Warning the future about ourselves

IMAGE: Tyler Hewitt, Flickr CC-BY-NC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

As a species, humans expend relatively little thought on a future beyond ourselves. We’re just not wired for it. The survival instinct keeps us focused on our next meal, how we feel now, and our social relationships.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve come a long way. We now spend up to two decades of our lives on education, training ourselves to tend a sprawling tangle of technology and information.

And sure, we might save a few bucks for retirement, or vote for candidates who say they’ll preserve Social Security (ie., any given candidate). We might quit smoking to add a few years on the back end, though that also comes with short term benefits such as smelling less like a burned out trailer house.

But I doubt many of us spend too much time transfixed by the future. Sometimes when I’m pumping gas and the total reads $22.39 I wonder what life will be like in 2239. But only for a second. Then I go into the gas station and buy the sugary snack that will probably kill me. Such is the dichotomy of being a human, particularly an American one.

Many have considered the possibility of communicating with the people of the future. Specifically, how will our descendants know how amazing we are if we don’t tell them?

This has lead to many forgotten time capsules in the cornerstones of old buildings and countless desperate attempts to write the Great American novel, even though most living Americans haven’t read a novel since high school. We insist upon our importance and that of our times. In the unlikely event the people of the future actually heard our cloying messages we would likely appear as nothing more than a bad first date.

But what if we had a really important message for them? Like, “don’t touch this nuclear waste.”

That’s the subject of an Aug. 3 BBC News article, “How to build a nuclear warning for 10,000 years’ time,” by Mark Piesing.

According to the article a plaque over a nuclear waste storage site in New Mexico reads, “This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed dead is commemorated here … nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.”

Scientists crafted this statement to keep people from digging into the casks of discarded nuclear refuse buried beneath the desert sands. But, to be frank, it fascinates the hell out of me and I’m only from a few weeks into the future. That’s exactly how the aliens would hide their space gold!

Buried with all the nuclear waste is an assumption worth thinking about. Why is it really necessary to warn future peoples at all? Won’t they just be … us?

Well, maybe not. They will speak a different language and live by different cultural beliefs, neither of which exist yet. Society may have collapsed several times by the time someone clinks a future shovel against these underground hazards.

In her wonderful podcast “The Last Archive,” historian Jill Lapore demonstrates that time capsules only matter to the people who leave them behind. They lack context for the people who will find them. For all we know the people of the future will mine nuclear waste. They might built little towns above the hole: Cesium, Strontium, Plutonium Lakes, and the biggest of them all, Mutant Ion.   

But there is hope for a better outcome. In his article, Piesing explains how nuclear scientists all over the world are collaborating with planners, historians, artists and even sci-fi writers to figure out a solution. A sign or macabre statue won’t do the job. We have to live the teachings, forever.

Harry Lamppa once told me an old adage from studying history. The past and the present are fence posts. By lining them up you can plot where to put the next one. That is the future. One fence post at a time.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe musich says

    And for additional fun this year is the Bradbury 100. Here is a link to the Library of Congress reading…. https://raybradburyreadathon.com/

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