Postextinction imaginaries of future Earth as present-day Mars depict a degenerated planet refigured as a despoiled desert.1 In a moving, but inert future world, biontological dramas of life and death come to be eclipsed by the geontological dramas of a living past turned nonliving present (Povinelli 2016). Death is decoupled from the regeneration of life (cf. Bloch and Parry 1982). Inert future Earth’s aesthetics smack of desolation and gloom—of worst-case scenarios that are not implausible in an age of mass extraction, nuclear weapons, biodiversity loss, population growth, environmental destruction, and anxieties about pandemic disease and asteroid impacts.
Fortunately, such degeneration visions can be generative, inspiring fresh alter-politics (Hage 2015) and alternative modes of inhabiting a damaged planet. Yet they can also be immobilizing, miring one in the delirium of no future—leaving one unable to entertain more hopeful planetary possibilities. Scouring what some call the Anthropocene for optimism, I turn to the nuclear energy and waste disposal worlds that I have studied anthropologically.
Geoscientists have argued that the Atomic Age ushered in the Anthropocene. Anthropologists have pointed to how aging nuclear weapons require the work of nuclear gerontology (Masco 2004). The energy industry cautions that nuclear energy workforces are graying as baby boom retirements loom. Meanwhile, critics associate the life-extension work undertaken at aging nuclear power plants with hierarchical, centralized, military-industrial structures best relegated to backward Cold War pasts. These motifs of nuclear degeneration are apt, indeed.
Yet others view nuclear energy, especially the Generation IV reactors now being designed, as key to a good Anthropocene—one in which “humans use our extraordinary powers to shrink our negative impact on nature.” They see climate solutions in nuclear power’s powers to generate steady, predictable, baseload energy without emitting carbon or leaving large land footprints. They draw arguments from the Breakthrough Institute’s 2011 “Climate Pragmatism” report, the 2013 film Pandora’s Promise, and the 2015 “Ecomodernist Manifesto.” They support nuclear power in the name of economic prosperity, environmental flourishing, poverty reduction, and human advancement.
So-called radioactive Greens (see Ialenti 2013)—techno-optimists who see nuclear energy as a solution to climate crisis—are enthusiastic about the prospect for nuclear energy generation to generate better futures for future generations. But their zeal must be approached with serious skepticism. In many locales, nuclear power proves cost-prohibitive, uninsurable, reliant on subsidies for innovation, and prone to low-frequency but high-impact disasters with incalculably huge social, health, financial, environmental, and psychological costs. It generates imperatives to regulate radioactive wastes that are potentially dangerous for millennia (Ialenti 2014). Technopolitical decision-making processes (see Hecht 1998) empower the governments, corporations, financial elites, technocrats, managers, scientists, politicians, and engineers who collaboratively oversee nuclear projects, creating situations of regulatory capture and running revolving-door risks. Nuclear energy, at least in its current form, is no silver bullet for a degenerating climate. In this anthropologist’s view, embracing it is no enlightened idea.
Still, such visions of good Anthropocenes and of technologically enabled ecomodernities must be taken seriously. The reasons, though, have more to do with idea generation than energy generation.
Ecomodernist optimisms about technology, innovation, human agency, open futures, incremental progress, and prospects for achieving common ground across political divides can be generative counterpoints to today’s rampant Anthropocene melancholy. Such hopeful visions—invoking future generations to evoke action through enthusiasm and anticipation—can be juxtaposed with contemporary scenarios that invoke future degeneration to evoke action through horror or guilt. Why? Because pausing for a moment to entertain a (nuclear-fueled) good Anthropocene—however naive, absurd, or repugnant the idea might be—enables one to temporarily invert widespread Anthropocene apocalypticisms and to revisit Earth’s future potentialities afresh.
I add generation to this lexicon to suggest that techno-optimist and technopessimist futures might be more frequently brought together as perspectives on the other’s incompleteness. Doing so might better reveal the frontiers at which all-too-rosy and all-too-gloomy planetary futures become mired in exaggerated extremes. Bringing into view these visions’ divergent analytical starting points and endpoints—and the situated coordinates of the assumptions grounding them—shows how neither offers a fully plausible forecast. Yet juxtaposing them may yet generate more nuanced, multivalent planetary futures. And who knows? Perhaps envisioning ecomodernist tomorrows will also, as Bruno Latour has put it, help us learn to “love” our technoscientific “monsters” and to care for them “as we do our children.”
1. I use the word imaginaries because, to envision a World Without Us, one not only has to envision a collective we, but also, paradoxically, has to insert a living self into an inert future world in order to imagine its very lifelessness (Chakrabarty 2009, 197–98).
Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry, eds. 1982. Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2: 197–222.
Hage, Ghassan. 2015. Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Hecht, Gabrielle. 1998. The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Ialenti, Vincent F. 2013. “Nuclear Energy’s Long Now: Intransigent Wastes and Radioactive Greens.” Suomen Antropologi 38, no. 3: 61–65.
_____. 2014. “Adjudicating Deep Time: Revisiting the United States’ High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository Project at Yucca Mountain.” Science and Technology Studies 27, no. 2: 27–48.
Masco, Joseph. 2004. “Nuclear Technoaesthetics: Sensory Politics from Trinity to the Virtual Bomb in Los Alamos.” American Ethnologist 31, no. 3: 349–73.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. “Toxic Sovereignties in Geontopower.” Lecture at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. February 11.