Modern Waste and Industrial Ruins in the Anthropocene

Reblogged from Cultures of Energy blog of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University.

(Editor’s note: The film Guardians of Eternity is screening free in Toronto, at York University, on Sept. 19, and in Yellowknife, NWT, on Sept. 21. Details here.)

by Maureen Haver

Modern Waste and Industrial Ruins in the Anthropocene

As scientists in the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) move one step closer to formally declaring the Anthropocene a new geologic interval, an epoch marked by human activity fundamentally altering earth systems and leaving a permanent record in the earth’s strata, we are challenged to think about the effects of the human present and near past reaching far into the future. While a more extensive case must still be made, the WGA is pinpointing the start of the Anthropocene sometime around 1950 during the period of “great acceleration” in which rapid industrialization and nuclear activity began to transform the earth on a planetary scale.With this news many are drawn to locate themselves and their lives within the Anthropocene.  Depending on the date, some of us will have been born within it and others just outside of it. Those of us living today and those born tomorrow will ultimately live and die in the Anthropocene, our lives mere exhalations in a long deep breath of a planet that knows time on a scale we cannot fully comprehend. The stratigraphic record may tell us one thing about the Anthropocene and time, but the imbricated industrial debris, political entanglements, ecological disruptions, and social inequities that helped usher in the Anthropocene make time a little more slippery—the past, present, and future overlap and collide.  Kim Fortun (2012) writes that “the future is anteriorized when the past is folded into the way reality presents itself, setting up both the structures and obligations of the future. The future inhabits the present, yet it also has not yet come.” Her analysis is useful for thinking through the Anthropocene and raises underlying questions about how we might attend to future obligations in the present with regard to the Anthropocene. Who will ultimately bear the burden of time? Stratigraphic, slippery or otherwise?


These questions were on my mind when I sat down with Arn Keeling, Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University Newfoundland, while attending a UArctic PhD course on Extractive Industries and the annual Petrocultures conference. Arn’s interest in the ecological and social impacts of mine closures in Northern Canada led him and colleague John Sandlos to the Giant Mine and the formation of a community-based collaboration called the Toxic Legacies Project. Giant Mine is an abandoned gold mine situated in Yellowknife, the only city in the Northwest Territories and the place that Yellowknives Dene (First Nations) have called home since time immemorial. The opening of the mines circa 1930s, according to Dene elders, marks the first sustained colonialist encounter with non-Native settlers and fundamentally altered ways of life for the Yellowknives Dene. By 1949, Giant Mine began using an ore roasting process to extract the gold from Precambrian rock formations thereby creating a toxic byproduct: arsenic trioxide.

Arsenic circulates within the shared memory of the Yellowknives Dene. Following the arsenic-related death of a Dene child in 1951, basic pollution controls were implemented but talk of closing down the mine never materialized. Captured arsenic accumulated over time without fully adequate containment. Elevated arsenic levels persisted throughout the region, contaminating water, vegetation and livestock and increasing cancer rates among the Dene. Still the mine endured, changing hands through bankruptcy in 1999 and remaining open until 2004. In total over 7 million ounces of gold were extracted and 230,000 tons of arsenic were left behind, poorly contained underground. The bankruptcy purchase severed environmental liability and the Yellowknives Dene inherited a toxic legacy not of their making.

The accumulation of toxic waste is a challenge not easily resolved and represents problems of space and time.  According to Keeling, “modern waste has the properties of durability, it does not easily degrade. And ubiquity, it is all around us.”  Diffusion and containment are two strategies for modern waste that carry their own political and technical complications. Diffusing waste through systems in order to neutralize its negative effects is a geographical strategy of dispersal. Through diffusion, bodies and earth can become sinks for modern waste—ledgers for toxic accumulation and tolerable(?) thresholds. Containment presents its own set of challenges where according to Keeling, “thermodynamics and the inevitable structural problems of containment practices means that waste finds it way out of most things. And when it does, it tends to be in a more spatially concentrated form and potentially more catastrophic.” For durable waste like arsenic which does not degrade over time or radioactive waste which takes tens of thousands of years to decay, the challenge of perpetually containing modern waste i.e. the industrial ruins of the Anthropocene is a problem of the present and the deep future.

Regarding Giant Mine, the Canadian government’s plan for containment involves freezing the arsenic underground in perpetuity. Beyond the technical challenges, the question of how to communicate risk and containment to future generations by imagining a time in the distant future unlike anything we know now is no easy task. Keeling and Sandlos, through the Toxic Legacies Project, helped facilitate meetings with Yellowknives Dene, members of the Yellowknife settler community, NGOs, and members of government to develop communication strategies for future generations. Drawing from similar efforts of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the site of the first long-term nuclear storage facility in the United States, the Toxic Legacies Project looked at how WIPP engaged anthropologists, sci-fi writers, futurists, archaeologists, linguists, materials scientists, and others to develop warning messages and pictograms for future civilizations. Among other strategies, these messages will be etched into the granite slabs containing the radioactive waste.

Working with the Communicating with Future Generations (CFG) Working Group in Yellowknife to imagine a durable messaging system to work deep into the future means thinking about discontinuities with the present and imagining how landscape, language, and social organization all might be radically different from the world as it is inhabited today. Keeling explains that one suddenly finds themselves going “deep into the realm of sci-fi…deep into to the realm of fantasy. It’s a realm of an incomprehensible time scale but one that has real material consequences.” It also challenges one to think about how all the events and actions unfolding in the present and linked to the past are already  shaping a future we cannot fully know.

Other strategies consider whether it can simply be hidden and the ethics of not informing or warning future generations. Can it be buried deep enough?  A risky move, Keeling explains, “We’re talking on the scale of climate change, of ice ages, and of future societies we can’t even imagine and just hoping they won’t find it.” Notably absent from the messaging strategies explored by WIPP is oral tradition and knowledge which in the case of the Giant Mine seemed central given the Yellowknives Dene. Their oral history and cultural transmission of knowledge dates back at least 10,000 years ago, including stories passed down that include descriptions of environmental change, deglaciation, and geomorphology.

Moving forward, the CFG Working Group and Toxic Legacies Project is still a work in progress. Solving a potential problem of forever is not easily resolved over a short span of time. In the recent film Guardians of Eternity, also a project of Toxic Legacies Project, Mary Rose Sundberg of Yellowknives Dene explains, “We are the guardians of eternity. Forever and ever with no end. There is no end.” Her statement brings into sharp relief questions of responsibility and burden within the Anthropocene as we confront a changing climate, late industrialism, and systems of inequity. How might we attend to those issues in the present and structure obligations for the future? On a more personal reflective note, I wonder how we might imagine a message for generations in the deep the future that conveys something other than risk or danger. An apology? Sorrow? Hope?

The film Guardians of Eternity which tells the story of Giant Mine is currently available for public screenings upon request.

Maureen Haver is a 3rd year PhD student in the Rice Anthropology Department and a predoctoral fellow at CENHS. Broadly, her research focuses on the political and ethical dimensions of climate adaptation and energy transition in Alaska.


Fortun, Kim. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3 (2012): 446–464.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. Mcneill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature.” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36, no. 8 (2007): 614-21.