Chaotic Utopia

Senator McCain thinks the effort to preserve our horticultural record and a potential treasure trove for medicinal science is a waste of money.


This morning, I went to Senator McCain’s town hall meeting at the Jewish Community Center in Denver. The Rocky Mountain News made it sound as if I was part of some sneaky infiltration:

"The mainstream media has basically given McCain a free ride so far by not asking him tough questions," wrote Michael Huttner, president of ProgressNow. "So it’s important for citizens to ask those questions ourselves."

The group became concerned, however, when the McCain campaign switched from an online reservation system to one that required people to RSVP by telephone.

Alan Franklin, a ProgressNow member, made reservations first online and then called to make sure he and his wife and a friend were on the list. [link and emphasis added]

Franklin discovered that the online system had been taken down. When he asked why, he said he was told there was a concern about "some group."

But, actually, I wasn’t there with "some group"–on the other hand, I went in as a swing voter. I honestly felt that I could go either way in this election. While I didn’t agree with all of his platform, I sort of liked McCain. He was moderate and charming. I’d heard Obama and Clinton each speak last summer, and while they were likable, they hadn’t necessarily won me over. I was keeping an open mind.

I’d seen McCain speak, once before, too. That was when he made such a charming impression on me. "Colorado, I’ve come for your water!" he declared as he came on stage. The crowd roared with an amused chorus of boos. Of course, that time, he spoke in between Ann Coulter and George W. Bush; most likely anyone would have sounded charming placed in between the Wicked Witch of the East and Mr. Nuk-yuh-ler.

So I was a bit tickled this morning when the senator from arid Arizona started off by joking about the water again. This time, he was a little more gracious. "Thank you for the water," he said, "thank you, thank you thank you." Then he complained that California had been stealing some. It was a good opener… it brought a good chuckle, and showed concern about preserving our precious liquid resources.

Then he blew it for me.

It was supposed to be one of those campaign promises that makes everyone feel good–give us a break on the gasoline tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day… take some money away from those useless pork belly projects, he said. All right, I thought… I’d rather he be encouraging alternative transportation, but why not? No one likes wasteful government spending, right? We’re talking two thousand dollar toothbrushes, right? Yeah… boo to pork belly projects!

"Barack Obama wants to use that money to build a seed museum. Do you want your tax dollars going to a seed museum?"

"No!!" the crowd shouted.

Wait… I thought… is he talking about the seed bank in Svalbard?

"Yes!!" I shouted against the crowd. I realized no one heard me. Maybe they didn’t hear him. Maybe they didn’t know what he meant. Maybe they thought he meant some little hole in the wall museum with leftover packs of Burpee seeds. Maybe they thought he meant a sperm bank, not a seed museum. Maybe they’d never heard of Svalbard. But I really hoped that John McCain had!

I would think he had… I’m guessing this is what he was referring to:

In 2006, Obama requested $1 million for the Chicago Botanical Garden to support its Seed Bank and Plant Conservation Center. In April of 2003, the Chicago Botanic Garden was asked by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to participate in the Millennium Seed Bank Project. This Project seeks to safeguard the most endangered of the world’s plants by conserving more than 24,000 species of seed-bearing plants by 2010. [Obama Request Letter To The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, 4/6/06]

Yep… he was talking about seeds for Svalbard.

The seed vault in Svalbard is an international effort to store a complete record of our planet’s flora. But to call it a museum is both a misnomer and an understatement. First, the facility in Svalbard isn’t a museum–chances are, you can’t go take a handy tour of the place while on your cruise to the south of France. You might be able to get a tour of the seed bank at your local museum, but you usually need to ask around–they aren’t usually kept in the air and light. In other words, the seeds are meant to be preserved, not seen. Secondly, the seed bank holds much more than just a display of curios and novelties–it contains our future.


Due to climate change, deforestation, urbanization, and simple cases of bad luck, countless species of plants are going extinct faster than we can check them out. The reports vary. According to one study, where 15% to 37% of all species everywhere are at risk of going extinct in the next 42 years, 30% to 40% of one family of flowering plants are threatened just on the cape of Africa. Other estimates for the loss of biodiversity can easily be found, but none are small. It’s hard to tell–we don’t know exactly how fast the climate is changing, or how adaptable all these threatened species may be. In some cases, forests are cut down before native species are ever examined, so we don’t even always know what we have lost.

And that’s the trouble… we don’t know what we’re losing. This seed might sprout into some tasty, easy to grow food. This one might provide a cheap source of fuel for a developing country. This seed might contain the right combination of proteins to cure a deadly disease. This one might prevent heart disease. If we don’t hang on to them, how will we ever know?

That "pork belly seed museum" just might contain the cure for cancer. Senator McCain, as a cancer survivor, speaking at a town hall meeting on health care, you really ought to know better. Shame on you for trying to bribe me with cheaper gas. Thanks, but, I think I’d rather keep the seeds and take the bus.

Illustration of Svalbard via by Don Foley for Wired Magazine.


  1. #1 Sue
    May 2, 2008

    Please write a letter (just edit the above) to the Denver Post. The people who cheered him on aren’t informed but need to be.

  2. #2 bobby
    May 2, 2008

    They needed $1 million. Seems pretty excessive to me. Seems like a gross waste of a lot of money.

  3. #3 Ian
    May 2, 2008

    In the 1950s US seed companies started placing patents on their new hybrid seed products, making it illegal for anyone else to sell or make them. These seeds were then sold back to the developing countries that they were originally taken from (for free) in the first place. These hybrids are driving wild varieties extinct. The majority of the worlds food comes from just twenty crops, and scientists believe that two-thirds of wild plant species could be nearly extinct in less than a century. Svalbard IS our future, and its not just a chance to preserve rare plants, but also a chance to provide other (natural) choices to the world’s farmers so they dont have to rely on single variety, expensive hybrids from fat-cat corporations. McCain needs to get educated.

  4. #4 Karmen
    May 3, 2008

    I’d like to address a few comments on this piece that appeared elsewhere:

    First, from Eric Kler on a message board called Hangar Flying:

    The seed vault is a decent idea, but it is pork.

    Assuming at some point we really need some seed, I doubt they are just going to give them out and after all the money spent on it, we would have to invade another foreign country to get them, or more likely they will get sold to a high bidder. No thanks.

    and, from greenchair in a stumbleupon review:

    Why can’t those seeds be collected using private money? Why do you need tax dollars for this? That is the issue, not whether or not McCain is for ‘ecology’.

    Why not use only private funds to collect and store these seeds? A private group could do whatever they want with the seeds–hold out for the highest bidder, like Eric said, or withhold the seeds for personal reasons. A private group can go bankrupt, or store the seeds improperly, or turn into a for-profit museum. If the seed bank is an international effort, paid for with public funds, then the ownership of the seeds is in the hands of the global community–we all own them. While Svalbard is a part of the Norwegian Kingdom, the seed vault is managed by multiple groups, including the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), whose mission statement is “to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide.”

    That leads me to address bobby’s comment above–is 1 million dollars excessive?

    According to the GCDT:

    The conservation of crop diversity is neither technologically complicated, nor, considering the importance of the task, expensive. The varieties of many of the most important crops can be simply stored as seed in freezers. It is instead the reliability of funding which is so crucial to conserving seed, as even short-term breaks in funding can lead to cutbacks in basic maintenance and the loss of unique varieties. Currently, with no secure funding, many of the world’s 1500 genebanks know neither what is being stored on their shelves, nor even whether the seed is alive or dead.

    And there is only one organization working worldwide to solve this problem – the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

    The Trust’s response is to raise a $260m endowment, the interest from which is enough to guarantee the effective conservation–and vitally, the ready availability to those who wish to use it–of the biological basis of all agriculture. The endowment will ensure that the conservation of this most critical resource is placed forever on a firm foundation.

    With approximately 400,000 known species of plants in the world, $1 million sounds like a drop in the bucket, to me.

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    May 3, 2008

    Pork is a bridge to nowhere, or fancier rest-stop signs or a publically-funded arena. Here’s a project that could literally end up saving the world, or at least the economies of several nations, and they want $1m from us. That’s a little over four minutes of our spending in Iraq.

  6. #6 TomJoe
    May 5, 2008

    Why doesn’t the US start it’s own “seed storage initiative” here in the United States? Seems like Agricultural Research Service, the in-house research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, could undertake something like this without much of a problem.

  7. #7 mesthy
    August 14, 2008

    All everyone is the same they are natural politicians.

  8. #8 mirc
    March 4, 2009

    That article brought tears to my eyes. Really captures the struggle with clinical depression of a human being, not just the loss of a great literary talent…

  9. #9 hubertus story
    March 7, 2009

    Raivo Pommer

    Caos und Arbeitslos

    Der Machtkampf zwischen Continental und Schaeffler eskaliert. Conti-Aufsichtsratschef Hubertus von Grünberg trat jetzt mit sofortiger Wirkung zurück.

    «Es zeichnet sich ab, dass Continental weiter Schaden nimmt«, sagte der 66-Jährige gestern in Frankfurt nach einer Sitzung des Aufsichtsrats des Autozulieferers. «Wir laufen Gefahr, in das Schaeffler-Problem hineingezogen zu werden.« Von Grünberg kritisierte, die schwer angeschlagene Schaeffler-Gruppe sei der Forderung nach einem tragfähigen Zukunftskonzept nicht nachgekommen und stattdessen auf Konfrontationskurs gegangen.

    Der Herzogenauracher Autozulieferer, der wegen der auf Pump finanzierten Conti-Übernahme hoch verschuldet ist, wies die Vorwürfe von Grünbergs zurück. Grünberg habe das Vertrauen im Aufsichtsrat verloren, hieß es. Die Besprechung eines Zukunftskonzeptes habe bei der Sitzung in Frankfurt überhaupt nicht auf der Agenda gestanden.

  10. #10 lüks araç kiralama
    July 6, 2011

    I’ve started a climate change project called Many people have blogs, websites, and use social software sites (social networking, social bookmarking, photo and video sharing, etc.). Some standards for tags and text on blogs, websites, and social software sites could turn the whole global Internet into a kind of Web 2.0 participation platform for climate change. I’m suggesting a few simple standards for tags and text that leverage processes of the sustainable ProxThink growth model. To get this going, we need people to adopt and use these standards. The project could also use contributors, collaborators, partners, funders and sponsors. To find out more, see:

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