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Posts Tagged ‘Vincent Ialenti

“Human decision-making is complex. On our own, our tendency to yield to short-term temptations, and even to addictions, may be too strong for our rational, long-term planning.”*…

Many of us acknowledge that long-term thinking is a difficult, but necessary investment in a safe and happy future– our obligation to those who come after us. But it turns out that long-term thinking has more immediate benefits as well…

In times of global crisis, focusing on the present is justified. Yet as we move into 2021, there is good reason to spend some time also reflecting on our place within the longer-term past and future. For one, there remain creeping problems that we cannot ignore, such as climate change, antibiotic resistance or biodiversity loss. But also because contemplating deeper time can help replenish our mental energies during adversity, and offer a meditative source of catharsis amid the frenzy of the now.

In my research and writing, I explore the worldviews of nuclear waste experts in Finland, who reckon with radioactive isotopes over extremely long-term planetary timeframes. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, whereas uranium-235’s half-life is over seven hundred million years. Like many anthropologists doing fieldwork within other cultures, my mission has been to uncover insights that could widen people’s perspectives in my own or other societies.

While the experiences of a nuclear waste expert may seem an unusual source of inspiration for well-being, this research has taught me that there can be personal benefits to stretching the intellect across time. Here’s how you might integrate some of these principles into your own life as you step into next year.

Doing Safety Case-inspired deep time exercises can not only help us imagine local landscapes over decades, centuries, and millennia. It can also help us take a step back from our everyday lives – transporting our minds to different places and times, and feeling rejuvenated when we return.

There are several benefits to this. Cognitive scientists have shown how creativity can be sparked by perceiving “something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).” Corporate coaches have recommended taking breaks from our familiar thinking patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Contemplating deep time can cultivate a thoughtful appreciation of our species’ and planet’s longer-term histories and futures.

Yet it can also help us refresh during frazzled moments of unrest. Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep time contemplation can enrich us by evoking a momentary sense of awe. A Stanford University study has shown how awe can expand our sense of time and promote well-being. Anthropologist Barbara King has shown how awe can be “mind- and heart-expanding.”

Our challenge, then, is to discover, in ourselves, techniques for always bringing an awe-inspired awareness of deep time with us – wherever our futures may lead.

Taking inspiration from a far-sighted Finnish nuclear waste project, anthropologist Vincent Ialenti (@vincent_ialenti) explains why embracing Earth’s radical long-term can be good for well-being today: the benefits of embracing ‘deep time’ in a year like this.

* Peter Singer


As we find perspective and peace in being good ancestors, we might say alles Gute zum Geburtstag to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; he was born on this date in 1742. Lichtenberg held the first professorship in Germany explicitly dedicated to experimental physics; he is remembered for his posthumously published notebooks, which he himself called sudelbücher, a description modelled on the English bookkeeping term “waste books” or “scrapbooks”, and for his discovery of tree-like electrical discharge patterns now called Lichtenberg figures.

One of the first scientists to introduce experiments with apparatus in their lectures, Lichtenberg was a popular and respected figure in contemporary European intellectual circles. He was one of the first to introduce Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod to Germany by installing such devices in his house and garden sheds. He maintained relations with most of the great figures of that era, including Goethe and Kant. Ans was sought out by other leading scientists: Alessandro Volta visited Göttingen especially to see him and his experiments; mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss sat in on his lectures.

But Lichtenberg was also an accomplished satirist, whose works put him in the highest ranks of German writers of the 18th century. And he proposed the standardized paper size system used globally today (except in Canada and the U.S.) defined by ISO 216, which has A4 as the most commonly used size.

Perhaps in time, the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own…

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg


“Be a good ancestor”*…

The planned underground repository near the Olkiluoto nuclear-power plant in Finland could teach us the merits of long-term thinking

The Greek philosopher Plato once imagined a city that provides full justice to its citizens. Setting out his ideas in the Republic almost 2500 years ago, Plato did not, however, think that such a city could ever be realized. Radical (and surely unachievable) transformations in education, culture and government would be required to establish and sustain it. “Ridiculous,” Plato concluded.

In a similar vein, the US cultural anthropologist Vincent Ialenti envisions a fictional city whose citizens have been trained to think so that humans don’t need to flee the planet to survive. So utopian is the picture that Ialenti – writing in his new book Deep Time Reckoning – calls it “absurd”. Yet that notion is no less absurd, he continues, than the way humans are now acting, “careening toward an Anthropocene cliff”.

Based at George Washington University, Ialenti developed this picture by drawing on three years of fieldwork in Finland, where he’d studied experts who were evaluating the risks of a permanent repository for nuclear waste…

The Finnish experts developed various strategies to envision “deep time”. For example, they implemented unusual computer modelling methods to integrate a variety of datasets, scenarios, maps and reports over an unprecedented range of issues, including climate change, geological events, shorelines, human demographics, vegetation growth and ecosystems. For clues on the long-term evolution of materials and planetary landscapes, they studied everything from ancient Roman nails and 2100-year-old Chinese cadavers to cannons from a sunken 17th-century Swedish warship and traces of a crater in Finland caused by a meteor 73 million years ago.

Ialenti is fully aware of the deficiencies and partialities of the Finnish project and of his own study…

Climate-change predictions, even for 2050, seem hopelessly far in the future, and tainted by politics, guesswork and subjectivity. Thinking about the present seems more do-able, while thinking about tens or hundreds of thousands of years in the future appears starry-eyed and abstract. But Ialenti believes the exact opposite is true. What’s abstract (in the sense of detached from reality) is what Ialenti calls “a manic fixation on the present”, and not being able to think about humanity thousands of years hence.

Ialenti is less interested in the conclusions reached by the Finnish experts than by their audacious aims, which are to develop methods to break free from what he calls our “shallow time discipline”. He then tries to devise ways to retrain our habits to encourage humans to think long-term; for him, Deep Time Reckoning is not a stale academic treatise but more of a “practical toolkit”.

 This toolkit includes high-school civics classes devoted to teaching long-term developments: of the universe since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago; of Earth since 4.5 billion years ago; of Earth’s life, dinosaurs and humans; and of the evolution of languages and technologies. It envisions school pupils reading about futuristic visions by Ray Kurzweil and Marxist descriptions of world utopias.

Ialenti even asks his university students to examine the tools that the insurance industry uses to protect companies against future calamities, and the methods that the Catholic Church uses to maintain institutional continuity. Practiced over generations, Ialenti thinks, such an education would eventually make deep time thinking “less wacky and aloof”, and more second-nature…

Plato meant the Republic to be a beacon for humans to think about justice in the present, not as the blueprint for an actual city to be realized in the future. After all, if you head straight towards a lighthouse, you usually end up on the rocks.

Somewhere in deep time looms a catastrophe that we don’t yet have the imagination to envision, nor the will to confront. Ialenti thinks he finds in the Finnish nuclear-risk experts glimmerings of what it might take to cultivate the human behaviour needed to do so. Humanity’s long-range hope, Ialenti suggests, hangs on what we might call the Finlandization of the planet.

Professor Robert P. Crease (@rcrease) explains how a nuclear-waste program in Finland can help us to envisage the world thousands of years from now: “Very Deep Thinking.”

See also Ingrid Burrington‘s interview with Yale architecture and design professor Keller Easterling, “How to Design Better Systems in a World Overwhelmed by Complexity, ” and Jeremy Lent‘s “What Does An Ecological Civilization Look Like?

* Marian Wright Edelman


As we play the long game, we might spare a thought for Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski; he died on this date in 1950. Trained as an engineer, he developed a field called general semantics, which he viewed as both distinct from, and more encompassing than, the field of semantics. He argued that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and the languages humans have developed, and thus no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain’s responses to reality.

Korzybski was influential in fields across the sciences and humanities through the 1940s and 50s (perhaps most notably, gestalt therapists), and inspired science fiction writers (like Robery Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt) and philosophers like Alan Watts.

His best known dictum is “The map is not the territory.”


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