How Can We Face The Challenge?
FIFTY YEARS AT A TIME
by Molly Young Brown
In the unfolding life of Earth, and even the unfolding life of the human species, fifty years is a minuscule period of time, only a couple of generations in length, soon to be lost in the eons of time. Yet fifty years can transform the world; the Buddha taught for forty years, Jesus for a mere three, yet their teachings continue to reverberate in our lives today. The last fifty years have produced another kind of legacy: a huge volume of radioactive materials that threatens life on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years.
Our culture's utilization of radioactive elements has not only poisoned our bodies; it has crippled our collective relationship to time. Living under the conscious and unconscious threat of nuclear annihilation for so many years severed our connection to the future. On some deep level, we gave up responsibility to future generations because we doubted they would exist. These doubts persist today in the face of other environmental catastrophes. Just as we have increasingly alienated ourselves from the natural world, so we also have separated ourselves from the precious continuity of time. It becomes harder to think of ourselves as receiving life and wisdom from our ancestors and passing life and wisdom along to our descendants. In most of our large scale interactions with the environment today, we disregard the long-term consequences of our actions.
Have We Faith in the Future?
The proposals for deep geological burial of nuclear materials reflect this crippled sense of continuity. On the one hand, burying our mess seems like the action of naughty children, hoping to sweep it all under the carpet to escape parental wrath. And on the other hand, it implies that the generations that follow us will have little or no ability to figure out better solutions, and so we have to decide it now, once and for all. We seem to have no faith in the future.
Does this come out of our own arrogance, a belief that we in this time have reached the pinnacle of life's evolution, that we now know it all? Or does it come from a deep despair, a view of a world ruined by the excesses of the twentieth century, populated by ignorant and savage remnants of the human race? Perhaps it comes from a mixture of both.
If we recognize our participation in life through time, if we understand ourselves to be conduits of life and culture between the past and the future, I believe we will find our responsibility less overwhelming. We can address ourselves to keeping nuclear materials out of the biosphere for the next fifty years or so, storing it so that the material and our knowledge about it remain accessible to our grandchildren. They in turn will carry this responsibility forward, according to the wisdom and values of their time.
Respect for Future Generations
How will our grandchildren find the wisdom to carry the responsibility we leave to them? Let us hope they are wiser than the generations who have exploited and destroyed the environment at an unprecedented rate. If the industrialized world does not radically change its ways, other ecological cataclysms may utterly destroy our life support systems anyway. For the human race to survive at all requires a radical transformation in our relationship to the interdependent web of life on Earth.
[As] future generations
may be morally wiser than we,
more technologically sophisticated,
we will want to give them the opportunity
to apply their intelligence . . .
Why do some people assume that those inheriting our nuclear legacy will be unable to meet its challenge? Perhaps they judge further generations by those young people today who are disaffected, addicted, and angry. The same values and priorities that have destroyed our environment have destroyed the lives of many, many young people. Brought up in a world where profit matters more than the common weal, they regard themselves and everyone around them as exploitable for short term gratification and of no intrinsic worth. Are these children examples of what the future holds for the human race as a whole?
Fortunately, not all or even most of the younger generation are lost in this alienation. Many young people today astonish us with their intelligence and commitment. Passionate in their concern for the world, they are taking the knowledge we have passed on to them, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and moving us all along on our evolutionary path. How much more will their children have to offer, if we manage to leave them an adequate habitat to grow up in?
This may be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. If we assume deterioration will occur in succeeding generations and act accordingly, we will set up the very circumstances to undermine the health of those generations. Hiding radioactive waste deep underground does not guarantee its isolation from the biosphere over time. Inevitably, as inaccessible containers deteriorate, the toxins will escape through seepage into ground water and soil, and through geological changes. Future generations, no matter what their level of wisdom or technology, will be helpless to protect themselves from this contamination. And if out of fear of their ignorance, we keep our knowledge of radioactivity from them, they will not even know what is poisoning them.
"Fifty years at a time"
reminds us of the
"one day at a time" slogan
for recovering alcoholics.
It keeps one focused
on the present task,
within the context of a
lifetime of recovery
On the other hand, if we hold the possibility that future generations may be morally wiser than we, as well as more technologically sophisticated, we will want to give them the opportunity to apply their intelligence to the problem of radioactive waste. In that case, we will keep nuclear materials visible and accessible, while isolating them from the biosphere as best we know how. We will make all our knowledge about radioactivity fully available to all future citizens (including what is still "classified information" today). And we will avoid taking any steps now that might be irreversible in the future.
This guardianship is less daunting if we consider that our immediate task doesn't have to focus on more than the next fifty years. I propose fifty years as a symbolic period of our concern, mirroring the fifty years in which we have created this mess.
that we radically change
to the biosphere.
"Fifty years at a time" reminds us of the "one day at a time" slogan for recovering alcoholics. It keeps one focused on the present task, within the context of a lifetime of recovery. And perhaps that is what we must now do as a culture: recover from our addiction to nuclear energy and its underlying dream of unlimited power over nature and one another.
We in the industrialized world have pursued such a dream of dominance for centuries, trying to assert control over the natural processes of life, and over each other. Our enchantment with nuclear energy and the toxic mess we have wrought reflects the larger pattern of human alienation from nature and destruction of the environment. Like protecting the rain forests, keeping air and water clean, preserving biodiversity, and all the other ecological concerns we have today, nuclear guardianship requires that we radically change our relationship to the biosphere. Instead of "power-over," we must learn "power-with," as we take our place in the vast, complex, interdependent web of life on Earth. Nuclear guardianship is not more or less important than any of the other transformational tasks we humans face today. This and everything else needs to happen. To work on one task is to work on them all. Addressing the social injustices that lead to warfare and terrorist attacks, for example, will help create a stable social order within which guardianship can endure. We must learn to act sustainably in all aspects of our collective life, providing at least minimal food, clothing, shelter, and dignity for everyone, or radioactive contamination will be only one of many contributors to the collapse of our habitat. Nuclear guardianship can be a training ground for this transformation of human consciousness. Through guardianship, we learn to sustain the gaze, to keep our attention on the reality before us, overcoming the temptation to deny or escape the responsibility. We affirm our commitment to the future, doing what we can now to assure the continuity of human life and evolution, and then faithfully passing the task along to our descendants.
Transforming Our Values
Haste is our greatest enemy,
for precipitous decisions
made now may prove
even within the next few years.
Because of the vast eons of time involved in the radioactive decay of plutonium, nuclear guardianship keeps us humble. We realize that haste is our greatest enemy, for precipitous decisions made now may prove irrevocably disastrous, even within the next few years. Guardianship trains us to think in terms of the whole: the whole of humanity, the whole of the ecosphere, the whole of time.
Molly Young Brown, M.Div., is an educator and writer in the emerging field of "eco-psychology", and author of Growing Whole: Self-Realization on an Endangered Planet.