A Vault Protecting Humans From Humans

By Lena Trydal.


"The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes." [1]

- Arne Næss & George Session


Human and non-human life on earth have value in themselves. The statement opposes an ancient idea that humans are the superior species on earth [2]. Humans are not superior to the rest of the world: Humans depend on the rest of the world. The earth would be fine without humans, but humans would die without the earth. My mind keeps spinning around this dependency as I am watching Jumana Manna’s film Wild Relatives (2018) on a large projection at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. The 66 minutes of the film flies by as I am soaked up in the lives of Syrian farmers, foreign landscapes, seed banks and the future of humanity.

Balancing on a wooden structure in the bare landscape of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a bearded man, probably a scientist [3], asks a priest: “Do you think humans are evil?” He asks this during a conversation the two of them have about the future visible climate changes on Svalbard [4]. It is not difficult to assume why he asks: Humans, who by their dominating intrusion in nature, have become a geological force, and damaged the basis of life by their consumption, are they evil?


“I believe in people,” [5] the priest replies. He stands just a stones’ throw away from the «Doomsday vault», another name for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. A vault preserving 5000 plant species from all around the world that are inevitable for food production [6]. “Climate change, new diseases and 'clones of modern industrial agriculture'” threatens the future of several plant species, and their disappearance could have severe consequences for the world’s food production [7].


On the one hand, the idea to establish a vault to secure food production in the future gives the priest reason to believe in people, but on the other hand, the vault is a protection against the consequences of human’s own ruthless behaviour towards nature. Humans need protection from themselves. A question that comes to mind is whether humans would make a vault like the Svalbard vault if it was not benefiting humans, but to preserve nature because it has value in itself. This would mean to repeal the current power relation between nature and culture, whereas nature is subordinated.

As I watch the dancing workers on the wheat fields of the Beeka Valley in Wild Relatives, I think about the standardized distinction between nature and culture. Animals are considered nature, the skies are considered nature, the plants are considered nature, the human body is considered nature, women are considered nature, but rationality is considered culture [8]. It appears absurd. The camera is held firm and humans move within the image, among plants and mountains and blue skies, and I find it hard to spot nature and culture as separate.


Nature becomes a complicated term in the newly suggested geological epoch of the Anthropocene [9]. Traces of humans are to be found everywhere on the planet, and there is barely anything that can be called “untouched nature” at this point [10].The unification of nature and culture could mean an equalization of the value of nature and culture, as Arne Næss dreams of in my opening quote, and therefore be an eco-friendly unification. But it could also mean that nature disappears under culture, and humans become absolute. If nature disappears, humanity will disappear too, and this is what the Svalbard Global Seed Vault seeks to avoid.


Humans depend on nature. Yet it seems not to be acknowledged as humans continue to damage it. There seems to be an attitude problem. I realize that in my reflection on the lack of culture in the agriculture scenes, I reveal the foundation for a condescending attitude towards nature and the rural. Manna points out herself that “In the norms of classical ethnography, the city has been synonymous with modernity, while the rural and the traditional have been synonymous with the primitive”[11]. Farmers have historically been given a low status in society, one can only think of a trivial example such as the farmers' value in the board game Chess. The hierarchical reduction of nature and those who work with it, seem not to acknowledge the importance of nature in the human survival. Less and less people in northern Europe work as farmers, and food production become a distant matter. The “modern” city dweller becomes distant to the processes that keeps them alive.


The farmers in Manna’s film preserves the future life of humans on earth. They are involved in a restoration of the gene bank of ICARDA - the International Center of Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas [12] - that was left behind in Syria because of the civil war. It was then re-established in the Beeka Valley in Lebanon, with the help from the Svalbard vault – who had copies from their left-behind Syrian bank - and a handful of local farmers [13]. The “doomsday vault” in Svalbard was opened for the first time in this occasion, and Manna gives insight to the work behind the vault: Seeds collected on the fields in the Beeka Valley, analysed and packed in the lab, transported in a car that also picks up schoolkids, passing through desert landscapes, crossing borders, arriving on the ground of the Archipelago Svalbard, received with press and speeches about the restoration and the situation of the world.


Even as the film feels meditative, beautiful, and absorbing in a way that makes me want to become an organic farmer, it is not uncritical to the processes it display. For example, how does ICARDA negotiate with states and capitalist forces? One of the farmers in the film opens his own bank where he gives out organic seeds for free, avoiding a “greenwashed” system with hidden capitalist interests and ideologies [14]. Other farmers have done quite the opposite and turned their land into refugee camps as it is way more profitable [15]. The human interest and nature’s interests come into conflict, even as nature’s interest eventually is human’s interest. This brings me back to Arne Næss’ utopian equalization of nature and culture: All life on earth has inherent value. Its diversity and richness are valuable and “Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs” [16]. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is partly recognizing the need to take care of and respect nature, but not because it has inherent value, but because humans will die without it. Nature remains submissive in the nature-culture relationship.


Is it because humans are evil that equality remains a utopia? Or is it selfishness, lack of knowledge, an uncritical conviction that God will save humanity, or an uncritical conviction that science will save humanity? Whatever the answer may be, Manna presents the elements needed in the discussion: Institutions, power-relations, profit, science, religion, war, refugees, boarders, nations, agriculture, ecology, and the dream of a good life among others. Unifying nature and culture in a harmonic union could seem like an impossible task with the endless list of forces involved, but one could also take the priests words seriously and believe in people.


Notes

[1] Arne Næss & George Sessions. Basic Principles of Deep Ecology, 5.

[2] Ancient Greek philosopher Plato makes reason superior to everything else. See Val Plumwood. “3.Plato and the philosophy of death” Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 72

[3] I assume this as he is talking about the environment in a very knowledgeable way, and the priest asks him questions as if he is the expert.

[4] Part of dialogue written down directly from Jumana Manna’s film «Wild Relatives» by me. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter 5/10/2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Wendle. “‘Doomsday Vault’ Protects Earth’s Food Supply—Here’s How”.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This is an ancient way of categorizing the world. See Plato. Nature/culture is just one of many pairs in a dualistic model. See Val Plumwood. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 43.

[9] The Anthropocene – “the New Human Era”. A new geological epoch caused by human intrusion in nature. See Nicholas Mirzoeff How to See the World, 219.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jumana Manna. “A Small/Big thing,” 50.

[12] ICARDA is an agricultural research center with the objectives “food security, poverty reduction and combatting climatic challenges.” They cultivate and store seeds that they distribute to governments. See Jumana Manna “A small/Big Thing” page 49 &54.

[13] Ibid, 49.

[14] Own observation from the film. Jumana Manna mentions him in «A small/Big thing» on page 57.

[15] Ibid., 55. Manna explains how products from abroad outperform the local farmers, and the government does not protect their own farmers. Having a refugee camp becomes a solution for the farmer Abu Nabil’s family.

[16] Arne Næss & George Sessions. Basic Principles of Deep Ecology, 6.


References


Næss, Arne & George Sessions. Basic Principles of Deep Ecology. 1984. The Anarchist Library. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/arne-naess-and-george-sessions-basic-principles-of-deep-ecology.lt.pdf (Accessed 15.10.18)


Manna, Jumana. “A Small/ Big Thing” Wild Relatives. Paris: Art Book Magazine Distribution. 2017.


Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to See the World. London: Pelican. 2015.


Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge. 1993.


Wendle, John. “‘Doomsday Vault’ Protects Earth’s Food Supply—Here’s How” National Geographic. 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/future-of-food/norway-svalbard-global-seed-vault/ (Accessed 10.10.18)

OSLO FORM LAB 2018