April 02, 2008

From Stephen Mikesell:

Re: “Noah’s Ark” seed vault opens (Feb. 26): As an anthropologist studying agricultural systems, I think the Noah’s ark seed vault comes out of reductionist thinking that sees life as genes without context. In my mind it will be as effective in salvaging biodiversity as museums are in saving indigenous societies. All higher life evolves in communities of organisms and under specific and dynamic natural conditions too complex for humans to reconstruct.

Domesticated plants, furthermore, are cultural and historical products associated with bundles of knowledge, skills and experience. We can see that modern agriculture’s attempt to spread its modified seeds and mechanical-chemical growing systems universally outside of their original context requires more fossil energy than the solar energy collected by the plants -- at least seven times as much. Modern agriculture only seems viable because the only accounting used is monetary, even as we drain away at a shocking rate the stores of petroleum and natural gas providing the energy to sustain it.

Trying to revive life with stored seeds will be no different than trying to revive the Etruscans with their forgotten alphabet. It is letters and words with no context. Even if enough humans survived in a situation able to undertake this project, which in my mind is unlikely, the amount of energy and effort to restart those complex ecosystems is far beyond the capability of this civilization at its energy zenith, to say nothing of a troubled, ruined and energy-hungry future civilization.

No doubt it is a valient effort, but a terribly desperate one as well, taken on by farsighted people able to see how desperate the human situation has become, which it really has little chance of success beyond the symbolic effect it might have on living people.


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