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What Will Be Left When We’re Gone? Bones, Plastic, and Radioactive Waste via Grist

By Kate Yoder

Millions of years from now, what will be left of us?

At the rate we’re going, nature might well have taken over. Moscow and Mumbai will be sand and gravel cast across the desert expanse; New York City and Amsterdam will be sediment on the ocean floor, softened by the unrelenting tides.

But beneath the Earth’s surface, preserved in bedrock, some of the structures that supported life aboveground might still be intact: subways, quarries, and sewage systems. To piece together the story of our species, a hypothetical archaeologist might have to hunt for clues underground, much as today we dig for fossils to learn about the past.

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That term Anthropocene, the geological era brought to you by human activity, has been thrown around since the 1980s. It picked up steam in the early 2000s when it was heralded by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric scientist. But the buzzword is controversial among geologists, who can’t agree on when the epoch began or criticize the concept as more “pop culture” than real science.

Some environmental communicators are suspicious of the name too. “It generalizes the blame for what is a situation of vastly uneven making and suffering,” Macfarlane writes. “The rhetorical ‘we’ of Anthropocene discourse smooths over severe inequalities.” But he uses the word anyway because he’s seen the idea that humans have made a geological mark shock people, a legacy of plastic trash and radioactive waste with a half-life of 700 million years. We’ve blown up entire mountaintops and even created a new type of rock, plastiglomerate (it’s just what it sounds like — plastic fused with rock). The Anthropocene, Macfarlane said, “is an unsatisfactory term for a devastating time.”

It’s part of a broader question about how to talk about climate change (or, as Macfarlane and some others call it, climate breakdown.) “We do lack a basic language for what’s happening around us,” Macfarlane said. He uses the term thick speech, coined by Sianne Ngai, a cultural theorist, to describe our stuttering attempts to articulate the species, places, and lives we’re losing. The climate crisis is pretty depressing and hard to talk about, and many people avoid the topic entirely.

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Still, there are some folks out there thinking about the message we’re leaving for the inhabitants of the far-future Earth. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the New Mexico desert, one of the world’s deepest nuclear waste repositories, is set to be sealed in 2038, with the hope that it’s never opened. The U.S. Department of Energy is working to create a warning system that could survive for at least 10,000 years, which would warn of the danger buried within to whatever future being might encounter it. That’s harder than it might sound: There’s no universal communication system to spell out even the relatively simple concept “Danger! Radioactive Waste!”

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“What will survive of us is love,” the British poet Philip Larkin once penned. Macfarlane has … a different idea. “Wrong,” he writes. “What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones, and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.”

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