How do you send a message to someone who is 10,000 years in the future?
It’s not a question I’d imagine most of us think about every day. Even the people who have Futurologist in their job title might struggle. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (Wales) probably doesn’t quite stretch to 10,000 years in the future – it’s a very long time.
But it is something you need to think about if you are responsibly storing (burying underground) radioactive waste. Material that will remain dangerous to humans (and potentially other life forms) for at least 10,000 years.
Hello Nuclear Semiotics. So, imagine you’ve got the job to come up with a ‘message’ that will warn people that ‘bad stuff’ is close by. The message has to work for whatever those future generations might be in 10,000 years time. They might be recognisably human (similar to now), or hugely different (think octopus or something). It’s a responsible thing to do, and in some ways this is the ultimate Wellbeing of Future Generations job. The broad area is called Nuclear Semiotics (which is all about symbols and their meaning, link here). In the 1980’s long term radioactive waste storage projects at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and another in New Mexico created the Human Interference Task Force.
The Human Interference Task Force (HITF). The HITF ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ – finding ways to prevent everyday Humans from messing with the Nuclear Waste. Straightforward.
However, things definitely don’t look straightforward when you throw in the 10,000 years in the future dimension. There are so many questions that pop up, here are just a few:
- What language will be used then?
- Will they understand writing?
- How technologically advanced (or undeveloped) will society be?
- Will humans still exist on earth (or some other species)?
If you fancy disappearing down an internet rabbit hole job you can have a look at the work of the Human Interference Task Force (HITF) here. Just to give you a taste here are a few of the things they have been involved in, from indestructible concrete (sensible and predictable) through to Ray Cats (brilliantly left field).
Bury and Forget. The approach is to bury the material as securely as possible (deep and difficult to get to) and then walk away with no obvious indication that it’s there. The idea is that anyone with the technological capability of drilling or digging into that space will also have the capability to work out that there is radioactive material present. I can follow the logic in that.
Obvious Warning Signs. Bury the Material as above, but around it place many layers of warning signs. This is where the indestructible concrete fits- a base material for any of the language or symbols you choose to use. It’s also were the Semiotics experts come into play.
One big question for me, will the ‘skull and crossbones’ have any relevance in 10,000 years time? Back in the 1700’s when Pirates roamed the Caribbean it really was a terrifying symbol of death and suffering. A skull has also featured on gravestones for centuries. However, nowadays you are more likely to find it on a school lunch box or invite to a pre-school ‘pirate play party’. Lots of opportunity for confusing messages…
On the language question there is a suggested text that would be translated into all of the languages recognised by the UN and periodically updated as languages develop (assuming the UN is around in 10,000 years).
Just one thought here, how much attention will a Roughneck Oil Driller in the year 7019 pay to warnings written in 21st English or any other language? Hopefully a bit more than the attention 19th Tomb Robbers paid to the warnings written in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics…
Create Local Stories. Make the presence of the Nuclear Waste a highly visible and talked about feature of the local community. The locals develop ‘stories’ that warn people about the risks and this keeps people away. The power of the stories is so strong that they get passed down through many generations. A bit like historical folk tales that teach us to beware of wolves in the forest.
There’s a lot of skepticism about this idea for reasons I won’t go into here but it does have quite a lot in common with what comes next.
The Atomic Priesthood. Basically a new religion that is created to keep people away from the nuclear waste, through the use of knowledge, rituals and myths (I’m not joking). The religion will be strong enough to last the next 10 millennia.
Anyone who’s has a brush with Warhammer 40K and the Adeptus Mechanicus will see some similarities here. The idea of an Atomic Priesthood seems to be well established in the world of Science Fiction and this paper is worth a read if you are interested (not recommended if you want cheering up) The Atomic Priesthood and Nuclear Waste Management – Religion, Sci-fi Literature and the End of our Civilization.
Ray Cats – Brilliant Left Field. This was the idea of two Philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri who were part of the HITF, employed by the US Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp at Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in 1981.
The basic idea is as follows:
- Cats have cohabited with Humans for a long time
- Some societies treated Cats as Gods (the Ancient Egyptians) although if you had a cursory glance at the internet in the 21st century you might think nothing much has changed.
- So, its reasonable to propose that cats and humans will stick around each other for years to come.
- How about we genetically engineer cats to change colour in the presence of radiation, and this will warn people to stay away.
- A brilliant warning system for Future Generations
This ideas has gained a lot of traction through the website theraycatsolution.com – with plenty of people talking about Ray Cats and working on genetic engineering projects. They also produce cool merchandise, which may actually be one of the most effective ways of embedding the story in society for years to come, “Cool shirts today, a 10,000 year-old warning for tomorrow...“
So is this the Ultimate Wellbeing of Future Generations Job? That question is full of challenges like – ‘if we hadn’t created the problem in the first place (nuclear waste) we wouldn’t be looking for a solution that would last for 10,000 years’. However, putting that to one side, I think there are some interesting things surfacing from the HITF work. These ideas could be applied to the Wellbeing of Future Generations thinking on a much shorter timescale. Sometimes you have to go to the extremes and then come back again.
So, Whats the PONT?
- Diverse thinking always helps when you are trying to solve complicated problems (how many project teams have a Philosopher?)
- How we communicate is not static. Not now, not ever, but especially 10,000 years in the future.
- Never underestimate the power of cool merchandise. A Ray Cats T-Shirt is on my birthday list.
Lots of interesting bog-scale stuff around this from the folks at http://longnow.org/