With Sen. Harry Reid retiring and the specter of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain on the rise again, this story at Jstor about a transuranic waste dump east of Carlsbad, New Mexico rings timely. But not just because it’s a reminder of the enduring difficulty of safely storing radioactive waste for countless millennia. This article addresses a different, but related, question: How do you communicate to future generations, over thousands of years, the danger posed by buried radioactive waste? How do you warn a future people you can’t even envision? As the federal government conceived and built the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico’s Delaware Basin, in 1991 it posed that challenge to two teams of scholars, scientists and designers: Create a warning sign that can span the ages.
The two teams came up with different answers, and their answers reflect our hopes and anxieties about the future. One team’s answer: repulsion. The other: education. From the Jstor story:
Both teams recognized that the chief difficulty was the inescapable cultural specificity of symbols. Many of our ordinary modes of communicating danger today might fail to signify across nearby borders, let alone across great distances of time. But each team used a different strategy to overcome this challenge. Team A proposed an archetypal solution — a maximally unappealing work of architecture that would appeal to the affective powers of future humans. Team B proposed a narrative solution — a series of pictographs or comic strips that would appeal instead to their cognitive powers.
Despite the prospect that human communication might be so radically changed as to render pictographs unintelligible, the DOE chose Team B’s approach. The plan is to incorporate it into the site around 2040.
The reluctance about Team A’s proposal — an awesomely ugly, spike-laden, architectural KEEP OUT intended to strike an almost primal fear into any would-be archeologists poking around the waste dump many millennia from now — was that it might attract too much attention.
Ironically, in endorsing Team A’s “repulsion” proposal, linguist Frederick Newmeyer highlighted this possibility: “If the collective proposals of Team A are carried out,” he writes, “the WIPP site will quickly become known as one of the major architectural and artistic marvels of the modern world. Quite simply, there will be no keeping people away.” (Architect Michael Brill’s philosophy behind Team A's “Landscape of Thorns” design is fascinating.) Then again, assuming that such attention would lead to cautious, responsible stewardship of a toxic waste site rather than mercenary curiosity, a hideous shrine of perennial infamy might be just what radioactive waste calls for. You don’t want to forget this stuff is buried in the backyard.
The key word is assuming. The hopes and anxieties about future humanity embedded in these designs, however informed and articulated, are still phantoms — speculations. I would doubt anyone who claims to predict how humans 24,000 years from now will communicate, think and feel, whether those humans are gazing in awe upon a sprawling field of spikes and thorns, or puzzling over strange pictographs inscribed on granite pylons.
Then again, what else are you going to do? We have to tell them somehow. But our accumulating nuclear garbage serves as an uncomfortable reminder that some things — like human recognizability, our collective mirror-self projected beyond the centuries — may have an inconveniently shorter half-life than the deadly waste we’re putting into the ground.