Every day I check out Slate.com, a news e-zine currently owned by the Washington Post that focuses less on the news of the day and more on analysis and critical thinking about what is happening in the world. Today I read a fascinating article By Juliet Lapidos entitled Atomic Priesthoods, Thorn Landscapes, and Munchian Pictograms: How to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future civilizations. The gist of the piece is that the United States is burying all of its atomic waste in New Mexico, and when they seal it up, how will they warn future generations to stay away?
That’s a really good question, and there are a lot of problems with the answers they’ve come up with so far. When you’re talking about that much nuclear waste, your warning message has to be intelligible to people ten thousand years and more from now. Ten thousand years! There is no form of communication in all of human history that has conveyed an understandable message for half that time. We can’t trust English to be understandable to layman even a few hundred years from now (take a look at Shakespeare), let alone a thousand (Chaucer). As for the international symbols for poison or radioactivity, those are only understood through our current society. Ten thousand years from now we might be back to the Stone Age. Ten thousand years from now we could have gone back to the Stone Age and returned to where we are now, with no understanding of who or what we were before. How can we make it clear to anyone at any time that they are standing above a considerable pile of the most deadly, toxic stuff on Earth?
We do owe a responsibility to our descendants to keep them from digging up what we are burying in the desert. It’s our mess, and if we lack the ability to clean it up, we certainly owe it to the future to keep them from stepping in it. Anyone who opens up that vault will die horribly. If they blast their way in, a cloud of radioactive dust will escape and poison a huge swath of the world. So how do we convey a universally understood ‘Here Be Dragons’? And, if we do come up with a sign, how do we convince everyone at first glance –people who quite possibly will know nothing about radioactivity– that we’re talking about a very real and serious danger, rather than just a magical threat from a forgotten religion.
Think how many Egyptian tombs we’ve breached whose walls are bedecked with dire warnings. We ignored them, and rightly so. First of all, most of the tomb robbers up until a hundred and fifty years or so ago couldn’t read them, and when we did decipher hieroglyphics our experts explained that their threat was in reference to the wrath of Seth and Horus and Osiris. The grave goods of Pharoah Tutankhamun are touring the world right now, and are about to spend four months in the Art Gallery of Ontario. Clearly, just saying ‘Stay away, this shit will kill you’ isn’t going to deter future excavators.
We have until 2040 to come up with something, and, right now, our ideas aren’t very good. One plan is to show images of human faces in agony and suffering, but, while that might spook a couple of dudes with a shovel ten millennia from now, it doesn’t really convey the message ‘You will die if you dig here.’ I foresee one of three things happening: The sign could be ignored; the sign could be hauled away and sold to a collector of antiquities (think of all the petroglyphs being stolen in the Sahara desert right now), or -and this is the really scary one to me- someone could call in archaeologists to study the sign. Do you know what those archaeologists are going to do? It might take them a few years, but sooner or later they’re going to start digging, and soon after that they’re going to start dying.
Another idea is to make a frightening landscape of concrete thorns, or berms in the shapes of lightening bolts, or rock faces that look ominous and scary. Think about that for a minute… Stonehenge, the Nazca Lines, Tumuli and Kurgans around the world, when ancient peoples rearrange the landscape in a way that lasts for centuries upon centuries, we don’t stay away. Thousands upon thousands of pages are written about it. Generations of experts weigh in with their own theories, many of them outlandish. Often times, the works are appropriated by new religions and cults and societies: Stonehenge was built by Neolithic peoples, appropriated by the Druids, and today it is visited by New Age Wiccans. Imagine, ten thousand years from now, the future equivalent of our long-haired hippies holding hands in a ring over the site of our nuclear waste and singing about peace. It’s not so far fetched.
Whatever happens, changing the landscape will attract the very interest we’re trying to deter, and we should probably torpedo the idea before some architect comes up with a concept too cool for the public to pass up.
So what should we do? One theory is that we should do nothing. If we leave no mark, then maybe no one will ever find a reason to dig up a barren patch in the middle of the New Mexico Desert. Sure… Except we’re talking about a future we cannot imagine. If you took all the paved roads in the United States today and put them as one solid sheet of asphalt, they would cover the state of Wisconsin. No one a hundred and fifty years ago saw that coming, but think how much earth has been moved between then and now to make it so. Hell, a hundred years from now the entire desert might be one big solar cell. We don’t know. We can’t leave it up to chance.
My thought is this: We’re already burying it deep under ground in a concrete vault. What if we had another vault around that, and inside we put an explanation in as many written and pictographic forms as possible as to why the future should dig no deeper, along with something else that I’ll explain in a minute. Above that vault we put another concrete chamber with whatever we’re suggesting now. It can’t hurt to have a couple of different messages of deterrence. Then above that we build one more vault and we just fill it with tar.
I don’t think we can stop future academics and archaeologists (and tomb robbers) from finding the site interesting. The best we can do is slow them down with thousands of tons of concrete, so that the excavation is a long, labourious, expensive process, and the discoveries of our warnings need to be staggered out for them to find one after the other after the other. When they find the site, their first discovery will make it look like we were burying garbage (which we are). Tar’s pretty noxious stuff, but it’s not going to kill anyone who isn’t exceptionally careless, and it’s not going to get airborne and destroy the environment. It’s entirely possible they stop digging right there.
If they do continue (maybe after a few decades someone wonders about the tremendous amount of energy we invested into burying some tar), they’ll find the next chamber. They might ignore it or misconstrue it, but by the time they find the third, deeper chamber, someone somewhere will have been given the time and the tools to figure out what we’re trying to say. In all likelihood they’ll begin by thinking it’s a tomb or a temple or a time capsule of some description, but someone is eventually going to look at these messages and say, “I think they’re trying to warn us.”
That’s when you explain how to build a geiger counter. The lowest vault before the nuclear waste will have a rosetta stone to educate them how to read our language. We’ll engrave it into bronze plates: This is a geiger counter. This is how you build one. It detects radiation. Radiation is deadly. We buried enough radiation under this floor to kill you, and probably everyone and everything you love. Dig no deeper. We’re not talking about our gods (who you’ve forgotten) taking vengeance upon you. Below this concrete is your very real, very secular doom.
After that, I think we’ve discharged our responsibility. Anyone who goes through all that and keeps digging might just be too stupid to save. Or, and this is another possibility, they’ve become so advanced that they don’t need to fear what lies beneath. Maybe ten thousand years from now, there will be a safe, easy way to handle and dispose of our nuclear waste? We’re planning for a worst case scenario, where we fall into a new Dark Age. Is it so ridiculous to hold out the small hope that we might make amazing advances in ten thousand years? Ten thousand years ago, undigested seeds growing out of our garbage midden was cutting edge technology. Maybe we’ll figure out nuclear waste disposal in the next ten thousand years?
Just as a side note: Has anyone taken a geiger counter out to the Nasca Lines? Or Stonehenge? There’s an awful lot we don’t know about our own past. Maybe someone buried something we were never supposed to find, and they marked it for us, just as we’re talking about doing now? If we proceed with extreme caution, we might just find something interesting… Although, that’s exactly the thinking that’s going to get my descendants killed…
Still, good article. It really got me thinking (as you can see), and I’m happy to share it with you too. Cheers!