Issue 108 June-August 2007 RSS

Buried Alive


A high-tech cavern is being built in Norway to back-up the Earth’s plant life


As nuclear Armageddon threatened during the Cold War, massive underground bunker complexes were constructed to house ‘essential’ military and government personnel. These bunkers were intended to be a kind of inverse coffin, in which the living were buried while the dead were left behind on the earth’s surface. While fears of nuclear destruction have somewhat abated, the idea that the earth is about to suffer a serious trauma (possibly through environmental disaster) is as strong as ever. As such new crypts for the living have sprung up across the world, the only difference is that this time humans aren’t the ones being saved.

On a remote, ice-bound island half-way between the North Pole and mainland Norway, a high-tech cavern is being built into the side of an inhospitable mountain in order to safeguard the world’s seeds. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault – nicknamed the Doomsday Vault – has room for three million unique seed samples, to be released when all other sources have been destroyed or exhausted. It is, in short, a complete back-up for plant life on earth.

Built high above sea-level, in case of melting ice-caps, and buried deep in the permafrost, in case of a loss of power to the vault’s refrigeration units, the project has a certain Cold War flavour to it. Despite attempts to soften the vault’s design so that it emits a ‘quiet glow’ that resonates with its surroundings, its metre-thick walls of reinforced concrete, two airlocks, motion detectors and high-security blast-proof doors leave one in no doubt that, like any good grave, it is not meant to be opened until the Day of Judgement. What’s more, it is guarded by polar bears, creatures not renowned for their love of greens, making one feel rather sorry for the poor post-apocalyptic soul who has to struggle to the vault if he ever wants to feast his eyes on a Maris Piper again.

The idea of vegetables and fruit becoming extinct has never really had the same hold on the public imagination as reptilian creatures with razor-sharp teeth being destroyed by a giant meteorite, or funny-looking flightless birds being hunted to extinction. It is a somewhat glaring proof of species-ism that while creatures such as Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Dodo are household names, not one of the 6,800 varieties of apple that have disappeared in the last century can easily be summoned to memory. Historical pomology (the study of fruits) has never really caught on in the same way as palaeontology; nevertheless, a network of national and international refrigerated seed banks has already been created to try and arrest this decline.

The International Potato Centre in Peru holds the world’s largest collection of potatoes – over 5,000 different types. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria holds 24,000 varieties of barley, 30,000 varieties of wheat and 7,000 varieties of lentil. But even sacred vaults such as these are subject to desecration. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, which housed more than 1,000 varieties of rice, was devastated by a typhoon last autumn. Afghanistan’s seed bank, which held unique almond seeds, has been completely looted and destroyed, while Iraq’s national seed bank, consisting of ancient wheat and chickpea seeds, had the misfortune to be located in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib. In the light of such destruction the Doomsday Vault’s design can be seen as not over-cautious.

This ‘arking’ instinct to stockpile in order to perpetuate life on earth stretches further than seeds. Genetic banks, such as the Frozen Ark Project, seek to collect, preserve and store DNA from animals in danger of extinction. Across the globe there are hundreds of centres stuffed with potential life waiting to be resurrected come the trumpet call. Of course, whether the world really needs all three endangered types of the Moorean viviparous tree snail (or, for that matter, every breed of mosquito) is open to debate.

Yet the most ambitious attempt at arking devised so far is being suggested by the fantastically named Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC), which recommends a complete back-up of all life and human knowledge, to be stored on the moon. Despite its sci-fi premise, the group has bona fide academic credentials, and an increasing number of scientists, led by Professor Stephen Hawking, have accepted that human survival depends on leaving earth. If this is indeed the case, then will we still be human?

When Dr Robert Oppenheimer, the mastermind behind the atomic bomb, watched the first test of the device in New Mexico, he said that a line from the Bhagavad-Gita came to mind: ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ It is fair to say that his association with a supernatural force at that moment was not hyperbole. Indeed mankind’s increasing ability to drastically affect the environment has placed us in a position traditionally occupied by the gods. With scientific proof that mankind is now affecting the weather (albeit unwittingly), the abilities of the gods have never been more within our grasp. The seed and gene vaults scattered across the globe display, in some respects, our belief that once we have destroyed the world – by holocaust or, alternatively, gentle warming – we can rebuild it. We are becoming not just Noah but God too. In that case, perhaps the Alliance to Rescue Civilization is right: it seems only fitting that our insatiable quest for apotheosis will not be sated until we have a home in the heavens too.

George Pendle is a writer living in New York. His most recent book, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore (2007), is out now in paperback.

George Pendle

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Issue 108, June-August 2007

by George Pendle

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