The Atomic Priesthood and Other Opportunities for Cross-Campus Collaboration

Last month, I wrote about how the Sokal hoax was an opportunity for humanists and scientists to cross campus and start working together, and that one of the fruits of this collaboration is the relatively new field of ecocriticism. Peter C. van Wyck’s book Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma, and Nuclear Threat is an example of combining critical theory with scientific data towards an ecological end.

In this book, van Wyck (a professor at Concordia University) writes about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The plant’s purpose is to house nuclear waste from retired weapons—which, given how long such waste stays radioactive, is no easy task. WIPP is designed to exist for 10,000 years. Much of Signs of Danger is devoted to outlining the sheer threat that this kind of waste represents.

Some of the most intriguing sections, however, concern the problem of communicating these dangers to future generations. After all, 10,000 years is a long time. The Great Pyramid of Giza is about 4570 years old. The language that you are reading right now (unless you are using Google translate or something) is only about 1560 years old, and that is a very generous estimate. Regardless, we owe it to our descendants to warn them about the radiation we are leaving in the New Mexico desert. Van Wyck describes several attempts to communicate to the people of 12,016 C.E. One is that of Thomas Sebeok, an American semiotician. Sebeok recommends a trans-generational group entrusted with keeping the waste safe, calling them “an atomic priesthood:” “a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and whatever additional expertise may be called for” (qtd. in van Wyck, page 48). The idea is, over time, the “priesthood” may need to resort to a supernatural/religious aura to maintain authority. WIPP has not adopted this strategy, though van Wyck points out that there are echoes of it in the idea of a graduate student fellowship fund that sends visitors to the site every twenty-five years (52). (I would joke that sending graduate students to a nuclear waste dump is certainly one way to deal with the academic job crisis, but of course, WIPP is designed to be safe).

More options come as a result of the Futures Panel of the Department of Energy. This “interdisciplinary working group” was tasked with devising possible futures that could put the WIPP at risk (50). It seems to be thorough: though van Wyck only offers the most absurd examples (one is the extreme feminist social constructionist society of 2091 denouncing the empirical message of the WIPP as male propaganda), the panel presumably suggests less outlandish possibilities (51). In a sense, the panel is an inspiring moment: humanists and scientists working together to preserve the safety of the future. However, the real message of the passage—and I imagine, part of van Wyck’s purpose in bringing up these rather outlandish suggestions—is that good intentions can cause terrible mistakes. We should not be asking how to best hide nuclear waste, but how to arrange our politics so as to stop making it, and other pollutants, in the first place. This project also requires the co-operation of scientists and humanists. The intervention of humanists is needed to bring a sense of past and future to the political discourse and to create a future that does more than replicate the mistakes of the present.

Empiricism has given us several useful ways of predicting the future. Another notable ecological example is the computer models discussed by Peter Taylor, which, despite their shortcomings, have been useful in identifying environmental threats. But ultimately, Empiricism is a methodology of the present. It proudly eliminates speculation and examines events as they are taking place: “Based on current trends, we can predict that…” This lends Empiricism to a sort of conservatism, a favouring of the material over the potential. Of course, scientists are not Empiricism, and the human element in science is, has been, and will be a key part of preserving humanity from disaster and disease. And it’s not like scientists are ethically unmoored and need a humanist looking over their shoulder before they make any decision. Nevertheless, humanists, through their study of the past, or through their interest for political futures, are obvious allies when it comes to describing the past and shaping the future.

Van Wyck nicely outlines how a humanist/theoretical understanding of ecological science can undermine the presentism inherent in it. One way he brings the future into current constructions of risk is by emphasizing how the “accident,” or more appropriately, the disaster, is always potentially present, even in technologies and ecological systems that are currently functioning safely: “Failure is programmed into the product from the moment of conception; the ship begets the shipwreck, the train, the rail catastrophe” (12). By measuring actually-existing mechanical functions, Empiricism can say—with complete accuracy—that a nuclear reactor only has a small chance of melting down on any given day. But by extending the analysis over a sufficiently long time, we can see that the meltdown becomes truly inevitable. The awareness of such impending risks influences our trauma, which is another idea that disrupts the present. “Trauma is something that effectively happens after it happens,” van Wyck writes. “It is experienced as the effect preceding—indeed eclipsing—the cause” (104). It is a persistent mental state that casts its shadow over our politics and social relations, ensuring that past strife remains vivid, even after the smoke has cleared.

Historical grounding is what the humanities can offer science. When some writers (like Alan Sokal’s opponents, or at least straw men) stress that science is partially a social construction, they leave themselves vulnerable to the objection that such a position undermines the truths obtained by science. Van Wyck circumvents that tired issue with his notions of trauma and risk, demonstrating that science, if it is to successfully exist in the world of politics, must abandon the isolation of today for the potential of the future.

There is no particular reason why I bring this up now. Van Wyck’s book came out in 2004. The WIPP is not set to finish collecting waste until 2045 or so, and of course, its work will continue long after that. History, however, is happening right now, as it always is.

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks via Fallout Wiki).

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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