Deep time

10 December 2020

Taking inspiration from a far-sighted Finnish nuclear waste project, anthropologist Vincent Ialenti explains why embracing Earth's radical long-term can be good for well-being.F

For much of 2020, the world has been trapped in the short-term: glued to 24-hour news cycles, pandemic announcements, or social media culture wars. With the virus and politics drawing almost all attention, it has been difficult to imagine next year – let alone further ahead.

In times of global crisis, focusing on the present is justified. Yet as we move into 2021, there is good reason to spend some time also reflecting on our place within the longer-term past and future. For one, there remain creeping problems that we cannot ignore, such as climate change, antibiotic resistance or biodiversity loss. But also because contemplating deeper time can help replenish our mental energies during adversity, and offer a meditative source of catharsis amid the frenzy of the now.

In my research and writing, I explore the worldviews of nuclear waste experts in Finland, who reckon with radioactive isotopes over extremely long-term planetary timeframes. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, whereas uranium-235’s half-life is over seven hundred million years. Like many anthropologists doing fieldwork within other cultures, my mission has been to uncover insights that could widen people’s perspectives in my own or other societies.

While the experiences of a nuclear waste expert may seem an unusual source of inspiration for well-being, this research has taught me that there can be personal benefits to stretching the intellect across time. Here's how you might integrate some of these principles into your own life as you step into next year.


My deep time studies began in Finland, where I spent 32 months among the country's "Safety Case" experts, who are planning the long-term impact of a repository for nuclear waste beneath the island of Olkiluoto. Sometime in the next few years, this repository will begin caching high-level, used-up nuclear fuel.

Recording 121 interviews, I immersed myself in a community in which mind-bending visions of far-future worlds figured into everyday office routines, policymaking considerations, industry plans, and regulatory rules. The Safety Case experts forecasted geological, hydrological, and ecological events that could occur over the coming tens of thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of years. They had to plan for distant future glaciations, climate changes, earthquakes, floods, human and animal population changes, and more.

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The Olkiluoto repository from the air, where the effects of deep time are weighed up (Credit: Posiva Oy)

This fieldwork inspired my recent book, called Deep Time Reckoning, which describes strategies to better envision potential future worlds. Based on the wisdom of the Finnish experts and more, my aim is to provide a practical guide in the art of long-termism.

Finland’s Safety Case experts developed several methods for forecasting the Olkiluoto repository’s long-term fate. They made quantitative computer models of ecological and geological changes millennia from now. They developed engineering reports on mechanical strength tests done on copper nuclear waste canisters. They wrote prose scenarios detailing repository components’ future conditions.

Yet one of their techniques can be particularly useful for escaping the stresses of today’s rampant short-termism. It involves tapping into the power of analogy to envision distant future worlds.

Deep time analogies

Early on, the Safety Case experts realised that they would need to gauge what a future Finnish ice sheet could look like during and after the next Ice Age. Such an event could have disruptive effects on a repository. So, they studied a massive glacial ice sheet near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, collecting data on local groundwater, ice, and permafrost.

They also visited Lake Lappajärvi, a crater lake that formed after a meteor crashed into Finland roughly 73 million years ago, to better understand how the country's landscape could erode over the coming ice ages.

The glaciers near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland provided clues to the long-term effects of the next ice age (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Another problem they faced was forecasting the future of their copper nuclear waste canisters, and whether they would corrode. For that, they studied a Mesozoic copper deposit found in mudstone in Devon, England. The copper was preserved for 170 million years without succumbing to major corrosion. They also studied a bronze cannon from the shipwrecked 17th-Century Swedish warship Kronan, which was submerged for almost three centuries in Baltic seawater and sediment.

These locations and materials all provided useful present-day stand-ins for far future events and processes. There are, of course, limits to what a bronze cannon or the copper in Devon mudrock can tell us about a nuclear waste canister buried in granite bedrock for millennia. Yet for the Safety Case experts, analogues offered a real-world concreteness that was, at least, more tangible than empty speculation.

It's not possible to visit the far future to see what happens there – but the lesson is that analogues of deep time are already here on Earth if we look close enough.

Will copper canisters corrode in the long-term? Finland's nuclear waste experts turned to analogues for answers (Credit: Emmi Korhonen/Getty Images)

Since my research in Finland, I often look for similar examples of deep time as I navigate my everyday life. I have found that coupling analogues with simple contemplative exercises often helps me escape the pressures of the present and stretch the mind into the longer-term.

There may be one waiting right outside your door. Each plot of land has its own geological history that, with a little background research, can be uncovered and transformed into an exercise in reflecting on Earth’s distant past and future. The trick is to draw from information and imageries we already have in our heads of present-day landscapes, and then stretch them, analogically, across time.

As an example, I enjoy hiking through Appalachia’s rolling hills. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the region was home to taller mountains. Some say their elevations rivaled those of today’s Alps, Rockies, or Himalayas. When I hike, I re-imagine my surroundings by drawing on the images I already have in my head of what taller mountain ranges look like today. Making this analogy stretches the momentary "now" of my hike into much wider histories and futures – introducing a rough approximation of deep time into my awareness of my surroundings.

Wandering above Appalachia’s hills, imagining deep time (Credit: Allegra Wrocklage)

City-dwellers can do this too. I spent the past few years working in Washington DC. I would often walk past four bald cypress trees, planted in the mid-1800s, in Lafayette Square right near the White House. These trees thrived in this region long before US politicians turned up. In 1922, excavation crews clearing ground for building the city’s Mayflower Hotel found fossilised cypresses a few metres underground. The trees grew about 100,000 years ago and lived to be about 1,700 years old. Back then, America’s capital city was a literal swamp.

So, when looking at, say, an ancient artifact in a history museum, why not start thinking analogically? This could mean imagining how your home appliances might be exhibited in a history museum thousands of years from now. Or, when watching a documentary on archaeological excavations of ancient Mesopotamian settlements, why not try imagining what Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, London, or Mumbai might look like to archaeologists excavating them millennia from now?

A simple internet search might reveal that your hometown had a rainforest ecosystem at one point in its geological history. If so, you can do an analogical exercise that asks: what imageries do I have in my mind – imageries of, say, the Amazon – that I can use to re-imagine my neighbourhood as if it were a rainforest?

There may be places to visit nearby that already provide this climatic big picture. The Garfield Conservatory’s Fern Room in Chicago, for instance, gives visitors a "glimpse of what Illinois might have looked like millions of years ago". It features an indoor lagoon along with plants from species groups from the time of dinosaurs. After visiting, Chicagoans can use the ferns to re-imagine their streets, analogically, as prehistoric lagoons. As another example, the US Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin brands itself as harbouring the "finest features of the glacial landscape", where you can contemplating Earth’s icy past via the trail’s drumlins, eskers, kames, erratics, and kettles.

Like many botanical gardens, the Garfield Conservatory’s Fern Room in Chicago transports visitors to a different geological era (Credit: peterson.jon/wikipedia/CC BY 3.0)

Other climate-based approaches promise to help people visualise their future too. One is called Climate Analogues, a concept created by the inter-governmental organisation CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). CGIAR has built a website that looks at rainfall and climate forecasts for future places across the Earth. Then it makes analogies between the forecasts and present-day regions already seeing those conditions. The idea is that if, say, the climate of Durban, South Africa in 2030 will resemble that of northern Argentina today, then the maize farmers in Africa should seek advice from their South American counterparts.

Deep time rejuvenation

Doing Safety Case-inspired deep time exercises can not only help us imagine local landscapes over decades, centuries, and millennia. It can also help us take a step back from our everyday lives – transporting our minds to different places and times, and feeling rejuvenated when we return.

There are several benefits to this. Cognitive scientists have shown how creativity can be sparked by perceiving "something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there)". Corporate coaches have recommended taking breaks from our familiar thinking patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Contemplating deep time can cultivate a thoughtful appreciation of our species’ and planet’s longer-term histories and futures.

Yet it can also help us refresh during frazzled moments of unrest. Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep time contemplation can enrich us by evoking a momentary sense of awe. A Stanford University study has shown how awe can expand our sense of time and promote well-being. Anthropologist Barbara King has shown how awe can be "mind- and heart-expanding".

Our challenge, then, is to discover, in ourselves, techniques for always bringing an awe-inspired awareness of deep time with us – wherever our futures may lead.

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