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 – or perhaps, more accurately, it’s far-reaching disruptions – across multitudes of ecological services; both now, and into the far future.
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, International Long Term Ecological Research Network, and other macroscopic research programmes that continue to monitor our dynamic planet for changes. Somes broad examples include; local and regional climate change, 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, human 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 sediments from trawler nets. Artificial 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 across time. 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 geological 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 defined ‘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 prospective living standards.
Some of this 'alternative heritage' is readily apparent, and subject to international discourse and oversight by a number of global stewardship entities, including; bioethics observatories, climate and biosphere regulators, planetary protection authorities, hazardous waste custodians, and scientists engaged within conservation or monitoring programmes of afflicted ecosystems. 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, as well as propensities for intentional concealment (or waste internment) and eventual recovery (accidental or otherwise). For instance, waste trapped in frozen environments require meltwater, or a gradually heating regional climate, to re-volatise the contamination and actively transport it elsewhere by natural processes. In the grand theatres of time however, the days of tomorrow 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 ongoing precarious risks, and surmounting hazardous obstacles for life – 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 positions 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 the easier pathways of post-event adaptation after encountering ‘arrows’, and further modes of 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 strategies of longer-term thinking and planning, for instance, in producing 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 across centuries, and even millennia. 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, given the experienced traumas still alive in modern memory. 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 with 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. The initial three examples listed above, already possess international legislative obligations, but compliance and remediation operations are tenuous. As inheritors of these legacies, all of us alive today bear responsibility even though we are not to directly blame for what happened years ago, but it is our responsibility to make sure that these problems are at least documented, if not resolved, by our generations. Recognising these generational legacies, and conserving vistas of knowledge about this ‘alternative heritage’, is therefore crucial for future studies, remediation actions, and planning by those who will perhaps, one day, inherit them.
Our focus within this ‘After 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 lurking legacies and other histories they may inherit. It is an impossible task to forecast, with any measurable degree of confidence or 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 for life under the precautionary principle, 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. Further to these contemporary benefits, peering far-forward after the horizon, may also contribute valuable insights useful for the establishment of long-term organised human societies, while creating new behavioural concepts, and planning strategies that may prove beneficial for future intergenerational studies.
To this end, the foundation is working 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 bequeathing and future co-authorship – i.e. the ‘seeds’ for informing far-reaching actions, should this 'essential guide to essential legacies' 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. Our frequently glorified achievements, and lineage of cultural and social resources that often form the narratives for time capsule initiatives, may feel hollow to the minds of posterity, if we fail to even acknowledge our own moral and technological fallacies, and the problems we aggregate on behalf of distant futurity. Intelligibly planning ahead – even in simply preserving information about our protracted legacies for posterity – should at least be an ethical hallmark of Homo sapiens societies, let alone a responsible attribute for an envisioned Homo prospectus species.
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 in tandem with succeeding chapter of world history 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. At present, much of these identified legacies can be demarcated into two broadly interlinked categories; documentation of material legacies (physical wastes, transient contamination, and other static deposits), and also caches of information deemed significant for future custodianship and knowledge about Earth. As an example of the latter field, our own observations of Near-Earth Object (NEO) orbital trajectories document distant rocky and metallic objects of concern for future collision probabilities. These observed trajectories are still subject to future gravitational perturbations which disrupt our calculated probabilities, and therefore we will need to be periodically adjust this information over time (if objects are even re-observable) to compensate as an active cultural custom in memory retention and risk management – maintaining accurate information and memory for a transient, material legacy. Other explored subjects may eventually be seen as fanciful musings, as with the uncertainty surrounding GMO debates but, in the absence of any reliable knowledge, we should err on the side of precaution when investigating the profound unknowns from short-termism thinking in this ongoing ‘age of the now’.
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, alongside suitable site hazard audits. 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 newer 'spokes' 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 inaugural 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 lore, 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 devices 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 to Earth’ project. While the foundation supports, and actively advocates for, these remediation works, we are not directly involved within mitigation or adaptation efforts. Instead, the focus of our archival programme is simply to 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.
Page last updated: 21 Oct 2021
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