Ever since humans discovered atomic bombs and nuclear energy, we have really left nature in the dust so far as horrific longterm planetary consequences go. The list of places where people can’t visit without being exposed to harmful radiation keeps getting longer, due to more of that pesky inescapable logic. We keep building more bombs and nuclear energy facilities, without bothering to figure out a way to clean up the previous sites. While harmful radiation keeps leaking out of old barrels buried near valuable water supplies, we continue to draw up plans for new power plants that produce this volatile and dangerous energy. Even if the plans are perfect, scientists have to admit that human error has caused more of the nuclear power problems than bad designs have.
They estimate that the new plants we are building will cause four times the number of unlivable areas by the middle of this century than we have now. That’s not counting the problems that arise from things like tsunamis and earthquakes, or the deadly combination of one happening right after the other.
But even if we err on the side of caution, and calculate in the most generous way possible, this situation still mathematically gets out of hand pretty quickly. Let’s say there are five sites in the world that have been made uninhabitable by nuclear accidents or explosions or waste dumping. Let’s also say we have been at it for a hundred years, and that estimates say we will continue at this pace for the next hundred years.
These are all wrong premises: there are more than five places made uninhabitable by nuclear radiation, we haven’t been toying with this stuff for quite a hundred years, and estimates are that we will quadruple this number in the next fifty years. We’re just being super generous in our calculations, to make the point that even the most optimistic mind will have to admit there is a problem here at some point.
If we continue at the rate of making five places on Earth uninhabitable every hundred years, it might be a while before the entire planet is uninhabitable. But while the number goes up by one every twenty years, it doesn’t start to go down for any reason until a lot more time has passed. Nuclear radiation doesn’t go away quickly, and tens of thousands of years may have to pass before the places we are making unlivable today are able to support life once more. Even though one new zone every twenty years or so doesn’t sound like much, we have to remember that the number of places we have to live on this planet is far from infinite. In ten thousand years, even at the rate we are going in this generous calculation, there will be at least five hundred radiation hotbeds on Earth.
This doesn’t take into account the number of barrels that have been dropped into oceans and lakes, or buried underground. Some have been put there legally, and others not so much; but nature will erode both the legal barrels and the illegal ones at the same rate. When they start leaking, since radiation lasts way longer than metal barrels, new spots will start popping up all over the place where human life will have to be evacuated. And it can’t go back for tens of thousands of years.
That’s just the best estimate we have, by the way. Since humans have only been working with nuclear radiation for eighty years or so, it’s hard to accurately project that far into the future. The first estimations of how much radiation a human body could withstand were cut in half not long after the number was established, and then were cut in half again as longterm studies became more longterm with time. The honest truth of the matter is that we don’t know what kind of results the existing situation will have in the next hundred or two hundred years, even if we do nothing to add to it.
If we do add to it, simple math shows us that the more we do so the less places we have to live. With human population still rising at an alarming rate, despite theories that the rise may slow down one of these days, we need more places to live; not less.
None of this takes into account the number of places we can’t live because of asbestos mining or oil spills or harsh natural conditions. At this point it’s hard to say that any part of the world is untouched by nuclear radiation, since it radiates. Our atmosphere is all one big interconnected system, as are our oceans. One bomb going off anywhere in the world will have consequences around the world eventually, as will one leaky barrel in a single body of water. When those numbers get up into the mind-boggling reality of our situation, the concept of longterm consequences kind of takes on a whole new meaning.
The frightening reality is that humans treat nature the way a toddler might treat a loaded pistol. We push and pull at the moving parts, let our curiosity get the best of us, and end up facing consequences beyond our scope of understanding. And that’s just on Earth. Our best bet to get away from our own mistakes is to get into space as quickly as possible, but then a whole new set of unforeseeable possibilities arises. If we can do this kind of horrific stuff on our own planet, what effect will we have on the universe once we get out there? Will we keep trying things just to see what happens, and then keep doing them even when we see that what happens is terrifying and irreversible?
You know, like we’ve been doing here on Earth?
Maybe we should hope there are no aliens out there, instead of wondering why they haven’t contacted us. If every planet were seen as an individual and sentenced accordingly, the only attention we might get from a technologically advanced race could very well be whatever it takes to stop us from going any further in the direction we are already headed. If they judge us like we judge each other, alien intervention may be the worst thing that could happen to us. Rather than shame us on Twitter, they might just blast us into oblivion.
You know, for the overall good of the universe.
We might get all upset about what other countries are doing, here in America; but this is one instance where we really can’t point a finger in any direction without having three pointing back at us. The United States has detonated more nuclear weapons than anyone, both in peacetime and wartime. The effects of those explosions have touched several generations already, and we honestly can’t say what the planet would be like without whatever radiation is lingering from those countless detonations.
Okay, they’re not countless; but counting them is scarier than tossing a blanket term over them all, so I’m sticking with that.
The simple fact of the matter is that we know what close proximity exposure to nuclear radiation does, but we have no way to measure what happens to the rest of us or the planet as a result of these bombs going off all over the world. The only way we could do that would be with a carefully controlled experiment of incredible scope and magnitude. Maybe, with this experiment, we would discover that we really are affecting the climate in a real and measurable way.
Hell, who knows? If we’re going to talk impossible experiments and improbable scenarios, we may as well entertain a political conspiracy theory of the rare kind. Maybe the world’s governments, or the world government, saw a long time ago that another ice age was coming. Maybe they realized that the best way to forestall global freezing was to detonate some really hot bombs and industrialize in ways that deliberately changed the planet’s climate. In this scenario, at least the people in charge look like heroes for the people instead of power hungry sociopaths.
Did we just veer into a discussion on climate change? Well, yes and no. We talked about an impossible experiment, which is the only way to find out whether or not humans are affecting the climate of the Earth and to what degree. But we were discussing it in relation to nuclear radiation, not climate change. That’s something we’ll be talking about next week, along with a much more expanded version of the experiment we would have to do to figure out how much people are really impacting the planet. See, the truth of the matter is…
Climate change can’t be quantified!
I hope you come back next week, for a post by that name.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,