For decades, people have known that we were born on a damaged planet on the verge of environmental collapse.
Our minds, on the other hand, are ill-equipped to comprehend the magnitude of the Earth’s ecological death spiral.
We try to imagine how climate change could displace entire populations in just a few decades.
We can’t imagine what will happen to plastic waste that will outlast us by centuries.
We can’t envision our descendants living on a depleted Earth bereft of biodiversity due to resource extraction.
In our daily lives, we don’t have frames of reference for thinking about the multimillennial timescales of radioactive harm posed by nuclear waste.
I’m an anthropologist who investigates how civilizations negotiate links between present-day living groups and envisioned future communities.
I’ve discovered that looking at how a community reacts to the passage of time can reveal a lot about its beliefs, worldviews, and way of life.
From 2012 to 2014, I spent 32 months in Finland researching how nuclear energy waste experts grappled with the planet’s radically long-term future.
Long-lived radionuclides like uranium-235, which has a half-life of almost 700 million years, were routinely dealt with by these scientists.
They collaborated with Posiva, a nuclear waste management company, to help build a final disposal facility about 450 meters beneath the islet of Olkiluoto in the Baltic Sea’s Gulf of Bothnia.
If everything goes according to plan, this facility will become the world’s first operational deep geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel in the mid-2020s.
These experts created a “safety case” forecasting geological, hydrological, and ecological events that could occur in Western Finland over the next tens of thousands—or even hundreds of thousands—of years to assess the Olkiluoto repository’s long-term viability.
Visions of distant future glaciations, climate change, earthquakes, floods, human and animal population changes, and more emerged as a result of their efforts.
These predictions served as the foundation for a series of “mental time travel” exercises that I included in my book, Deep Time Reckoning.
Even in the most hypothetical ways, stretching the imagination beyond time can help us become more responsible planetary stewards: It can help us develop the time literacy we need to address long-term issues like biodiversity loss, microplastic accumulation, climate change, antibiotic resistance, asteroid impacts, and sustainable urban design, among others.
This can help us feel more at ease when contemplating our planet’s past and future.
It can also encourage us to envision the world through the eyes of future human and nonhuman societies, creating empathy across generations.
5710 CE is the year.
On a sofa, a fatigued man relaxes. He lives in a modest wooden cottage in an area of Finland originally known as Eurajoki.
He is employed at a local medical facility.
His day off is today. He’s spent all day in the woods.
He went out hunting for moose and deer, as well as foraging for lingonberries, mushrooms, and bilberries.
He now drinks from wooden cup water taken from a rural well.
His husband arrives with a dinner plate for him.
Fried potatoes, cereal, boiled peas, and beef are among the ingredients.
All of the food was sourced from nearby farms.
A nearby river was used to water the cattle.
Irrigation channels flowing from three local lakes irrigated the crops.
The man has no idea that safety case biosphere modelers used 21st-century computer technologies to calculate everyday situations like his more than 3,700 years ago.
He has no idea that the lakes around him were once known as “Liiklanjärvi,” “Tankarienjärvi,” and “Mäntykarinjärvi,” even though they formed long after their deaths.
Posiva’s ancient conclusion that technological innovation and cultural habits are nearly impossible to predict even decades in advance is lost on him.
He is unaware that in response, Posiva instructed its modelers to make the pragmatic assumption that the lifestyles, demographic patterns, and nutritional needs of Western Finland’s populations will not change significantly over the next 10,000 years.
He has no idea that safety case experts included the assumption that he and his neighbors would only eat local foods in their models’ parameters.
Nonetheless, the hunter’s life is still intertwined with the work of the safety case experts.
If they were successful, the vegetables, meat, fruit, and water in front of him would only have a small chance of containing radionuclides from nuclear power plants built in the twentieth century.
The year is 12020 CE.
A lone farmer gazes out over her pasture, which is surrounded by a lush heath forest.
She lives on a fertile island plot once known as Olkiluoto in a sparse land once known as Finland.
The area is no longer an island.
Small lakes, peat bogs, and mires with white sphagnum mosses and grassy sedge plants dot what was once a coastal bay.
The rivers Eurajoki and Lapijoki flow into the sea.
The farmer catches pike when she goes fishing at a nearby lake. She stands there watching a beaver swim around.
She has a gloomy mood at times.
She remembers the freshwater-ringed seals who used to live in her country before they became extinct.
The woman does not know that an ancestral deposit of copper, iron, clay, and radioactive rubbish lies beneath her feet.
This is a piece of top-secret information that has been released to the public countless times over the millennia but has since been forgotten.
Even the government has little information about the burial spot.
In the year 3112, the majority of records were destroyed in a global battle.
The site’s old forecasts, which were discovered in the 2012 safety case study “Complementary Considerations,” were lost to history at that point.
The farmer, on the other hand, is familiar with the legends surrounding Lohikäärme, a fearsome, flying, salmon-colored venomous snake that kills anyone who digs too close to his underground cave.
Peas, sugar beets, and wheat are among the things she and the other farmers in the region raise.
They scoff at superstitious knuckleheads who insist the monster lurking beneath their feet is real.
The year is 35,012 CE.
In a huge northern lake, a little microorganism floats.
It has no idea that the clay, silt, and mud bottom underneath it is gradually rising in elevation year after year.
It has no idea that the lake was once a massive sea 30 millennia ago.
Humans called it the Baltic because it was dotted with sailboats, cruise ships, and freight ships.
Thousands of years ago, the watery straits that joined the Baltic Sea and the North Sea rose above the water.
Denmark and Sweden merged to form one large landmass.
The Weichselian glaciation—a massive sheet of ice that pressed down on the land during a previous ice age—was decompressing the seafloor.
The landmass continued to rise after the last human perished.
Its rise was unconcerned about human extinction.
It didn’t matter how CE, an anthropologist, and a safety case specialist sat in white chairs in Ravintola Rytmi, a Helsinki café, in 2013.
There, the safety case expert shared his prediction that there will be no water between Turku, Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden, by 52,000 CE.
At that time, it was possible to walk from one city to the next.
The expert said that somewhere between Vaasa, Finland, and Ume, Sweden, a waterfall with the world’s greatest deluge of rushing water would one day be discovered.
The waterfall was discovered on the site of a previously submerged sea shelf.
The microorganism, on the other hand, is unconcerned about Vaasa, Ume, Denmark, long-lost ships, safety case reports, or Helsinki’s previous dining alternatives.
It is completely oblivious to them.
Their value was lost after the humans died.
The microbe doesn’t understand the pain they went through when the Anthropocene ended.
Human achievements in the past, such as scientific breakthroughs, large civilizations, passion projects, intellectual triumphs, combat sacrifices, and personal difficulties, are no longer relevant.
Despite this, the radiological safety of the microbe’s lake’s waters is still dependent on the work of a few human safety case experts from millennia ago.
These experts never lived to know if their long-term prophecies were correct since they were thinking so far ahead.
Of course, we don’t live in these made-up universes.
They are, in this sense, unreal—fiction.
Our abilities to imagine possible futures and feel empathy for those who could live in them, on the other hand, are extremely real. Tomorrow’s depictions can have immediate and powerful consequences in today’s environment.
This is why deep time thought experiments are serious acts of intellectual problem-solving rather than fun games.
It is for this reason that the safety case specialists’ models of far-future nuclear waste dangers are so valuable, even if they are only approximations at the end of the day.
However, thinking about the far future Earth might help us step back from our daily lives, enhancing our imaginations by transporting us to new locations and periods.
Breaking free from our usual thought patterns, according to corporate trainers, allows us to perceive the world in new ways and overcome mental hurdles.
Perceiving “something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there)” can promote creativity, according to cognitive experts.
Setting aside a few minutes each day for long-termist, planetary imagining can help us navigate between numerous, interacting timescales with greater mental flexibility.
This can help people develop greater long-term empathy for landscapes, people, and other organisms across decades, centuries, and millennia.
As the global ecological crisis deepens, we will need to embrace planetary empathy if we are to survive.
the author is
Vincent Ialenti is a research fellow at The University of Southern California and The Berggruen Institute. His recent book Deep Time Reckoning is an anthropological study of how Finland’s nuclear waste repository experts grappled with distant future ecosystems and the limits of human knowledge.
Read More: https://mysteriousofscience.com/new-massive-climate-change-has-changed-the-earths-axis/