An expansive, multidisciplinary catalogue of emergent and 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 more accurately, perhaps 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. Some 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 planetary strata. In addition to these fluctuating, and often counterintuitive, human changes across our biome, we have also observed the steady 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 hazardous radionuclides in all environmental settings, immense landscape excavations alongside subsequent redistributions of this material, and even widespread cross-hatched incisions on deep ocean floor sediments from scouring 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 crafting protracted, indelible legacies with potential long-term implications over intervals of geological time. These are enduring, interlinked problems which, 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 wish to, or indeed can, 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'.
Our ‘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 a frozen environment requires meltwater, or a gradually heating regional climate, to re-volatilise the contamination and actively transport it elsewhere via natural processes. In the grand theatres of time however, the days of tomorrow will inevitably become someone's today. Moreover, we are inept 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 our 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 an ‘arrow’ has landed, leading to further modes of short-term thinking. For instance, deploying adaptive cooling technologies during heat waves, rather than fundamentally redressing technological lineages that destabilise climatic conditions. 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. This usually curtails 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 established 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 or escaped gene cycles which will continue to alter host ecosystems in unpredictable ways, hastily discarded bio-chemical toxins, 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). The initial three examples listed, already possess some 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 present generations. Recognising these generational legacies, and conserving vistas of knowledge about this ‘alternative heritage’, is therefore crucial for future studies, remediation actions, and stewardship planning by those who will perhaps, one day, also inherit them against their will.
Our focus in the ‘After the Horizon’ research and archival programme is to pioneer custom records 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. The thematic scope and for these materials can be best encapsulated under our colourful operating principle; ‘do not go, and need to know’. 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. After all, prospective ‘arrows’ may be fired from any direction, at any time, even through apathy or neglect. But, we can try to mitigate this ambiguity, by acknowledging and thereafter building from this uncertainty around inherited problems, and ensure generations hence are in a firm 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, with our long-term planning. Further to these contemporary benefits, peering far-forward – after the foreseeable horizon – may also contribute valuable insights useful for the establishment of long-term human societies, while creating new behavioural concepts for any Homo prospectus species, 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' ever 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 by 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 arduous 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'low-hanging fruit' that already 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. At present, much of these identified legacies can be demarcated into two broadly interlinked categories. Firstly, documentation of material legacies such as physical pollution, transient contamination, and other static waste (i.e. ‘do not go’). Secondly, caches of information deemed significant for future custodianship and knowledge about Earth (i.e. ‘need to know’). 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. Therefore, we will need to 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-release debates. However, 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. This decadal research initiative will, 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, while 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), peer-contribute to active documents, or 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 permanent, intergovernmental homes 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 inevitably 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 locations 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 for 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 onto subsequent generations – remediation efforts are essential today, to leave a stable planet as tomorrow’s crucial inheritance.
Page last updated: 20 Jul 2022
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