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Mapping the Inheritance
Alex Steffen, 24 Mar 08

One of the Worldchanging slogans is "We've inherited a broken future." That is to say, mainly, that the direction in which we're headed leads right over a cliff. But it might be read a different way: that many of the biggest legacies left humanity by our parents, grandparents and more distant ancestors are broken systems, ruined places, vanished species, antique climates. Much of our inheritance is destruction.

Perhaps the craziest part of this legacy is that we don't really have any idea what it is or where it is. Thousands of pieces of broken satellites streak by in orbit around our planet. It could be tens of thousands. Perhaps hundreds of thousands. We don't know.

Millions of species are on their way out, as we plow and log and mine and dump on the habitats on which they depend, and we don't even know what we're losing -- paging the yeti crab

Now ally Geoff Manaugh draws our attention to another item handed down from our forebearers: submerged chemical weapons.

It seems

The last thing you might expect to encounter exploring the ocean floor is a chemical weapon. But it seems hundreds of thousands of tonnes of them have been dumped into the sea, and no one knows exactly where the weapons are. Now, scientists are calling for weapons sites to be mapped for safety's sake.

Between 1946 and 1972, the US and other countries pitched 300,000 tonnes of chemical weapons over the sides of ships or scuttled them along with useless vessels, according to public reports by the Medea Committee, a group of scientists given access to intelligence data so they can advise the US government on environmental issues.

But the military have lost track of most of the weapons because of haphazard record keeping combined with imprecise navigation.

Of course, the problem's not limited to submerged chemical weapons -- literally thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons and nuclear materials were simply dumped in holes in the ground during the Cold War -- especially in Russia.

Geoff asks "[W]hat future cartography might yet detect and publish these places – so that we can avoid them, or clean them, or entomb them there beneath the sea in glaciers of black concrete?"

And, indeed, mapping the chemical inheritance, as it were, seems like a damn good idea. Completely beyond their immediate utility, or the thrilling sense terriblisma we'd get from making them, maps of the major knowable problems, made today, might help our own descendants make good choices when historical evidence and observable data are even harder to find. Ironically, a map of the screwed-up legacy we've inherited today might actually be a really great legacy to leave behind.

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Along the same lines of often overlooked inheritance to map are the millions of tons of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean. See

Posted by: Bernard on 25 Mar 08

Also critical is finally incinerating the millions of nerve gas weapons the Russians are/were storing in poorly secured wood frame buildings.

Though there have been delays, we're actually making progress on that one.

Posted by: B. Dewhirst on 25 Mar 08


Nice post, but I think it tells just a part of the story. We are not inheriting "destruction" but the fruits of it - called progress. I wrote a post today in specifically in response to your piece if you want to see another perspective on this issue.

Julia Z. Fenster
Editor, The LOHASIAN

Posted by: Julia Fensre on 25 Mar 08

I followed the links from the articles and comments and wonder about a couple of things:

1. Why not trawl up the great gobs of garbage in the various oceanic gyres? Because no one owns them? How many days worth of Iraqi war, sorry, occupation budget would it really take?

2. Julia makes some excellent points in her blog responding to this. My version: While it would have been better never to have made the stuff in the first place, are we not better off that it wasn't used than if it had been? How close to the brink did we come before someone woke up and decided barrels of chemical weapons dumped on the ocean floor was better than barrels of chemical weapons sprayed on our “enemies”?

Posted by: Michael E on 26 Mar 08



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