Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Seeds of Doom

The Blockbuster channel all this month is running films that portend the end of civilization as we know it, e.g. The Terminator, Disturbing Behavior, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. The theme is appropriate not only for Halloween but for all of 2012. After all, only 57 days remain in the 5125.36 year Mayan Long Count Calendar, which some folks interpret to mean the world will end this December 21. (Why the ancient Mayans would have been privy to this information is not entirely clear.) Most of us treat this prediction with amusement, yet the fact is that civilization will end – not on December 21, I’m willing to bet, but sometime. We tend not to think much about this most of the time, just as we tend to avoid thinking about our individual mortality, yet both are equal certainties. The threats to civilization are geological, astronomical, demographical, biological, and geopolitical (war).

Since the end of the Cold War we tend to regard wars as local or regional catastrophes. Yet, arguably, the ongoing spread of NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) weapons is more dangerous than the old bipolar East/West standoff ever was. If we nonetheless manage to escape civilization-shattering war, we may fall victim to civilization-shattering love, which is to say we may overbreed. The global population is currently 7 billion, up from 2.6 billion when I was born. Can earth really support the 10 billion people projected for midcentury (assuming a continuing decline in birth rates)? What about 14 billion by century’s end? Even if we somehow contrive to feed ourselves, the planet has other tricks up its sleeve. The human race was nearly extinguished 70,000 years ago when the Toba supervolcano coated much of Asia and Africa in ash. Earth is spotted with other dormant supervolcanoes including, famously, Yellowstone; they will wake up sooner or later. A truly nasty bug that outraces our ability to counter it remains a possibility today. Then there is climate. On at least four previous occasions glacial ice extended to where I currently am sitting and typing; whatever global warming may do in the short run, in the longer run the ice will return again. Never mind the long-term fate of the sun, since that literally will end the world, not just civilization.

So, as unlikely as it seems, we live in a kind of Golden Age. Survivors of the Collapse will tell tales of us and set fantasy stories in our time.

The Collapse is coming. The threats are too multifarious and inexorable to escape. When will it happen?  Probably not on December 21. Probably not in our lifetimes. Maybe not for centuries. Maybe not for millennia. Yet, it will happen, and it could be sooner rather than later.

There are more than a few survivalists who take the threats seriously enough to build doomsday bunkers and post-apocalypse survival kits. Doomsday preppers form something of a subculture. They include some surprising people, such as Morgan Stanley hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, who, in his book Wealth, War and Wisdom warns to “assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure” and adds that “your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food.” Well, someone who earns a living selling hedge investments might be primed to think defensively. I don’t know what kind of bunker Barton has built for himself, but some bunkers are truly impressive.

In the Svalbard Archipelago (aka Spitzbergen) in the Arctic is a particularly remarkable doomsday bunker. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built by the government of Norway but its operations are largely funded by private donors. The vault was built to house seeds, not people. Since 2008, hundreds of thousands of crop seed varieties have been stored there at -18 degrees C. Even in the event of total power failure the internal vault temperatures would remain below freezing for centuries, thereby preserving the seeds for the future. The vault is buried deep in a mountainside well above any possible rise in sea levels. It can survive a missile strike. In the short run, the vault helps preserve seed diversity, but the elaborate safeguards are designed with an eventual global catastrophe in mind. Should civilization collapse, future farmers will not have to restart agriculture from scratch. They can reseed from the vault. Of course, not only will they have to know about the vault, they will have to go to Svalbard and force their way through a series of steel doors and airlocks to get at the seeds, all of which suggests knowledge and abilities beyond those of primitive farmers.

The vault receives funding from the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto Corporation, the Syngenta Foundation, and many others. The money from these private sources alarms some people with a certain conspiratorial mindset. “Do the superrich they know something we don’t?” the alarmists ask. Probably not. More likely, the donors know exactly what we do, and that is reason enough.

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. 
--Robert Frost

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

A Boy and His Dog (1975 post-apocalyptic film)


  1. "So, as unlikely as it seems, this is a kind of Golden Age."

    And there you have it. Life micro & macro riding the crest of the existential wave forward inexorably toward breaking on the beach.

    1. Spoken like an existential surfer.

      Hi Mark

  2. Hi Richard.
    Really excellent pieces. Very pithy, well researched & stylish too. I'm going to give Slog a read.
    Hoping your gas tank is full.....

    1. Thanks

      Special offer for fellow SBS grads -- and even a few GSB grads: send me a mailing address and I'll send you a copy of Slog without charge. To keep it private, you can message me at facebook with it if you like. (If that makes you feel guilty -- it shouldn't -- you then can buy Trash, which contains a novella sequel to Slog.)