For my first book of the new year (2012: The Homo Sapiens Swan Song ), I read Joseph Masco’s labor of love, The Nuclear Borderlands. It’s an obsessively researched work of anthropology, cultural criticism, nuclear history, sociology, and eschatology.
I was born during the final years of the Cold War, where nuclear paranoia was still a subject of our cultural consciousness. While it seems as if this anxiety has dwindled over the past thirty years, Masco argues that this paranoia has actually become a part of our routine. Its serpentine roots have burrowed themselves into the depths of our cultural subconsciousness.
Prior to the mid-20th century, it was only proposed by an imaginative few that humankind would be humankind’s own end. After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the following half-century of nuclear posturing, it was finally made apparent to us – on a very primal level – that this eventual self-destruction has been all but totally assured.
As Masco explains, with continued advancements in weapons technology, the actual process of detonation of a nuclear device is tremendously complex. This partly explains the absurd nuclear paranoia (remember ‘dirty bombs’?) that temporarily flared after 9/11. This anxiety resides just under the surface and has permanently altered our conception-of and interaction-with the world.
One of the difficulties of nuclear fallout (physical, cultural and sociological) is that its meaning can never be understood. This elusiveness contributes to our subconscious anxiety, and is further exacerbated by the complexity, secrecy and bureaucracy surrounding and defining the scope and influence of the nuclear complex.
Nuclear Borderlands is a stunning piece of comprehensive research. Along the way, there are some conjectures and rabbit holes which suggest that a book like this could easily be converted into volumes. One of the more interesting pieces of esotera I picked up along the way was Masco’s brief mention of a government-sanctioned text titled Expert Judgment on Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located in Eddy County, New Mexico is the world’s third ‘deep geological repository’ for nuclear waste. The other two are located in Germany. The WIPP is essentially a graveyard for nuclear waste which, though useless for nuclear energy and weaponry, still poses a considerable radioactive danger. What is there to be done? Bury it.
The burial plans solve the problem for the present, but the waste will still present a danger for tens of thousands of years. America will be gone, English will likely be gone, and many other aspects of the Earth will be otherwise unrecognizable. The fear is that future generations will be unaware of the danger beneath the earth in Eddy County. These generations might ‘inadvertently’ breach the walls of the WIPP, causing the very type of problem we are currently trying to avoid. What makes Expert Judgment so interesting to Anobium is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a government-sanctioned piece of science fiction.
It discusses and rates the possibilities that ‘future societies’ might access the WIPP. The discussion appears stiff and official, with its statistics, graphs, qualitative analyses and highly technical language, but it is all based on visions of the future, which themselves are informed by present and temporal self-conception. Here the future societies tunnel, burrow, dig, and trample – but for what? The phrase ‘alternative futures’ also appears intermittently, along with other terminology that might be more approriate for the Science Fiction shelf at your used book store.
While the writing in Expert Judgment is dry, banal and obtuse, from a critical standpoint, the text itself is conceptual goldmine. Masco’s Nuclear Borderlands helps elucidate some of the finer points of the essay, but for those seeking texts explicitly suspended at the junction of fiction, science, politics, history, prognostication, paranoia, and speculation, Expert Judgment has this in spades.