Reckoning With Deep Time For A Livable World

Cylinders of polished stone in various colors separated by planks of wood

Vincent Ialenti, Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now (MIT Press, 2020)

Nuclear waste evokes fear for many people, owing to the long lifespan of many of its radioactive constituents. I also feel this same fear when contemplating other waste materials that modern society produces to satisfy global desire for electronics, energy, and breathable-but-waterproof fabrics, which remain toxic for extremely long periods of time, if not forever. This is not to mention the uncertain and changing climate from anthropogenic emission of carbon dioxide that will affect every corner of the globe.

Book cover of Deep Time Reckoning

Thinking in geologic timescales of thousands, millions, and even billions of years is not something that most people have to do in their daily lives. Especially with the uncertainty driven by COVID-19, many of us have every incentive to focus on the present and the most immediate future. A week from now is a bit fuzzy, six months ahead seems unimaginably far away, at least to me. But in Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now, Vincent Ialenti argues that training our brains to think further out, which he calls “long-termism,” can benefit ourselves and the planet. To make his case, he highlights the work of Finnish nuclear waste experts, who have spent years considering the Earth’s past and its many possible futures in order to make a safety case for their final nuclear waste disposal site, buried deep underground beneath the Finnish coastline.

Ialenti, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, is an anthropologist, not a nuclear engineer or geologist. But Deep Time Reckoning is based on years of fieldwork in Finland that comprised his dissertation research, for which he interviewed experts in various subfields of nuclear waste disposal, from geologists to hydrologists, ecologists, and more.

A woman in a white hard hat smiles inside a large copper tube
Katie Mummah lies in a prototype copper canister at the Kapsellaboratoriet (canister laboratory) in Oskarshamn, Sweden. This canister is similar to those that will eventually entomb nuclear waste in both Sweden and Finland. Photo courtesy Katie Mummah.

One of the things I love about this book is that it offers a new perspective on the very technical and narrow field of predicting potential planetary futures and is committed to translating the implications of that work to a wide audience. As a nuclear engineer, my work has made me familiar with many of the technical concepts mentioned in the book, but Ialenti makes no assumptions that the reader has an engineering or even scientific background. The book is shaped around strategies, called “reckonings,” that those of us who don’t study Earth’s long-term fate can use to face our planet’s uncertain future. I agree with Ialenti’s claims that Deep Time Reckoning is not an “academic treatise for scholars . . . [but] rather, a practical toolkit for educated publics, expert and lay alike,” and I consider the reckonings that Ialenti lays out just as meaningful to readers without formal calculus or physics training as to those with it. The toolkit of reckonings does not provide step-by-step instructions, however, but rather an introduction to the complexity of grappling with time, coupled with open-ended questions that encourage the reader to seek their own individual revelations.

The introduction chapter of Deep Time Reckoning is devoted to presenting the scientific frameworks that underlie the whole book. The reader is reminded that science is not a constant and boring plodding toward accepted facts and rigorous theories (a term that’s often misused). For example, the Anthropocene—which I had mistakenly believed was a formalized geological term—has not yet been approved by the required supermajorities of two subcommittees of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) followed by the executive committee of the IUGS. Even the start date of the Anthropocene is in question: should it be set at the Neolithic Revolution, the European colonization of the Americas, the development of the steam engine, the post–World War II acceptance of technology such as cars and airplanes, or the start to nuclear weapons testing? 

Ialenti does not reveal his own opinions, but rather encourages the reader to consider the fundamental concept of the Anthropocene: that humans have so deeply altered the landscape of our planet that our effect will be geologically distinguishable from prior epochs. Just as the Anthropocene is a relatively small blip in the long history of our planet, Ialenti argues that deep time thinking is “relatively new” to us. While this point is fair relative to the Western science cited (the revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, and others), I do wish the book engaged with non-Western conceptions of time and stewardship, which are more varied and expansive in their notions of history, present, and future than the prevailing Western conception of time.

Landscape with a power plant amidst trees in the background and ocean water in the foreground
The Olkiluoto nuclear power plant sits on an island on Finland’s western coast. Nearby, a facility is being built to dispose of Finnish nuclear waste approximately 450 meters (1,500 feet) underground. Photo courtesy Leo-setä, 2011.

The book humanizes the development of Finland’s safety case in a way that all good science narratives do. Humans learn from stories more effectively than a list of facts, and Ialenti, as a cultural anthropologist, has painstakingly compiled the human narratives underlying the massive scientific conclusion of the Finnish nuclear waste company Posiva: that nuclear waste is safe to dispose of beneath the Finnish coastline in a deep geologic repository. It becomes translated for us as a story of many individual scientists with vast and wide experiences. Each scientist works in their own narrow realm of expertise, producing individual studies that are intertwined with others as they build a massive structure brick by brick. Introducing this web of interconnected scientists gives just enough technical information to help the reader understand the rest of the book while also conveying the far-ranging breath of expertise needed and employed by Posiva to convince the Finnish nuclear regulator Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) to approve their repository design. Listen closely and their mental frameworks can teach us to expand our own thinking.

Deep Time Reckoning nudges readers to expand their own thinking and ask uncomfortable questions about the murky future.

Reconstructing our mental images of the landscapes all around us is one way we can stretch our minds, break familiar thought patterns, make us more perceptive of changes in our cities, and even force ourselves to imagine far future consequences. Ialenti encourages readers to consider our surroundings—our favorite state park, perhaps, or maybe our own neighborhood. Spending only a few minutes researching the geologic history of our area of interest, we can gather information about the ways it has evolved over the millennia. I was inspired to learn more about the geology of northern New Mexico, where I temporarily reside. My prior associations of volcanism in the United States were primarily Mount St. Helens, Hawai’i, and Yellowstone. But according to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, the state “has one of the largest concentrations of young, well-exposed, and uneroded volcanoes on the continent.” The Pajarito Plateau, where I live, is made of less-than-two-million-year-old volcanic tuff formed by the explosions that formed the nearly 14-mile-wide Valles Caldera, a nearby national preserve.

Grassy landscape with mountains and clouds in the background
The Valles Caldera National Preserve, located in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. The caldera, formed in an enormous volcanic eruption, is a geologic newborn. Two million years ago, it didn’t exist. What will this area look like two million years in the future? Photo courtesy Thomas Shahan, 2018.

I had wondered about the history of the place I live, but rarely the potential futures. Will an even larger volcanic eruption replace the Valles Caldera and engulf nearby towns in a new layer of volcanic ash in the next million years or so? In that time, how much trash in the local landfill will still be around, and what will have leaked into the surrounding ecosystem? 

Deep Time Reckoning nudges readers to expand their own thinking and ask uncomfortable questions about the murky future. While the book offers several examples for each thought experiment, which Ialenti calls “reckonings,” it is not a homework assignment workbook. The pages will not hold your hand from start to finish, and there are no answers to the feelings of discomfort that naturally arise from long-termist thinking. Technological optimism for a better tomorrow clashes with the guilt of habitats destroyed, species gone extinct, and carbon dioxide already emitted. These thoughts are unsettling, and that’s part of the point. These uncomfortable feelings naturally discourage us from spending too much time in this headspace, but Ialenti argues that readers should lean into the scientific inquiry as well as “the previously unknown certainties [and] the previously unidentified uncertainties” that we can uncover.

Page from the medieval book The Reckoning of Time
Ialenti recommends studying notions of time from a variety of sources. One recommendation? The Reckoning of Time, a treatise written by Bede, a monk and scholar, in the year 725 CE. Photo courtesy the British Library.

Some of the reckonings are not difficult exercises in mental gymnastics, but rather meticulously documented conclusions that make intuitive sense and remind us to be thoughtful with our own time. I expect everyone will find a handful of reckonings more relevant to their lives than others, and you’ll probably connect to a different set than I do. Personally, the reckonings about work-life balance and information stewardship ignited internal reflection about the way I’ve been living my life and how I can be more intentional about my time on and off the clock, especially in the wake of a year of COVID-19 restrictions. 

A narrative that shines throughout Deep Time Reckoning is Ialenti’s ambitious goal for long-term thinking to become part of the fabric of our culture. He asks, “What if we had been raised to see long-term thinking as our civic duty—told that, like avoiding littering, it is essential to responsible citizenship?” Ialenti glazes over the reality that we are told litter is our civic responsibility because it benefits corporations to shift the blame to consumers, but they would prefer not to share what they know about the other long-term implications of their products and services, much less be held accountable for them. 

Still, hope is not lost. Ialenti has some bold propositions to turn our increasingly short-termist culture into one that recognizes and prepares for the futures far beyond our lifespans. His proposals are wide-ranging, including changes that can be made by teachers, city councils, scientists, governmental agencies, companies (again, I’m pretty skeptical about this one), intergovernmental organizations, and, most importantly, individuals. 

Some of these ideas are not new or far-fetched either. Towns could set up “future sister cities” with other towns that have a current climate resembling their own likely futures. Any city interested in such a partnership could refer to a 2019 article in Nature Communications by Matthew Fitzpatrick and Robert Dunn, which identified contemporary climatic analogs for more than 500 population centers in North America. They also released an interactive map so anyone can easily search for analogues to the potential future climates of their own town.

Ialenti has bold propositions to turn our increasingly short-termist culture into one that recognizes and prepares for the futures far beyond our lifespans.

Deep Time Reckoning is not the first book to recommend long-termist thinking based on a geological perspective of time, and I expect it will not be the last. The 2018 book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by geologist Marcia Bjornerud (who wrote the foreword for Deep Time Reckoning) has a similar premise, but I would argue that Vincent Ialenti undertook an added challenge in trying to balance explanations of both geological and nuclear science while keeping the focus on long-term thinking and the value of nuanced, sometimes boring, hard-fought expertise and very intentional planning over reactionary thinking and a “just keep swimming” mentality.

How geologists, hydrologists, biologists, radiochemists, material scientists, and experts from many more disciplines weave their knowledge together to produce Posiva’s safety case might be described as merely the scenery that we pass through, eventually folding into our destination, a larger narrative or lesson. But Deep Time Reckoning does such a good job using these stories as the foundation to translate bite-sized chunks of the underlying science effectively enough that I would also recommend it to anyone looking to learn a bit more about the future of nuclear waste disposal in a narrative-driven format. 

Whether you read Deep Time Reckoning to expand your conception of time or just to learn more about nuclear waste, Vincent Ialenti’s ethnography of Finnish radioactive waste disposal has thought-provoking mental experiments, charming stories of scientists and their fascinating research, and reflections on what it means for humanity to plan for deep time.

Featured image: Core samples, collected from hundreds of meters below ground, to be tested for geological suitability of potential nuclear waste repository sites in Sweden. Photo courtesy Katie Mummah.

Katie Mummah is a Ph.D. student in Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has been interested in nuclear waste since the start of her career. Contact. Twitter.