Many suggest we have entered the Anthropocene – a new geologic epoch ushered in by humanity’s own transformations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, extinctions, atmosphere and rock record. In such circumstances, we are challenged to adopt new ways of living, thinking and understanding our relationships with our planetary environment. To do so, anthropologist Richard Irvine has argued, we must first “be open to deep time.” We must, as Stewart Brand has urged, inhabit a longer “now.”
So I wonder: could it be that nuclear waste repository projects – long approached by environmentalists and critical intellectuals with skepticism – are developing among the best tools for re-thinking humanity’s place within the deeper history of our environment? Could opening ourselves … to deep, geologic, planetary timescales inspire positive change in our ways of living on a damaged planet?
Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti conducted two years of fieldwork among a Finnish team of experts in the process of developing a long-term geological repository for high-level nuclear waste. In a triptych of posts on NPR’s 13.7 blog, he reflects on the state of mind that is prompted when you begin asking the kinds of questions that nuclear waste experts confront in their work.
Describing the way an awareness of deep time scales began to seep into his own thinking as he immersed himself in the world these nuclear waste experts inhabit, Ialenti suggests that this kind of ‘attunement’ to long-term geologic processes may broaden and deepen our experience of our world.
In fact, Ialenti writes, this consideration of the long term is crucial in this Anthropocene age. In light of the irreversible impact we humans make and have made on our planet, we must begin to think about how that impact will reverberate throughout the millennia to come. This does not entail turning a blind eye to the concerns of the present moment, Ialenti cautions. But
What it does mean, though, is that we must have the backbone to look these enormous spans of time in the eye. We must have the courage to accept our responsibility as our planet’s – and our descendants’ – caretakers, millennium in and millennium out, without cowering before the magnitude of our challenge.