Chronicle A Horrible Cave

Nobody knows for certain for how long human beings will populate the earth. What we do know is that most living species sooner or later will become extinct. The human being, most likely, will not be an exception. The reason for this is our brutal command over nature and that we are increasingly behaving like Gods of this planet.

Another question we are unable to answer is whether our judgement day will come in 10,000 or a million years. To even consider trying to look 100 or 200 years into the future will lead to unqualified guesses and speculations. Yet another thing we cannot know is what the final reason for our extinction will be. However, since we are putting such a heavy strain on our planet’s resources the end will have to be of catastrophic proportions. And that is what I mean when I write that we regard ourselves as Gods of this planet.

Furthermore, we cannot be certain of what will happen after the glacial ages that will come. (Very few scientists doubt that there will be more than 60,000 years before we have another big glacial age.) Or the other way around, what will happen when the oceans rise? Or when the deserts continue to grow? There might also be asteroids, invisible to us, in universe that are heading for our planet. Perhaps it is not the largest threat, but it should not be completely disregarded or taken as pure science fiction.

A couple of hundred years ago the judgement day for mankind was considered to be the work of the Devil. Other religions have had – and still have – other ideas about the future of our planet and its destruction. And what people will say about our planet’s destruction in the 2200’s we simply cannot say. We don’t know.

Nevertheless, there is another way to look at this impossible question about the future of mankind and what end we ultimately will face. What relics will we be remembered by? The answer is frightening. However, what we can say is that the Egyptian Pyramids or other creations of mankind that we casually look upon as eternal will not be there. These will not be our relics. Nor will the paintings of Rubens or the piano sonatas of Beethoven.

To have some sort of idea of what might happen we need to travel to a place in Finland called Onkalo. Today the excavation of the bedrock that began in 2004 is almost finished. The purpose of the excavation is to build a depository where nuclear waste will be stored for at least 100,000 years. No matter what happens on earth no nuclear waste will be leaked from these caves. When everything else is extinct these caves will still be there.

Think about this: the last trace of mankind could be our way of containing nuclear waste. Even though it might be possible to hang a copy of one art’s masterpieces down there in the cold underworld.

100,000 years, I cannot even imagine how long that is. If we count backwards we will find ourselves in a world populated by primates who have not yet become human beings. If we look for ancient relics it helps to understand that no buildings created by human beings are more than 10,000 years old. It is a staggering thought, no matter which way we turn.

When the repository in Onkalo is filled with spent nuclear fuel it will be sealed and never to be opened again. The warrant is that no waste will leak in the upcoming 3000 generations. Those of us who live here should preferably forget about what is stored down there in the bedrock.

But this raises new questions. At least one which is very important: how will it be possible for people in the future to understand what we have placed in that cave. And why? There is no way for us to know what will happen. But perhaps a small group of people have survived a new ice age. They do not speak a language that in any way resembles those spoken and written today. Their way of addressing each other is completely different. We would not understand a thing. How are we then supposed to write or explain in such a way that these human beings will understand? And if they do understand, why should they respect our warnings? You cannot feel or smell nuclear radiation. It is not until the deadly rays have touched the body that you experience pain and death awaits.

But human beings in the future might possibly regard this cave as a holy place where we who no longer exist are worshipped as Godlike creatures from the past. (We must not forget that even religion is something, which passes. We are talking about 100,000 years. Christianity is only 2000 years old and the Muslim faith even younger.)

“Onkalo” means “hiding place”. My wish is that the documentary, “Into Eternity”, made by Michael Madsen a couple of years ago, should be broadcasted on TV on a regular basis. It gives us a terrible perspective of something that is actually possible: that the one consisting relic of the species that we belong to – Mankind – will be a cave filled with nuclear waste.

No one knows if Onkalo in a distant future will be misunderstood as a holy cathedral where invisible death is lurking. And this is how we will be remembered, in a cold and empty but also incomprehensible universe…

Henning Mankell





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