Friday, February 29, 2008

The Doomsday Vault: Archive Fever in Cold Storage

The NYT runs a fascinating article today on a seed archive being built deep underground on a Norwegian island:
With plant species disappearing at an alarming rate, scientists and governments are creating a global network of plant banks to store seeds and sprouts, precious genetic resources that may be needed for man to adapt the world’s food supply to climate change.

This week, the flagship of that effort, the Global Seed Vault near here, received its first seeds, millions of them. Bored into the middle of a frozen Arctic mountain topped with snow, the vault’s goal is to store and protect samples of every type of seed from every seed collection in the world.

As of Thursday, thousands of neatly stacked and labeled gray boxes of seeds — peas from Nigeria, corn from Mexico — reside in this glazed cavelike structure, forming a sort of backup hard drive, in case natural disasters or human errors erase the seeds from the outside world.

Descending almost 500 feet under the permafrost, the entrance tunnel to the seed vault is designed to withstand bomb blasts and earthquakes. An automated digital monitoring system controls temperature and provides security akin to a missile silo or Fort Knox. No one person has all the codes for entrance.

The Global Vault is part of a broader effort to gather and systematize information about plants and their genes, which climate change experts say may indeed prove more valuable than gold. In Leuven, Belgium, scientists are scouring the world for banana samples and preserving their shoots in liquid nitrogen before they become extinct. A similar effort is under way in France on coffee plants. A number of plants, most from the tropics, do not produce seeds that can be stored.

Because Scandinavians are involved, the article had to note that the boxes were "neatly stacked" and that everything was nicely "organized". I have a couple reactions to this doomsday seed vault. First, it's a little terrifying to realize that so many people, organizations, governments, etc., are so concerned and investing in this bomb-proof seed vault. On the other hand, it's also sort of amazing and life-affirming that people in all sorts of place, various states, etc., are coming together to put this vault together. This cooperation to preserve humanity fills me with that warm Star Trek, or Deep Impact humanity-united-to-save-itself feeling.

Of course, if the apocalypse did come and everything was left dead, there would surely be a war on for this archive of seeds. And even Scandinavian organization and neatness would go by the wayside as groups battled to own the past, and therefore, the future.

In any event, I've always been taken with the idea of a seed archive -- all of these life-containing materials from the past waiting, in storage, filed away, for a day when they will be referenced, hybridized, brought into bloom again, as something new -- the past bursting into the present. An archive, gathering and organizing the past, contains the promise of -- and to -- the future:
In an enigmatic sense which will clarify itself perhaps . . . , the question of the archive is not, I repeat, a question of the past, the question of a concept dealing with the past which already might either be at our disposal or not at out disposal, an archivable concept of the archive, but rather a question of the future, the very question of the future, question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow. Perhaps. A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and like religion, like history, like science itself, this ties it to a very singular experience of the promise.
Jacques Derrida, An E-mail to Freud (in Archive Fever).

(P.S. -- To any survivors of some future apocalypse searching the internet for keys to survival who have come across this post -- the Global Seed Vault is located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Good luck to you!)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Running on Empty

The L.A. Times is running a series of editorials on water and water policy. It's welcome news that the Times is taking the issue of L.A.'s water resources seriously. From today's editorial:
The early history of Los Angeles was defined by its struggle to get water wherever, and whenever, it could. William Mulholland and his colleagues did such a good job of securing water supplies during the early 20th century -- building the 223-mile-long, gravity-fed Los Angeles Aqueduct, which imports water from the Owens Valley; establishing the Metropolitan Water District, which brings in water from the Colorado River and Northern California -- that those of us living here today take for granted our lush gardens and year-round blooms. They appear a native bounty when they are, in fact, a work of man. We offer pious lip service to the notion that water is scarce when the weather is dry, only to forget our concerns at the fall of the first raindrop. Implicitly, we behave as if water will always be available and unlimited.

This must change. This page did not like the water bond that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed last year, but he is on to something when he insists that California needs to rethink its complicated and woefully overburdened water system. It has been said many times before, but it bears repeating: Our state's breathtaking natural beauty, envied easygoing lifestyle and booming economy . . . depend on an ambitiously conceived network of aqueducts, pumps, dams and pipes that will literally run dry if we don't invest heavily to change the way we use, capture, store and distribute water.