A new research project in the making: ‘Mimesis in Action’
Blog 4th March 2022
Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, Dalton Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
How do people imagine their futures in areas of nuclear decommissioning? To what extent are local hopes and desires in tension with global developments for future making? And what tensions may arise between human, more-than-human, and ecosystemic interests?
These are some of the questions I plan to address in a new project on the use of models as a way of forecasting, and enchanting, the future, focussing on sites of nuclear decommissioning and waste management. I want to understand what people’s assumptions about possible futures are in areas of decommissioning, in which moral frameworks they are rooted, and how these enhance or hamper imaginations of the future. The project, ‘Mimesis in Action: Nuclear decommissioning as conceptual playground for societal and ecological future making’, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and will run from May 2022 until April 2026.
As nuclear installations around the world reach their end of life and are dismantled, a combination of technical, environmental, socioeconomic, and political groundwork occurs in regions preparing for a future post-nuclear-decommissioning. Central to this groundwork are, or should be, conceptions of time. Nuclear decommissioning combines the first human attempts to dispose of high-level radioactive waste in relation to time frames that potentially extend beyond the future of the human species and the dismantling of regional economies where the possibilities for future livelihoods are very unclear. Earlier research has shown that societal future making tends to focus on short-term, socioeconomic concerns. With ‘Mimesis in Action’, I hope to push future making to embrace ‘deeper’ times and alternative economies, as well. The project will gather evidence from ethnographic inquiry in four nuclear-affiliated fieldwork sites: the areas around Sellafield in West Cumbria, Dounreay in Caithness, COVRA in the Netherlands, and La Hague in Normandy.
I will be working with two scholars in the Netherlands, one an ecologist and seasoned modeller, the other an expert in foresight studies and scenario building. It is not by chance that I looked to the Netherlands for expertise: because of its geography with large parts of the country below sea level, the Netherlands have a long tradition of engineering their environment, and a strong belief in engineerability, which comes with a focus on preparing for the future. I want to find out how modelling relates to confidence in engineerability, and what the implications are of a worldview framed by a belief in engineerability.
Because of the uncertainties inherent in nuclear decommissioning, areas of decommissioning provide conceptually and experientially rich settings to come up with templates for modelling (including scenario building, simulations, and ecosystem modelling), a planned outcome of the project that we want to achieve through collaborative workshops with local discussion partners. Our aim is to design models for future making that broaden out from human-centred concerns and bridge short-term conventional economic and long-term ecosystemic interests.
I am particularly interested in practices of modelling because these are forms of mimesis, a theme I have worked on before in very different settings. Mimesis is not simply about imitating; it is an epistemic practice of mirroring and reflecting knowns and unknowns, which is essentially transformative and thus particularly appropriate for future making. Through acting out, contrasting and comparing, mimesis allows for change. This is exactly what happens in modelling. It moves backwards and forwards in time in order to yield scenarios for futures. These are never ‘representative’ of real worlds; instead, they are full of unknowns and uncertainties, and of possibilities to open up imaginative thinking. I want to gain deeper insights into mimesis as a human practice of acquiring knowledge and I hope to find out to what extent modelling, as an experimental tool in workshop settings, can embrace uncertainty as an opportunity for output rather than construe it as a problem of input.
Decommissioning and nuclear waste management require fundamental decisions about caring for wastes, living organisms, and landscapes. Part of the decommissioning process is ‘environmental remediation’, a technical term, and a euphemism, pertaining to the (contested) extent to which a contaminated site is cleaned up (please see my mini-lecture on this topic). Would it be possible to turn corporate ‘environmental remediation’ into a societal ideal sparking ecocentric initiatives, with the nuclear decommissioning industry broadening its scope to prepare and care for different futures?
In this project, areas of nuclear decommissioning are conceived of as conceptual playgrounds, opening up spaces to imagine future lifeworlds. The Russian invasion of Ukraine chillingly shows how nuclear facilities, be they active or decommissioned power plants, can become battlegrounds quite literally filled with potential for anguish and destruction beyond our wildest imagination. This reminds us of the terrible responsibilities, and impotencies, that come with trying to control nuclear power, nuclear materials, or nuclear waste. Not to speak of the deeply chilling threat of nuclear weapons. Remember the ‘nuclear deterrent’? There’s yet another euphemism for you.