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How Long-term Thinking Can Help Earth Now

by Ahmed Kabil - Twitter: @ahmedkabil on October 26th, 02020

Inside Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear waste repository, 1,500 feet underground. Photo Credit: Peter Guenzel

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.

These questions brought the anthropologist Vincent Ialenti to Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear waste repository in 02012, where he began more than two years of field work with a team of experts seeking to answer them.

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?

Ialenti has crystallized his learnings in his new book, Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now. It is a book of extraordinary insight and erudition, thoughtful and lucid throughout its surprisingly-light 180 pages.

Long Now’s Director of Development, Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, recently posed a few questions to Ialenti about the genesis of his book; the “deflation of expertise” in North America, Western Europe and beyond; conceiving long-term thinking as a kind of exercise for the mind; and more.

Vincent, thanks for sending over a copy of your new book. And thanks for making time to unpack some of those ideas with me here for The Long Now Foundation and our members around the globe.

I’m curious: what drew you to study long-term thinking in the wild?

Vincent Ialenti: In 02008, I was a Masters student in “Law, Anthropology, and Society” at the London School of Economics. I had a growing interest in long-term engineering projects like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the Clock of the Long Now. I decided to write my thesis (now published here) on the currently-defunct U.S. Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository’s million-year federal licensing procedure.

The licensing procedure stretched legal adjudication’s foundational rubric of “fact, rule, and judge” into distant futures. The U.S. Department of Energy developed quantitative models of million-year futures as facts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defined multi-millennial radiological dose-limit standards as rules. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission subsumed the DOE’s facts to the EPA’s rules to produce a judgment on whether the repository could accept waste. In media commentaries, the Yucca Mountain project was enchanted with aesthetics of high modernist innovation and sci-fi futurology. Yet its decision-making procedure was grounded on an ancient legal procedural bedrock — rubrics formulated as far back as the Roman Empire.

I grew fascinated by this temporal mashup. To delve deeper, though, I knew I’d have to conduct long-term fieldwork. I enrolled in a PhD program at Cornell University. With the help of a U.S. National Science Foundation grant, I spent 32 months among Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear waste repository Safety Caseexperts from 02012–02014. These experts developed models of geological, hydrological, and ecological events that could occur in Western Finland over the coming tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of years. They reckoned with distant future glaciations, climate changes, earthquakes, floods, human and animal population changes, and more. I ended up recording 121 interviews. Those became the basis of my recent book.

Early on in the book you introduce and discuss “the deflation of expertise.” Could you tell us what you mean by this phrase and how you see it shaping long-termism?

We’re witnessing a troubling institutional erosion of expert authority in North America, Western Europe, and beyond. Vaccine science, stem cell research, polling data, climate change models, critical social theories, cell phone radiation studies, pandemic disease advisories, and human evolution research are routinely attacked in cable news free-for-alls and social media echo-chambers. Political power is increasingly gained through charismatic, populist performances that energize crowds by mocking expert virtues of cautious speech and detail-driven analysis. Expert voices are drowned out by Twitter mobs, dulled by corporate-bureaucratic “knowledge management” red tape, exhausted by universities’ adjunctification trends, warped by contingent “gig economy” research funding contracts, and rushed by publish-or-perish productivity pressures.

As enthusiasm for liberal arts education and scientific inquiry declines, societies enter into a state of futurelessness: they develop a manic fixation on the present moment that incessantly shoots down proposals for envisioning better worlds. My book argues that anthropological engagement with Finland’s nuclear waste experts can help us (a) widen our thinking’s time horizons during a moment of ecological crisis some call the Anthropocene and (b) resist the deflation of expertise by opening our ears to a uniquely longsighted form of expert inquiry.

I was heartened each time you pointed to the importance of multidisciplinarity, discursive diversity, and strategic redundancy for doing things at long timescales. Our experience has borne this out, as well. How did you arrive at an emphasis on these themes? What are some of the pitfalls of homogeneity? What about generational homogeneity?

The Safety Case project convened several teams of experts — each with different disciplinary backgrounds — to pursue what my informants called “multiple lines of reasoning.”

Some were systems analysts developing models of how different kinds of radionuclides could “migrate” through future underground water channels. Others were engineers reporting on the mechanical strength tests conducted on Finland’s copper nuclear waste canisters. Some were geologists making analogies that compared the Olkiluoto’s far future Ice Age conditions to those of a glacial ice sheet found in Greenland today. Others studied “archaeological analogues.” This meant comparing future repository components to ancient Roman iron nails found in Scotland, to a bronze cannon from the 17th century Swedish warship Kronan, and to a 2,100-year-old cadaver preserved in clay in China. Still others wrote prose scenarios with titles like The Evolution of the Repository System Beyond a Million Years in the Future.

The Safety Case encompassed multiple disciplinary sensibilities to ensure that one potentially inaccurate assumption doesn’t invalidate the wider range of forecasts. For me, this holistic ethos was a refreshing counterpoint to the reductionist, homogeneous scientism that led us to many of today’s ecological crises.

Certainly, it is important to hedge against generational homogeneity in thought too. Finland’s nuclear waste experts planned to release updated versions of the Safety Case throughout the coming century. They called these successive versions “iterations.” The first major report was 01985’s “Safety Analysis of Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel: Normal and Disturbed Evolution Scenarios.” The iteration I studied was the 02012 Construction License Safety Case. The next iteration will be the Operating License Safety Case, scheduled for submission to Finland’s nuclear regulator STUK in late 02021. Each iteration is, ideally, supposed to be more robust than the one before it. The Safety Case is an intergenerational work-in-progress.

Throughout the work you describe long-term thinking as an imaginative exercise — a “calisthenics for the mind.” This suggestion floored me when I read it. I just couldn’t agree more. And earlier this year, prior to reading your book, I even published an essay arguing for that same interpretation. What do you think makes exercise such an apt metaphor for understanding this phenomenon we’re discussing?

We all need to integrate a more vivid awareness of deep time into our everyday habits, actions, and intuitions. We need to override the shallow time discipline into which we’ve been enculturated. This requires self-discipline and ongoing practice. I believe putting aside time to do long-termist intellectual workouts or deep time mental exercise routines can help get us there.

Here’s an example. From 02017 to 02020, I was a researcher at George Washington University in Washington DC. In 01922, fossilized ~100,000-year-old bald cypress trees were found just twenty feet below the nearby city surface. Back then, America’s capital city was a literal swamp. Today, four bald cypresses, planted in the mid-1800s, grow in Lafayette Square right near the White House. I approached them as intellectual exercise equipment for stretching my mind across time. The cypresses provided me with tree imageries I could draw upon when re-imagining the U.S. capital as a prehistoric swamp.

Here’s another example. I sometimes headed west to hike in West Virginia. Hundreds of millions of years ago, Appalachia was home to much taller mountains. Some say their elevations rivaled those of today’s Rockies, Alps, or Himalayas. I tried to discipline my imagination, while hiking, into reimagining the hills in a wider temporal frame. I drew upon on the images I had in my head of what taller mountain ranges look like today. This helped me stretch the momentary “now” of my hike by endowing it with a deeper history and future.

Anyone can do these long-termist exercises. A person in Bangladesh, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka, or Shanghai could, for instance, try imagining their area submerged by, or fighting off, future sea level rise. But what inspired me to integrate these exercises into my own life?

Well, it was — again — my fieldwork among Finland’s nuclear waste experts. I modeled these exercises on the Safety Case’s natural and archaeological analogue studies. The key was to (a) make an analogical connection between one’s immediate surroundings and a dramatically long-term future or past and then (b) try to envision it as accurately as possible by drawing, analogically, from scientific information and imageries we already have in our heads of real-world locales out there today.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while working on this book?

Early on, I decided to end each chapter with five or six takeaway lessons in long-termism. I call these lessons “reckonings.” As I wrote, however, I was surprised to discover that, even as I engaged with very alien far future Finlands, most of the “reckonings” I collected ended up pertaining to some of the most ordinary features of everyday experience. These include the power of analogy (Chapter 1), the power of pattern-making (Chapter 2), the power of shifting and re-shifting perspectives (Chapter 3), and the problem of human mortality (Chapter 4). I found that these familiarities can be useful. Their sheer relatability can serve as a launching-off point for the rest of us as we pursue long-termist learning. The analogical exercises I mentioned previously are a good example of this.

It’s been so exciting for us to see this next generation of long-term thinkers publishing excellent new books on the topic — from your penetrating work in Deep Time Reckoning to Long Now Seminar Speaker Bina Venkataraman’s encompassing work in The Optimist’s Telescope to Long Now Seminar Speaker (and author of the foreword to your book) Marcia Bjornerud’s geological work in Timefulness to Long Now Research Fellow Roman Krznaric’s philosophical work in The Good Ancestor. What role do you think books play in helping the world think long-term?

Those are important books! I’ll add a few more: David Farrier’s Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, Richard Irvine’s An Anthropology of Deep Time, and Hugh Raffles’ Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time. These pose crucial questions about time, geology, and human (and non-human) imagination. An argument could be made that there’s sort of a diffuse, de-centralized, interdisciplinary “deep time literacy” movement coalescing (mostly on its own!).

This is urgent work. Earlier this year, the Trump Administration advanced a proposal to reform key National Environmental Policy Act regulations to read: “effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain.” This is out of sync with our mission to become more mindful of far future worlds. I won’t speak for the others, but my hope is that these books can inch us closer to escaping the virulent short-termism that our current ecological woes, deflations of expertise, and political crises exploit and reinforce.

In closing, I’ll mention that, thanks to you, I now know there is no direct way for me to say “Someday we will have an in-person discussion about all this at The Interval” in Finnish because Finnish does not have a future tense. And yet here we are, discussing Finnish expertise at thinking about the future. What’s up with that?

Hah! Yes, that’s right. There’s no future tense in Finnish. Finns tend to use the present tense instead. There is something sensible about this: all visions of the future are, indeed, tethered to the present moment. Marcia Bjornerud cleverly linked this linguistic quirk to my book’s broader arguments:

“There is some irony in studying Finns as exemplars of future thinkers: as Ialenti points out, the Finnish language has no future tense. Instead, either present tense or conditional mode verbs are used, which seems a rather oblique way of speaking of times to come. But this linguistic treatment of the future may reflect a deep wisdom in Finnish culture that informs the philosophy of the Safety Case. Making declarative pronouncements about the future is imprudent; the best that can be done is to envisage a spectrum of possible futures and develop a sense for how likely each is to unfold.”

From all of us at and around The Long Now Foundation: thank you for your time and expertise, Vincent.

And thank you! I’ll get back to reading your essay on long-termist askēsis. Keep up the great work.

Learn More

  • Read Long Now Editor Ahmed Kabil’s 02017 feature on the nuclear waste storage problem.
  • Read Vincent Ialenti’s 02016 essay for Long Now, “Craters & Mudrock: Tools for Imagining Distant Finlands.”
  • Watch Ralph Cavanagh and Peter Schwartz’s 02006 Long Now Seminar on Nuclear Power, Climate Change, and the Next 10,000 Years.