Keep Out

Slate.com’s Culture Gabfest had a discussion about a DOE project regarding how to tell people/life/whatever 10,000 years from now that our nuclear waste is still very dangerous and should be avoided, as it will be dangerous for at least that long. The topic came up thanks to this article on Slate by Juliet Lapidos. But, for what it’s worth, the topic has been on several sites, including an equally informative article over at Salon.com.

The problem we’re facing is that we don’t know who these people (if they are people) will be, much less the language they will speak. A skull and crossbones is used for poison in the US, but it’s also a symbol of pirates (and could mean nearby treasure) and a symbol of the Day of the Dead (a Hispanic/Catholic celebration of ancestors). Think about how much language and symbolism has changed in the past few hundred years, much less the past thousand. Shakespeare was being positively scandalous when he coined euphemisms like the “the beast with two backs”, but even a simple word like fuck would not have been understood a mere thousand years ago, whereas most people could probably reason out the euphemism. This having been said, do you go with flowery euphemisms about sickening, wasting, rotting death?

The amazing part of this is that it goes to belief far more than science. What will our distant descendants fear? What will convince them to stay away? The most frequent idea is to build some kind of landscape feature (imaginative titles abound: Landscape of Thorns, Menacing Earthworks, Forbidding Blocks) and include text in every known language saying, essentially, you will die horribly if you dig this up.

Sound familiar? The Egyptians built pyramids with similarly morbid warnings: your ancestors will suffer, your flesh will rot, and our gods will strike you down. The pyramids were vast stone structures elaborately crafted to keep people out. That method didn’t work for Egypt; we can’t think it will work for us. The problem was that, by the time we found the pyramids, our entire belief structure had changed. We had the powers of science, and a whole new kind of god was on the rise, one that generally forgave and protected instead of striking. We had no reason to believe what the Egyptians had written.

I don’t have an answer to the problem, but it makes me wonder. What if Stonehenge isn’t some monument to an ancient god or time? What if it’s a marker for a dirty area that has now become clean with time? What if it was a disease-ridden zone, but our evolution allowed us immunity?

And that having been the case, will our 10,000-years-hence descendants be immune to radiation? Will this be a moot point?

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