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NUCLEAR GUARDIANSHIP FORUM, On The Responsible Care of Radioactive Materials,
Issue # 3, Spring 1994, p. 15.

"Atomic Priesthood" is Not Nuclear Guardianship

A Critique of Thomas Sebeok's Vision of the Future

by Susan Garfield

In 1981 Thomas A. Sebeok, consultant to the Bechtel Group's Human Interference Task Force,[1] developed the notion of an "atomic priesthood." The report he made to the Task Force addresses the potential dangers of human interference during the next 10,000 years at the deep burial sites for radioactive waste envisioned by the government. Sebeok is quick to point out that 10,000 years is not a long enough period to consider, given the much longer term toxicity of the wastes. Although he does not question the premise of deep burial directly, his preamble does convey the mind-boggling severity of the unsolved problem of disposal, and the dismal accumulation of "awesome mountains of such wastes." Having in a sense made his disclaimers, he proceeds to his assignment, arriving at several recommendations for the first 10,000 years.

Values and Assumptions

While Professor Sebeok's report does include brilliant contributions to the challenge of communicating effectively with those of the far future, a close reading reveals some disturbing values and assumptions. Foremost is an implicit mistrust of human nature -- dangerous because it is implicit and assumed to be well founded. He never openly addresses the issue of whether we can trust humanity now and in the future to face up to its problems and so does not envision the conditions that would allow this confidence to be well founded. The consequences of trust -- or mistrust -- need consideration.

Instead, Sebeok's reliance on secrecy, manipulation and deceit -- and the accompanying perceived need to create an elite he calls an "atomic priesthood" that holds the secrets and does the manipulating -- suggest lack of respect for human capabilities. Such assumptions reflect the political era in which this report was written and critiquing them may help clarify the radically different values and assumptions of nuclear guardianship.

Several excerpts from "Pandora's Box in Aftertimes,"[2] a 1982 version of Sebeok's 1981 report to the Bechtel Group, convey what Professor Sebeok addressed as an expert in semiotics, the discipline that studies both verbal and averbal systems of communication.

"The objective is to minimize the possibility of future human intrusion at the site; therefore, a disposal strategy needs to be developed that takes cognizance of the soundest knowledge currently available in the field of general semiotics...[which] is relevant to the problems of human interference and message exchanges involving long periods of time, over which spoken and written languages are sure to decay to the point of incomprehensibility, making it necessary to utilize a perspective that goes well beyond linguistics..."
Thus far Sebeok seems to be addressing the problem of warning those of a vastly different time and culture of the existence of waste depositories so that no one underestimates their toxicity. He gives considerable space to the fascinations of theoretical semiotics, explaining the encoding, transmittal and receiving of various forms of messages and emphasizing redundancy, which means utilizing as many ways possible, both verbal and averbal, to convey the same information so enough will survive the millennia without errors. Yet some of Sebeok's actual recommendations then appear to go beyond the realm of semiotics altogether. Unwittingly perhaps, he enters that of depth psychology, although once there he does not delve deeply at all. Perhaps that is because he is still thinking technically, stressing expediency and oblivious to the most basic need of the human spirit: for meaning. It is here that his oddly dispirited vision of what he calls `aftertimes' becomes troubling with its social and political assumptions.

As more and more people
identify with the task of
nuclear guardianship,
the less we need fear
the loss of vitality and
the broken psychic connection
that so incapacitate our times.

If the term "aftertimes" suggests somehow a discontinuity, nuclear guardianship assumes a profoundly intimate relationship with those not yet born. An age-old sense of continuity has always provided sanity and meaning for humankind. To belong to the great sweep of life in nature has been to bequeath our hopes to our descendants' children's children down through time, based on confidence in, and therefore participation in, a living future.

The urgent need now is to redeem the anguish and even despair due to the loss of that confidence by making every effort to protect future beings from our radioactive legacy, with its threat to the genetic coding of all species. As more and more people allow themselves to become informed, and identify with the task of nuclear guardianship, the less we need fear the loss of vitality and the broken psychic connection that so incapacitate our times.

A New Cultural Institution

A past issue of the Nuclear Guardianship Forum proposed "structures...involving people who teach about, help remember, and even monitor nuclear repositories." Such structures could evolve an entirely new institution, one nonetheless expressive of humankind's oldest and deepest values, openly maintaining at guardianship sites an ongoing cultural tradition down the centuries. At these facilities the commitment to rigorous service of well trained nuclear guardians, whose specific tasks and functions would be highly visible to everybody, could perhaps only be realized in a civilization that had faced up to the nuclear issue and affirmed principles such as those suggested in the Nuclear Guardianship Ethics [see page 10].

Sebeok's recommendations, however, while also pertaining to the formation of new cultural institutions, seem devoid of an ethos. The pervasive condescension towards the populace, kept in ignorance about radioactive burial sites millennium after millennium, expresses assumptions of the past fifty years of the nuclear age. But these have now fallen into disrepute.

To the credit of the Department of Energy under Secretary Hazel O'Leary, the public is finally learning how, for decades, unsuspecting populations were exposed to radioactivity in the name of highly classified medical research and weapons testing. Implicit in the Secretary's decision to declassify state secrets and reveal governmental deceit and harmful acts there is a confidence in human nature to respond appropriately. This confidence can help us come to terms with the nuclear mess that has been created. To reveal violations of the nation's most cherished principles while also committing to a transformative vision might seem too daring, even naive, to some. But in fact the energy released by this very faith in human capabilities may actually allow to happen what would not be dreamed possible otherwise.

or a Diminished World

In sharp distinction, Sebeok's lack of confidence in human nature actually requires a diminished world characterized by deliberate deception on the part of the recognized experts, the "atomic priesthood." There, in "aftertimes," manipulation extends even to the sacred. Sebeok specifically recommends:
"that information be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend...

"The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a `false trail,' meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.

"A ritual annually renewed can be foreseen, with the legend retold year-by-year... The actual `truth' would be entrusted exclusively to an -- as it were -- `atomic priesthood', that is, a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and whatever additional administrative expertise may be called for now and in the future. Membership in this elite `priesthood' would be self-selective over time."

The energy released by this faith in human capabilities may actually allow to happen what would not be dreamed possible otherwise.

To deal with the fact "that information tends to decay over time", Sebeok arrives at his most creative recommendation, useful only if winnowed out from his notion of an atomic priesthood. His three generational relay system directly addresses the dilemma of how to communicate with the far, far future.
"What is being proposed here is a so-called `relay system' of information transmission, which rests on a very simple scheme: to divide the 10,000 year epoch envisaged into manageable segments of shorter, and, presumably, reasonably foreseeable periods. Assuming that 10,000 years is equivalent to 300 generations of humankind, it is recommended that the messages at the burial site be designed for only three generations ahead, to wit, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren...

"This message, however, would have to be supplemented by a meta-message -- coded in the same combination of familiar verbal/averbal signs -- incorporating a plea and a warning that the object-message at the site be renewed by whatever coding devices seem to be maximally efficient, roughly, 250 years hence. That future object-messages should, in turn, incorporate a similar meta-message for the generation 500 years from now to act comparably, and so on, and on, up to 10,000 years ahead..."

Having presented the generational legacy so compellingly, Sebeok then betrays his own vision, seemingly unaware that exclusive control of information can become an insidious form of holding power over others.
"The disadvantage of the relay system is, of course, that there is no assurance that future generations would obey the injunctions of the past. The `atomic priesthood' would be charged with the added responsibility of seeing to it that our behest, as embodied in the cumulative sequence of meta-messages, is to be heeded -- if not for legal reasons, then for moral reasons, with perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of `supernatural retribution'."

Culminating with this peculiarly amoral notion, "Pandora's Box in Aftertimes" can perhaps be read as a morality tale on the failure of secrecy and denial. It demonstrates that the very premise of "out of sight, out of mind" deep geological burial of radioactive materials leads inevitably to procedures in the social, political and spiritual life of the people that are not any less destructive because they are absurd.

The Oslo Conference, convened to consider the same problem, [see box page 14] pointed out that "[Myths] are expressions of deep human patterns [that] can never be deliberately or consciously created... It is questionable if an `artificial' myth will last long if not supported by some evidence." Rich with meaningful symbols that spring spontaneously from deep, knowing layers of the human psyche, the function of myth and ritual is to relate individuals to the ultimate conditions of their existence. Perhaps the greatest danger of Sebeok's vision of the future is its trivialized perception of human nature, one that has no confidence in the individual's capacity for a relation to reality itself.

Susan Garfield. is a Jungian psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. The spiritual / ecological crises and the quest for meaning are addressed in her PBS film currently in development.

  1. A study conducted under the auspices of the National Waste Terminal Storage Program for submission to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission via the Department of Energy. As of 1982 Sebeok stated it was not endorsed by the DOE.

  2. Chapter 13 in I Think I Am A Verb: More Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, Thomas A. Sebeok, Plenum Press, 1986.

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