Tuesday November 21, 2017

Distant Future Warnings: The challenges of communicating with eternity

Distant Future Warnings: The challenges of communicating with eternity 1:00

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

Radioactive waste and toxic mining byproducts will remain deadly for thousands of years – maybe forever. Generations in the distant future will need to know about about the places this stuff is buried, and to stay away. Deep in the arsenic-contaminated underground at Giant Mine near Yellowknife, contributor Garth Mullins wonders how we can warn the distant future. Is it even possible to send messages that can outlast governments, languages, cultures, nations – maybe even humans? **This episode originally aired June 14, 2017.

Distant Future Warnings - Garth Mullins

Garth Mullins listens to the sound of frozen arsenic, 250 feet underground at Yellowknife's Giant Mine. (Lisa Hale)

"You'd climb down into this box and, using a scraper, would scrape this six inches of arsenic off the walls of the scrubber. And we would dump the arsenic into the tailings dam and out the other side into the environment." – David Searle, former mine worker describes cleaning mill machinery at the Con Mine in Yellowknife in the early 1950s.
"If we're looking about trying to contain arsenic trioxide or some other kind of contamination over 5,000 years and you don't want people to go there then how do you do that? How do you do something that doesn't just make people want to go check it out?" – Joan Kuyek lifetime community organizer, mining analyst and author.
"They got the gold and we got the shaft" – Johanne Black, Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

Distant Future Warnings - Giant Mine

Old sign at the perimeter of the Giant Mine site. (Garth Mullins)

Places like the Giant Mine with its 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide and the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant with its buried radioactive waste will be dangerous for a very long time.

There are thousands of these legacy sites around the world. They'll need to contain their deadly contents in perpetuity. But facilities fail. Monuments crumble. Language drifts. Context changes. Governments don't last. The future may be riddled with climate disaster, corrupted data, coup, regime change and war. How can our warnings survive this chaos? How can we even imagine the deep future when Homo sapiens have only been around for two hundred thousand years?

Perhaps the answer isn't in design or technology, but in us. We are the message – the signal. And so will our kids be. And their kids. And theirs. Over generations that signal can fade to static. It'll need amplification. Resources. Mandates. Budgets. Protective legislation. Encoding in popular culture.

The Giant Mine is on the territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, who've been passing information down the generations since time immemorial. Johanne Black, Director of Lands Management, said her nation was the first watchdog. "It was just one impact after another. We're still living in the same place right across from the Giant Mine, and we're still watching the operations." Black said "the Dene way of communicating is to pass on oral history" and that her nation won't forget what happened at the Giant Mine.

Guests in this episode:

  • Joan Kuyek is a lifetime community organizer, mining analyst and author.

  • ​Johanne Black is Director of Lands Management, Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
  • Arn Keeling is a professor of geography at Memorial University with a focus on mining and environmental history in Northern Canada.
  • John Sandlos is a professor of history at Memorial University, studying the impact of northern mining and toxins on Indigenous communities. 

  • David Searle was a mine worker in the 1950s mine worker, later a lawyer and an NWT MLA in the 1970s.
  • Natalie Plato is the Deputy Project Director for the Giant Mine Remediation Project.

Further reading:  

Related websites:


**This episode was produced by Garth Mullins, Lisa Hale & Dave Redel. Readings by Erin Noel and Peter Brown.