wicked reality in Los Alamos and the realms of dreams and instincts
06.29.2011, 4:30 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

FOP just returned from New Mexico. On Sunday, June 26th the Las Conchas fire ignited in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos. By the time we were heading to the airport in Albuquerque to return to New York on Monday, the fire had swelled to more than 40 square miles. Today, at the time of this writing, the fire nearly exceeds 100 square miles of unpredictable blaze and is only 3% contained. The state of New Mexico has already experienced hundreds of fires this season, likely facilitated by this year’s second driest start to a new year in recorded history.  This parched foundation has set the stage for extreme fire hazard, illustrated by the fact that the Cerro Grande, a large and devastating fire that developed outside Los Alamos in 2000, took two weeks to grow to the size the Las Conchas fire achieved in its first 24 hours.

FOP was in Santa fe last week for FOP co-founder Elizabeth Ellsworth’s presentation at the Santa Fe Institute entitled, “Wicked Problems, Novel Modes of Behavior, and the Power of Pedagogical Design.”  Little did we know, a wicked problem was only hours from developing in the immediate vicinity.

the Las Conchas fire as seen from Santa Fe the evening of June 26th, FOP 2011

Wicked problems, as we’ve written about before, are problems:

for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented.  – CogNexus Institute (The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel.)

We think the notion of wicked problems can be helpful when considering ways to respond, and design in relation to, contexts where human designed nuclear infrastructures are/can be confronted by unpredictable geologic forces —such as floods, earthquakes and forest fires.

What if the design specification for all nuclear infrastructures (power plants, long and short-term waste storage, nuclear weapons testing facilities etc.) started with the assumption that the nuclear is a wicked problem? This would mean that scenarios that combined the risk of tsunami, earthquake and power failure happening together would be considered as possible. Are inflated berms a “best attempt” for handling the wicked problems currently being generated by river flooding near nuclear power plants in Nebraska? Is a plan that places safety’s threshold at 1014 feet of water, when this year’s flood waters have risen to 1006 feet, a best attempt? Might we want to have more than eight dry feet between us and vast amounts of spent nuclear fuel? Are the designers and engineers of a new plutonium production facility ready to meet the wicked problems of a seismically activefire prone mesa?

In the context of wicked problems, it’s worth acknowledging that there is a lot of fear circulating in discourses about the Los Alamos fire. Given the reality that the lab contains, handles and stores radioactive materials, these fears aren’t completely unfounded. How might public concern, questions, and instinctual responses feed into the consideration of the wicked problems we face? Might public opinion be a major factor to be designed in relation to?

Today, we found it interesting to witness how major news sources appear to be conflicted about how to detail fears expressed by local citizens near the Los Alamos fire. We found similar conflicts hinted at in the days following the Fukushima Daiichi plant meltdowns. There seems to be a struggle to find a balance between acknowledging what the public is sensing to be a real threat and reporting what official statements disclose. Both seem necessary to gaining a full sense of what is the “real” situation in New Mexico right now.  This morning, at 7:38 a.m., the New York Times released a story by the AP that included provocative comments by nearby residents of Los Alamos (highlighted below). By 11:30 a.m. the story, under the same title and link, had been edited and all personal commentary had been removed. It’s hard to imagine that the personal feelings of this resident have dissipated as quickly as they disappeared in this story.


screen shot excerpts from iphone cache of the original, longer article at 7:30 a.m

same (edited) article later in the day, shown in its entirety, from the NY Times website 

When we found out about the Las Conchas fire, we were at a Japanese-style onsen (hot springs) just outside Santa Fe. Watching clouds of smoke pass directly over our heads from a fire burning more than 40 miles away triggered a number of realizations and instinctual responses. Here we were, in an environment that looked and felt like Japan, being told that the fire was quickly spreading in the direction of Los Alamos. It was hard not to vividly sense the possible outcomes of such a wicked reality. The realm of possibility included breathing plutonium laced air and we felt ourselves experiencing a small measure of the stress and confusion that humans living near the Fukushima Daiichi plants have been enduring on a daily basis for more than three months.

Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe, June 26th, 2011

The last night spent in Santa Fe triggered a recollection of Kurosawa‘s 1990 Dreams, a film based on eight dreams the filmmaker had as a child. One dream in particular, entitled Mt. Fuji in Red, depicts a nuclear power plant releasing radioactivity and sending Japanese people fleeing to their deaths in the nearby ocean. The scenes of the short sequence are clouded by red smoke. Through the moving haze, the characters attempt to decide what to do, before realizing there is no escape.

still from Kurosawa’s Dreams, Mt. Fuji in Red

Humans respond to geologic convergences, such as massive wild fires threatening nuclear weapons facilities, from deep, instinctual fears and affects. Our evolution as humans has been predicated on paying attention to the affects released in our bodies/brains/minds by the smell of smoke, for example, and moving in accord. Humans will continue to do their best to predict and design for unpredictable geologic events.  But in the realm of wicked problems, it seems that paying attention to our dreams, our instincts, and the complexities at play might help us choose the next directions to go from here.

ash from the Las Conchas fire on red lawn furniture in Santa Fe June 27th, FOP 2011

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[…] disrupted daily life, recreation and commerce across thousand of miles.  Just over a year ago, we detailed our encounter with the enormous and rapidly spreading Las Conchas fire outside Los Alamos National Laboratory in […]

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