Guardians Of The Future

The Nuclear Guardianship Project is a grassroots program for handling nuclear waste - and deepening our relationship to time

One of the articles in Making It Happen (IC#28)
Originally published in Spring 1991 on page 20
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Whether she’s helping people to move through despair about nuclear weapons to empowerment, or inviting them to experience the reality of other creatures through a Council of All Beings, Joanna Macy – author, teacher, deep ecologist, practicing Buddhist – is forever encouraging and enabling an opening of the heart. And in her most recent work, developing the Nuclear Guardianship Project for the Responsible Care of Radioactive Wastes, that opening extends not just to the suffering of present creatures, but to the suffering we inflict on the "beings of the future."

Being concerned for the people and creatures who will come after us means opening to the experience of what Macy calls "deep time" – taking in the reality of the time spans during which nuclear wastes will continue to be a hazard. Here she explains deep time, the Guardianship Project, and why humans have to stick around for the next couple of hundred millenia. For information about the Project or Joanna’s workshops, contact project staff at 3051 Adeline Street, Berkeley, CA 94703, Tel. 415/843-5092. Her new book, World as Lover, World as Self, will be published in May by Parallax Press.

Alan: How has the recent war in the Persian Gulf affected your perspective on your work?

Joanna: Like many people, at first I felt a sense of futility. I felt paralyzed, almost, for days – like a rabbit or deer frozen in the headlights of a car.

It took some time, and some grieving, and some deep breathing. I realized then that the war in no way changed the picture – except that it changed the context in which we were mounting these other efforts, by dramatizing more clearly the importance of the work that we undertake on behalf of life. More than ever, we are called to be guardians in every sense of the word.

We’re called to be guardians of truth, for one thing. When we see how facts are manipulated and misrepresented – as we are, in fact, deluged with lies – the extraordinary gift of consciousness, the attentive mind and the mindful heart, become perhaps the most precious of gifts. So whether we’re talking about truth, or something like the seeds that we need to maintain a varied agriculture, what more important task do we have but to guard these things for the sake of future beings – to carry them forward?

Alan: What are the roots of the Project?

Joanna: Well, it started with a kind of vision I had in England in 1983, when I visited the peace camps that had spontaneously arisen around nuclear bases – Greenham Common, Molesworth, Porton Down, Upper Heyford, and many others. I went on a pilgrimage to four of these places after a month’s lecture and workshop tour, and when I was there I sensed that I was on sacred ground. I had a feeling of déjà vu. I thought, "Oh, maybe I’m being reminded of the monasteries that kept the flame of learning alive in the Middle Ages." People made pilgrimages to those places too.

But then I realized, "No, this is about the future. This is how the radioactive remains are going to be guarded for the sake of future beings, through the generations, through the centuries, through the millennia – because the radioactivity must be kept out of the biosphere. And it can only be kept out by the attention of the human mind, watching. They’re going to guard it, and the guardian sites will be places of remembering and mindfulness, places to which people make pilgrimage." The logic of it became very clear to me then.

Of course, the story really starts back in the mid-1970s, when I was engaged in a citizen lawsuit against the Virginia Electric Power Company because of their faulty storage of irradiated fuel rods at a nuclear power plant. I did a lot of studying about nuclear waste and its effects on health – miscarriages, genetic mutation, cancers, epidemics of leukemia and viral disease, and so forth.

So always in my mind there was this awesome presence of what I call the "poison fire." How could I even connect with it? It’s the most mind-numbing, heart-crushing thing to look at, because we’ve created this radioactive waste in truly horrendous amounts, and we don’t know what in the world to do with it – except to bury it deep, to try to put it out of sight and out of mind.

Alan: Which is ludicrous – the danger will outlast the security of any burial site and persist for something like 10,000 generations.

Joanna: And we hardly know what one generation means in terms of our planning. We tend to think in terms of the last quarter of the fiscal year. So the logic was, to me, irrefutable – this stuff has to be watched. No container lasts as long as the radioactivity it contains. And scientific studies show that even putting it half a mile down in Carlsbad, New Mexico, or Yucca Mountain, Nevada, isn’t safe, because it will seep out through seismic activity and the action of underground water.

The poison fire needs to be kept visible at ground level, so that people of the future know where it is. It has to be retrievable for monitoring and repair of the containers, or for re-containerizing it, which can be done relatively safely. We have the technology to do monitored retrievable storage. The only reason that government and industry and the public at large doesn’t conceive of this is because we’re unaccustomed to thinking of long periods of time – and because we try to put it on a balance sheet.

Alan: And how can we arrange to pay for a quarter million years of radioactive storage?

Joanna: Exactly – we can’t! But we forget that our species has demonstrated a capacity to be very devoted to our offspring and to our own health. We’ll really do a lot – most of what we do for our kids isn’t for financial reasons. Once we understand that caring for our offspring is what guardianship is about, the moral will is going to be there. It depends on lengthening the time-span we allow ourselves to inhabit, and on doing despair and empowerment work – so that we’re able to sustain the gaze at what isn’t pretty to look at. But we’re capable of that. Once the necessity is made clear, we will have the moral and spiritual strength. I have no doubt about that.

Alan: What impresses me most about the project is that it’s the only option on the table that addresses the reality of the long stretches of time involved in dealing with nuclear waste. What’s happening in the project right now?

Joanna: Yesterday our local group visited the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor, outside Sacramento, California. It’s the first reactor in our country to have been closed down by popular vote. It’s very beautiful, actually, and I was looking at it the way it might look to beings of the future – one hundred, two hundred years from now – coming across the fields and seeing those beautiful, clean, curving lines of the cooling tower. What a great pilgrimage goal! [laughter]

Well, David Freeman, General Manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, told us of his concerns about nuclear waste – how moving it not only contaminates new areas, but also involves inevitable transportation accidents, and how its burial risks leakage deep underground. He said, "Nobody is ready to hear this, but it’s much safer to just keep it right here at Rancho Seco." He didn’t know that this was also our belief – we were just a group of concerned citizens.

But when he understood that we agreed, he was surprised to meet a group of people willing to face the long-term consequences of making this stuff – and he urged us to contact policymakers and to work to change the climate of thinking in the country. He agreed that ground-level storage would permit retrieval of the waste as technical methods are developed in the future to neutralize or transmute its radioactivity.

When it came to the reactor itself, he seemed to assume that eventually it would have to be dismantled – sawed into pieces that would be carted off somewhere else. But that process puts a lot of radioactivity into the air, so we argued for entombing the core in cement, re-entombing it periodically, and guarding it on-site – for as long as necessary (which for the nickel in the core is 3 million years, or virtually forever).

Of course, we didn’t get into the fact that Guardianship is, and has to be, a spiritual vocation. Guardianship must survive many changes and upheavals in political and economic and cultural systems. So we need low-tech, enduring ways by which people can be faithful in guarding the poison fire. And the sooner we start, the better.

Alan: What is the Guardianship Project doing to hasten that beginning?

Joanna: At this point, we’re creating an organization after two and a half years of being a local study/action group – our "fire group," we call it. We’ve also been doing presentations that invite people to look at this time and the decisions being made now around the poison fire from a vantage point in the future. We use the power of our imagination to go into the future, and present a scenario that takes place at a Guardian Site of the future. A Guardian Site is anyplace where there is nuclear waste or radioactively contaminated structures. We imagine them becoming places of contemplation and pilgrimage [see box on p. 36].

Alan: I listened to a tape of a presentation while washing the dishes one day, and it brought me to tears. It was beautifully realized.

Joanna: Well, it’s been shared around the world with a limited number of people, and it always awakens a strong response. So we’ve decided the time has come to shift into a higher gear. We’re incorporating, and we’re developing a Guardianship Training. We now have the knowledge and the materials to begin an educational campaign that will amount to training in both the technical knowledge and the moral vigilance that is required to establish and maintain Guardian Sites.

The idea is to keep the waste where it is. The ground underneath is already contaminated. Transportation is too dangerous. This means that local citizens should participate in making the decisions about nuclear waste and overseeing its safe-guarding. So we’ll be providing people with materials to create their own Guardian groups.

The training has three components – three strands braided together. The first is technical: people will learn the physics of radiation and containment required for nuclear waste storage. This will demystify the knowledge, so that an ordinary citizen can learn enough to make the political decisions. It’s really not fair to leave this responsibility on the shoulders of people in government and industry – this is a civic responsibility. This stuff was made in our name.

Second is the political strand – learning about the institutions, the departments, the corporations, the bureaus, the hearings, the legislatures and so forth where the decisions are made, and learning how to intervene in that process. Who’s deciding what, and when? Wherever your Guardian group is, you will practice your political knowledge by getting involved.

The third strand is perhaps the most important, because it’s the most neglected – the spiritual or moral strand. We need to find the deep roots of our motivation, to reassess and redefine our most deeply held values. We need values that are life-sustaining. And we need to learn how to cultivate our strength to uphold them, by looking to the spiritual traditions of our planet – the ones to which we were born as well as others. This has been very strong here in our local group.

Alan: What sorts of things does your group do to sustain those values and motivations?

Joanna: We developed what I call "deep time work," so that we can feel empowered by beings of the future. I, for one, have often felt like throwing in the towel. I’ve thought, "This is the last thing I want to be thinking about! I have better things to do!"

But then I would feel them – the future beings – because we have done a lot of work in our group to make them real for us, real as if they were right at our sides. I would feel them at my shoulder, giving me a little shove and saying "Come on, Joanna! After all, you’re alive now, and we’re not! It’s the decisions that are made now that will matter to us. Don’t let the poison fire leak out!" It’s a very jovial relationship, actually. I love them a lot.

Alan: What exactly is "deep time"?

Joanna: Well, the term "deep time" expresses what we experience when we step outside the shrinking time box in which our culture encloses us. At this point in the closing years of the twentieth century, we in western industrialized culture have a very unusual, unprecedented, and idiosyncratic experience of time. We are increasingly cut off from the past and the future in a shrinking box – in which we race like a squirrel in a cage, at increasingly frenetic speeds. I believe these two features of our experience of time are fundamental to the way we are destroying the Earth – so moving beyond them is fundamental to its healing.

The way we’re using up our resources, piling up the deficit, dumping toxics; the shoddy ways we build our buildings and highway system and what have you – all of those things reveal a remarkably callous attitude toward those who are coming after us, even our own children.

Alan: It’s as if we don’t believe in the future.

Joanna: Yes! We cancel it out. Ty Cashman, a philosopher friend of mine, feels that we’ve done this as a nation because we ran out of frontier – we canceled the future so that we could keep on using up the Earth as though it were limitless. There’s a Toles cartoon which points out that the only really durable things we’re leaving for the coming generations are toxic waste dumps. Now, you can say our generation is just selfish, but I find it more helpful to understand it in terms of our experience of time.

Alan: So our inability to experience the reality of time drives the behavior. How did we lose that ability?

Joanna: Robert J. Lifton, in his book The Broken Connection, points to the advent of nuclear weaponry as something that cut us off both from the future and the past. It has wounded our ability to conceive of on-goingness through time by providing an imagery of total biological destruction and producing what he calls a sense of "radical biological severance." It marooned us in the present.

Alan: And that foreshortened perspective doesn’t foster a lot of hope. These days one often hears people say things like, "Well, maybe the planet would be better off without us."

Joanna: I’ve even thought that myself. But you know why we humans have to stay around? Because we have to watch the nuclear waste. We can’t leave now! We’ve done a big doo-doo here that we have to guard! [laughter]

The other thing about being marooned in the present is that we’re squeezed into this frenetic hurry. We’re always "short on time" – time itself becomes a scarcity. Jeremy Rifkin’s book Time Wars summarizes how our technology has shifted us from measuring time by the changing seasons or the movement of the stars, to the ticking of the clock, to the nanoseconds of the computer. We have moved beyond time as an organically measurable experience – the nanosecond is nothing that we can mark with our bodies. Larry Dossey has a name for the stress and illness that results: "hurry sickness."

Alan: What’s the cure for hurry sickness?

Joanna: In a sense, I’m the last one to ask, because I am hurried and time-ridden and always have been – maybe that’s why I’m drawn to this work! I do have some answers, though, coming out of our work with deep time.

Part of it has to do with the way we image time. If we image it as a straight line, then we’re at a point along it – the future is out ahead of you and the past is irretrievably behind you. But if you take that point that is now, and instead put it at the center of concentric circles – or intersecting cones – that represent past and future, the past and future can pulse in and out. See the difference? Instead of rushing along a line, you’re in the center. That invites us to a concept of time that, in addition to being sequential, can also be simultaneous.

Now, the notion of simultaneity in time became strategically urgent for me around nuclear waste. I kept thinking, "Oh, the beings of the future will see our decisions around nuclear waste as more important than anything else we do – more important than our works of art, or our forms of government, even our wars. They’ll want to know, "Did you keep it safe? Or did you spew it out to kill us and make us sick?" So I felt I needed to connect with them, to find out what advice they had to offer.

This is not getting occult or anything – it’s being hard-boiled about the different ways time works. Mystics and philosophers say that chronological time is only one way time works – and it’s a function of our consciousness, in part. But there are also ways in which all of time can be construed as simultaneous.

For instance, in deep time workshops we do an "evolutionary remembering" – letting our past be present to us. We look at our hands and see the fins they used to be, and so on. In a similar way, we can be with the beings of the future and see what they have become. It’s playing with our imagination, and not letting a literalness about chronological time deaden that. This isn’t a childish game – in a very real sense, our progeny for generations to come are in us now. Your great-grandchildren are right there in your gonads!

So that’s one way to escape the pressure of time – to feel this coexistence of the past and the future. Some moments, when all I can think about is the present, I pause, and I breathe, and I know that the future beings will breathe with something of the same rhythm, and I feel them breathing with me.

Another way to escape the pressure of time is to go into the forest, where we can allow ourselves to move into the different time rhythms and scale of that ecosystem. We can go up on a mountain or onto the rocks and enter geologic time. We can look at the stars and enter into astronomic time – astronomers do that every day. Our minds can let that be real for us, if we have the will to use our imagination that way.

Alan: And such exercises sustain energy for activism?

Joanna: No question. And the new story of the universe, being presented by people like Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme [see IC #12 and #24], also sustains energy, because it helps us acknowledge time, and even fall in love with it. When we’re in a hurry, time becomes an enemy – something to be conquered. That’s very dangerous, because with nuclear weapons we have the technology to bring time itself to a stop. So we must love time, and not view it as an enemy.

What better way to love time than through stories, since stories unfold through time? The story of how you came out of the stars, how you came out of the primordial ooze, how you came out of your great-grandparents’ journey across the continent – these stories are very sustaining, and they don’t have any commercial interruptions.

Alan: I’ve been wondering a lot about anger. Many activists seem to run on anger, but my experience is that it doesn’t sustain me in the long term.

Joanna: No, it doesn’t. But I’d say not to be afraid of anger. It’s not going to destroy you, and if you give it room inside, it’ll change. It is good energy, and I’ve felt very responsive to traditions like Tibetan Buddhism which acknowledge that. Their imagery contains, for example, angry forms of the Buddha – rolling eyes and great fangs and garlands of skulls – and his fierce anger, they say, comes straight from compassion! It’s not anger against the person, but against ignorance and attachments and delusions and hatred.

So you say to yourself, "Oh, there’s anger"- and give it a little tap to move it over, so what it’s against is not a person or people, but these corrosions of the human mind-heart. Anger is like a hot potato – if you catch it, just hold it and breathe. It’s better than tossing it on to the next person.

Alan: What do you do with your own anger about nuclear waste, or the war? If you find yourself holding the hot potato of anger, and you put yourself in deep time, what happens to the anger?

Joanna: Well, the Guardianship Project has invited me to see my own "inner toxic waste" in a way that nothing else would have. It has made me realize that if we’re going to watch the poison fire, then we mustn’t be afraid to see the poison fire inside. That’s been very liberating.

So what happens, for example, when I put myself in the future and look back through time, and see Joanna sitting in Berkeley during the Gulf War, feeling angry at George Bush? I say, "She’s hurting. She’s hurting because she sees that life is being damaged. And her way of taking on that hurt is anger. I hope she knows she doesn’t have to spend that energy against that individual. I hope she knows that the anger is a face of love, and that she taps the love from which it springs. I hope she knows to do that."

What happens to you?

Alan: Hmm … it helps me to hold the anger. It makes me realize that if I toss that anger off somewhere, it’s like throwing anything away – there really isn’t an "away," because time is just as real as space. It would turn up again someday.

Joanna: If we’re afraid of it, we’ll bury it and pretend it isn’t there. But that will contaminate everything – so we just bow to it, and breathe with it, and watch it. That allows it to change.

Alan: What about strategy? Does the concept of deep time have application there, too?

Joanna: Well, it certainly has relevance for the ways we govern ourselves. If we’re going to reinhabit time, what does that mean for our institutions? Like the Iroquois Federation, we must consider how any course of action might affect the seventh generation – and we can institutionalize that by giving a voice to future generations in our deliberations.

Such a step would be completely in keeping with our principle of no taxation without representation, because we are, in effect, taxing future generations by exploiting their resources. They should have their say in the process. But since they’re not born yet, or too young to vote, offices can be created where pronouncements can be made on their behalf.

We have a precedent for such a thing nationally in our Congress – with the Representatives for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico – where there is an office without a legislative vote. The representatives can bring the needs and views of their constituency to the attention of Congress. In a similar way, we could have a non-voting representative for the people of the future, to promote their needs and bring a larger perspective on time into legislative debate.

Alan: That’s a wonderful idea!

Joanna: Another idea involves creating a third house of Congress – a House of Spokespersons for the Future. It wouldn’t have the power to pass laws, but it would speak for the needs and rights of coming generations, and I think it would be entirely fitting for its members – or "spokes," you might say – to be high school seniors chosen at statewide conventions in congressional election years. They could convene in Washington a few times each year to evaluate the bills before Congress and to suggest new bills. They could have press conferences during the balance of the year, and speak to the priorities they see appropriate for a decent and healthy future.

In Time Wars, Jeremy Rifkin writes that the spectrum of political identifications is shifting now from left/right, which is spatial, to more temporal terms. He suggests a shift from "expedient rhythms" to "empathetic rhythms" that are more suitable for ecological stewardship. I have become increasingly convinced of the need for this. I also believe our schools and churches – and any other educational institutions forming our minds and spirits – should join us and help us in reinhabiting time. It is our birthright. It’ll be good for our health and good for our planet. And it’ll be fun!

Alan: So is working on issues like nuclear waste also "good for us"?

Joanna: Oh, yes! Nuclear waste has been such a help to me – like a wonderful stern nanny or governess leading me into deep time. As I said, I’ve always been a hurried person. And as an activist, I’ve always been racing against the clock – you know, "Only two more weeks before the vote on the Trident II!" – one deadline after another.

But when I realized the longevity of nuclear waste, it was as though time turned inside out. It wasn’t a question anymore of how much we can accomplish in a small amount of time, but how long we can continue to do the same thing. How can we sustain our attention on the poison fire? If you can just take that into your chest, it alters the metabolism. Do you feel it?

The Standard Remembering

From the script of "The Standard Remembering of our Ancestors in the Times of Nuclear Peril," which is often presented at Joanna Macy’s workshops as part of an imagined visit to a future Guardian Site.

And as we remember the old stories,
    we remember how it began in the press of war.
Oh our ancestors in the press of war
    were seeking new and larger ways to kill.

And they opened the nucleus of the atom.
And with great effort and with great acumen
    and with great applications of their brains,
they made and exploded the first nuclear weapon,
    and the project, God forgive them,
they called Trinity
    in the desert of Alamo Gordo.

And the stories come down to us of a president called
    True Man
at a place calls Pots Damn
receiving a telegram:
"Baby safely delivered!"

And that baby was the poison fire.

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