru’s Nazca lines, whose creators could only imagine the impressive aerial view they were crafting. Ialenti wants us to become similarly adept at zooming in and out of different scales of time. “Multitime­scale awareness training” might be offered at fossil fuel corporations, he suggests, challenging employees to reflect on the long-term consequences of extraction. He also envisions the establishment of a global nonprofit think tank to work toward scientifically informed portrayals of future worlds.

Those familiar with the politics of the nuclear industry may find it difficult to accept nuclear experts as exemplars of future thinking. Many have argued that the safety case studies exist to justify Finland’s continued public investment in nuclear energy, and at least one of the scientists Ialenti interviewed confided that the archeological analog studies they cited were cherry-picked to suit the nuclear industry’s predetermined conclusions. There are limits, after all, to what a bronze cannon submerged at sea for centuries can tell us about copper nuclear waste canisters buried in granite for millennia. Ialenti argues, however, that his book should not be read as an endorsement of the nuclear experts’ conclusions, even if it does celebrate their process.

He worries about what he calls the “deflation of expertise,” as manifested in the rising antiscience attitudes that undermine the application of expertise to major policy issues. In its place, he wants us to be guardedly enthusiastic about scientific work, which is superior in value to “freewheeling podcast rants, talking head television pundits, and impulsive Twitter posts.” Fair enough.

While he does not idealize Finland, Ialenti seems to envy the degree of public trust in technocratic expertise there. We need tools for restoring such trust, he contends, because our survival in the Anthropocene depends on it.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.