- The Unthinkable Fossil of Hope
In the original print version of this essay, the sources of some direct quotes were not clearly identified. The PDF version has been corrected and includes an updated selected bibliography. [ Click to view updated PDF ]
In 1959, a badger burrowed through the security line surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. The site had been established in 1943 as a part of the Manhattan Project and was home to the first ever full-scale plutonium production reactor. The plutonium manufactured at Hanford was used in the first nuclear bomb tested at the Trinity Site in New Mexico and the Fat Man Bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Despite the site’s high level of security, the burrowing badger was not the first or the last creature to breach Hanford’s security line. Over the years, both while the site was active and after it was decommissioned, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation also had trouble with wasps, ground squirrels, pocket mice, and rabbits that spread hundreds of curies of radioactive waste over thousands of acres through their droppings. Tumbleweeds also proved to be a particular nuisance due to their root systems that grew up to twenty feet, reaching down into the contaminated soil, taking up radioactive material like strontium-90, and then breaking off to “blow around the dry land.”
Two years later in 1961, an experiment called Project Gnome was carried out in southern New Mexico. Project Gnome was “the first of twenty-seven domestic nuclear detonation experiments conducted under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission” and also held the distinction of being the first weapon test to be completed outside of the Nevada Test Site since Trinity in 1953. The closest cities to the detonation site were Loving and Carlsbad, and for the special occasion, buses brought in more than five hundred people to witness the experiment. While the test was billed as an entirely contained explosion, a radioactive vapor vented up through the ground and into the atmosphere within minutes of the detonation, not that anyone saw it, of course.
Today, the old Project Gnome site is marked by a concrete pedestal. The marker includes limited information about the original test done back in 1961 and makes no mention of the potential for residual radioactivity. Over the last fifty-seven years, cattle have used the marker as a scratching post, not only wearing down the message, but also shifting the sign several feet from its original location.
Animals also caused unforeseen havoc in 2013 when the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden was forced to shut down due to a massive influx of moon jellyfish clogging the plant’s intake piping. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the “world’s biggest boiling water reactor and the largest nuclear facility in the Nordic region” had closed unexpectedly. The same thing had [End Page 38] happened before, in 2005. Blooms of moon jellyfish had also clogged the USS Ronald Reagan’s condensers while the carrier was docked in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006, and halted all operations at the Sual coal-fired power plant in Luzon, Philippines, in 1999.
In his 2015 essay “Infectious Connectivity,” the futurist John A. Sweeney describes these massive blooms of jellyfish capable of shutting down everything from major nuclear power plants to warships with “the tactical capability to engage a small country” as a sign that we are living in what he calls “postnormal times.”
While the traditional field of Future Studies is often divided into scenarios of “near future, medium future, and far future,” Sweeney explains that, “in postnormal times, futures are divided into the black elephant, the black swan, and the black jellyfish.”
The black elephant is part of the “extended present” and only includes the next fifteen to twenty years. The black swan “exists beyond the next 15–20 years yet has no definite time horizon.” If a black elephant is essentially part of the foreseeable future, in many ways predictable, then “black swans in the Familiar Future(s) are not perceptible or articulated, even by experts, which is to say that they can and might appear seemingly...