In 1983, when author and educator Joanna Macy toured Greenham Common and other peace camps being held at nuclear missile storage sites around Great Britain, she had a revelation that would seem strange to many people. She realized that she was on sacred ground. Talking to the activists and witnessing the mindful way in which they held vigil in the presence of those lethal weapons was a model, she realized, for how we need to think about the unspeakably dangerous waste products humans are putting deep in the ground and trying to put out of mind.
The half life of strontium-90, a radioactive isotope produced by nuclear fission, has a half-life of about thirty years. That means that half the radioactivity will have faded to a less harmful element in thirty years. The half-life of plutonium-239, the primary isotope for the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel, is twenty-four thousand years.
“We hardly know what one generation means in terms of our planning,” Macy told interviewer Alan Atkinson in 1991. “So the logic was, to me, irrefutable—this stuff has to be watched. No container lasts as long as the radioactivity it contains.”
In response Macy proposed the Nuclear Guardianship Project, groups of dedicated people who would commit to educating themselves about the science of nuclear power, lobbying the government to update safety measures, keeping the public informed about the dangers of what was stored beneath the surface of the soil, and training young people to take over their practice—for thousands of generations into the future. They would also hold vigils at the sites of these nuclear depositories, guarding what Macy called the “poison fire,” so the story would never die.
Other places of danger and damage call for our attention and vigils too. Such places include landfills, open-pit coal mines, street corners where acts of violence have occurred, and petrochemical plants pressed up against neighborhoods. These places, too, are sacred, because they are part of the whole living Earth, which has given rise to all of us. They become sacred again when we devote our attention to them.