Since 2007, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has maintained a repository of the world's agricultural heritage. A series of tunnels bored into the side of a mountain, this vault is climate-controlled, secure against tectonic activity or sea-level rise, and designed to hold up to 4.5 million different seed varieties for centuries to come.
Built 900km north of Europe in Svalbard, a barren archipelago in Norway, it sits on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, containing duplicate specimens from other seed vaults scattered throughout the world. There are more than 1000 crop diversity collections worldwide, but the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard was built away from civilisation because it is the fail-safe, the insurance policy, the last resort.
Since its inception, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has repeatedly evoked a sense of the apocalypse. Everyone from Fox News to Wired magazine has used the unofficial nickname 'doomsday seed vault' to refer to the project, and it is routinely described as a last haven and refuge for plant biodiversity should some global catastrophe destroy the world's crops. 'The "doomsday" vault is designed to keep millions of seed samples safe from natural and unnatural disasters: global warming, asteroid strikes, plant diseases, nuclear warfare, and even earthquakes,'National Geographic reported in 2008. Wired, in 2011, referred to it as 'the world's insurance policy against botanical holocaust'.
Cary Fowler, the former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helped to establish the seed vault, has neither coined nor entirely disavowed, the term 'doomsday' as it applies to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: 'We believe that in the case of a regional or global catastrophe that this seed vault would prove to be very, very useful,' he told The Washington Post in 2008. 'However, it wasn't primarily with that in mind that we started the planning of this facility.'
Along with the language of catastrophe comes a very specific articulation of time. We think of our relationship to the environment in the immediate. Global warming, we're told, will decimate all life within our lifetimes, or in our children's lifetimes. In this way, environmental discourse resembles the ranting of religious millenarians, who stubbornly maintain that the apocalypse will happen on their watch. As of 2010, 41 per cent of Americans say that they expect Jesus to return to Earth by 2050. This obsession with impending disaster suggests that we see nature on a particularly human, individual scale. When we think of environmental damage and the human impact on the ecosystem, we think almost exclusively in the short term. The millennium, be it religious or environmental, is always coming the day after tomorrow.
Standing opposed to this narrow band of apocalyptic time is 'deep time', a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity. The concept of deep time originated with the 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton, and was popularised by the American writer John McPhee in his book Basin and Range (1981). For McPhee, the chief attraction of deep time is its ability to move us out of short-term thinking: 'If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time,' he wrote. 'And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.'
The workings of deep time are evident everywhere in Svalbard. In the days prior to my visit to the seed vault, I was out on the open seas with two dozen other artists and writers, travelling around the edge of Svalbard in a three-masted tall ship. We'd worked our way up the western coast of Spitsbergen, the archipelago's largest island, dipping into the northern fjords before heading back. Again and again, I was impressed by the sheer stillness of the world around us. Aside from a few failed attempts by whalers, there were no permanent human settlements in Svalbard before the late 19th century, and there is no indigenous population here, save the reindeer and the bears. We sailed around Svalbard's edge at the height of the tourist season, and we sometimes went for days without seeing another ship.
Though we were safe from from immediate harm, it was less clear whether there was a longer-term menace in all that floating ice. Svalbard contains less than three per cent of the planet's glaciers, but those glaciers are getting 60-70 mm thinner each year, and annually they add 13 cubic km of icemelt to the ocean, raising it by .035mm per year. None of this is trivial, but neither is it particularly visible or dramatic. When I returned home, a few people asked me if I'd seen evidence of global warming. It was a well-meaning question, but one that made little sense. What would evidence of change look like to a person who'd just arrived in a foreign place? How could I tell what was regular snowmelt, and what was some subtle clue of a catastrophic ecosystem failure? Anyone expecting an on-demand Hollywood apocalypse will be disappointed up here.
'A glacier is an archivist and historian,' Gretel Ehrlich wrote in The Future of Ice (2004). 'It saves everything no matter how small or big, including pollen, dust, heavy metals, bugs, bones, and minerals. It registers every fluctuation of weather… A glacier is time incarnate.' The time incarnated by a glacier operates on a very different scale, doled out in measurements far too small for humans to witness.
Sometimes what seems like a panicked gasp for breath is something else entirely. The lessons of Svalbard are more complex than the simple, immediate apocalypse intimated by the hype surrounding the seed vault. Cary Fowler, its former director, has hinted that the vault's real work will be more prosaic than the dominant narrative might lead you to believe.
This article has been excerpted with permission from Aeon Magazine. To read in its entirety, head here.
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