An expansive, multidisciplinary archive of emergent indelible legacies arising from present-day socio-technological activities, risk management strategies and ethical observatories, pioneered to stimulate further studies about ‘essential’ deep-time stewardship information.
ABOUT 'AFTER THE HORIZON':
The tentatively recognised Anthropocene epoch, in its broadest and most general sense, illustrates the growing exigent impacts of modern human interactions across multitudes of ecological services.
We can readily observe, and generally measure, these intersecting impacts today across a diverse range of ‘planetary boundaries’, as identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Future Earth and other macroscopic research programmes that continue to monitor our dynamic planet for changes. Somes broad examples include; local and regional climate changes, abrupt biodiversity cascades within complex ecological systems, large-scale disruptions in natural geomorphic cycles, and the gradual redistributions of matter and energy across the planet. In addition to these fluctuating, and often counterintuitive, changes across our biome, we have also observed the emergence of trace fossils or synthetic materials known as ‘technofossils’ across our recent archaeological record. Examples of these enduring material legacies include the vast proliferation of concrete sub/surfaces, the plasticity of geological strata and ocean composition, the abundance of radionuclides in all environmental settings, immense landscape excavations and subsequent redistributions of this material, and even widespread cross-hatched incisions on deep ocean floor strata from trawler nets. The disruptions to older stratigraphic layers across regions of excavated planetary crust, and the human distribution of neobiota (i.e. invasive species), may also be recognised as dynamic indicators.
Though generally undesirable, not all of these latter material legacies are however, so innocuous in nature. As with every technological advancement that far outpaces social adjustments, ethical foresight and legislative not yet written, our civilisations have excelled – unwittingly or otherwise – in establishing protracted, indelible legacies with potential long-term implications over intervals of deep time. These are enduring, interlinked problems that, in conjunction with the uncertainty of other immediate factors and precarious ‘tipping points’, may lead to an increased risk of slowly burning out pathways future civilisations may, or indeed can, wish to take at ensuing ‘crisis points’. As the philosopher Roman Krznaric writes of such undesirable ecological legacies; “There is a significant chance at some point the arrow (i.e. an undesirable legacy) is going to land with devastating effects… We have a responsibility to take action today to mitigate the future impacts of arrows we fire. In fact, the fewer we fire, the better”. This ‘cone of possibility’ into the future keeps widening, but we may discover that our certainty in forecasting growth and stability, if it ever existed, is now incrementally narrowing with the amount of ‘arrows’ we fire at posterity, and their prospects for life standards.
Some of these legacies are readily apparent and subject to international discourse by a number of global stewardship entities including bioethics observatories, climate and biosphere regulators, planetary protection authorities and hazardous waste custodians. Others are not so easily recognised and quantified, presently in a state of assessment, or are simply eclipsed by the overwhelming social, political, cultural and technological demands of today's burgeoning civilisations. Yet, much like the multitude of exigent impacts mentioned above, contemporary generations will likely not directly experience the long-term impacts of these legacies. This is often due to an associated lag apparent within various complex planetary systems between initial action, emergent impacts and consequential experiences. In the grand theatre of time however, the days of tomorrow however, will inevitably become someone's today. Moreover, we are adept at perceiving small-scale changes over experienced ‘slow’ timeframes to recognise an impending future scenario – for example, observing the slow ebb and flow of rising sea levels, only acknowledging the environmental changes when the water is lapping at our feet, or doorstep.
Traditionally, our modes of response when assessing risk and surmounting obstacles, from changing circumstances or external shocks, have been partitioned between two broad categories – mitigation or adaptation – and two equally broad time-reaction cognitive categories; short-term thinking or long-term planning. These are generally considered the struggles taking place in the human mind when contemplating the worlds of tomorrow, but we have an age-old habit to opt for post-event adaptation, and short-term thinking. Given this, our social histories of intelligibly forecasting these impending challenges ahead in time as ‘Homo prospectus’ – defined by the psychologist Martin Seligman as a species whose behaviours are guided by its imaginative projections into the realm of its future – is not familiar territory for our brains, outside of some social etiquettes and emotional responses. Thinking, in this sense, is usually temporally-tied to the various technological, political, cultural, social and indeed financial decisions or demands that constrain them, usually curtailing our projection ahead into the region of a ‘100-year’ interval as an intergenerational benchmark, as opposed to seventh-generation thinking varyingly employed by numerous indigenous cultures.
There are some historical precedents for these strategies in longer-term thinking and planning, for instance, in waste management strategies such as the terminal phase of the nuclear fuel cycle; plans which intend to deter inadvertent future human intrusion in hazardous deep geological repositories. The nuclear waste legacy argument is perhaps the most iconic example of these protracted impacts, and the multinational approaches pioneered to mitigate future risks posed by these hazardous materials. However, some more recently identified legacies possess much less historical scrutiny, ethical foresight and rational engagement within their projected future impacts. Some examples of these comparatively latent perennial legacies include safety control measures and standards for the bioaccumulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), potential rogue gene cycles which will continue to alter host ecosystems in unpredictable ways, discarded bio-chemical hazardous wastes, and the robust conservation of perishable Climate Records (i.e. datasets derived from materials that have a limited window for repeated testing and evaluation – for example, the isotopic chronology of atmospheric climate records preserved in ice cores) for long-term stewardship across the ages.
Our focus within this ‘Beyond the Horizon’ research programme lies within pioneering custom archival and memory retention schemes as a special type of precautionary mitigation strategy – collating and preserving what is identifiable as ‘essential’ stewardship information, details we know are required for long-term decision making by future generations, for the benefit of reducing the prospects of uncertainty about our legacies and other histories they may inherit. It is an impossible task to forecast, with any measurable degree of certainty, the intertwined patterns of complex scenarios and circumstances which will be actually experienced by posterity. But, we can try to mitigate this ambiguity, by acknowledging and thereafter building from this uncertainty about inherited problems, and ensure generations hence are in a position to continue to build upon this understanding for their descendants. We may also find that contemplating these long-delayed challenges, and provisional scenario planning, can also help contemporary generations to understand our growing reach through the ages, and enable us to build resilience to the anticipated outcomes or envisioned crises over time using long-term planning.
To this end, the foundation aims to work in international partnership with similar institutes to identify, document and preserve crucial materials about these emergent legacies, before creating active documents or ‘catalogues’ for later bequeathal and future co-authorship – i.e. the ‘seeds’ for informing far-reaching actions, should this information be needed. Our “good ancestor” ethos, is to responsibly ensure that the preservation and commensurability of this essential information is simply maintained for these future generations – to give posterity a factual opportunity to commit informed decisions on behalf of their inherited life-world, regardless of what other ‘ready-made’ datasets, cultural documents and materials we may wish for them to also inherit from our present age.
Undertaking this immense and gruelling precautionary task of identifying what deep-time legacies the silent masses of our descendants will ‘need to know’ is, of course, subject to our own value judgements, worldviews, sociocultural paradigms and evolving mindsets – principles mapped onto counterpart philosophies that will inevitably emerge after present-day generations. There are some recognisable legacies that conform to this ‘essential’ categorisation of information, and forecasting other emergent impacts is very much in an ontologically fluid state – subject to persistent observation, identification, revision, reflection and reinvention of our collective knowledge by the scientific and ethical disciplines involved within these fields of research. For example, observed Near-Earth Object (NEO) orbital trajectories are subject to gravitational perturbation, and therefore will need to be periodically adjusted over time to compensate as an active cultural custom in memory retention and risk management.
Clearly, such a bespoke archival endeavour necessitates a robust, peer-reviewed foundation in order to initially understand ‘what the future needs to know’, and the diverse scope of these mounting, multidisciplinary legacies that posterity will inherit from the Anthropocene epoch. This challenge is comparable to bequeathing a general Wikipedia page on ‘radioactive waste’, in contrast to supplying posterity with a rich, quantitative survey of residual radiological heritage. Given this obligation, the foundation has established an initial 9-phase approach, and is committed to compiling an expansive library of these emergent legacies in set categories; a decadal research initiative to, essentially, begin the process of investigating how these impacts may reach down throughout the ages to powerfully affect the lives of those not yet born, and bridging the semiotic void to ensure our descendants understand these perennial legacies. We imagine our work as spokes in a prospective ‘wheel of tomorrow’, a construct which will inevitably roll forwards in time, whose strength and stability is proportionally tied to how well we can document and communicate these unfolding legacies. We invite you to peruse this library, and contact us to join (see below), or peer-contribute to these active documents, or even suggest new avenues to collectively explore.
‘The wheel of tomorrow’, subdivided into identified legacy research categories, along with the current phase of development.
The tenure of our programme in establishing this legacy library, consists of 9 interdependent phases:
Auditing – compiling extensive catalogues of select legacy categories, in order to establish an overview of these enduring phenomena for further education and research applications.
Corroboration – aggregating supplementary evidence and datasets to understand the scope of the essential data that will need to be conveyed, and across what durations of time.
Archiving – ordering and curating the material record to serve as a propaedeutic guide into the subjects, while establishing a set, intuitive layout template to promote display familiarity.
Proofing – further engaging with wider research communities and foremost authorities, to peer-review and revise contents as part of the initial edition of these ‘essential’ catalogues.
Locality – Where relevant, examine and incorporate the prevailing attitudes, memories, and resulting stories, that have already been cultivated as local histories, myths and legends.
Commensurability – establishing semiotics studies to mitigate potential misunderstanding, while promoting research into sign-signify relationships (for long-term archival solutions).
Conservation – promoting long-term storage of these catalogues in partnering archival organisations, in addition to intermittent memory-retention initiatives like the ‘Companion Guide to Earth’.
Retrospection – supporting reflective studies and assessments of these established catalogues and semiotic constructs for further research, outreach and learning outcomes.
Consignment – sourcing a permanent, intergovernmental home for this archival material that will enable amendments, and inform decision making over intergenerational periods of time.
It should be highlighted that these listings are compiled as active catalogues, which will continue to be modified over the ensuing decades to maintain accuracy, as well as to document ongoing remediation efforts. As such, these catalogues are classified as living human documents, intended for continuous engagement and prospective amendment, as opposed to solely ‘arks’ of information, to be stored in obscure, inaccessible archives like the foundation’s ‘Companion Guide’ project. While the foundation supports, and actively campaigns for, these remediation works, we are not directly involved within mitigation or adaptation efforts. Instead, the focus of our archival programme is simply remain as trustees in retaining collective records; enabling associated communities to reliably consult these repositories, and raising awareness of emergent, intergenerational human legacies, while also establishing a factual basis for posterity to commit significant stewardship decisions, or to off-set enduring anthropogenic legacies, on behalf of their inherited biomes. This programme is not devised to enable present generations to simply bequeath their problems to subsequent generations – remediation efforts are essential today, to leave a stable planet as tomorrow’s crucial inheritance.
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