Wednesday June 14, 2017
Distant Future Warnings: The challenges of communicating with eternity
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?
"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.
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.
- Mining and Communities in Northern Canada, Editors: Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, University of Calgary Press, 2015, available from the publisher as a free e-book.
- Taking Control: Opportunities for and Impediments to the Use of Socio-Cultural Controls for Long-Term Stewardship of U.S. Department of Energy Legacy Waste Sites, a report by the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management. November 22-23, 2004.
- The Theory and Practice of Perpetual Care of Contaminated Sites, Joan Kuyek. Submission by Alternatives North to the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board Giant Mine environmental assessment.
- The Death of Nature; Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Carolyn Merchant, Harper & Row, 1980
- We Stand On Guard, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce, Image Comics, Inc. 2001.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr., Bantam, 1959
- 101 Things to Do With A Hole in the Ground, Georgina Pearlman, Eden Project (Publisher) 2009
- Toxic Legacies Project – Research on the history of arsenic contamination at Northern mines.
- Guardians of Eternity – Confronting Giant Mine's Toxic Legacy. A film by France Benoit
- Atomic priesthoods, thorn landscapes and munchian pictograms: how to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future civilizations, Juliet Lapidos. Slate. November 16, 2009
- The podcast 99% Invisible looks at some of the design challenges of creating markers to last 10,000 years at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site.
- The Giant Mine Remediation Project is an intergovernmental body responsible for management of contamination at the Giant Mine.
- The Giant Mine Oversight Board is an independent body charged with monitoring, advising and advocating on management and remediation of the Giant Mine site.
- Yellowknives Dene First Nation.The Giant Mine is located on YKDFN territory.
- Into Eternity – a documentary that "explores the scientific and philosophical questions long-term nuclear waste storage poses."
- Radioactive Art is a BBC documentary that looks at whether artists can warn future generations about nuclear legacies with their work.
**This episode was produced by Garth Mullins, Lisa Hale & Dave Redel. Readings by Erin Noel and Peter Brown.