I’ve just watched the last episode of a 5-part series called How the Earth Changed History. It’s been shown on TVO over the last few weeks. The show summary says: ‘How have the natural forces of the planet shaped everything from the birth of agriculture to the industrial revolution? Geologist Iain Stewart explores how geology, geography and climate have had a far more powerful influence on humankind than has previously been acknowledged."
The presenter was geologist Iain Stewart, Professor of Geosciences Communication, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Plymouth University, UK.
Tonight’s episode was about how people have influenced the earth. He went over the way we’ve changed river courses, scraped away huge chunks of Alberta to get at tar sands for oil. He ended up in Svalbard, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole.
As soon as he said he was in Svalbard, I knew where he was headed (and I’ll come to it). But he got there by a circuitous route.
He showed leaf fossils set in stones of Svalbard’s frozen landscape; 55 million years ago the climate was warm enough there for lush vegetatative growth. Then he talked about how India crashed into the continent above (tectonic plate movement times) and the resulting crash sent rocks crumpling upwards and those were the Himalyas; and the north cooled again.
He talked about how there’s a lot of carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere and it’s not good. And then he started to talk about carbon capture, and that we have the know-how to use technology to find a way to take carbon (ie Carbon dioxide, not black carbon) out of the air. Some scientists think that it will be a great idea to use the unusual configuration of the cliffs of Svalbard for this. Long tubes will be drilled down into the cliffs and carbon dioxide will be injected into the lower layers, which are a type of rock with lots of empty space (he called it air space, ironically); these spaces will hold the CO2. And there just happens to be a layer of shale – a more dense/solid material – atop the more porous layer, so the CO2 is supposed to stay put.
The thing is that when I watched the computer animation of the drill and fill process - all sorts of tiny crevices filling up and expanding outward – all I could think of was that once it filled up to a certain pressure the entire cliffside would just explode outward. And there wouldn’t be a darn bit of CO2 captured. He also didn’t mention at all that Svalbaard is several hundred miles off the north of Norway – surrounded by very cold water - and can only be reached by boat or helicopter. He didn’t mention that there would have to be a huge use of fossil fuel to bring in any of the equipment needed to drill the holes and run the pumps; and every bit of equipment would itself use fossil fuel.
And then he finally got to the place I knew he’d come to (I told you I’d get back to this) … because the only context I’d ever heard of Svalbaard is because of the seed bank. The seedbank – ‘the Vault’. There’s an organization/enterprise, initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, called the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It is an international, independent organization and its goal is to house up to three million different types of seeds from around the world in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep inside a mountain close to Longyearbyen, Norway (that island of Svalbard surrounded by cold, cold ocean).
Taking the camera tour of the place – actually seeing some parts of it - has made me even more horrifed and cynical about the entire set up than I already was. Seeds from all over the world, stuck on an island that’s freezing cold. The only way to get to the island is by fossil-fueled transport. Every bit of equipment to dig into the mountainside and construct every bit of the vault had to be shipped there. More fossil fuel. What is the air circulation system and the condensation control system controlled by? Fossil fuel, I bet. Who staffs this?
The Vault was set up as “the ultimate safety net for global crop diversity”, since regular seed banks can be vulnerable to conflict and natural disasters. But, in the situation of apocalypse, of real system collapse – the supposed reason that all the seeds from every country are being stored there, who will continue to maintain the place? Who would be able to get there?
I have enough science education to recognize the long term freezing of seeds in climate-controlled conditions as a really nifty bit of technology. And I do like nifty technology. However, I see the Vault as a sad misdirection of science and wisdom, and an undertaking totally removed from agricultural knowledge. Perhaps it is also purposeful international political misdirection away from real issues of climate change, and the need for small scale, organic agriculture and more people being involved in food production, globally.
Seeds are living entities. And there they rest, in the Svalbard Vault, built on an isolated place, a place inhospitable to the growth of (probably) every seed in the vault.
Professor Stewart seems enthusiastic about our ability to have betterment through technology. But every once in a while in the series, I’ve noted a worry across his face. Or I may just be reading this in, based on my own reaction to the things he’s shown. I hope it’s his handlers and the funders or producers of the show who have made him present in such an ultimately cheerful, hopeful way. I don’t want him to actually believe in the big technology fix that he lead us to in the closing of this last show.