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Post-crisis Olympic blues, and the militarisation of the Olympic spirit

A couple of weeks ago I was standing five-deep on the platform at Stockwell tube station, staring up at an empty departure board. A train had broken down somewhere up the line. People were late for work, it was very hot. It was the worst week of tube delays so far this year, with, according to TfL, 33 incidents of severe delays and line closures. Eventually a train arrived, and after cramming on board with hundreds of others, we sped away leaving the platform as busy as it was before. As soon as we were in the tunnel, the stern delivery of the Victoria line announcer filled the carriage, with the warning now familiar to any user of railways in Britain to not leave your bag unattended, or run the risk of it being ‘destroyed by the security services’.

I’ve never liked the Victoria line announcer. She has a sternness in her voice you would never find infecting the chirpy breeze of the Bakerloo line announcer, or the spritely and professional candour of the Northern line. The Victoria line announcer addresses the worms squeezed on her trains with a contemptuous pity. She is busy and modern, as evidenced by her shiny new carriages, compared to the tan and taupe, ’70s hangover trains on the Bakerloo line. When she has to tell you where to alight for a palace or an eye hospital, you are inconveniencing her.

She issued her threats to mind your baggage several times during my short journey to Green Park, laced with a couple of chirpy warnings not to give money to beggars. It might have been the fact that I knew I was going to be late, or just suffering the all too familiar sensation of boiling in a scrum of strangers in a dusty underground tunnel. Or it might have been a combination of the tube-fatigue and the repeated announcements from what, at the end, sounded like a deranged Tory backbencher at the announcer’s helm. In between being warned not to feed the beggars, and with the hot breath of the omnipotent security services on the back of my neck, its sweaty palm clutching my bag, I had a premonition of the future. The near future, that is, and a dystopian one. Yes, the Olympics.

Hourly, Londoners are reminded of this hell on the horizon, looming ever closer like a metropolis-bound meteor in a shit film. The heady days of 2005, when the entire country was in Olympics rapture, seem a long time ago. We were like the party animals on the roof of the skyscraper in Independence Day, with the alien spaceship hovering overhead, holding aloft signs welcoming this strange visitor, gleeful smiles on our faces and dancing madly at the prospect of alien contact. I bet the Bakerloo line lady would have been up there, her carefree moves inspiring even the most demented apocalypse day looter to stop and twist. But, of course, the party skyscraper was the first to get zapped by the spaceship. We’re now six years on from those halcyon days of Labour boom, the pungent smell of big profit and finely pressed suits lining the shining boulevards of the square mile, all the jobs, all the credit, the family home that could function as a never-ending cash machine, always ratcheting up its price with each sweet passing minute. But then, one day in 2008, when an American investment bank called Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, we were all zapped, as if without warning.

A couple of days ago the EU decided (again) to formulate a last-minute plan to contain the eurozone debt crisis, in part continuing the austerity drive in Greece that is in the process of turning the country into a client state of the IMF. Italy has promised to implement its own austerity programme. The Bank of England is now warning that Britain faces a ‘significant chance’ of going back into recession. But there is light on the horizon. In the face of this apocalypse we’ll have the Olympics. We are still being sold the Olympics as, at best, an event to rescue the British economy, and at worst, something that will at least cheer the hearts of those suffering. We will still have the Olympic Spirit. A desperate cry if there ever was one, and one that rests on an interesting interpretation of exactly what this ‘Olympic Spirit’ might entail.

As well as magnificent feats of athletic prowess, the Olympics also has the added bonus of often resembling a military coup. Prior to the Athens Games in 2004, 70,000 police and troops were drafted into the city to clear ‘undesirables’ from the streets, mostly drug addicts, immigrants, and the homeless. It was reported during the preparations for the Beijing Games that around 1.5 million residents were ejected from their homes. 720,000 were displaced during the Seoul Games of 1988, in a fine demonstration of newly re-gained democratic principles (the Sixth Republic of South Korea had been declared only a year earlier after nearly a decade of violent military rule). The Athens crackdown was repeated again in 2010 in Vancouver, where there were widespread reports of police clearing homeless people from poor districts. I’ll expect to hear the Victoria line announcer warning of more ‘undesirables’ in the months to come. For all this, it also looks as if the cost of the London Games is going to quadruple from initial estimates to over £9 billion.

Aside from resembling a very expensive military crackdown with fireworks and a little athletics on the side, the Olympics also beds with some rather odd company. Athletics sponsored by, among others, such health-conscious companies as Heineken, and McDonald’s, who have pledged to build a 1,500 seater, ‘world’s largest’ outlet on the Olympic site. In direct proportion to this, another ‘international sponsor’, Dow Chemical Company of Bhopal gas leak fame, has so far pledged nothing to the families and victims of the disaster that killed 3,787 people and has caused at least 8,000 deaths since.

For the population, the salesmanship of Parliament, City Hall, councils, and their underling agencies of this bonanza of sports has been schizophrenic to say the least. After constantly being told of the economic benefits of  the Games, which will be short-term to say the least, we are confronted with weekly prophesies of doom from Transport for London. Waiting times on several tube lines will be over half an hour, and we are told the network will only ‘cope’ if 60% of workers go absent. Those who can’t work from home, which is probably just about everyone, are being advised to ‘go to the pub’ after work to allow station congestion to clear. A public transport Games indeed, although not quite so when one considers the 109 miles of road that will have a lane sectioned off solely for those travelling to the Olympics, with punitive fines for those who stray into them. If you were planning on taking the bus to avoid the chaos, think again.

London will likely become clogged with armed police and guards, as security companies vie with each other for lucrative contracts. And if that wasn’t enough, another happy addition to the Olympic Spirit fraternity is the constant news stories of the possibility of tenants in rented accommodation across the capital being evicted so that landlords can charge sky-high rents (up to £10,000 a month) to Olympic revellers, a practise that has been confirmed illegal by only six borough councils out of thirty-two. And what will become of the Olympics site after the Games? A few weeks ago the Westfield Stratford shopping centre opened with a fanfare approximating it almost messiah status, a shopping juggernaught-Christ to single-handedly resurrect a leprous economy. A combination of consumer goods outlets encouraging us to spend our way out of recession, and a likely recreation of the now infamously derelict Athens site will most likely appear in the ruins of the cavernous journalists centre.

Simon Jenkins, in the Evening Standard, echoing the concerns of Londoners (a poll in the same newspaper revealed 80% of residents would not be buying Olympics tickets), has called the Games ‘elitist, exclusive and stupefying’ and likened them to a ‘festival for the cosmopolitan rich and their armed guards’. Will Self, in an appearance on Newsnight, described the Games as a ‘creation of capital’, a hangover of the boom years in a dead economy. This analysis looks all too pertinent now. While during the boom years the Olympics might have been the feather in capital’s cap, the icing on the cake that had supposedly brought prosperity to the nation, we now know that that prosperity was a lie, a grim combination of imaginary money, ceaseless credit, and the cooked books of outfits like Lehman Brothers. Six years down the line, the prospect of this Olympic extravaganza is more than faintly depressing, resembling a half-finished temple to the Gods long after Rome has succumbed to the barbarian hordes. And where is everyone? Lining up at the soup kitchen, looking back on the drunken orgies on the last days of empire and feeling more than a little embarrassed.

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Onkalo, Into Eternity, and Faulkner’s homemade spaceship

In the forests of the remote island of Olkiluoto, on the shores of the Baltic Sea in western Finland, engineers are constructing a giant underground tomb to store all of Finland’s nuclear waste. The project is called Onkalo, literally meaning ‘hiding place’, and construction is expected to be completed in 2020. For the next hundred years the multiple tunnels and chambers of Onkalo, which stretch to a depth of 500 metres, will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, until it is filled with cement and sealed in 2120. To ensure its safety, the waste must lay untouched for 100,000 years. Onkalo is being designed to far outlast any institution ever created by man or his ancestors. Last year a Finnish filmmaker, Michael Madsen, released a documentary about it called Into Eternity.

The appearance of dates on their own can sometimes appear meaningless, so here are a few landmarks to put 100,000 years in some kind of perspective. The Great Pyramid of Giza was completed around 4,500 years ago, the transition from nomadic hunter gathering to farming and permanent settlement occurred between 7-10,000 years ago, the last ice age was 20,000 years ago, our Homo sapien ancestors only reached Europe 40,000 years ago, where Neanderthals did not become extinct until 30,000 years ago and the great original Homo sapien migration out of Africa took place between 125-60,000 years ago.

At the present time, the world’s nuclear waste is held in water storage facilities dotted around the globe. These facilities are expensive, reliant on power, need permanent maintainance requiring a constant human presence, and are completely at the mercy of world events. As one expert interviewed in Into Eternity puts it, ‘There has been two world wars in the last hundred years, the world above ground is too unstable’. A major war in itself would be enough to empty a facility such as this of its workers and scientists, leaving it without power and vulnerable, without considering an even more major catastrophe. Watching Into Eternity does what very few other documentaries can; it leads the viewer to consider the entire breadth of human history, and leaves us to think about ‘bigger questions’ that entirely dwarf the ‘big questions’ that, in our times, we have shied away from even considering.

Commenting on the continuity of history that he felt the culture of the postmodern world had rejected, what he called the ‘crisis of historicity’, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson considered that;

“there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current, multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life”

And the thought is a very pertinent one, if we consider our own era as independent or unconnected to our recent historical past, what we might read in a school history book, how on earth is it possible for us to consider the implications of something that is intended to last for 100,000 years?

In what is a thoroughly overused phrase, Into Eternity can be described as ‘haunting’. It shifts between images from inside Onkalo of engineers quietly working underground, to interviews with various experts involved with the project, including scientists from the company behind the project, and a theology professor. Madsen’s narration takes the form of a quietly spoken, Herzog-esque, message to a hypothetical person of the future who has discovered Onkalo, and he poses questions to this hypothetical viewer throughout. He asks whether ‘you’ were warned of the dangers of Onkalo by your ancestors, presumably through the form of folk tales.

The interviews with the experts themselves are the most interesting aspect of the film, and what we are presented with is a collection of completely fallible human beings who seem to be desperately trying to handle the metaphysical problems of the consequences of Onkalo as best they can. One, who is identified as a regulator from the Finnish Nuclear Safety Authority, looks as if he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and punctuates his slowly considered answers to Madsen’s questions with a continual nervous laughter. The questions and answers between Madsen and the experts have a roundabout feel to them, and their often jaded responses give the feeling of a collection of people for whom any questions about Onkalo will throw up a million others, and it is best to address them as best as they can, prepare in the same way for an eventuality, and commit to the project with a certain amount of fingers crossed.

The dynamic of the roundabout questioning in the film is not confined between Madsen and the experts, and the film reveals open disagreements between the Onkalo team themselves. One of these, and probably the most important, is over the question of how, if at all, future generations should be warned about the dangers of Onkalo.

For the time being, Onkalo is the responsibility of the Finnish state, but the idea of the Finnish state surviving for the next 100,000 years is far-fetched to say the least. Should archives be maintained to warn people? A war could destroy an archive or leave it forgotten along with any other official warnings and records, and could depopulate the entire area, or Finland itself, so even a historical warning provided by word of mouth and local tradition would be unavailable. War seems a predictable scenario, and over 100,000 years humans will have to deal with far more calamitous events, such as mass human migration, or probably several, or another ice age. Again, to put this in some perspective, the great Migration Period which saw the end of Roman civilisation and the resettlement of tribes across Europe occurred only 1,700 years ago, the Earth is due for another ice age in at least the next 60,000 years, and during the last one Finland, with the rest of northern Europe, was under a permanent ice sheet.

Aside from questions of responsibility for Onkalo, the experts are also split on whether or not to erect actual physical markers at the site as warnings. Some believe that is best to warn anyone who comes across the site to stay away, while others believe that any warning markers will arouse the curiosity of whoever comes across them. If warnings are left, what form would they take? The outlines presented in the film are shown as large stone towers, with various warning symbols designed to be universally understood as representing danger, as well as warnings in every major world language. These are problems in themselves, symbols in use today will certainly be meaningless in 100,000 years time, as evidenced by our lack of understanding of many ancient runic languages, and the languages used around the world in the 21st century will definitely be useless. We only have to look at the progression of English in the last 2,000 years to see this, as shown in these translations of the Gospel of Luke, verse 2:1, in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English, taken from the Wessex Gospels, the Wycliffe Bible, and the King James Bible respectively;

‘Soþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casere augusto. þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod

Forsoþe it is don, in þo daȝis a maundement wente out fro cesar august, þat al þe world shulde ben discriued

And it came to passe in those dayes, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’

Granted, it is possible for us to now understand and translate the progression of English, but this is only over a period of 2,000 years, a tiny proportion of the time these markers would be expected to last. Compare this to the origins of the Basque language; historically surrounded by Indo-European Romance languages, Basque is classified as a language isolate, it has no apparent relation to any other European languages, and almost nothing is known of its origins or how it came into existence.

Given these considerations, the Onkalo experts were honestly considering, at one point, displaying stone carvings of Edvard Munch’s The Scream as a universal sign of danger. Other ideas floated included erecting massive spiked stone structures around the site to give the effect of a giant thorn bush, creating a sense of foreboding ahead for any traveller.

Few arguments are made by the experts as an absolute guarantee of the safety of Onkalo, and it is obvious that any statements guaranteeing the safety of anything for 100,000 years would be folly, even if it is 500m underground. One expert adopts the position that any desire to interfere with Onkalo in the future would be directly prohibited by the technological level of whatever civilisation is doing the interfering, and this technological expertise would in turn render them intelligent enough to be able to carry out scientific tests and realise that what they are doing is dangerous. This seems to be another divergent point in expert opinion. One expert says that, ‘they should have some measuring tools to measure the radiation’, and when asked by Madsen what would happen if they didn’t have access to this technology, he says that, ‘they have to make a chemical analysis’, and when asked the same question again he says, ‘If they don’t have that, then they cannot do the drilling either’.

This is raised again by another expert who says that,

‘If someone in the future is able to dig down to the repository then it will probably be a civilisation of the same kind as we have presently, and in such a case they will also be knowledgeable to know that this is a radioactive material’,

His colleague then interjects, pointing out that pervious civilisations have achieved just as extraordinary things while lacking the obvious means to do so. She points to the mining industry in Sweden in the 16th century, and their ability to excavate hundreds of metres under the ground. Advanced knowledge of mining and engineering is also documented in the De re metallica, a book dating from 1556 that catalogued the process of mining and smelting metals hundreds of years before radiation was discovered. Making the connection between ability to excavate into the ground and scientific knowledge sounds even more dangerous when we consider that tin mining in Cornwall has been undertaken for at least 4,000 years, and the mines at Grimes Graves in East Anglia were mined for flint in Neolithic times, over 5,000 years ago.

And out of these contradictions and plausible predictions are aspects of the future that cannot be reasonably speculated on, one being the question of human evolution, which Madsen raises. Will humans appear the same as us in 100,000 years, will they have the same physiology as us, or even the same senses? Their needs, level of knowledge, and ways of life will certainly be completely alien to our own. The sheer impossibility of predicting for the thousands of questions and problems raised by Onkalo are shown when Madsen asks a blunt but simple question of the beleaguered nuclear regulator he is interviewing; whether or not he ‘trusts the future generations’. To do what, he doesn’t specify. But the question seems to take all the problems of Onkalo and unify them into one. At this, the man is speechless, and slumps down into his chair, the camera cuts to another expert and he answers with what seems like the only answer possible;

‘It may be a complete open question whether there is a possibility that someone will interpret anything at all in this timescale. The quick answer is that nobody knows anything…at all’

On a global level, the scientists interviewed view the idea of storing waste underground, and the idea of nuclear generated energy in itself as unsustainable. At the moment there is at least 250,000 tonnes of radioactive waste on Earth, Onkalo will be able to hold around 6,500 tonnes. With concern over global warming growing, so is use of nuclear power. It seems unlikely that the construction of Onkalo-like storage facilities will be able to keep up with rising levels of nuclear waste.

Onkalo is probably the most ambitious human endeavour ever put into practise, and in its quiet, reflective style, Into Eternity presents the project in its full madness. It makes us consider the big questions in a way that we, in the 21st century, don’t usually don’t do outside of theological and philosophical circles, and the big questions themselves, war, economic collapse, mass migration, ecological catastrophe, societal structure, all seem to pale away when we are faced with a time period that, in reverse, stretches back tens of thousands of years beyond our recorded history, to when Homo sapiens, or modern humans, were not the only species of human on this Earth. This is an idea that is almost inconceivable to us now. For all the questions and unanswered hypotheses thrown up by Onkalo, and of all the possible and predicted events occurring in its lifespan, only one can approach definite status as a likely event over others, and it is revealed in Madsen’s narration, directed at the hypothetical future explorer of Onkalo. It is inevitable that one day, in the next 100,000 years, Onkalo will be discovered by someone. Any argument against this seems the utmost in arrogance and wishful thinking. And in the face of this, a fitting addition would be William Faulkner’s timeless judgement on the quality of human persistence;

‘The last sound on the worthless earth will be two human beings trying to launch a homemade spaceship and already quarreling about where they are going next.’

A lot more people should be talking about Onkalo.

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