Prophets of doom, “The End is Near” sandwich-boards and bumper-stickers, climate-change protest meetings, Armageddon movies – we have become accustomed, cynical, immune to the menace of an impending Apocalypse. We dismiss all these wackos, ecolofreaks and bible-bashers, and just get on with our lives. It may be time, however, for us to take a look at the big picture and recognize a frighteningly real threat to the very survival of mankind. We have already built this time-bomb, the Doomsday Machine of Dr Strangelove. It has been ticking for the last half-century and will continue to do so for the next …300,000 years.
I am not talking about the movie “Interstellar” which has just hit the screens. Developing a theme that goes back to the prescient intuitions and predictions of earlier authors like Flaubert, the script writer has seized on the idea that we will one day be forced to escape from the planet we have polluted, to the point of making exodus to another planet the only possible hope for the continued existence of humanity. An “Interstellar” solution is science-fiction. The threat of a terminal environmental catastrophe is not. Nor is the chemical, industrial time-bomb that could wipe us all out.
Carl Sagan helped us understand where we fit into the universal time-frame, which for pedagogical purposes he reduced to the span of a 24-hour day. If we imagine the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, happening at midnight, human life appeared sometime within the last minute before the end of the day, around 11:59 pm. That was 300,000 years ago. Of all the humans who have inhabited the earth ever since, we, people born in the 20th century, have the distinction of having condemned our descendants to possible planetary nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, and, for the next 300,000 years, annihilation through the lethal radiation of accumulated, almost indestructible, nuclear waste.
We are beyond the current debate about renouncing nuclear energy. It’s already too late. We all know that our mad scientists (to the guilty regret of Einstein) gave us the horror of Hiroshima, when the unthinkable became a permanent possibility. Some of us have also ourselves consciously preferred to switch from environmentally unfriendly, non-renewable fossile fuels to the nuclear, so as to provide ourselves with cheap electricity. The problem we swept under the carpet was what to do with the radioactive nuclear waste. Bury the stuff, it has been proposed, deep inside the earth, 500 meters down, in a hole of fifteen square kilometers. In France that is what is under discussion for 2025 – 2125 in a place called Bure in north-eastern France. Right now the wastes are stored above ground. The best solution the experts can come up with is “out of sight, out of mind”.
The project has not hit the headlines yet. When it does, people will begin to wonder what other countries are doing with their waste (some just ship it to France) and what we will all do with it – as well as all the rest of the accumulated radioactive rubbish – after 2125 … and for the following 300 millennia. Some might ask whether we have committed the ultimate crime against humanity. It is already extraordinary that it is seriously believed that anyone can legislate what must be done by anybody for the next hundred years. Your guess is as good or as bad as mine as to what happens after that. Some are already wondering how we can even let coming generations know about the timebomb under their feet. How do we warn them to “Keep Out” ? A sign that says : “NUCLEAR WASTE : Trespassers Will Be Radiated” ? How do we ensure that people are kept aware of the threat, or even informed as to where this hell-hole is (and where the inevitable others are) ? 100,000 years from now, what language are people likely to understand so as to discover the heritage we have left for them ? (Some have already suggested Latin or Greek, written on … papyrus which is more resistant than paper (!), or better, on a saphire disk which could survive several million years : its only inconvenience is that if you drop it, it shatters like a crystal champagne glass.)
Readers of this Blog may be reading about all this for the first time. Like me, I imagine they are shocked and wonder what hope there is for humanity. Of course we all, like the politicians and the scientists, are counting on a solution being discovered sometime in the future. Surely science will come up with a way to fix the problem it itself created. Let’s hope so.
One thing is certain. We cannot count on God to clean up the mess for us. Christians call Jesus “Savior” – but not from earthquakes, tsunamis, environmental blight, cancer and radiation. Moreover, the “salvation” He offers comes with conditions : you have to be a good boy or a good girl, and you have to die first. Meantime, more serious people ought to get cracking on finding and funding a scientific prevention of the disaster we have prepared for ourselves and our progeny. With a little bit of luck, at least our Believers on the Brink may find in all this a convincing reason to abandon what is left of their faith, and put their energy into enjoying all the fulfillment, and facing all the challenges life has to offer, without the illusions of pie in the sky when we die … from natural, or radioactive, causes.