Original video: http://reinvent.net/events/event/stewart-brand-on-the-whole-earth-catalogs-long-legacy-over-50-years/
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Tagged with “long now” (95)
Original video: http://reinvent.net/events/event/stewart-brand-on-the-whole-earth-catalogs-long-legacy-over-50-years/
In 1990, the federal government invited a group of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers to the New Mexico desert, to visit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. They would be there on assignment.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation’s only permanent underground repository for nuclear waste. Radioactive byproducts from nuclear weapons manufacturing and nuclear power plants. WIPP was designed not only to handle a waste stream of various forms of nuclear sludge, but also more mundane things that interacted with radioactive materials, such as tools and gloves.
Svalbard is a remote Norwegian archipelago with reindeer, Arctic foxes and only around 2,500 humans — but it is also home to a vault containing seeds for virtually every edible plant one can imagine. The mountainside Crop Trust facility has thousands of varieties of corn, rice and more, serving as a seed backup for humanity. For each crop, there’s an envelope with 500 seeds.
This featured episode explores an unusual reserve of invaluable resources. It is designed to be egalitarian, beyond everyday politics and international strife. Any nation can store seeds in the vault for free, making the vault a sort of world peace zone. South Korea’s seeds sit next to North Korea’s. Ukraine’s are right next to Russia’s. Protecting our food supply is one thing the whole world can get behind.
The vault’s origins start with one man during World War II — a global existential crisis if ever there was one. His name was Nikolay Vavilov and he lived in what was then the Soviet Union. He grew up during some intense famines in eastern Europe, and he was determined to never let them happen again. As Vavilov began his work as a botanist during the 1920s, he developed an idea: maybe collecting the seeds, and understanding how crop diversity across the world works, could help to fight off crop failures and to prevent famines. Vavilov and a team began gathering hundreds of thousands of different kinds of seeds from 64 countries during more than 100 expeditions.
Vavilov’s team continued his mission through the siege of Leningrad, which lasted almost two and a half years. More than a million people died — half of them from starvation alone. They persisted even when they were starving and the seeds they were protecting could have saved their lives. In total, twelve scientists perished protecting seeds. Vavilov himself starved to death in prison. But the seeds survived.
The Svalbard vault is a direct descendant of this legacy, and the building in St. Petersburg where Vavilov first began his work is now the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry.
The First Withdrawal
ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) facility in SyriaThe Svalbard Global Seed Vault may be the most famous such facility in the world, but it is not the only one. 99pi producer Emmett Fitzgerald looked into another seed bank in Syria, run by the organization ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas). He spoke with the former director Mahmoud Solh. Like Nikolai Vavilov, when Dr. Solh was a young plant scientist he set off on his own seed collecting journey. He made his way through Central Asian countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan.
Dr. Solh drove all over Afghanistan in a Jeep looking for wild lentils and chickpeas. The seeds he gathered were the beginning of the ICARDA collection. ICARDA stores seeds and breeds plants that can help farmers in dry parts of the world. They have one of the world’s largest collections of drought tolerant seeds, including thousands of varieties of barley, lentil, and fava beans.
English: Formerly located just outside of Aleppo, Syria, ICARDA left its headquarters due to the war and re-established sites in Lebanon and Morocco. (J.Owens/VOA)For years this collection was stored in a facility in Aleppo, Syria, but when the violence in that country broke out in 2011 the plant scientists started to get worried about their seeds, and so they sent seeds to other seed banks around the world before they were forced to leave Aleppo.
Cary Fowler, the founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, ended up calling Dr. Solh and inviting him to store some ICARDA seeds up in the Norwegian Arctic. “We got them up to Svalbard,” he recalls, “and when it became clear that those researchers were not going to be able to go back to their institution and they had re-established themselves in Morocco and Lebanon … they asked for their seed collection back so they could re-establish their seed bank.”
ICARDA seeds in storage at the Svalbard Global Seed VaultThis was the first time that anyone had taken seeds back out of Svalbard, and they used those seeds that had been stored in Svalbard to create two new seed banks, one in Morocco and one in Lebanon. Cary Fowler says this shows that the seed vault can function like a back-up hard drive. And he points out that when it comes to our food supply, the risk of not having good backup is really high. “In the past this would this kind of event would likely have led to extinction. And in this case I think it’s pretty clear that that would be the extinction of something terribly valuable to world agriculture … because in the future you can imagine that drought- and heat-tolerant varieties of wheat, barley … lentils … chickpeas and such are going to be in high demand.”
To accompany the current Allusionist miniseries Survival, about minority languages facing suppression and extinction, we’re revisiting this double bill of The Key episodes about why languages die and how they can be resuscitated. The Rosetta Stone and its modern equivalent the Rosetta Disk preserve writing systems to be read by future generations. But how do those generations decipher text that wasn’t written with the expectation of requiring decipherment? Features mild scenes of linguistic apocalypse.
Michael Frachetti: Open Source Civilization and the Unexpected Origins of the Silk Road - The Long Now
Travel the ancient Silk Road with an archaeologist researching a revolutionary idea.
Nomadic pastoralists, far from being irrelevant outliers, may have helped shape civilizations at continental scale. Drawing on his exciting field work, Michael Frachetti shows how alternative ways of conceptualizing the very essence of the word “civilization” helps us to recast our understanding of regional political economies through time and discover the unexpected roots and formation of one of the world’s most extensive and long-standing social and economic networks – the Silk Road that connected Asia to Europe.
Archaeologist Michael Frachetti is an Associate Professor with the Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis and author of Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia (02008).
The Enlightenment worked, says Steven Pinker. By promoting reason, science, humanism, progress, and peace, the programs set in motion by the 18th-Century intellectual movement became so successful we’ve lost track of what that success came from.
Some even discount the success itself, preferring to ignore or deny how much better off humanity keeps becoming, decade after decade, in terms of health, food, money, safety, education, justice, and opportunity. The temptation is to focus on the daily news, which is often dire, and let it obscure the long term news, which is shockingly good.
This is the 21st Century, not the 18th, with different problems and different tools. What are Enlightenment values and programs for now?
Two ways to save humanity
Mann titled his talk “The Edge of the Petri Dish.”
He explained, “If you drop a couple protozoa in a Petri dish filled with nutrient goo, they will multiply until they run out of resources or drown in their own wastes.”
Humans in the world Petri dish appear to be similarly doomed, judging by our exponential increases in population, energy use, water use, income, and greenhouse gases.
How to save humanity?
Opposing grand approaches emerged from two remarkable scientists in the mid-20th century who fought each other their entire lives.
Their solutions were so persuasive that their impassioned argument continues 70 years later to dominate how we think about dealing with the still-exacerbating exponential impacts.
Norman Borlaug, the one Mann calls “the Wizard,” was a farm kid trained as a forester.
In 1944 he found himself in impoverished Mexico with an impossible task—solve the ancient fungal killer of wheat, rust.
First he invented high-volume crossbreeding, then shuttle breeding (between winter wheat and spring wheat), and then semi-dwarf wheat.
The resulting package of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizer, and irrigation became the Green Revolution that ended most of hunger throughout the world for the first time in history.
There were costs.
The diversity of crops went down.
Excess fertilizer became a pollutant.
Agriculture industrialized at increasing scale, and displaced smallhold farmers fled to urban slums.
William Vogt, who Mann calls “the Prophet,” was a poor city kid who followed his interest in birds to become an isolated researcher on the revolting guano islands of Peru.
He discovered that periodic massive bird die-offs on the islands were caused by the El Niño cycle pushing the Humboldt Current with its huge load of anchovetas away from the coast and starving the birds.
The birds were, Vogt declared, subject to an inescapable “carrying capacity.“
That became the foundational idea of the environmental movement, later expressed in terms such as “limits to growth,” “ecological overshoot,” and “planetary boundaries.”
Vogt spelled out the worldview in his powerful 1948 book, The Road to Survival.
The Prophets-versus-Wizards debate keeps on raging—artisanal organic farming versus factory-like mega-farms; distributed solar energy versus centralized fossil fuel refineries and nuclear power plants; dealing with climate change by planting a zillion trees versus geoengineering with aerosols in the stratosphere.
The question continues: How do we best manage our world Petri dish?
Can humanity change its behavior at planet scale?
Mann ended by pointing out that in 1800 slavery was universal in the world and had been throughout history.
Then it ended.
Prophets say that morally committed abolitionists did it.
Wizards say that clever labor-saving machinery did it.
Maybe it was the combination.
Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand) is the president of The Long Now Foundation, established to foster long-term thinking and responsibility. He leads a project called Revive & Restore, which seeks to bring back extinct animal species such as the passenger pigeon and woolly mammoth.
Stewart is very well known for founding, editing, and publishing The Whole Earth Catalog (WEC), which changed my life when I was a little kid. It also received a national book award for its 1972 issue.
Stewart is the co-founder of The WELL and The Global Business Network, and author of Whole Earth Discipline, The Clock Of The Long Now, How Buildings Learn, and The Media Lab. He was trained in biology at Stanford and served as an infantry officer in the US Army.
The Long Now
Brian told the origins of his realizations about the "small here" versus the "big here" and the "short now" versus the "long now."
He noted that the Big Here is pretty well popularized now, with exotic restaurants everywhere, "world" music, globalization, and routine photos of the whole earth.
Instant world news and the internet has led to increased empathy worldwide.
But empathy in space has not been matched by empathy in time.
If anything, empathy for people to come has decreased.
We seem trapped in the Short Now.
The present generation enjoys the greatest power in history, but it appears to have the shortest vision in history. That combination is lethal.
Danny Hillis proposed that there’s a bug in our thinking about these matters—-about long-term responsibility.
We need to figure out what the bug is and how to fix it.
We’re still in an early, fumbling phase of doing that, like the period before the Royal Society in 18th-century England began to figure out science.
Tim O’Reilly gave an example of the kind of precept that can emerge from taking the longer-term seriously.
These days shoppers are often checking out goods (trying on clothes, etc.) in regular retail stores but then going online to buy the same goods at some killer discount price.
Convenient for the shopper, terrible for the shops, who are going out of business, hurting communities in the process.
The aggregate of lots of local, short-term advantage-taking is large-scale, long-term harm.
Hence Tim’s proposed precept, now spreading on the internet: "Buy where you shop."
Ie. When you shop online, buy there.
When you shop in shops, buy there.
Four simple words that serve as a reminder to head off accumulative harm.
Leighton Read observed that imagining the future is an acquired skill, and comes in stages.
An infant can’t imagine the next bottle, or plan for it.
A teenager can at most imagine the next six months, and only on a good day; on a rowdy Saturday night, Sunday morning is too remote to grasp.
For us adults the distant future is still unimaginable.
One thing that Leighton likes about the 10,000-year Clock project is that it lets you imagine a particular part of the very remote future—-the Clock ticking away in its mountain—-and then you can widen your scope from there, to include climate change over centuries, for example.
Alexander Rose suggested that we should collect examples where a small effort in the present pays off huge in the long term.
Tim O’Reilly would like to see us develop a taxonomy of such practices.
Brian’s talk Friday night at Fort Mason was a smashing affair.
Some 750 people were pried into the Herbst Pavillion, while 400-500 had to be turned away.
Eno evidently attracts the sweetest, brightest people—-everyone was polite and helpful and patient.
The only publicity for the lecture had been email forwarded among friends and posted on blogs, plus one radio show (Michael Krasny’s "Forum").
If we find, anywhere in the universe, one more instance of life besides what evolved on Earth, then we are bound to conclude that life is common throughout the vastness of this galaxy and the 200 billion other galaxies.
The discovery would change how we think about everything.
Most of the search for life beyond Earth, Porco explained, is the search for habitats.
They don’t have to look comfy, since we know that our own extremophile organisms can survive temperatures up to 250°F, total desiccation, and fiercely high radiation, high pressure, high acidity, high alkalinity, and high salinity.
In our own Solar System there are four promising candidate habitats—Mars, Europa (a moon of Jupiter), Titan (a moon of Saturn), and Enceladus (“en-SELL-ah-duss,” another moon of Saturn).
They are the best nearby candidates because they have or have had liquids, they have bio-usable energy (solar or chemical), they have existed long enough to sustain evolution, and they are accessible for gathering samples.
On Mars water once flowed copiously.
It still makes frost and ice, but present conditions on Mars are so hostile to life that most of the search there now is focussed on finding signs of life far in the past.
Europa, about the size of Earth’s Moon, has a salty ocean below an icy surface, but it is subject to intense radiation.
Photos from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that occasional plumes of material are ejected through Europa’s ice, so future missions to Jupiter will attempt to fly by and analyze them for possible chemical signatures of life.
The two interesting moons of Saturn are Titan, somewhat larger and much denser than our Moon, and tiny Enceladus, one-seventh the diameter of our Moon.
Both have been closely studied by the Cassini Mission since
Titan’s hazy atmosphere is full of organic methane, and its surface has features like dunes and liquid-methane lakes “that look like the coast of Maine.”
But it is so cold, at 300°F below zero, that the chemical reactions needed for life may be too difficult.
Enceladus looks the most promising.
Cassini has sampled the plumes of material that keep geysering out of the south pole.
The material apparently comes from an interior water ocean about as salty as our ocean, and silica particles may indicate hydrothermal vents like ours.
“I hope you’re gettin excited now,” Porco told the audience, “because we were.”
The hydrothermal vents in Earth’s oceans are rich with life.
Enceladus has all the ingredients of a habitat for life—liquid water, organics, chemical energy, salts, and nitrogen-bearing compounds.
We need to look closer.
A future mission (arriving perhaps by the 2030’s) could orbit Enceladus and continually sample the plumes with instruments designed to detect signs of life such as complexity in the molecules and abundance patterns of carbon in amino acids that could indicate no biology, or Earth-like biology, or quite different biology.
You could even look for intact organisms.
Nearly all of the material in the plumes falls back to the surface.
Suppose you had a lander there.
“It’s always snowing at the south pole of Enceladus,” Porco said.
“Could it be snowing microbes?”
(A by-the-way from the Q&A:
Voyager, which was launched 40 years ago in 1977, led the way to the outer planets and moons of our Solar System, and five years ago, Porco pointed out, “It went beyond the magnetic bubble of the Sun and redefined us as an interstellar species.”)
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