I saw the well-reviewed documentary “Into Eternity” last week, and was not too impressed, though I don’t quite regret the two hours. There has to be some excuse for making a movie out of what might be a thousand-word essay; and “Into Eternity” does not offer that kind of visual or experiential payoff. The facility it documents is not that intriguing to look at, and the debates it records are between Finns, mostly Finnish scientists, in English – not the best conditions for eloquence. But the ideas it touches upon are certainly worth consideration.
The question at hand is Finland’s plan to build a facility to store the nuclear waste from its power plants. The waste will be toxic to most forms of life for 100,000 years (this is apparently normal for nuclear waste). The difficulty is in finding anything – even rock formations – which can be relied on to be shield this material from life on the surface for so long a period of time. A storage facility has to be protected from climate (including possible ice ages), earthquakes, volcanic irruption, water table variations, and worst of all, “human intrusion,” for a length of time twenty times greater than all human civilization up until this point. This has occasioned debates about how and indeed whether to label the facility: whether we are obligated to indicate that the place is dangerous (in what language or with what symbols? no language lasts even a tenth of that time) or whether it is better to attempt to obliterate all memory of the place, relying on the infinitesimal odds that anyone would come digging in the area in ten thousand years. (The narrator of the documentary makes much of this, repeating, “This is a place you must remember to forget.”)
The New York Times’ overly enthusiastic review expresses the moral problem forcefully: “It might seem crazy, if not criminal, to obligate 3,000 future generations of humans to take care of our poisonous waste just so that we can continue running our electric toothbrushes.” You have to admire the Finns for making such an effort to take care of this problem responsibly: the scientists involved appear to have considered all the possibilities, locating a geologically stable rock formation and building an incredibly ambitious, well-designed facility 1,500 feet underground at the bottom of a three-mile-long tunnel. The American plans for disposal involve two things: one is Yucca Mountain, which has been shown again and again to be far from the best place we can come up with for such storage (this shows our superficiality – “well, Yucca Mountain sure as hell looks like a place we can dump this stuff, geology be damned!”), and the other is ad-hoc kick-the-can-down-the-road temporizing tempered with old-fashioned American optimism, which I heard people express as they left the theater (“I wouldn’t be surprised if we found a way to detoxify nuclear waste before this facility is even finished”). Currently all our storage facilities are temporary.
I don’t know what to say about such optimism, except that it is not very conservative or prudent: in general it is not considered wise to transmit to posterity obligations whose payment is virtually inconceivable by current standards of knowledge. The Finns might create an adequate storage system, but they represent a tiny fraction of the world’s production of nuclear waste. And as the movie suggests, there is no way to insulate the future from the repercussions of our actions. If we dot the globe with nuclear waste storage facilities, over the course of a hundred millennia those facilities will be opened, whether by the instability of nature or the curiosity of man. What makes this poisoning of the future acceptable in our eyes, beyond our simple ignorance of it?
Nuclear power has recently become fashionable again, because it produces no carbon dioxide. Until a solution is found for the waste issue, this may not be reason enough.
But it seems that there is no solution to the energy problem – or at least no obvious one. Does this not perhaps mean that one of the current solutions should be a reduction of the consumption of energy in general, and finite energy resources in particular? This seems to be within our grasp.
One of the reasons why I wanted to see the movie is because of the Melville-like nature of this problem. The whaling quest was itself the quest for energy; as he says of whale oil, “For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.” He represents a vision far more pessimistic, that this mad setting out from the shore of nature cannot end well. I find myself thinking so from time to time.
I find this question relates to the atheism-religion debate as well. One of the principles of movies like Religulous or books like God Is Not Great is that Dark-Ages religion poses the single greatest threat to the world today. But if the world ends with some act of pious stupidity it will be a surprise ending. The most obvious danger to the world is the industrial society of the Enlightenment: the science that has remade the face of the earth is the only thing that really has the power to unmake it. The toxicity and pollution which is the by-product of our science, driven by the greed postulated as the proper motive force for humanity by Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith or David Hume, is a far likelier villain at this stage of the narrative than religious belief. This is not to condemn it but merely to describe it truly: and anyway, once we have gone this far, the only remedies involve precisely the kind of rational thought and empiricism that got us here. But I do mean to chasten the priests of science: the modern extinction of species, which they tell us rivals the greatest extinctions to be found in the fossil record, is one of the fruits of the Enlightenment magnification of the powers of man. As we see in movies like “Into Eternity,” unborn generations a hundred thousand years into the future may still be paying the price for the comforts we boast of today as indications of our progress and superiority.