Failure happens. Strategic plans that don't take into account the possibility of failure -- and propose pathways to adaptation or recovery -- are at best irresponsible, at worst immoral. The war in Iraq offers an obvious example, but the potential for failure in our attempts to confront global warming* may prove to be an even greater crisis. This is why I'm so adamant about the need to study the potential for geoengineering: we need to have a backup plan. And if that fails to head off global disaster, or (if done without sufficient study and preparation) exacerbates problems further, we need a last-ditch plan for recovery.
What does it mean to prepare for recovery? I've described it before: a civilization backup, holding a full record of who we are as a civilization, built in a way to facilitate recovery after a global disaster. This is something of an ambitious plan, however, and is not likely to even be considered for decades. In the meantime, a smaller-scale project would be entirely feasible -- and it turns out that such a smaller-scale backup appears to now be underway: the Book & Seed Vault.
So we pose this question: Are we as a civilization to be knocked back to a hunter-gather stage, or is there a way we can leave a legacy that provides for the future of mankind? [...] The Book and Seed Vault, Inc. has been formed for this purpose— gather and safely maintain long term storage of our civilization’s knowledge, plant seeds and medicinal seeds.
Much like the seed storage facility in Norway, the Book & Seed Vault would maintain supplies of seeds for key edible and medicinal plants; unlike the Norwegian effort, the Vault would also include an assortment of books, mixing academic, instructional (including a full selection of MAKE magazine, I hope!), and cultural. Long-term plans include underground concrete bunkers dotting the continent, but for now, the initial vault will be in rural Oregon.
It's clear that the Book & Seed Vault is a very new organization, with great ambitions but limited resources. They just started up in the last few months, and their expertise seems a bit uneven -- lots of detailed info about preserving books, but more general plans for handling the seeds. I suspect that they'll drop the plans to archive CDs and DVDs in short order, when they look at the infrastructure involved for handling electronic media.
In fact, the Book & Seed Vault may prove to function better as a model and instructions than as an actual vault. We'd need more than one site for any kind of disaster recovery system to be truly useful; we have to assume that many of the eventual locations will be unavailable, so the more the better. The right scale for something like this is probably the "community" -- a bit bigger than your neighborhood, but smaller than a city.
Think of it as open-source disaster prep -- a site and set of resources offering detailed instructions (which can be updated by the users, of course) showing you how to build a recovery vault for your community. What are the physical specs for the facility? Which seeds are appropriate for your regional climate? What are the key instruction manuals and guidebooks to include? How best to store and protect the vault's contents? I could see this done as a wiki and mailing list, probably with some YouTube videos demonstrating various techniques for proper seed and book storage.
This kind of idea isn't simply updated survivalism, it's part of a larger effort to develop greater social resilience.
Now there's a sequel to Mad Max I'd go see: a post-disaster society run by farmers and librarians!
*[If global warming isn't a sufficiently compelling threat for you, substitute the existential problem of your choice: asteroid strike; zoonotic pandemic; biowarfare; molecular manufacturing-based warfare; unfriendly AI. As long as the disaster remains limited to a Class 1 or Class 2 Catastrophe (i.e., some humans left alive to try to recover), human civilization would have a chance to return.]