Lappajärvi has caught the attention of safety case experts working on radioactive waste management company Posiva Oy’s underground dump for used-up nuclear fuel at Olkiluoto, Western Finland. These experts are tasked with predicting how Posiva’s repository will interact with the region’s rocks, groundwater, ecosystems, and populations throughout nuclear waste’s multi-millennial time spans of dangerous radioactivity. From 02012 to 02014, I spent thirty-two months in Finland conducting anthropological research on how safety case experts see the world, how they relate to one another, and how they reckon with various spans of time in their professional lives.
When I returned to my home institution Cornell University in August 02014, I wrote a three-article series for NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog. In it I described how safety case experts envisioned Finnish landscapes changing over the next ten thousand years. I explained how they study a present-day ice sheet in Greenland and a uranium deposit in Southern Finland as analogues to help them think about Finland’s far future ice sheets and nuclear waste deposits. I suggested that, in this moment of global environmental uncertainty some call the Anthropocene, it becomes a pressing societal task to embrace long-termist “deep time thinking.”
I continue this line of thought here by exploring how safety case experts study prehistoric places – like Lappajärvi crater-lake – to forecast how Finland will change one million years hence. I present these prehistoric places as tools for imagining distant future worlds. I advocate that societies at large use these tools to do intellectual exercises, imagination workouts, or thought experiments to cultivate their own deep time thinking skills. Doing so is crucial on a damaged planet wracked by environmental crisis.
Safety case experts make mathematical models of how the Olkiluoto repository might endure or fall apart in the extreme long-term. They assess the nuclear waste dump’s physical strengths. This is the crux of their work. However, they also develop more qualitative, speculative, quirky approaches in their Complementary Considerations report. A hodgepodge of scientific evidence and PR tools aimed at persuading various audiences of the facility’s safety, this report plays a supporting role in their broader safety argument. And it contains a fascinating thought experiment: a section called “The Evolution of the Repository System Beyond A Million Years in the Future” (p197-200).
Safety case experts also use prehistoric Littleham mudstone in Devon, England as a tool for forecasting Finland’s far futures. In Devon one can find copper that has survived over 170 million years without corroding away. The copper was long encased in the sedimentary rock. Complementary Considerations predicts a similar fate for the huge copper canisters Posiva will use to secure Finland’s nuclear waste. It also suggests that – because Littleham mudstone is more abrasive to copper than is the bentonite clay to surround Posiva’s canisters – the canister copper might see even rosier futures.
Safety case experts see the distant pasts of mudstone and copper in England as tools for envisioning the distant futures of bentonite and canisters in Finland. They see the distant pasts of a Southern Ostrobothnian crater-lake as tools for envisioning the distant futures of an Olkiluoto repository’s local geology. Deep time forecasts are, in this way, made through techniques of analogy. Visions of far future worlds emerge from analogies across time (extrapolating from long pasts to reckon long futures) and analogies across space (extrapolating across distant locales sometimes thousands of miles apart).
Yet, as safety case experts and their critics both cautioned me, one should not take these deep time analogies too seriously. There are, of course, limits to what, say, native copper in mudrock in Devon can really tell us about manufactured copper pieces in clayin Olkiluoto. Differences between repository conditions and these prehistoric places are, for many, simply too vast to make reasonable analogies between them.
But I am only half-interested in whether these techniques ought to persuade us of Posiva’s repository’s safety. I let the engineers, geologists, chemists, metallurgists, ecosystems modelers, and regulatory authorities sort that out. Instead, I find a unique intellectual opportunity in them. I wonder: can safety case experts’ techniques be retooled to help populations reposition their everyday lives within broader horizons of time? Can farsighted organizations like The Long Now Foundation help inspire general long-term thinking?
One does not have to be a Nordic nuclear waste expert to benefit from the deep time toolkits I present here. An educated public can too reflect on how analogical reasoning can stretch one’s imaginative horizons further forward and backward across time. For example, many drive through rural regions where stratigraphic rock layers are visible on highways carved into rocky hills. When doing so, why not visualize what the surrounding landscape might have looked like in each of the past times the rock faces’ layers respectively represent? Are the imageries that come to mind drawn from forest, mountain, desert, or snowy environments out there in the world today? What analogical resources did your mind tap to imagine distant past worlds? What might these landscapes’ far futures look like if they were to have, say, Sahara-like conditions? What about Amazonian rainforest-like conditions?
Scenes in which radically long time horizons enter practical planning, policy, or regulatory projects – with Finland’s nuclear waste repository safety case work as but one example – can be sources of tools, techniques, and inspiration for thinking more creatively across wider time spans. And groups that advocate long-termism like The Long Now Foundation have a key role to play in disseminating these tools, techniques, and inspirations publically in this moment of planetary uncertainty.
Vincent Ialenti is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology. He holds an MSc in “Law, Anthropology & Society” from the London School of Economics.