This book attempts to answer the question: How do we encourage people to envisage conditions across extended periods of time, such as 10,000 years, 100,000 years or even 1,000,000 years? This is not a book about concrete proposals as to how to tackle existential or long-term problems. It is a submission of tentative ideas on how to get people into a deep time mindset.

Written by Vincent Ialenti, a cultural anthropologist, Deep Time Reckoning suggests “reckonings” as tools to think about the long-term future. These are mental exercises, a collection of ideas on which to reflect to help us imagine the deep future.

“This book’s core goal is to encourage as many people as possible to do two things: (1) to pursue independent, expert-inspired, long-termist learning themselves, and (2) to support the highly trained, too-often-ignored, long-termist experts already in our midst.”

The author combines the methods of academic Anthropology, the long-termism of Finland’s nuclear waste expertise and the writing style of popular science journalism.  It is written in a semi-poetic style and muses on different questions, challenges, thought-experiments and ways of imagining the future.


Deep Time Reckoning aims to unblock our myopia in imagining the future over vast time spans. Long term thinking is required not only by geologists, palaeontologists, cosmologists, etc. but by all citizens. We all need to become skilled “deep time reckoners”, to reposition ourselves in a long-term context.

Although others have attempted strategies to encourage deep time thinking, Ialenti’s approach is different. He conducted anthropological fieldwork research on experts involved in Finland’s nuclear waste repository project at Olkiluoto (the Safety Case). High level nuclear waste storage requires making projections over enormous timescales. The Finland Safety Case’s brief was to come up with a way of storing nuclear waste that would remain within the current legal limits for radiation for hundreds of thousands of years. To give some idea of the enormous time-scales being discussed, the Safety Case experts prepared reports with titles such as Climate Scenarios for Olkiluoto on a Time-Scale of 120,000 Years, looking at possible forces such as glacial movements in a future ice age or how groundwaters and chemicals might corrode the copper canisters used for storage.

How the Safety Case experts projected the far future suggests to us methods for dispassionately forecasting the future over hundreds of thousands of years.

The author highlights two overlapping crises: the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch and the “deflation of expertise”.  The former refers to the fact that humankind now has the power to impact the ecology and geology of the planet over several hundred thousand years. The latter refers to the popular disdain for expert scientific research. The book aims to combat this “deflation of expertise”.

Whether or not the Anthropocene epoch is a valid concept, it inspires thought as to how current human actions may influence outcomes over vast geological time periods.

The experts at the Finnish Safety Case project needed to demonstrate that the nuclear storage facility could withstand climatic, geological, ecological, hydrological and societal changes over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Their long term view must be made more public. Ialenti looks at the possibility of translating the deliberations of these scientists from jargonistic technical language to lively prose accessible to lay people.

A challenge to this project is public scepticism about expert knowledge, which the book calls “the deflation of expertise”. An anthropologist's view can bridge this gap. Ialenti presents a practical toolkit of “reckonings” to help readers envisage long-term futures.

The book uses the word “reckoning” in three different ways:

(i)  how the Safety Case experts calculated and reckoned with various parameters to plan for the far future in Finland.

(ii) how the author reckons with the Anthropocene crisis and the deflation of expertise crisis to foster long-termism in the reader.

(iii) the reckoning, i.e. judgement of past mistakes by humanity which created the planetary problems of today.

The rest of the introduction gives details about the nuclear waste disposal project in Finland, which proposes to store 6500 tons of nuclear waste in copper canisters in underground holes.  The burial of the waste will begin in the 2020s and the underground repository will be backfilled, sealed off and decommissioned in 2120.

Although the far future may be very alien in terms of climate ecology, future human and trans-human societies, culture and language, the author found that the “reckonings” he collected “ended up pertaining to some of the most common features of human experience. These included the power of analogy (chapter 1), the power of pattern-making (chapter 2), the power of shifting and reshifting perspectives (chapter 3), and the problem of human mortality (chapter 4).”

How to pursue expert-inspired, independent, long-termist learning

Chapter 1: Using analogues to visualise the far future

Analogies can be a useful tool to “reckon” (i.e. forecast) the far future. Drawing on multiple lines of evidence and reasoning from a variety of disciplines strengthens deep time reckoning.

However, though analogies are necessary for thinking about the future, they are not sufficient. 

The Safety Case experts looked at examples around the world where materials, artefacts and human remains have been preserved over long periods of time. These had some similarities, which provided clues as to what may occur in the long term future for their own nuclear waste disposal project.

This method is subject to criticism, as analogies are not precise and can break down. 

Probing analogical arguments by pointing out disanalogies improves our long-termist thinking.  “Trying to be honest with oneself and others about one’s limitations is the first step in becoming a more nuanced, careful, and modest deep time reckoner.”

To resist the deflation of expertise, all citizens, not just experts, can study publicly available findings of experts in various fields, such as space exploration, nuclear waste disposal, carbon sequestration and climate change.

Ialenti then makes suggestions for thought experiments that one might perform to foster one’s long-term thinking. For example:

  • Imagining what well-known present-day cities would look like to archaeologists digging them up thousands of years in the future. 
  • Imagining a present-day local coastal area submerged in the future or in the process of fighting off sea-level rise.
  • Imagining one’s own locality during different geological periods.

These “imaginings” can be brought into sharper focus by reading up on scientific findings about nearby ecosystems and faraway analogues.

One can also contemplate the provenance and the future effect of facilities, artefacts and infrastructure within an urban environment, e.g. factories and landfill sites.

A sense of awe can also expand one’s time horizons.

However, the above exercises should be done in a spirit of scepticism and a recognition of their limitations. 

Chapter 2: Using repeating patterns to project the far future

The Finnish Safety Case scientists used quantitative modelling by computer simulation to project various scenarios into the future up to 1 million years.  

Quantitative modelling provides an unemotional description of the future. 

Modelling by one section of the Safety Case community gave data outputs from one model fed in as input to another data model. For example, the groundwater flow model fed into the radionuclide transport model. This along with the biosphere description model, the terrain and ecosystems development model, the landscapes model, and the radionuclide assessment analysis fed into a higher level model, the Biosphere Assessment model. Each lower level model needed to be concluded before the next level could be complete.

These input/output chains helped the Safety Case’s many models hang together into a more unified future projection. Parts of models were found in other models, which became parts of other models, which became parts of still other models, etc.

The reports of each model enabled the derivation of each part of the model to be tracked.

Pattern derivation and modelling can be used by lay citizens as a tool to envisage the far future. They could scour daily routines and patterns for routes into better organising our own deep time learning.

Basic patterns, found right in front of us, may help us overcome the overwhelming feelings of meaningless, awe, mystery, terror, or anxiety that people can feel when pondering the far distant future. 

Here are some examples of patterns which are likely to endure over long time periods:

  1. Two part logical patterns: input/output patterns; if … then … patterns
  2. Alternatives:  even if X happens, then Y could save us; either X could happen, or Y could happen; X could cause Y, which would have the effect Z.
  3. Part/whole patterns: e.g in the Finnish Safety Case project the Groundwater Flow model was seen as a part of the Radionuclide Transport model, which in turn was seen as part of the Biosphere Assessment model. Understanding relationships between parts and wholes has been a tool of thinking for millennia and can be used in reckoning the future.

How to support highly trained long-termist experts we already have

Chapter 3: Zooming in and out to gain perspectives at different time scales and from different angles

Deep time reckoners are skilled at toggling back and forth between short and long time scales.

This chapter first zooms out from the Safety Case: it approaches the entire project as only one momentary blip within the deeper human and geological history of Finland. 

Next, it zooms in on the collaborative forces that held Posiva’s elaborate Safety Case projects together across weeks, months, years, and decades.

After that, it zooms in even further to examine how Safety Case experts maintained their motivations to endure their work’s intellectually taxing day-to-day demands.

The purpose of zooming in and out is to get present-day institutions to embrace more sophisticated multi-angled, multi-perspective, multi-scale perspectives and to support experts in developing their long-term perspectives.

In order to conjure up a time perspective, the book surveys a 72,000 year history of Finland, of which the nuclear waste Safety Case project covers just a very small, recent part. Even this 72,000 year time span is very brief compared with the 1 million years + future scenario which the experts were researching. In fact the history of the nation of Finland itself is just an instantaneous moment compared with vast geological time scales.

At each moment in history, various circumstances could have taken a different direction and events could have turned out differently. Each event was contingent on complex chains of circumstances, causes and effects that went far back through time. It is possible that Finland may never have had a nuclear power program in the first place. 

A project such as the Safety Case is an example of ‘distributed cognition’.  Zooming in and out enables each member of the team to reflect on how his/her small area of research contributes to the whole. Meta-analyses of reports revealed top-level models of the general conclusion of the research (seeing the “forest” rather than individual “trees”).  It is necessary to routinely ‘zoom out’ in order to avoid getting bogged down in one’s own work. One should intentionally alter the perspective—and level of generality or specificity—from which one approaches a problem to remind oneself how one’s work slots into the project as a whole.

Another form of ‘zooming out’ is when one takes a step back from one’s professional work for leisure pursuits. The Safety Case workers had varying work styles, hobbies, personalities and backgrounds.

In this chapter, Ialenti also raises the question of how we can persuade today’s institutions to adopt a more multi-temporal world view and also how deep time reckoners can be given more say in today’s society. 

The chapter concludes with five suggestions:

  1. Multi-timescale awareness training for personnel of large corporations, agencies and research institutes. 
  2. Though most companies are relatively short-lived, they should have a long-term safety department divided into a days division, a decades division, a centuries division and even a multi-millennial division. 
  3. A global deep-time reckoning association. This would connect experts in different fields around the world who have understanding of long-term global impacts.  E.g. climate scientists could link up with nuclear waste experts, palaeontologists with archivists, evolutionary biologists with theologians, etc.. This “Deep Time Reckoning Association’s” main mission would be to nudge long-sighted experts toward identifying themselves within a pragmatic multidisciplinary community on which global society must rely to avert planetary collapse.
  4. The above association would set up meeting rooms, conferences, informal gatherings and clubs to facilitate cross-pollination of ideas between experts.  There would also be leisure facilities to help deep time reckoners to build a community. 
  5. Employees and citizens in general should be encouraged to see their work and life from different angles and time perspectives.

Chapter 4: Avoiding the death of knowledge through the death of one or more experts.

This chapter examines the problems within the culture of a research organisation if some researchers are too self-seeking or career-minded. It highlights the dangers of allowing one person to gain too much knowledge without recording and disseminating that knowledge before his/her demise.   

When a Safety Case worker or expert in some particular file dies, the knowledge he/she has acquired dies with him/her.  This is especially true for experts in highly specialised fields with knowledge accumulated over many years.

This in fact happened to one of the Safety Case workers, Seppo. His sudden death necessitated trawling through his personal computer folders and attempting to interpret his scribbled notes in the margins of his reports.  His volatile personality had kept others away from closely getting to know his research. 

Seppo had not trained up successors to himself, but had hoarded knowledge, “empowering himself by successively controlling specialist knowledge that nobody else had.” He had thus made himself indispensable.  It was unwise to rely too heavily on a single specialist. 

The case of Seppo demonstrates the influence that a strong, dominant personality can have over the direction and conduct of research and this can last even after that person’s death. 

The death of Seppo resulted in tighter policies as to how documents were to be written, requiring more detailed knowledge oversight and lengthier procedures.

Similar problems occurred with the retirement and later death of Seymour Sack of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the USA, who had an intimate knowledge of the construction of nuclear weapons. These weapons likely posed a threat to the future of humanity, yet he had not left behind detailed reports of his work.

Another example is given of a computer scientist at the Technical Research Centre of Finland, who was the only one that knew how to use a certain type of computer code.  When he died suddenly, approximately 20 years of experience was wasted.

Considering the rarity of experts with knowledge likely to have a bearing on deep-time thinking, it is important for institutions to recognise who these people are and take steps to preserve their knowledge.

The chapter concludes with the following suggestions: 

  1. Today’s societies must embrace an ethic of predecessor preservation. carefully absorbing, tending to, and disseminating insights from prolific deep time researchers, so that their contributions to humanity’s long-termism do not die off upon their biological deaths.
  2. Organisations that employ deep-time researchers should implement protocols requiring a more decentralised network of leaders.  Their offices should never be concentrated in one location. They should never all fly in the same aeroplane or travel in the same vehicle together. Voters could push for laws mandating this on corporations.
  3. Candid discussions should take place within organisations to prevent experts from hoarding information, notwithstanding their possible volatile personalities.  Policies should require workers to document their knowledge and to mentor their successors. 
  4. Associated colleagues and co-workers of deep time thinkers should be interviewed with a view to archiving the expert’s thinking.  
  5. The knowledge archived from the above should be kept in an internationally accessible database backed up and made available online to other experts and to lay citizens concerned about the long-term future.
  6. Co-workers of the deceased should reflect on which aspects of the deceased’s work can and should be carried on by them and which aspects of the deceased’s thinking were not helpful and should not be transmitted.


The author reiterates the importance of long-range thinking in the general populace and not just in small groups of experts. 

The book concludes with a few more suggestions for embedding deep-time thinking in society: 

  1.  A radical new education program that introduces entire populations, from an early age, to humanity’s inventory of long-term thinking tools. The author gives numerous suggestions as to how deep-time thinking can be embedded into wide areas of the school curriculum.

The guiding principles of such an education would be:

  1. Holistic ecological thinking
  2. Multi-disciplinary inquiry, multiple lines of reasoning
  3. An embrace of receptivity, sensitivity, and appreciation of one’s wider world as opposed to yearning for mastery, escapism, and mechanistic thinking
  4. Everyone has something to teach and something to learn
  5. Imagining diverse futures

Before graduating high-school, each student would write an essay on “How can I be a good ancestor?”

(2) In addition to being educated into greater time-literacy, society can be reorganised to more holistically embrace future-thinking in the following ways:

  1. Deep-time thinking can be embedded in the culture of society from TV game shows to essential reading lists to religious discussions to corporate training schedules, even how we write dates, e.g. 002022 instead of 2022. 
  2. To combat the “deflation of expertise”, avoid the jargon and perceived elitism of experts. 
  3. “Soft” disciplines such as anthropology, philosophy and history should be given equal status to the so-called STEM subjects.


The book’s suggestions are somewhat nebulous.  It spends many pages describing the author’s interactions and discussions with the Finnish Safety Case workers.  

The intention of the book is to fire the imagination rather than give a concrete plan of action. It therefore oscillates between narrative and making specific proposals, which makes it difficult for the reader to grasp the main points.

The author may wish in a later edition of the book to put in bullet pointed summaries at the end of each chapter. 


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