Michael Madsen on 'The First Post-Human Structure'
CREDIT: Magic Hour Films
It seems that every documentary that comes out these days pulls a page form the Michael Moore playbook to create a spectacle that's half carnival display and half ethics lecture. That's why the new movie Into Eternity," which opened in limited release on February 2nd, stands out so solidly from the crowd. Following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, director Michael Madsen uses the construction of the Onkalo nuclear waste disposal facility in Finland to probe the future of humanity and the nature of time.
[See our review: Documentary Explores the Nuclear Waste that Humans Leave Behind ]
The engineers building Onkalo designed the facility to survive for 100,000 years, long enough for a second ice age to arrive. But rather than latch onto the engineering challenge of the project, Madsen focuses his film on the philosophical questions raised in building the first structure designed to outlast humanity itself.
In our exclusive Q and A, Madsen sat down with InnovationNewsDaily to discuss how science is like religious faith, how nuclear waste constitutes more of a philosophical than technical problem and the difficulty of designing a vault to withstand an ice age. Oh, and we talked about the movie, too.
InnovationNewsDaily: Michael, what inspired you to make a movie about such an isolated, and relatively unknown place?
Michael Madsen: I think that I had this suspicion, once I heard about this facility, that it would be more than just a hole in the ground, simply because this time span of 100,000 is involved. I don't think mankind has ever encountered anything like this before as far as consequences or building. And I assumed that the people building this would have to understand what 100,000 years is. Which I didn't, and still don't.
INO: 100,000 years is a tricky time scale to get a handle on. It's far longer than human history, but also much shorter than geological events like the demise of the dinosaurs. How did the scientists at Onkalo deal with the engineering problem of that conceptual challenge?
MM: It is interesting that when faced with this timescale, all technology is reduced to the absolutely most rudimentary things we know of. Onkalo is repeating a burial. It is, in all essence, a burial chamber. I found it interesting, when I saw the facility, to be in this prehistoric cave, or like Plato's cave, and looking at the interim facilities, which have these complex machines to maintain the status quo. The engineers have gone to something very basic, like the very first burials, you put it underground. Perhaps you also do this because it's a way to put it out of your mind.
INO: Burials evolved in a religious context, and most funerals are still religious ceremonies. You describe Onkalo as a burial in that sense, so did you find any engineers who looked at the task of building the site through a spiritual lens?
MM: What is so signfiicant is that there is absolutely no religious angles to the Onkalu facility. And that's what's so significant. It's the first post-human structure, it's built to outlast mankind. That it has no religious angle testifies to the dominant ideology of our time, which is a rational, scientific ideology. All other buildings every built for something you can think of as an eternity, has always been built in a religious context. The pyramids were built as a portal to another world. The cathedrals, which were built over hundreds of years, were built by builders who also knew they wouldn't live to see them completed. And that was also a religious context. Onkalo, it is a purely scientific, a purely rational reason. I don't know what that means, but it means something.
INO: In the film, you hint that there's a deeper drive at work. Does deliberately building a structure to outlast humanity express the same part of science that looks into space, or into the past, where there are no humans? Or does this kind of project move beyond the bounds of science altogether?
MM: It's extremely important, when thinking about this facility, to understand that nuclear waste is the product of the epitome of the natural sciences. Therefore, I believe that all scientists who are trained and raised to believe in the natural science, almost as an ideology, they can, of course, only stay in this system of thought. But the 100,000 year perspective is incomprehensible. That means the solutions to come from a scientific development enter a new realm that is not technological, but becomes a problem of morals and ethics.
That ideology, and I believe it is an ideology, comes very close to a kind of hubris in the Onkalo facility, in that they can give a 100,000 warranty. And hubris is something that is very dangerous. It's a form of blindness that technology and science would never tolerate.