How could we reengineer civilization to be resilient against catastrophe? A vault of seeds slumbering in Arctic permafrost suggests one way.
Admit it: in your own mind, you believe that you’d survive the apocalypse.
There’s a morbid attraction to daydreaming about the collapse of civilization. Whether climate change, meteor impact, zombie plague, pandemic, rapture or nuclear war, there’s no shortage of scenarios for how the world-as-we-know-it might end. And we all fantasize about being one of the privileged few who saw it coming, who’ll taste true freedom afterwards and recreate the world in their own image.
For some people, this doesn’t stop at idle fantasizing. They’re so sure a crash is coming that they make elaborate plans for riding it out.
Obsessed preppers swap tips on the internet, stockpile canned food and construct bunkers in their backyards and basements. The ultra-rich take it to extremes, building lavish survival compounds in the remote corners of the earth. (Somehow, it never occurs to them to wonder if their servants, bodyguards, mechanics and pilots will voluntarily abandon their own loved ones to rescue their boss.)
There’s nothing wrong with preparing for the worst. I’m all in favor of anything that encourages long-term thinking. If anything, humanity would be better off if we spent more time contemplating the future.
But most of these prepper plans are infected with the disease of selfishness. They foolishly imagine surviving the apocalypse as individuals—or, at most, with a few immediate family members.
That’s not a happy scenario, because even if you make it through the crash, your long-term prospects are dire. You’d have to return to a cruder, and more difficult and dangerous, way of life.
You might be able to scavenge for a while from supermarkets, but eventually you’d have to become a subsistence farmer. That’s backbreakingly hard labor, and you’d be at the mercy of weather and pests—a crop failure would mean starvation. Gas goes bad after a few months in storage, and roads would decay, so you’d be reduced to foot travel. And forget modern medicine—you wouldn’t be able to make antibiotics or painkillers. Better hope you never break an ankle!
The flaw in these survival plans is that human beings aren’t self-sufficient islands. We’re not meant to live on our own, but as part of a community, where we all help each other. And that suggests an alternative: instead of individual bunkers, what if we built survival villages?
Survival villages, not survival bunkers
You can imagine the design principles of a settlement that prioritized self-sufficiency and sustainability. There’d be snug, eco-friendly homes with passive solar design so they wouldn’t need heating or cooling. Solar panels and wind turbines, together with battery storage, would give you an uninterruptible power source. Electric vehicles and e-bikes would empower you to get around. Depending on size, there could also be mass transit like streetcars.
Nothing would be wasted or thrown away. You’d have a circular economy, with goods made to be repairable and advanced recycling facilities, so you’d almost never need to mine virgin materials. Food scraps and sewage would be composted. Greenhouses and high-tech aquaponics would produce abundant food on a small land footprint with minimal inputs of water and fertilizer.
A design like this could be scaled up to accommodate large numbers, and, with adaptations for local crops and climate, could be built almost anywhere on Earth. With enough people, it’s possible for some to specialize—so you could have doctors and artists and historians as well as farmers and carpenters.
If we lived in a resilient mesh of survival villages, humanity would be all but immune to extinction. That’s a sharp contrast with our civilization. We depend on nonrenewable fuels, unsustainable methods of production, just-in-time supply chains which are vulnerable to disaster, and globalized commerce which means that complex goods rely on the smooth operation of thousands of factories scattered all over the planet.
Scaling up to civilization
This is a good imagination-stretching exercise, but now let’s take it further. What if we wanted to reconstruct the entire planet as a unified survival village, rather than a jostling sprawl of rivalrous nations? How would we re-engineer civilization to be resilient against catastrophe?
We don’t have enough blueprints of this kind of long-term thinking. However, there are a few that we can draw inspiration from. One of them is the Svalbard global seed vault.
Most countries have their own national gene banks where they store the seeds of economically important crops. It’s an insurance policy against pests, blight, climate change, and all other kinds of disaster. The genetic diversity in these stored samples can be used to rescue key crops from extinction and to assist in breeding more productive or hardier varieties.
However, the seed banks themselves can be vulnerable—as was tragically proven when storage facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine were destroyed. If seed banks are a backup, then the world needs a backup for the backup, to save genes that are threatened by war, civil unrest and natural disaster.
Enter Svalbard. It’s an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, the northernmost place in the world with a permanent human presence. About 3,000 people live there, most in the town of Longyearbyen. Once a whaling port and a coal mining station, tourism and polar research have become increasingly important to its economy.
In 2001, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture called for the establishment of an international storage facility. Norway agreed to take on the responsibility, and in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened on the island of Spitzbergen.
A reservoir of biodiversity in permafrost
The vault is carved 500 feet deep into the solid rock of a mountain. It’s 430 feet above sea level, so it will stay safe regardless of future sea-level rise. The arctic climate and thermal mass of the mountain naturally keep the interior around the freezing point, even without the built-in refrigeration systems.
As part of the treaty, seeds sent to Svalbard remain the property of the country that sent them; however, all depositors agree to make samples available for research and education.
Today, the vault contains over one million seed samples, representing nearly 6,000 species from 93 national gene banks. It includes land races, heritage strains, and wild plants from valuable species—an estimated two-thirds of the world’s crop biodiversity. (However, by Norwegian law, no GMOs are allowed.) You can search it yourself.
In 2015, the Svalbard seed vault proved its value as a backup for the first time. When civil war broke out in Syria, the national seed bank ICARDA shipped most of its collection to Svalbard to protect it. That was a wise choice, since ICARDA’s headquarters were in Aleppo, which ended up being devastated.
Will we ever need these seeds? There’s no way to know. But we know the risks we’re facing. Globalization has made it easy for pests and diseases to hop oceans. Climate change promises more and worse droughts, floods, heat waves and wild weather swings.
To continue feeding the world, we’ll have to adapt. We’ll have to breed crops that thrive in drastically different conditions than their ancestors faced. We can’t know what genes will make this possible, which is why we have to preserve everything we can, in case the answer is hidden among them.
That’s why this vault’s contents are important. So important, in fact, that people have died to preserve them:
One of the most historically significant deposits of seeds inside the vault comes from a collection in St. Petersburg’s Vavilov Research Institute, which originates from one of the first collections in the world. During the siege of Leningrad, about a dozen scientists barricaded themselves in the room containing the seeds in order to protect them from hungry citizens and the surrounding German army.
As the siege dragged on, a number of them eventually died from starvation. Despite being surrounded by seeds and plant material, they steadfastly refused to save themselves by eating any of it, such was their conviction about the importance of the seeds to aid Russia’s recovery after war and to help protect the future of humankind. One of the scientists, Dmitri Ivanov, is said to have died surrounded by bags of rice.“Inside the ‘Doomsday’ Vault.” Jennifer Duggan, Time.
It sounds like an awesome sacrifice to make for some humble seeds. However, if you look at it in a different light, this reservoir of biodiversity could one day spell life for eight billion people. It’s nothing less than a survival bunker for all of civilization.