Learning From Disaster Edens
by Charles Mudede
This series will have four parts. The first part will concern the kind of false nothingness that leads to disaster edens, and also explain what a disaster eden is in the first place–a post-human, human-made wilderness. It will also concern what disaster edens can tell us about the world we, as humans, find ourselves in and are aware of. The second post will introduce the post-humanist feminism of Myra Hird (a disciple of the brilliant 20th century biologist Lynn Margulis) as a model for extracting lessons from disaster edens. The third will, with the work of Hird in mind, examine the subject of Michael Madsen’s documentary Into Eternity to see what can only be understood as the limits of humanness. From Hird’s work, we can examine the implications of grasping the fact that most of what are is not even human. From Madsen’s documentary, we get a view of how far we can foresee the human in the future–which, it turns out, is not that far at all. Finally, part four will put all of these pieces together into something that is more a prose poem than anything else.
Part One: The Death of the Nature of Nothingness
Let’s begin with a scene in The Empire Strikes Back. The Millenium Falcon (a spaceship with a bad reputation) is, once again, fleeing Imperial TIE Fighters. After going this way and that, up and down, Han Solo, the captain of the Millenium, somehow vanishes. The enemy is confounded. Where did he go? We see moments later that he has tricked the pursuers by landing on the edge (and blending with the surface) of a gigantic Star Destroyer. But how does he get out of this tight situation? If he detaches from the Destroyer, he will be detected. What’s needed is some kind of cover. It turns out to be this: When the Star Destroyer makes a routine trash dump, Han Solo lets the Millenium, which looks a piece of junk, fall and drift into space with the garbage.
This scene appeared on hundreds screens across America in the year right after the decade, the 70s, that mainstream America became aware of the limits of the environment. The scene expressed a fantasy that more and more Americans knew did not exist in reality: the nothingness of nature. The Star Destroyer dumps its garage into the nothingness of deep space. The trash floats away and will never be thought of again. Until the 70s, many saw the American wilderness in exactly the same way as the forces of the Galactic Empire saw deep space: whatever was dumped into it never returned. It entered a void, a non-place. This non-place was the essence of nature.
In December 1941, the heads of the Manhattan Project found themselves looking for a non-place in the US to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Hanford was eventually picked as this non-place. It had lots of water (the Columbia River), lots of power (hydroelectricity from the dams), and most importantly, lots of nothingness (desert, treeless hills, shrubs). During Handford’s most productive (and destructive) period, a tremendous amount of waste was simply pumped directly into the ground, into the nothingness, or stored in tanks that were buried in this nothingness. But as it turned out, there was no nothingness there. Handford was not a non-place but one intricately connected to a variety of biotic and non-biotic systems and processes. The radioactive waste resurfaced from the non-void. Many of the tanks containing radioactive materials are leaking to this day.
Hanford has become a disaster eden. What does this mean? It is a place no sane human will live in because it has been dangerously contaminated, polluted, poisoned by the unchecked activities of fellow human beings. Chernobyl is a disaster eden and the area near Fukushima will also become one too. Now, it’s understandable why we call these places disasters, but why also call them edens? Because the absence of humans does not mean the absence of life. Life at Hanford, for example, not only continues but thrives in the absence of humans. Life has found other ways to cope with our radioactive waste. And this return of life is edenic–meaning, a wilderness has reappeared as it was in the land before time, before the arrival of humans and all of their business. What can we learn from this kind of eden? We will see in the coming posts.
Part Two: A Planet of Cells
“For 85 percent of earth’s history, the biota consisted solely of microorganisms.” -Myra Hyrd
It is common to hear in popular discourses about the sorry state of the environment, that humans are destroying earth. But we are doing no such thing. The earth is not being destroyed, and most of this planet has nothing to do with us. There is only a thin layer of life, three miles into the ground and 25 miles up in the air. The famous astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson has pointed that if the earth was a billiard ball, the medium of life (the water on the surface–the oceans, the rivers, the lakes, the clouds), would be felt as nothing more than moisture on the finger tips. Life lives on an alien planet. Beneath the biosphere, there is something as strange, as Hadean, as inhospitable as Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter.
What is happening instead is our world is being destroyed. There is the earth (the planet) and there is our world, and the two should be not be confused. Our world cannot exist without the earth, but the earth can exist without our world. And what made our world possible is an incomprehensibly long history of improbable events that happened on a thin layer of moisture. Nothing about the earth had in it some deep structure that would result in animals, in apes, in social apes, in the language and thoughts of these social apes. Nor will the earth miss the extinction of this peculiar animal–the third chimpanzee, as Jared Diamond calls us.
True, the human world has collided with that of many other animals–rhinos, whales, birds, big cats–with the same catastrophic force as the comet that brought the long era of dinosaurs to an abrupt end. But if all these worlds were to go–including that of the humans, who are not even mostly human (human genomes are only found in about 10 percent of a human body)–what would remain on earth? The cells. We live on a planet of cells. This is what we learn from disaster edens: Humans are not life but a part of it. What we see in human-related and human-world catastrophes like Hanford and Chernobyl and Fukushima is the fact that life continues, not only at the animal level but, more importantly for life itself, at the bacterial level, the cell level. And even if an unprecedented event sterilized the surface and depths of our macroscopic and microscopic worlds, the earth would still be around. (It will, however, will be swallowed by an expanding sun in five or so billion years.)
“Humans,” writes Myra Hyrd, a sociologist who incorporates in her work and thinking the work and thinking of Lynn Margulis, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, “might ultimately render the biosphere inhospitable for humans and other animals, but this shifted biosphere will certainly survive human extinction. We may, in other words, precipitate global heating, but we are not capable of extinguishing the biosphere altogether.” Hyrd is a bold thinker. Her books and essays attempt to rethink human sociality and globality in connection with bacterial life, the foundation of animal life. And even deeper than that, to consider this real and critical connection with bacteria as one between dependence and indifference. We are dependant on bacteria but bacteria are indifferent to us. “Bacterial indifference’s radical asymmetry suggests the need for non-human centred theories of globality.” When we see the renewed wilderness of a disaster eden, we are in the presence of this living indifference. In our eyes it may be a mess, but the relative disorder may not matter much to cells. And what the mess reveals is not only eden before time, but the earth after we are gone.
Part Three: The Humans of Tomorrowland
Let’s turn to what can only be described as the first pyramid of our times, our mode of civilization in the 21st century: Finand’s Onkalo, which means “hiding place.” And what is to be hidden in this place? Exactly what Handford also wants to hide: radioactive nuclear waste. The Onkalo is the first it’s kind; it’s under construction at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant; and when completed in 2020, it will receive canisters of nuclear waste until 2120. In that year, which is not far off, it will be sealed and returned to the longue durée of nature.
But the day this hiding place is closed for what amounts to forever is also the day that the humans three or so generations from us (and humans who speak and talk like us) directly face a huge problem that troubles the humans of today: The humans who chance upon Onkalo in 100,000 years (the length of time scientists are certain the site will store the waste safely)…those humans might be very different culturally, biological, and mentally from what we are today. What kind of world will they live in, those distant others? Will they have a written language? Will they even know about our terrible history of nuclear power–Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hanford, Hiroshima? The time between us is too great. We can see the dust of stars of that remote place, but on the ground there is a thick, impenetrable mist.
In a future we cannot see or barely imagine from our point in time, the shadow of a human-like animal chances upon the sealed entrance of Onkalo. He sees a drawing of skull and crossbones. He sees strange marks. He looks around to see if others have seen what he has found. He is in a wild place, but here is something curious: the remains of a paved road, the crumbling walls and arches of concrete. He wonders what’s inside: Something good, something that will make him powerful?
How do we tell this poor devil to stay away, to fear and flee this place? This is the question Michael Madsen asks in his documentary Into Eternity: What kind of warning would work? He even proposes that maybe it’s better for us to leave nothing–no signs, no words, no entrances. We turn the site over to nature entirely. The human of the future comes across yet another wilderness of trees and bushes; he cluelessly walks over the silent catastrophe of his ancestors. This might be the best way to go because think about it: Did signs and warnings stop us from opening the pyramids of the pharaohs? No, we ignored them, we walked right in, we plundered their afterlife. But we were lucky. The adventurer or opportunist who comes across Onkalo will not be so lucky.
Conclusion: Hanford and the Ripples of the Universe
It appears that chance is not only found in the orbit of the earth, in the history of the earth, in the appearance of life in its water and ground, and in the very recent spread of a particularly powerful form of animal consciousness on its surface, but also the extended universe in which we find ourselves and find ourselves thinking about. Some even speculate that there are many universes all with different physical values. The properties of some of these universes are such that they have no light or hard things; and others, like ours, not only have stars but are hard enough for life (or the potential for life—simply because you have the stuff does not guarantee that life will happen). No one knows what a universe can do.
From Cosmic Habitat, a book by the British astrophysicist Martin Rees:
“…But everything here, right down to the photons lighting the scene after an eight-minute jaunt from the sun, bears witness to an extraordinary fact about the universe: Its basic properties are uncannily suited for life. Tweak the laws of physics in just about any way and—in this universe, anyway—life as we know it would not exist.”
The properties of our universe were set by nothing and are guided by nothing. They just happened to be right. And at just the right moment space expanded, stars appeared, burned, formed the heavy elements in their cores, ran out of fuel and exploded. Some of the heavy debris hardened into planets.
One of these planets turned out to be the best location for a number of those heavy elements to make an unexpected transition from matter behaving in an ordinary way to matter behaving bizarrely. This bizarre behavior is what we call life. It has been on this planet for around 3.5 billion years. And for most of this time life has been nothing but isolated cells. Recently, these cells achieved an incredible level of cooperation that we call animals. Nothing that humans have accomplished (cities, jumbo jets, and communication networks) can rival the level of cooperation/complexity needed to make an ant, a dog, a horse. The cooperation of cells that we call ourselves even turned to the stars.
In the late-90s, humans at one of the world’s most famous and vexing disaster edens, Hanford Nuclear Reservation (a facility whose founders saw in the Columbia River, which runs by it, a the ultimate wilderness of nothingness), set up a lab, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, to detect ripples in space and time. Einstein predicted the existence of such ripples in 1916. The theory is that these ripples were caused by unimaginably violent events in distant parts of the universe. The more we know about these ripples, the more we know about the stuff we find ourselves are made off. Stuff that has been around for billions of years and will be around for billions more. We are a brief crack of light.