The art of meditating in the lands of the distant future

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Stretching the mind through time can help us become more responsible planetary stewards and foster empathy across generations.

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Presented by Curio, partner of MIT Press

The word has been out for decades: We were born on a damaged planet sinking into environmental collapse. Yet our minds are ill-equipped to grasp the magnitude of Earth’s ecological death spiral. We try to imagine how, in just a few decades, climate change could displace entire populations. We struggle to imagine the fate of plastic waste that will survive us for centuries. We fail to imagine our descendants inhabiting a depleted Earth, depleted by resource extraction and devoid of biodiversity. We lack frames of reference in our daily life to think about the multimillennial timescales of the radioactive risk of nuclear waste.

I am an anthropologist who studies how societies establish the relationships between living communities of the present and unborn communities imagined to inhabit the future. I have learned that studying a community’s relationship to the passage of time can provide a window into its values, worldview, and ways of life.

From 2012 to 2014, I conducted 32 months of anthropological fieldwork to explore how Finnish waste nuclear experts tackled Earth’s radically long-term future. These experts regularly dealt with long-lived radionuclides such as uranium 235, which has a half-life of over 700 million years. They worked with nuclear waste management company Posiva to help build a disposal facility about 450 meters below the islet of Olkiluoto in the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. If all goes as planned, this facility will become, by the mid-2020s, the world’s first deep geological repository for used nuclear fuel.

To assess the long-term sustainability of the Olkiluoto repository, these experts developed a “safety case” predicting geological, hydrological and ecological events that could occur in Western Finland in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. years. From their efforts emerged visions of glaciations in the distant future, climate change, earthquakes, floods, changes in human and animal populations, etc. These predictions became the starting point for a series of “mental time travel” exercises that I have incorporated into my book, “Calculation of deep time. “

Stretching the mind through time – even in the most speculative way – can help us become more responsible planetary stewards: it can help us gain knowledge of the time needed to meet long-term challenges such as loss. biodiversity, the accumulation of microplastics, climate change, antibiotic resistance, asteroid impacts, sustainable urban planning, etc. It can not only make us feel more comfortable thinking about the past and future of our planet. It can also lead us to imagine the world from the perspective of future human and non-human communities, fostering empathy between generations.


5710 EC. A tired man is lounging on a sofa. He lives in a small wooden house in an area once called Eurajoki, Finland. He works at a local medical center. Today is his day off. He had a long day in the forest. He hunted moose and deer and picked lingonberries, mushrooms and blueberries. He is now sipping water, drawn from the village well, in a wooden cup. Her husband brings her a plate. There are fried potatoes, cereals, boiled peas and beef. All the food came from local farms. Cattle were watered at a nearby river. The crops were watered by irrigation canals from three local lakes.

Man has no idea that over 3,700 years ago, biosphere safety case modelers used 21st century computer technologies to calculate everyday situations like his. He doesn’t know that they once named the lakes around him – which formed long after their own deaths – “Liiklanjärvi”, “Tankarienjärvi” and “Mäntykarinjärvi”. He is unaware of Posiva’s ancient determination that technological innovation and cultural habits are almost impossible to predict even decades in advance. Little does he know that Posiva, in response, asked his modelers to pragmatically assume that the lifestyles, demographic patterns and nutritional needs of the people of Western Finland will not change much over the next 10,000 years. . He does not know the experts of the safety case who inserted, in the parameters of their models, the assumption that he and his neighbors would only eat local food.

However, the life of the hunter is always intertwined with the work of the experts in the security cases. If they had succeeded, then the vegetables, meat, fruit and water in front of him would have only a tiny chance of containing only tiny traces of radionuclides from 20th century nuclear power plants.


12020 EC. A lonely peasant woman looks at her pasture, surrounded by a green forest of heather. She lives in a sparse land once called Finland, on a fertile island plot once called Olkiluoto. The region is no longer an island. What was once a coastal bay is now dotted with small lakes, bogs and bogs with white sphagnum mosses and grassy sedges. The Eurajoki and Lapijoki rivers flow into the sea. When the farmer goes fishing at the nearby lake, she catches pike. She watches a beaver swim. Sometimes she feels gloomy. She remembers the freshwater ringed seals that once shared her country before their extinction.

The woman has no idea that deep beneath her feet lies an ancient deposit of copper, iron, clay and radioactive debris. It is a highly classified secret – disclosed to the public several times over the millennia, but now forgotten. Yet even the government’s knowledge of the burial site is low. Most of the records were destroyed in a world war in 3112. That’s when the site’s old predictions, found in the 2012 security case report “Further Considerations”, were lost in history.

But the farmer knows the mythical tales of Lohikäärme: a dangerous poisonous flying salmon-colored snake that kills anyone who dares to dig too close to his underground cave. She and other farmers in the area grow peas, sugar beets and wheat. They balk at superstitious fools who tell them that the monster living under their feet is real.


35,012 EC. A tiny microbe floats in a large northern lake. He does not know that the clay, silt, and mud soil below gradually rises year after year. It is not known that 30 millennia ago the lake was a vast sea. Dotted with sailboats, cruise ships and freighters, it was known to humans as the Baltic. The aquatic straits, which connected the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, had risen above the water thousands of years ago. Denmark and Sweden have merged into one landmass. The seabed was decompressing due to the Weichselian glaciation – a huge sheet of ice that leaned on the land during a previous ice age.

After the last human died, the landmass continued to rise. His elevation was indifferent to human extinction. He was indifferent to how, in 2013 CE, an anthropologist and a security expert sat down to chat in white chairs at Ravintola Rytmi: a cafe in Helsinki. There, the security case expert relayed his projection that by 52,000 CE there would be no more water between Turku, Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden. At that time, you could walk from town to town on foot. The expert estimated that in the north – between Vaasa, Finland, and Umeå, Sweden – we would one day find a waterfall with the biggest downpour of running water on the planet. The waterfall could be found at the site of a once submerged marine plateau.

The microbe, however, doesn’t know or care about Vaasa, Umeå, Denmark, long-lost boats, safety case reports, or Helsinki’s past dining options. He has no idea. Their meanings died with humans. The microbe also fails to grasp the suffering they faced when they succumbed to the Anthropocene collapse. Past technological feats, great civilizations, passionate projects, intellectual triumphs, wartime sacrifices and the personal struggles of humans are now irrelevant. And yet the radiological safety of the waters of Microbe Lake still hinges on the work of a handful of human security experts who lived millennia ago. Thinking this far, these experts never lived to see if their deep weather forecasts were accurate.


We do not, of course, live in these fantasy worlds. In this sense, they are unreal, mere fictions. However, our abilities to envision potential futures and to empathize with those who can inhabit them are very real. The representations of tomorrow can have powerful and concrete effects on today’s world. This is why deep thought experiments are not playful games, but serious acts of intellectual problem solving. This is why the models of the experts of the safety case on the distant risks associated with nuclear waste are particularly valuable, even if they are, in the end, only approximations.

However, thinking about the distant future can also help us. take a step back of our daily life – enriching our imaginations by transporting our minds to different places and times. Company coaches recommended take breaks from our familiar thought patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Cognitive scientists showed how creativity can be triggered by perceiving “something that one has never seen before (but has probably always been there)”.

Setting aside a few minutes each day for the long-term planetary imagination can enrich us with greater mental dexterity to navigate between multiple interacting time scales. It can cultivate greater long-term empathy for landscapes, people, and other organisms across decades, centuries, and millennia. As the global ecological crisis sets in, embracing planetary empathy will prove essential to our collective survival.

Vincent Ialenti is a researcher at the University of Southern California and the Berggruen Institute. His recent book, “Calculation of deep time, ”Is an anthropological study of how Finnish nuclear waste repository experts tackled the ecosystems of the distant future and the limits of human knowledge.


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