How Hard Would It Be To Restart Civilization From Scratch?

Posted on Monday, April 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Via TED.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an entire civilization to build a toaster.

That’s what Designer Thomas Thwaites learned when he set himself the challenge of building his own, from start to Pop Tarts. He smelted ore, coaxed plastic out of oil, and toiled towards a prototype that worked for a total of thirty seconds.

Long Now board member Kevin Kelly, in a 02014 SALT Talk on the technium, said that Thwaites’ project reveals the deeply interconnected and dependent nature of the technologies that make up our modern world:

A technology such as the mouse is made up of hundreds of technologies, and they themselves are requiring hundreds of other technologies to support it. These technologies form networks in the sense that they are all self-supporting. To make a saw, you need a hammer to hammer the saw blade. To have a hammer, you need a saw to cut the wood. The more complex the technology, the more self-supporting and self-dependent it is. You might think of any complex invention as a network of dependent and self-sustaining different technologies.

British astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, who spoke at The Interval in 02015  and provided his expertise for the Manual for Civilization, uses thought experiments grounded in global catastrophe to explore the depth of our dependence on these technologies—and their dependence on one another. If the world as we know it were to end tomorrow, he asks, what would be necessary to rebuild key features of civilization like agriculture, communication, transportation, and medicine? How far could such a post-apocalyptic society get?

Dartnell’s technological thought experiments tackle such questions as: how do you get into a can without a can opener? Via YouTube.

A recent Darnell thought experiment, published in Aeon, broaches one of the technologies modern civilization depends on most, but whose resources are fast depleting: fossil fuels.

It’s easy to underestimate our current dependence on fossil fuels. In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful. You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.

So, Dartnell asks:

Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?

Charcoal production in Brazil. Photo by Franz Lanting/Getty. Via Aeon.

Dartnell’s answer is: “maybe – but it would be extremely difficult.” Our best bet, he concludes, may be a combination of burning wood for fuel and using renewable energy for electricity, which would only work if the population were sufficiently small in size. But, Dartnell says, there’s a catch:

These options all presuppose that our survivors are able to construct efficient steam turbines, CHP stations and internal combustion engines. We know how to do all that, of course – but in the event of a civilisational collapse, who is to say that the knowledge won’t be lost? And if it is, what are the chances that our descendants could reconstruct it?

The question of what knowledge is essential to sustain or rebuild civilization inspired the Long Now to start the Manual For Civilization. Alexander Rose, Executive Director of Long Now, believes there’s more to the problem than just knowing how to remake a technology like steam turbines.

The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, located in Segovia, Spain and built in 112 AD. Via Wikipedia.

“After the fall of the great Egyptian, Mayan, and Roman empires we had evidence and examples of their engineering achievements all around us,” he said. “But aqueducts or senate buildings are worthless without a society around them to maintain, contextualize, and protect them.”

You can read Lewis Dartnell’s Aeon article on rebooting civilization without fossil fuels in full here. Dartnell’s latest book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, is available here.  For more information on his thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works and how you could reboot civilization from scratch visit www.the-knowledge.org

 

Tiffany Shlain Presents 50/50 Day

Posted on Friday, April 14th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Events   chat 0 Comments

“Women have always been an equal part of the past,” the American feminist Gloria Steinem once said. “We just haven’t been a part of history.” On May 10th, thousands of people will gather at events across the globe to discuss what it will take to get to a more gender-balanced world.

Historical female leaders from 50/50.

It’s part of the 50/50 global initiative launched by Tiffany Shlain, the Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards. The centerpiece film for the global conversation will be 50/50, a 26-minute documentary by Shlain that explores the 10,000 year history of women and power.

Long Now is partnering with Tiffany Shlain for the San Francisco events on 50/50 Day. If you’re inspired to get involved or host a screening, sign up here. You can watch the full 50/50 documentary here.

Back in 02010, Shlain participated in our “Long Conversation” event in dialogue with environmentalist Paul Hawken and also with game designer Jane McGonigal.

These 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Work Perfectly, But Their Future is in Doubt

Posted on Monday, April 10th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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From National Geographic comes a video profiling the durable windmills of Nashtifan, Iran. These windmills constructed over a thousand years ago out of clay, straw and wood are not only still standing; they work just as well as they did when they were first built.

In designing and building the Clock of the Long Now, we have investigated many technologies built for the long-term. Some, like Iran’s windmills and Japan’s Ise Shrine, are ancient. Others, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and the Mormon Genealogical Vault, are more recent efforts. All offer important lessons in why some technologies last and others do not.

Muhammad Etebari is the last custodian of the Northeast Iran’s ancient windmills.

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose, discussing his excursions to these remote sites in a 02011 Seminar, noted that one of the main reasons a technology lasts is because there are people and institutions built to maintain it. In the case of the Nashtifan windmills, Muhammad Etebari is the last remaining custodian of the mills, and he cannot find an apprentice. After centuries of keeping the windmills running by passing the responsibility of maintenance from generation to another, the future of the ancient durable windmills of Nashtifan is now in doubt.

 

Watch National Geographic’s “See the 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Still in Use Today”

Watch Alexander Rose’s 02011 Long Now Seminar “Millennial Precedent” in full.

Could Reviving the Woolly Mammoth Help Solve Climate Change?

Posted on Tuesday, March 28th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Kevin Tong, The Atlantic

For over 100,000 years, wide swaths of the northern part of the globe were covered in grasslands where millions of bison, horses, and woolly mammoths grazed. Known as the Mammoth Steppe, it was the world’s most extensive biome, stretching from Spain to Canada, with more animal biomass than the African Savannah. With the arrival of human hunters 10,000 years ago, the Mammoth Steppe all but disappeared, its dwindling number of grazing mammals (who played an essential role in the ecosystem by trampling mosses and shrubs) no longer sufficient to maintain the grasslands. In its place rose the Arctic.

Ukok Plateau, home to the Snow Leopard and one of the last remnants of the Mammoth Steppe

A father and son team in Eastern Siberia is working to bring the Mammoth Steppe back, Woolly Mammoths and all. Doing so, they believe, could help solve climate change. Their multi-decade project to reconstruct the Ice Age ecosystem, a 50 square-mile nature reserve known as Pleistocene Park, is the subject of an in-depth feature by senior editor Ross Andersen for The Atlantic.

The legacy of the Mammoth Steppe lives on within the Arctic permafrost in the form of soils that comprise the largest organic carbon reservoir on the planet. Much of that permafrost is expected to melt over the next century. Sergey and Nikita Zimov believe that resurrecting the Mammoth Steppe and helping it spread across Arctic Siberia and North America could slow the melting and mitigate some of worst effects of climate change.

The woolly mammoth would play an essential role in a revived Mammoth Steppe ecosystem, just as it did millennia ago. Through grazing and trampling trees, the Zimovs believe herds of woolly mammoths would make grasslands flourish across Arctic Siberia, thereby helping slow the melting of Arctic permafrost:

Research suggests these grasslands will reflect more sunlight than the forests and scrub they replace, causing the Arctic to absorb less heat. In winter, the short grass and animal-trampled snow will offer scant insulation, enabling the season’s freeze to reach deeper into the Earth’s crust, cooling the frozen soil beneath and locking one of the world’s most dangerous carbon-dioxide lodes in a thermodynamic vault.

Efforts are underway by geneticists like George Church at Harvard and Revive & Restore to bring back the woolly mammoth through modifying the genome of its relative, the Asian elephant. Andersen writes that Church believes he can deliver a mammoth to Pleistocene Park within a decade.

Kevin Tong, The Atlantic

A recent article in the New York Times pondered whether bringing back extinct species was worth the potential biodiversity and financial costs in light of a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution this month by researchers who framed the revival of extinct species as a luxury we could not currently afford.

But for the researchers behind de-extinction efforts, reviving extinct species is less short-term luxury than long-term necessity.

“Any de-extinction effort must have long-term benefits that outweigh the costs,” Ben Novak, the lead researcher and science consultant at Revive & Restore, said. For Nikita and Sergey Zimov at Pleistocene Park, the long-term benefits are clear:

“It will be cute to have mammoths running around here,” [Nikita Zimov] told me. “But I’m not doing this for them, or for any other animals. I’m not one of these crazy scientists that just wants to make the world green. I am trying to solve the larger problem of climate change. I’m doing this for humans. I’ve got three daughters. I’m doing it for them.”

Read Andersen’s essay, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park” in full. If you’re interested in supporting the work at Pleistocene Park, head to Nikita Zimov’s Kickstarter.

Frank Ostaseski Seminar Tickets

Posted on Friday, March 17th, 02017 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Frank Ostaseski on What the Dying Teach the Living

Frank Ostaseski on “What the Dying Teach the Living”

TICKETS

Monday April 10, 02017 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

 

About this Seminar:

Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist teacher, lecturer and author, whose focus is on contemplative end-of-life care. His new book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, will be released in March 02017.

 

The Other 10,000 Year Project: Long-Term Thinking and Nuclear Waste

Posted on Thursday, March 16th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Futures, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, Technology   chat 0 Comments

With half-lives ranging from 30 to 24,000, or even 16 million years , the radioactive elements in nuclear waste defy our typical operating time frames. The questions around nuclear waste storage — how to keep it safe from those who might wish to weaponize it, where to store it, by what methods, for how long, and with what markings, if any, to warn humans who might stumble upon it thousands of years in the future—require long-term thinking.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository was set to open on March 21, 02017, but has been indefinitely delayed / via High Country News

I. “A Clear and Present Danger.”

“For anyone living in SOCAL, San Onofre nuclear waste is slated to be buried right underneath the sands,” tweeted @JoseTCastaneda3 in February 02017. “Can we say ‘Fukushima #2’ yet?”

The “San Onofre” the user was referring to is the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County, California, which sits on scenic bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and sands dotted with surfers and beach umbrellas. Once a provider of eighteen percent of Southern California’s energy demands, San Onofre is in the midst of a 20-year, $4.4 billion demolition project following the failure of replacement steam generators in 02013. At the time, Senator Barbara Boxer said San Ofore was “unsafe and posed a danger to the eight million people living within fifty miles of the plant,” and opened a criminal investigation.

A part of the demolition involved figuring out what to do with the plant’s millions of pounds of high-level waste (the “spent fuel” leftover after uranium is processed) that simmered on-site in nuclear pools.  It was decided that the nuclear waste would be transported a few hundred yards to the beach, where it would be buried underground in what local residents have taken to calling the “concrete monolith” – a state of the art dry cask storage container that will house 75 concrete-sealed tubes of San Onofre’s nuclear waste until 2049.

This has left a lot of San Diego County residents unhappy.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station seen from San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente / via Jeff Gritchen, OC Register

“We held a sacred water ceremony today @ San Onofre where 3.6mm lbs of nuclear waste are being buried on the beach near the San Andreas faultline,” tweeted Gloria Garrett, hinting at a nuclear calamity to come.

Congressman Darrell Issa, who represents the district of the decommissioned plant and introduced a bill in February 02017 to relocate the waste from San Onofre, was concerned about the bottom line.

“It’s just located on the edge of an ocean and one of the busiest highways in America,” Issa said in an interview with the San Diego Tribune. “We’ll be paying for storage for decades and decades if we don’t find a solution. And that will be added to your electricity bill.”

“The issue of what to do with nuclear waste is a clear and present danger to every human life within 100 miles of San Onofre,” said Charles Langley of the activist group Public Watchdogs.

“Everyone is whistling past the graveyard, including our regulators,” Langley continued. “They are storing nuclear waste that is deadly to humans for 10,000 generations in containers that are only guaranteed to last 25 years.”

II. The Nuclear Waste Stalemate

Nobody wants a nuclear waste storage dump in their backyards.

That is, in essence, the story of America’s pursuit of nuclear energy as a source of electricity for the last sixty years.

In 01957, the first American commercial nuclear reactor opened in the United States.  That same year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that spent fuel should be transported from reactors and buried deep underground. Those recommendations went largely unheeded until the Three Mile Island meltdown of March 01979, when 40,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater from the reactor poured into Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River.

The political challenge of convincing any jurisdiction to store nuclear waste for thousands of years has vexed lawmakers ever since. As Marcus Stroud put it in his in-depth 02012 investigative feature into the history of nuclear waste storage in the United States:

Though every presidential administration since Eisenhower’s has touted nuclear power as integral to energy policy (and decreased reliance on foreign oil), none has resolved the nuclear waste problem. The impasse has not only allowed tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste to languish in blocks of concrete behind chain link fences near major cities. It has contributed to a declining nuclear industry, as California, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oregon, and other states have imposed moratoriums against new power plants until a waste repository exists. Disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have made it very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to build a nuclear reactor because of insurance premiums and strict regulations, and the nuclear waste stalemate has added significantly to the difficulties and expenses. Only two new nuclear power plants have received licenses to operate in the last 30 years.

Yucca Mountain was designated as the site for a national repository of nuclear waste in the Nuclear Waste Act of 01987. It was to be a deep geological repository for permanently sealing off and storing all of the nation’s nuclear waste, one that would require feats of engineering and billions of dollars to build. Construction began in the 01990s.  The repository was scheduled to open and begin accepting waste on March 21, 02017.

But pushback from Nevadans, who worried about long-term radiation risks and felt that it was unfair to store nuclear waste in a state that has no nuclear reactors, left the project defunded and on indefinite hiatus since 02011.

Today, nuclear power provides twenty percent of America’s electricity, producing almost 70,000 tons of waste a year. Most of the 121 nuclear sites in the United States opt for the San Onofre route, storing waste on-site in dry casks made of steel and concrete as they wait for the Department of Energy to choose a new repository.

III. Opening Ourselves to Deep Time

“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.” —Vincent Ialenti

An aerial view of Posiva Oy’s prospective nuclear waste repository site in Olkiluoto, Finland / via Posiva Oy

Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti  recently spent two years doing field work with a Finnish team of experts who were in the process of researching the Onkalo long term geological repository in Western Finland that, like Yucca Mountain, would store all of the Finland’s nuclear waste. The Safety Case project, as it was called, required experts to think in deep time about the myriad of factors (geological, ecological, and climatological) that might affect the site as it stored waste for thousands of years.

Ialenti’s goal was to examine how these experts conceived of the future:

What sort of scientific ethos, I wondered, do Safety Case experts adopt in their daily dealings with seemingly unimaginable spans of time? Has their work affected how they understand the world and humanity’s place within it? If so, how? If not, why not?

In the process, Ialenti found that his engagement with problems of deep time (“At what pace will Finland’s shoreline continue expanding outward into the Baltic Sea? How will human and animal populations’ habits change? What happens if forest fires, soil erosion or floods occur? How and where will lakes, rivers and forests sprout up, shrink and grow? What role will climate change play in all this?”) changed the way he conceived of the world around him, the stillness and serenity of  the landscapes transforming into a “Finland in flux”:

I imagined the enormous Ice Age ice sheet that, 20,000 years ago, covered the land below. I imagined Finland decompressing when this enormous ice sheet later receded — its shorelines extending outward as Finland’s elevation rose ever higher above sea level. I imagined coastal areas of Finland emerging from the ice around 10,000 BC. I imagined lakes, rivers, forests and human settlements sprouting up, disappearing and changing shape and size over the millennia.

Ialenti’s field work convinced him of the necessity of long-term thinking in the Anthropocene, and that engaging with the problem of nuclear waste storage, unlikely though it may seem, is a useful way of inspiring it:

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?

IV. How Long is Too Long?

Finland’s Onkalo repository for nuclear waste / via Remon

Finland’s Onkalo Repository  is designed to last for 100,000 years. In the 01990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided that a 10,000 year-time span was how long a U.S. nuclear waste storage facility must remain sealed off, basing their decision in part on the predicted frequencies of ice ages.

But as Stroud reports, it was basically guesswork:

Later, [the 10,000-year EPA standard] was increased to a million years by the U.S. Court of Appeals in part due to the long half lives of certain radioactive isotopes and in part due to a significantly less conservative guess.

The increase in time from 10,000 years to 1 million years made the volcanic cones at Yucca look less stable and million-year-old salt deposits — like those found in New Mexico — more applicable to the nuclear waste problem.

[The Department of Energy] hired anthropologists to study the history of language—both at Yucca and at the WIPP site in New Mexico—to conceive of a way to communicate far into the future that waste buried underground was not to be disturbed.

But the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report [of 02012] calls these abstract time periods a little impractical.

“Many individuals have told [BRC] that it is unrealistic to have a very long (e.g., million-year) requirement,” it reads. “[BRC] agrees.”
It then points out that other countries “have opted for shorter timeframes (a few thousand to 100,000 years), some have developed different kinds of criteria for different timeframes, and some have avoided the use of a hard ‘cut-off’ altogether.” The conclusion? “In doing so, [these countries] acknowledge the fact that uncertainties in predicting geologic processes, and therefore the behavior of the waste in the repository, increase with time.”

Public Law 102-579, 106, Statute 4777 calls for nuclear waste to be stored for at least 10,000 years / via EPA

In a spirited 02006 Long Now debate between Global Business Network co-founder and Long Now board member Peter Schwartz and Ralph Cavanagh of the Nuclear Resources Defense Council, Cavanagh pressed Schwartz on the problem of nuclear waste storage.

Schwartz contended that we’ve defined the nuclear waste problem incorrectly, and that reframing the time scale associated with storage, coupled with new technologies, would ease concerns among those who take it on:

The problem of nuclear waste isn’t a problem of storage for a thousand years or a million years. The issue is storing it long enough so we can put it in a form where we can reprocess it and recycle it, and that form is probably surface storage in very strong caskets in relatively few sites, i.e., not at every reactor, and also not at one single national repository, but at several sites throughout the world with it in mind that you are not putting waste in the ground forever where it could migrate and leak and raise all the concerns that people rightly have about nuclear waste storage. By redesigning the way in which you manage the waste, you’d change the nature of the challenge fundamentally.

Schwartz and other advocates of recycling spent fuel have discussed new pyrometallurgical technologies for reprocessing that could make nuclear power “truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible.” These emerging pyro-processes, coupled with faster nuclear reactors, can capture upwards of 100 times more of the energy and produce little to no plutonium, thereby easing concerns that the waste could be weaponized.  Recycling spent fuel would  vastly reduce the amount of high-level waste, as well as the length of time that the waste must be isolated. (The Argonne National Laboratory believes its pyrochemical processing methods can drop the time needed to isolate waste from 300,000 years to 300 years).

There’s just one problem: the U.S. currently does not reprocess or recycle its spent fuel. President Jimmy Carter banned the commercial reprocessing of nuclear waste in 01977 over concerns that the plutonium in spent fuel could be extracted to produce nuclear weapons. Though President Reagan lifted the ban in 01981, the federal government has for the most part declined to provide subsidies for commercial reprocessing, and subsequent administrations have spoken out against it. Today, the “ban” effectively remains in place.

Inside Onkalo / via Posiva Oy

When the ban was first issued, the U.S. expected other nuclear nations like Great Britain and France to follow suit. They did not. Today, France generates eighty percent of its electricity from nuclear power, with much of that energy coming from reprocessing and recycling spent fuel. Japan and the U.K reprocess their fuel, and China and India are modeling their reactors on France’s reprocessing program. The United States, on the other hand, uses less than five percent of its nuclear fuel, storing the rest as waste.

In a 02015 op-ed for Forbes, William F. Shughart, research director for the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, argued that we must lift the nuclear recycling “ban” and take full advantage our nuclear capacity if we wish to adequately address the threats posed by climate change:

Disposing of “used” fuel in a deep-geologic repository as if it were worthless waste – and not a valuable resource for clean-energy production – is folly.

Twelve states have banned the construction of nuclear plants until the waste problem is resolved. But there is no enthusiasm for building the proposed waste depository. In fact, the Obama administration pulled the plug on the one high-level waste depository that was under construction at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The outlook might be different if Congress were to lift the ban on nuclear-fuel recycling, which would cut the amount of waste requiring disposal by more than half. Instead of requiring a political consensus on multiple repository sites to store nuclear plant waste, one facility would be sufficient, reducing disposal costs by billions of dollars.

By lifting the ban on spent fuel recycling we could make use of a valuable resource, provide an answer to the nuclear waste problem, open the way for a new generation of nuclear plants to meet America’s growing electricity needs, and put the United States in a leadership position on climate-change action.

According to Stroud, critics of nuclear processing cite its cost (a Japanese government report from 02004 found reprocessing to be four times as costly as non-reprocessed nuclear power); the current abundance of uranium (Stroud says most experts agree that “if the world’s needs quadrupled today, uranium wouldn’t run out for another eighty years”); the fact that while reprocessing produces less waste, it still wouldn’t eliminate the need for a site to store it; and finally, the risk of spent fuel being used to make nuclear weapons.

Shughart, along with Schwartz and many others in the nuclear industry, feels the fears of nuclear proliferation from reprocessing are overblown:

The reality is that no nuclear materials ever have been obtained from the spent fuel of a nuclear power plant, owing both to the substantial cost and technical difficulty of doing so and because of effective oversight by the national governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

V. Curiosity Kills the Ray Cat

Whether we ultimately decide to store spent fuel for 10,000 years in a sealed off repository deep underground or for 300 years in above-ground casks, there’s still the question of how to effectively mark nuclear waste to warn future generations who might stumble upon it. The languages we speak now might not be spoken in the future, so the written word must be cast aside in favor of “nuclear semiotics” whose symbols stand the test of time.

After the U.S. Department of Energy assembled a task force of anthropologists and linguists to tackle the problem in 01981, French author Françoise Bastide and Italian semiologist Paolo Fabbri proposed an intriguing solution: ray cats.

Artist rendering of ray cats / via Aeon

Imagine a cat bred to turn green when near radioactive material. That is, in essence, the ray cat solution.

“[Their] role as a detector of radiation should be anchored in cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (eg, ‘ray cat’)” Bastide and Fabbri wrote at the time.

The idea has recently been revived. The Ray Cat Movement was established in 02015 to “insert ray cats into the cultural vocabulary.”

Alexander Rose, Executive Director at Long Now who has visited several of the proposed nuclear waste sites, suggests however that solutions like the ray cats only address part of the problem.

“Ray cats are cute, but the solution doesn’t promote a myth that can be passed down for generations,” he said. “The problem isn’t detection technology. The problem is how you create a myth.”

Rose said the best solution might be to not mark the waste sites at all.

“Imagine the seals on King Tut’s tomb,” Rose said. “Every single thing that was marked on the tomb are the same warnings we’re talking about with nuclear waste storage: markings that say you will get sick and that there will be a curse upon your family for generations. Those warnings virtually guaranteed that the tomb would be opened if found.”

The unbroken seal on King Tutankhamun’s tomb

“What if you didn’t mark the waste, and instead put it in a well engineered, hard to get to place that no one would go to unless they thought there was something there. The only reason they’d know something was there was if the storage was marked.”

Considering the relatively low number of casualties that could come from encountering nuclear waste in the far future, Rose suggests that likely the best way to reduce risk is avoid attention.

VI. A Perceived Abundance of Energy

San Onofre’s nuclear waste will sit in a newly-developed Umax dry-cask storage container system made of the most corrosion-resistant grade of stainless steel. It is, according to regulators, earthquake-ready.

At San Onofre, wood squares mark the spots where containers of spent fuel will be encased in concrete / via Jeff Gritchen, OC Register

Environmentalists are nonetheless concerned that the storage containers could crack, given the salty and moist environment of the beach. Others fear that an earthquake coupled with a tsunami cause a Fukushima-like meltdown on the West Coast.

“Dry cask storage is a proven technology that has been used for more than three decades in the United States, subject to review and licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said a spokeswoman for Edison, the company that runs San Onofre, in an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune.

A lawsuit is pending in the San Diego Supreme Court that challenges the California Coastal Commission’s 02015 permit for the site. A hearing is scheduled for March 02017. If the lawsuit is successful, the nuclear waste in San Onofre might have to move elsewhere sooner than anybody thought.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy in January 02017 started efforts to move nuclear waste to temporary storage sites in New Mexico and West Texas that could store the waste until a more long-term solution is devised. Donald Trump’s new Secretary of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, is keen to see waste move to West Texas. Residents of the town of Andrews are split. Some see it as a boon for jobs. Others, as a surefire way to die on the job.

Regardless of how Andrews’ residents feel, San Onofre’s waste could soon be on the way.

Tom Palmisano, Chief Nuclear Officer for Edison, the company that runs San Onofre, expressed doubts and frustration in an interview with the Orange County Register:

There could be a plan, and a place, for this waste within the next 10 years, Palmisano said – but that would require congressional action, which in turn would likely require much prodding from the public.

“We are frustrated and, frankly, outraged by the federal government’s failure to perform,” he said. “I have fuel I can ship today, and throughout the next 15 years. Give me a ZIP code and I’ll get it there.”

A prodding public might be in short supply. According to the latest Gallup poll, support for nuclear power in the United States has dipped to a fifteen-year low.  For the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 01994, a majority of Americans (54%) oppose nuclear as an alternative energy source.

Support for nuclear energy in the United States / via Gallup

Gallup suggests the decline in support is prompted less by fears about safety after incidents like the 02011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, and more by  “energy prices and the perceived abundance of energy sources.” Gallup found that Americans historically only perceive a looming energy shortage when gas prices are high. Lower gas prices at the pump over the last few years have Americans feeling less worried about the nation’s energy situation than ever before.

Taking a longer view, the oil reserves fueling low gas prices will continue to dwindle. With the risks of climate change imminent, many in the nuclear industry argue that nuclear power would radically reduce CO2 levels and provide a cleaner, more efficient form of energy.

But if a widespread embrace of nuclear technology comes to pass, it will require more than a change in sentiment in the U.S. public about its energy future. It will require people embracing the long-term nature of dealing with nuclear waste, and ultimately, to trust future generations to continue to solve these issues.

 

A Brief Economic History of Time

Posted on Thursday, March 16th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Thinking, Technology   chat 0 Comments

“The age of exploration and the industrial revolution completely changed the way people measure time, understand time, and feel and talk about time,” writes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. “This made people more productive, but did it make them any happier?”

In a wide-ranging essay touching upon the advent of the wristwatch, railroads, and Daylight Saving Time, Thompson reveals how the short-term time frames in our day-to-day experience that are so familiar to us — concepts like the work day, happy hour, the weekend, and retirement—were inventions of the last 150 years of economic change:

Three forces contributed to the modern invention of time. First, the conquest of foreign territories across the ocean required precise navigation with accurate timepieces. Second, the invention of the railroad required the standardization of time across countries, replacing the local system of keeping time using shadows and sundials. Third, the industrial economy necessitated new labor laws, which changed the way people think about work.

“So much of what we now call time,” concludes Thompson, “is a collective myth.” This collective myth helped power the industrial revolution and make our modern world. But, as Stewart Brand wrote at the founding of the Long Now Foundation, it has also contributed to civilization “revving itself into a pathologically short attention span”:

The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

You can read Thompson’s essay in its entirety here.

George Dyson’s Selections for The Manual for Civilization

Posted on Wednesday, March 8th, 02017 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Book Lists, Long Now salon (Interval), Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

George Dyson selects books from his library, photo by Alexander Rose

Some time ago I stopped in to visit the author George Dyson at his shop and home north of Seattle to walk through his book collection and get his suggestions for our collection of books called the Manual for Civilization. We’ve done similar personal library tours with Kevin Kelly, Megan and Rick Prelinger, Neal Stephenson, and Stewart Brand as we work to complete our list of the most essential books to sustain or rebuild civilization.

Dyson is the technological historian behind books such as Darwin Among the Machines, Project Orion, and Turing’s Cathedral.  He is also a world authority in building traditional (and non-traditional) Aleut kayaks, and it was at his boat building shop where we met up.  One end of his shop is all books on traditional boat building and general fabrication techniques. After making a series of selections there we drove over to his home where just about every room was lined with books on various technologies.  Each book he pulled off the shelves elicited a story, sometimes short, sometimes long, and the books ranged from incredibly detailed technical manuals, to the fiction of Jules Verne, or early computer and cybernetic theory.  

Books on boat-building featured prominently in Dyson’s collection, photo by Alexander Rose

One could easily see his library as a type of stand alone Manual for Civilization, and getting his top picks to add to our collection certainly filled out some corners that we had never even considered.  We have already begun collecting these titles and look forward to adding them all to our physical and digital collections over time.

Note: Many of the books on Dyson’s list are available for free on the Internet Archive. We have provided links to those editions where possible, and to Amazon otherwise:

George Dyson has spoken at Long Now on three occasions. In 02004, he explored the long-term prospects for mega-scale computing. The following year, he was joined by his father, the pioneering physicist Freeman Dyson, and his sister, the technologist and Long Now board member Esther Dyson, to discuss the difficulty of making accurate long-term predictions. It marked the first time the Dysons were on stage together. Most recently, in 02013, Dyson spoke on the origins of our digital universe and its effects on our perception of time.

Katherine Fulton joins Long Now Board

Posted on Friday, March 3rd, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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In 01994, Katherine Fulton was in the middle of writing a profile of Stewart Brand for the Los Angeles Times magazine. She wondered, after more than thirty years of “finding things and founding things,” what Brand was scheming next. A friend of Brand’s told her to ask about the “clock project.” She received a cryptic answer:

[Brand] stiffens. “Very tentative. Very fragile. Probably, possibly might not happen. Don’t know who’s involved, if anybody. So I just can’t talk about it until it’s real enough to talk about, and maybe not then. No offense intended.”

Twenty-three years later, the “clock project” is real enough to talk about. And Katherine Fulton, who became one of the world’s leading experts on the future of philanthropy in the years following her profile on Brand, has joined the Long Now Foundation’s Board of Directors.

“It feels like coming home,” says Fulton.

“Half of the board are friends and former colleagues. But for the last ten years or so I’ve been working in really different environments, so to actually reconnect with them in this way and to learn again from them, and to share some of what I know in the process from my adventures, should be really fun.”

Katherine came to know many future Long Now board members as a journalist in the early 01990s. Katherine realized earlier than most that the rise of the web would bring about immense, civilization-scale changes. She immersed herself in the ideas and projects of futurists and technologists like Esther Dyson, Peter Schwartz, Paul Saffo, Stewart Brand, and Kevin Kelly.

Katherine Fulton (far right) onstage with the Long Now Board at the Member Summit in Fall 02016 | Gary Wilson 

“I wanted to be side-by-side with the people solving these problems,” she recalls.

Her profile on Stewart Brand provided that opportunity. She spent an intense week in San Francisco documenting the unique intellectual environment of the Global Business Network, the consulting firm co-founded by Brand and Schwartz that counted many future Long Now board members among its ranks.

Less than six months after the profile was published, Brand called Katherine to ask if she might be interested in working at GBN. She was. At GBN, Katherine mastered the scenario planning toolkit and advised leaders in more than a dozen industries as they sought to adapt more skillfully to rapid change.

Hailing from a family dedicated to community service, Katherine understood the civic value of philanthropy from an early age. But as the twenty-first century began, the field of philanthropy underwent massive changes. The wealth was coming not from heirs but private actors looking to shape public policy. New technologies enabled entirely new ways of giving.

Applying the lessons of scenario planning to the “New Philanthropy,” Katherine emerged as a leading thinker on impact investing and the future of philanthropy. She built and served as President of Monitor Institute, a consulting practice for the social sector focused on solving major social and environmental challenges.

In a 02006 Long Now talk, Katherine outlined her mission to make philanthropy open, big, fast and connected in service of the long term. She also discussed the deeper implications of the new philanthropy and the necessity of long-term thinking to address them.

“There are problems that are impossible if you think about them in two-year terms— which everyone does,” she said at the talk, quoting Danny Hillis. “But they’re easy if you think about them in fifty-year terms.”

Katherine hopes to apply that same long-term thinking, as well as her twenty years of experience working with nonprofits and foundations, to Long Now as an institution:

I’m interested in the human side of Long Now. I’m interested in how we design an institution around the active community and the projects, and then include the people who engage in the ideas, even if they’re not directly a part of the community. How do we expand on that? Now that the Long Now is twenty years old, how do you think about the next twenty years? The next two hundred, the next thousand?

For Katherine, the Clock of the Long Now inspires questions around long-term governance, responsibility, and accountability.

“If the whole idea is to foster long-term responsibility, we have to rethink the design of institutions,” she continues. “In a massively distributed world, how do you design institutions for that world? How do you foster responsibility, and more importantly, ensure accountability?”

Important questions. We couldn’t be happier to have Katherine Fulton on board to help answer them.

 

Bjorn Lomborg Seminar Tickets

Posted on Wednesday, March 1st, 02017 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Bjorn Lomborg's Seminar From Feel-Good to High-Yield Good: How to Improve Philanthropy and Aid

Bjorn Lomborg’s Seminar ”From Feel-Good to High-Yield Good: How to Improve Philanthropy and Aid”

TICKETS

Monday March 13, 02017 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

 

About this Seminar:

Bjorn Lomborg does cost/benefit analysis on global good. There are surprises when you examine what are the highest-yield targets in the domains of health, poverty, education, reduced violence, gender equality, climate change, biodiversity, and good governance. Reducing trade restrictions floats to the top: $1 spent yields $2,000 of good for everyone. Contraception for women is close behind, with a whole array of benefits. For health go after tuberculosis, malaria, and child malnutrition. For climate change, phase out fossil fuel subsidies and invest in energy research. For biodiversity, focus especially on saving coral reefs.

Most aid and philanthropy decisions are made based on persuasive sounding narratives, and we relish taking part in those stories, even if the actual results are mixed. But the results of the most pragmatic approach, built on statistics and economic analysis rather than narrative, can be stunning.

Bjorn Lomborg is author of Prioritizing the World (02014), Cool It (02007), and The Skeptical Environmentalist (02001).