Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"This Is Not A Place of Honor"

This week I'm reading About a Mountain by John D'Agata, a long-form essay about Las Vegas, suicide, and the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

One of the fascinating paradoxes that the book delves into is the idea that the radioactive waste stored in Yucca Mountain is going to be deadly for tens of thousands of years - and so, if the species that has made itself capable of destroying itself actually manages to survive for ten millennia or more, into a future where the United States and the English language will both have been long forgotten and Yucca Mountain itself could be oceanfront property, how should we warn our distant descendants not to explore inside?

Yucca Mountain (source: Wikipedia)

The government convened a team of materials scientists, linguists, anthropologists, graphic artists, and others to come up with a warning sign or message that civilizations 10,000 years from now would still be able to understand in order to stay away from the mountain and its deadly tunnels. This is their rough draft for the ideas that that message should convey:
"This is not a place of honor. No esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing of value is buried here. This place is a message, and part of a system of messages. Pay attention. We are serious. Sending this message was significant for us. Ours was considered an important culture."
Even in the doubtful scenario that this message could last, and there's anyone around able to understand it in ten thousand years, I doubt this message would serve its purpose.

If there's any human characteristic will last for 10,000 years, it will be the capacity to identify bullshit. If you can imagine a future in which, even though your "important" culture has been long forgotten, some vestigial scrap of humanity that has anything in common with your own still exists - and if your own civilization has the hubris to believe that it can communicate across those millennia, that your message will last and be remembered - well, the assertion that that message is hiding "nothing of value" and "no esteemed deed" kind of rings hollow.

It's like if Homer decided to write the Illiad not as a parable of honor and duty, but as a long poem about how, while Homer considered the idea of the Illiad to be very serious and important, the actual historical details of the Trojan War are not worth knowing or investigating at all - and in fact, if you read between the lines, trying to learn the details of the plot will actually give you a nasty case of thyroid cancer.

Would that poem last? And if by some miracle it did, would anyone take it seriously?

John D'Agata is a great essayist. But his book and its themes also remind me of another favorite author of mine, the novelist Cormac McCarthy. Yucca Mountain, both as a stark desert landscape and as the repository for the waste of civilization's self-destructive technologies, seems like an ideal subject for one of McCarthy's novels. I'm reminded of the interview he did with the Wall Street Journal last year, and this brief discussion of the end-of-the-world scenario in his novel The Road:
But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday. No one knows.

WSJ: What kind of things make you worry?

CM: If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won't even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It's more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it's just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there's a problem you can take to bed with you at night.

Personally, I'll not be taking that problem to bed with me tonight. But maybe Yucca Mountain's sign makers should take it up - communicating with the cyborgs of the 22nd century should be a manageable first step towards communicating with whatever alien descendants might still be around in the 121st century.


Neil said...

If there's any human characteristic will last for 10,000 years, it will be the capacity to identify bullshit.

I might add reckless curiosity and exceptionalist arrogance to this list.

SpineBag said...

One of your best posts in a long time. Keep up the excellent work.

Turbo said...

Would such an inscription have deterred Howard Carter from opening King Tut's tomb?

Turbo said...

P.S. "Do not dig or drill here before AD 12,000"

Ha! That's hilarious. As if the Jesus calendar is really going to live that long!

Jonathan said...

What's wrong with skull and crossbones?