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Ordinary Doom: Literary Studies in the Waste Land of the Present

From: New Literary History
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2010
pp. 329-349 | 10.1353/nlh.2010.0002

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I. The Long Now

In 1989 the physicist and science-fiction writer Gregory Benford was asked to take part in a series of U.S. Department of Energy work-groups studying the prospects for nuclear waste storage in the New Mexico desert. Perhaps “studying” is not the right word: their charge, emanating ultimately from a congressional oversight committee, was to consider how best to make and mark a site that would safely contain deadly radioactive materials for at least the next ten thousand years.1 This is a period longer than all recorded history and longer, certainly, than one could realistically imagine the United States of America persisting in anything like its current form. To project coherent risk narratives forward into such an explosively ramifying mass of uncertainty could only be pure speculation—something closer to what Benford does as a novelist than as a scientist. Only Congress, the man who called to hire him wryly noted, could concoct a task at once so earnestly practical and so far beyond belief, and then fund it. Nonetheless Benford, author of a classic fiction of environmental catastrophe, Timescape (1980), with its own take on questions of toxic waste and the passage of time, agreed to take part.

Determining the probabilities of accidental intrusion into the site was daunting enough; they amply confirm Ulrich Beck’s account of the present as a “world risk society” driven increasingly by a dynamic of nonknowledge, where the ever more avid calculation of probabilities is beset by the continual multiplication, in that very process, of positive uncertainties.2 More broadly, whereas science was once thought of as a way of reducing ignorance, it now generates an uncontrollable array of unknowable technological side effects cascading into and back from the future. Living in the knowledge of this nonknowledge, inhabitants of the risk society can also be said, according to Beck, to be living in a time of “reflexive modernity,” when the consequences of modernization have become a source of widespread worry.3 Long gone is the time when political economy could be conceived only in terms of the distribution (or maldistribution) of goods; conceived, that is, as founded on the opposition between goods and their lack. This is the image of society we take from the first phase of modernity, and it still motivates efforts to distribute wealth more equally, as indeed it should. But the world as we confront it now is also self-evidently about the distribution of bads.4 And among the most pervasive of these bads are ones that take the form of waste or, more abstractly and critically, toxicity. Combined with old-fashioned wants, bads make up the package dropped into the lives of the powerless by the profiteers of contemporary “disaster capitalism,” as Naomi Klein aptly calls it, while even the relatively privileged are invited, when they are not slavering over their newest gadgets, to live in fear of what modernization hath wrought.5

Nuclear radiation, in particular, knows no social bounds, making for a curiously “democratic,” as well as dizzyingly long-lived, dilemma. Of course, it might have been better to have never generated nuclear waste, and the risks that come with it, but by 1989 that missile had already, as it were, left the silo. The comparative risk attached to various storage methods was dwarfed by the risk already taken on behalf—or in spite—of future generations in the decision to use nuclear power generation for various reasons (energy, weapons, medical procedures) in the first place. This scenario imposes a certain tragic “conservatism” on us all: whatever combination of institutions and technologies can contain our waste must be conserved, kept whole. Meanwhile, the temporary facilities in which the waste was being kept were relatively flimsy, and filling up fast. “We are running out of time,” notes Benford at several points in his account, vertiginously yoking the short with the very long term.6 Perhaps, under these circumstances, the best thing would simply have been to hide the waste (on the model of King Tut’s tomb, undisturbed for a not-unimpressive three millennia) and hope for the best. And yet such a strategy would have looked conspicuously like sweeping...

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