I listened to two Long Now Foundation talks on my way to Newark, Delaware and back yesterday for my colloquium talk. These podcasts tend to be quite long, so they were perfect for the drive. The first was by environmental activist and journalist Mark Lynas and the second by National Geographic photographer Jim Anderson. Both were much more interesting than I expected. Lynas, who originated the anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) food movement in Europe in the 1990s, has since changed his mind and become more pragmatic. He now advocates for a more rational environmental movement that embraces technological solutions such as GMO foods and nuclear energy. He argues that many more people are killed by particulate matter from coal-fired generating plants in a year than over the entire history of nuclear use. I have always felt that nuclear power is the only viable technology to reduce carbon emissions. I have also argued previously that I’m more worried about the acidification of the ocean due to CO2 than an increase temperature. I think we should start building CANDU reactors now and head towards fast breeder reactors.
Jim Anderson talked about the loss of diversity of domesticated plants and animals and how they are essential for the survival of humans. For the first 9,900 years of agriculture, we increased the diversity of our food stuff. For the last hundred, we have gone in the other direction. We used to have hundreds to thousands of varieties of fruits and vegetables and now we’re down to a handful. There are at most 5 varieties of apples I can buy at my local supermarket, yet a hundred years ago, each orchard would produce its own variety. This leaves us extremely vulnerable to diseases. The world’s banana supply is dominated by one variety (the Cavendish) and it is under siege by a fungus that threatens to wipe it out. The Irish potato famine was so severe because they relied on only two varieties that were both susceptible to the same blight. Our fire wall against future blights are seed banks, where we try to preserve as many varieties as we can. However, not all seeds can remain viable forever. Many have to be planted every few years from which new seeds are harvested. This replanting is often done by amateur horticulturists. The podcast made me think that with the cost of genome sequencing dropping so rapidly, what we need now is for someone, like Google, to start sequencing every living being and making it publicly available, like Google Books. In fact, if sequencers become cheap enough, this could be done by amateurs. You would find some plant or animal, document it as well as you can, and upload the sequence to the virtual seed bank. This can be a record of both wild and domesticated species. We can then always resurrect one if we need to. There could also be potential for mischief with highly dangerous species like small pox or anthrax, so we would need to have a public discussion over what should be available.