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Making Backups

seeds.jpgAnyone who has owned a computer knows: always make backups of important content. Do so regularly. Preferably, put those backups some place that is unlikely to be harmed in a disaster -- a fire safe, or an off-site location. Disasters happen, but they're far easier to recover from if one plans ahead.

The same logic applies to other materials we hold dear. The government of Norway announced this week that it will be building an artificial cave deep in a frozen mountain to act as a storage facility for seeds collected by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The room is a "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops. It is being built to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. "If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project. [...]
To survive, the seeds need freezing temperatures. Operators plan to replace the air inside the vault each winter, when temperatures in Spitsbergen are around -18 °C. But even if some catastrophe meant that the vault was abandoned, the permafrost would keep the seeds viable. And even accelerated global warming would take many decades to penetrate the mountain vault.
"This will be the world's most secure gene bank by some orders of magnitude," says Fowler. "But its seeds will only be used when all other samples have gone for some reason. It is a fail-safe depository, rather than a conventional seed bank."

It's a bit staggering to think on this kind of scale. This isn't just a warehouse for seeds in the off-season; the Norwegian seed vault is explicitly a project meant to be used only in the face of civilization-threatening catastrophes. Less-encompassing seed banks have already helped to restore agriculture in areas torn by decades of conflict. This bank will help to restore agriculture globally after planetary-scale disasters.

Seeds aren't all we need to have backups for. Right now, everything that we know as a species, everything we believe as individuals, everything that we are as a global civilization could be gone in an instant. Human civilization could fall victim to an uncharted asteroid crashing into the Earth, pandemic disease (natural or otherwise), or even global chaos from the worst-case peak oil scenarios; by having our civilization and all that we know in just one place -- the Earth -- we are extremely vulnerable. Engineers refer to this as a "single point of failure" problem: the loss of a single element dooms the entire system. Good engineers try to avoid these sorts of problems whenever possible. Right now, the Earth is our single point of failure.

Here is my overly-ambitous proposal, one that makes the Norwegian seed vault look lazy: we need to create an "off-site backup" for human civilization. We should create a backup of everything that we, as a world, know and believe. This would include everything from scientific knowledge to oral histories, proprietary research to genetic maps, great religious texts to comic books. Everything. This would become an ongoing, living record of who we are as a global civilization. Once collected (which would undoubtedly take a generation or more), the backup must be updated regularly to keep it complete. And it must be someplace off-site, someplace not vulnerable to being damaged or destroyed along with the original.

When I say that the backup would need to be "off-site", I mean somewhere off of Earth. Our Moon is a good candidate for such a backup. It's easy to get to (relatively speaking) and not vulnerable to the sorts of erosion one finds in a world with an atmosphere and active geology (the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts, for example, will last millions of years). Solar power could provide more than enough power for the facility, and the site would be visible from everywhere on Earth.

Such a project would have some extraordinary benefits, even before any disaster hit. Compiling that much data over what would likely be a very long term would require research into novel storage technologies. Concerns about media format, translation, and data compression would be confronted, along with seemingly intractable issue of copyright. The Off-Site Backup project would force us to answer many (if not most) of the critical questions of the digital age.

But the most important benefit would be that the Off-Site Backup Project would allow human civilization to rebuild after the unthinkable happens -- and it does happen. We've written repeatedly about the possibility of a major asteroid strike, and other overwhelming crises -- from the collapse of La Palma causing a tsunami that would wipe out the east coast of the Americas to massive "supervolcanos" -- are all too possible. In many respects, we're lucky that humankind has lasted as long as it has.

As with the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, it is highly unlikely that a global disaster would wipe out every living thing. Human beings are particularly resilient. Some people would remain, in isolated areas, and would struggle to rebuild -- but much of what humankind had learned would be lost. The off-site backup would keep human knowledge intact, available in such an emergency. How would it be found and accessed? The storage could be set up with a "dead man's switch" that would start transmitting retrieval instructions if the backup site didn't receive a particular signal for a set period of time -- a year, perhaps. It could keep transmitting the critical basics even after it received requests for additional information, to prevent the first group to respond from having a monopoly on the information.

This may seem like a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but as the Norwegian seed vault demonstrates, there are steps that can be taken to prepare for extreme emergencies. It's well within our means to take the next step, to preserve our information. The costs of a civilization backup would be substantial, but given that it would take a generation or more to get going, the expense would be spread out over time.

I honestly don't expect the notion of an off-site backup for civilization to show up on the UN agenda any time soon. But unless a global disaster happens beforehand, it will happen, eventually. It may take a near-miss, or a crisis from which we barely recover, but at some point more people will realize that our ideas, our beliefs and our stories make us what we are, and that preserving them would be far simpler than trying to rebuild civilization without them.


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WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: Making Backups The room is a "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops. It is being built to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear... [Read More]

Comments (17)

What we have done, apart from some good Paustovskij writing, some Nietzsche and a bit of Heraclite and Dylan, that any monkey could not conjure up in a day or two? Come on man!

An incredible concept to consider. The technology used to make it happen would need to be free to everyone in the world, correct?

Very interesting!

Kind of reminds me of the Foundation series from Isaac Asimov...

The need is much nearer than most would imagine. We are about to come off a pulse of energy availability that has never been known on Earth. This energy pulse directly enabled human population to increase from under a billion to the nearly seven billion we have now. And as the energy declines, all those extra people will have to "go away". And the subsequent chaos, famine, war, and disease may well make all of us "go away."

Try on the Die Off site for some light, happy reading -- not! Then when you're totally depressed, go to the Post Carbon Institute to learn how you and your community can survive in their own "backup" or "cultural lifeboat."


Another great article exploring an excellent initiative by Norway and more interesting ideas from Jamais. The article really reminds me about a project undertaken by the New York Times in 1999 to solicit designs for a time capsule for the next millenium and then to actually build one. The story of this project gives some insight into the form for such a backup project - an HD-Rosetta Disk:
"It was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory by Norsam Technologies to protect classified information during nuclear conflict. The process uses an ion beam to etch up to 90,000 pages of words and pictures onto a nickel medallion the size of a cookie. The information can be read with a microscope."

In re-reading the Times article and doing a little bit more digging - there are some very interesting projects that are doing similar things to Jamais' proposal: the Long now foundation has a project called Rosetta that is working to 'archive ALL documented human languages'. It also is using a HD-Rosetta disk for archiving.
Maybe some of this is prime material for a further Worldchanging article?



Keep up the great work!

Pace Arko:

Wow, Jamais, it would be a monumental task with staggering costs but I agree that it's something that needs doing.

It may have a science fictional aura (I second Asimov's Foundation series.) but, I think you'd find archivists, librarians, historians, anthropologists and museum curators the world over who'd agree with you.

The problem is that the proposal confronts us with a lot of difficult and expensive problems to solve. Politicians, business leaders and other powers that be would be very hard to convince since the benefits of the project would be very long term and indirect.

Have you thought of somehow formalizing this proposal, perhaps starting or finding (Since it may have occured to someone else.) some group to advocate it?

David H:

Are you sure we really want to save everything? In a post catastrophe world, are people going ot be interested in PEOPLE or Brittany Spears? Frankly I think it woudl be better to preserve the useful things. And frankly, wouldn't the moon be a little far away? If we actually needed the stuff I'd think we probably wouldn't have the ability to fly to the moon (or use a computer).

Flannel Flower:

If a disaster wipes out most our on-Earth knowledge, then how would we access the backup info off-site on the moon, or even know to do so? It's very much a first-world priority.

I'd rather the immense resources required for such a project be used to help the majority of the human population that lives without meeting their basic needs. How can we consider our civilisation worth preserving when we allow easily preventable diseases and malnutrition to affect so many?

Subbarao Seethamsetty:

Jamais, You come through for me everyday with your choice of topics that are brilliant and diverse in their scope, interest, relevance and being grounded in sound thinking. I have been visiting worldchanging for the last six months and while google is still my home page, worldchanging is an immediate next.

This idea of a backup for planet earth stored on earth itself and offsite on the moon is fabulously ridiculous on the surface but profoundly important on deeper reflection. As Albert Camus famously said "If an idea is not ridiculous in the beginning, it has no hope".

Yes, the side effects of pulling off such a project themselves will be extraordinary. Answering "critical questions of our digital age" and indeed of life and the planet as we know it is in itself a valuable exercise. Buddhists have been practicing this idea by establishing a minimum required "kit" to boot up Dharma (Universal laws of justice and truth) and burying the artifacts in 'stupas' and statues across the globe for the last 2500 years. I know there is one established in Bloomington, Indiana by The Dalai Lama. The statues destroyed recently in Afghanistan should have had some stuff in them and is a good example of conditions where such gentle matters may not survive (I am not so sure that they did not). And in modern times, the various 'time capsules' are examples of such attempts to preserve our human culture.. This proposal at worldchanging now is more comprehensive, complete and necessary to match the scale of man-made destruction that is distinctly possible today and well on its way.

The backup 'system' should be engineered for virtual perpetuity and your example of the footprint on the moon lasting millions of years is an example of such a system. The Norwegian seed plan is so very civilized and befits the Scandinavian society (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland), which in my book, is how all human societies should be organized. I have lived in Norway for a year and lived in the USA for twenty years and it will shock many americans to "hear" that they are light years behind. However, the problem with the seed plan is its survival only for a finite time in a climate disaster. Supplementing it with a perpetual backup offsite on the moon should help.

In terms of mediums of storage, we can reasonably assume that the hardware and software availability for retrieval may be restricted to 'eyes' and 'brain power' at a minimum and that everything else is gravy. So of course we should ship out the encyclopedia Britanica and the oxford dictionary and all other dictionaries to the moon. An interesting medium for writing is how the ancient Indian scriptures have been preserved across time. They used palm tree leaves, which after being dried are inert and hard as wood slats. They are called talapatra manuscripts and are known to have lasted thousands of years. The writing is by piercing tiny holes to form the letters and words so there is no ink to fade away. Today we can use computerized laser engraving and drop off a set of selected manuscripts on the moon. Imagine the book list that will be generated at worldchanging should we put out the request :).

Your concern about mega Tsunamis in general and La Palma in particular is very real. Being a game theory advocate and heartily cynical, I am surprised (as far as I know and that is very limited) no one at worldchanging or otherwise has considered the possibility that the recent Tsunami could have been man-made. It is a "Perfect War Crime" and even testing it out will not raise suspicions and it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the recent Tsunami was indeed a test. Nukes that are 1000 times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima exist, underwater nuclear tests were / are common place, clustering 10 such powerful bombs to get orders of magnitude increase does not take much imagination and vectoring the force in a desired direction is trivial, so what is or will stop a country from doing it? Kindness?

As a thought exercise, France, China or the US are the three countries that immediately come to mind that would benefit from such a test and we can add more countries to the list. is La Palma a national security threat to the US, given that it can be initiated at will? May be not, especially with all the no-bid contracts possible to rebuild the eastern seaboard, Iraq and New Orleans contracts will seem like chump change. Best of all, it is not as messy as nuclear devastation on land and rebuilding can start in week. I did say 'thought exercise' didn't I?

Well, the connection of all this manure to this 'planet backup" plan is that as a heart-driven sustainable community, we at worldchanging should rightly consider these questions and act on them quickly, especially when such disasters can be man-made NOW either through malicious intent or sheer ignorance and greed. This note of mine is a tiny contribution toward that end.

Thanks for the great comments, folks.

Putting the archive on the Moon is probably the most unexpected aspect of my proposal. It's less outrageous than it might initially appear, however. Once the storage facility is installed -- not a cheap project, sure, but well within the capabilities of several countries -- information updates can be transmitted from Earth, so the cost of adding material need not be a barrier.

The expense will be considerable, but remember that this is a long-term project, one that would take a generation or more to get going. There's no issue of it being an either/or choice between this and feeding the hungry, etc. We must always balance the immediate needs of our communities with the long-term needs of the civilization/planet.

The big question is, if it's on the Moon, how do we get it? Here's what I imagine:

Part of the facility includes a large-scale radio transmitter able to put out a signal strong enough to be picked up by commonplace transistor radios. If conditions arise that trigger the archive's "there's been a disaster" mode, the facility would start sending out a very strong signal with a basic set of instructions, in a wide variety of languages. The instructions would include how to access the archive information, including how to build a basic transmitter to signal back to the facility.

The idea would be that, post-disaster, any city or moderate community should have sufficient gear and technical expertise to access at least the most important info. The facility would also have high-speed laser or microwave transceivers to provide access for communities that have managed to rebuild a bit, leaving the big radio setup as a helping-hand for others. This should *not* be something that a single society could monopolize.

I would imagine that a major policy discussion around the facility would be what consistutes critical information that could be accessed with the most basic radio and what would be useful but not absolutely critical info needing more complex gear to access.

Putting it on the Moon has several distinct advantages: it's not controlled by any one nation (and at least five different space programs have sufficient capability to deliver at least an unmanned probe, and that number will grow over time); it's visible from every location on the Earth (unlike a site in, say, Antarctica); it's easily tracked by eye (unlike an artificial satellite); very few of the likely disasters that could affect the Earth would have any effect at all on the Moon (the only one that I can think of is a gamma-ray burst); and there's plenty of room for solar power units, big radio dishes, and whatever else would be needed for the facility.

Again, even if we started working on something like this today, it wouldn't be in full operation for decades -- and that's another advantage to the program, actually. It forces us to break out of the immediate-result mindset that leaves us prone to thinking in terms of quick advantage over long-term benefit. It would be a massive project, requiring the assistance of every nation on the planet (at least for information/culture collection).

(Re: Britney, et al -- while I certainly appreciate the sentiment, it's worth remembering that our global cultural heritage will always include material that is controversial, superficial or of limited appeal. Fortunately, commercial pop music is likely to be high on the list of stuff that wouldn't make the archive simply for copyright and IP reasons.)

I hope that, at very least, the consideration of a project like this gets people thinking about what's really needed to prevent a civilization-ending disaster. I have no patience for the "we're doomed, we may as well give up" crap coming from a handful of ageing environmentalists, nor the "we're invulnerable, we'll always find a way to succeed" crap coming from a handful of people who don't want to give up the tiniest amount of short-term power for long-term benefit. A project such as this civilization backup idea is, in the end, a demonstration of just what we could do if we really wanted to show some responsibility for future generations.


It sounds like the moon archive would need to be more extensive than what we have now in the public domain, thus including copywrited materials. If so, wouldn't it be hacked to go into disaster-recovery mode so as to transmit the data worldwide? If you allow it to be turned off from earth, then you enable the monopolization of it from a single society (in a true post-disaster scenario). It would be pathetic to have a struggling group of survivors unable to access the archive due to DRM restrictions.

Subbarao Seethamsetty: I just returned from a short stay in norway; please email me.


Sorry that's mawiik@gmail.com

Flannel Flower:

Hey Jamais, you'll be happy to know that yr idea has company. See news today on James Lovelock's imminent book release 'the revenge of Gaia'. Extract from the Independent online:

One of the most striking ideas in his book is that of "a guidebook for global warming survivors" aimed at the humans who would still be struggling to exist after a total societal collapse.

Written, not in electronic form, but "on durable paper with long-lasting print", it would contain the basic accumulated scientific knowledge of humanity, much of it utterly taken for granted by us now, but originally won only after a hard struggle - such as our place in the solar system, or the fact that bacteria and viruses cause infectious diseases.


btw, I know it needn't be an either/or choice but unfortunately it usually is. Faced with a budget policy choice between a technologically exciting project to create a record to ensure the survival of humanity (ie to save the descendents and culture of self-interested adults); or allocating more money to raise the living standards of the absolutely impoverished (ie people we don't know in those 'other' countries who want all our jobs); or using the budget to create more jobs so we can all afford 2nd cars, well you know how it goes. Sorry I'm being pessimistic. The idea is a nice one.

It's a curious dilemma to ponder how a handful (?) of survivors would recall/know about/or rediscover the record - or understand it if considerable time has passed. We'd need something like Nell's primer in the Diamond Age then (Neal Stephenson?). Or indigenous knowledge, handed down through all descendents.

I think this an amazing and interesting idea, but it's probably good to remember that it's not entirely new.

As I mentioned before, it's been mentioned in the science fiction genre for years. Isaac Asimov used this kind of idea to begin his Foundation Triology (written mostly in the 1950s). And the idea also appears in his famous short story "Nightfall" from the late 40s.

Anyway, the interesting thing now is that we might be living in a time where something like this is both *possible* and *necessary*.

I guess the real question is how to do it?

Just thinking out loud: I'm kind of doubtful about the lunar solution. (After a major global dissaster, who's going to be able to retrieve data, gene banks, etc., from the moon?)

Probably the key is to have multiple backups, using multiple forms of technology (even some as simple as paper), in multiple locations.

But how could this be done in a broad, participatory way? Would something like Wikipedia be a first (albeit small) step? Do we need Wikiculture and Wikigenes too?

Let's keep this discussion going!

Flannel Flower:

i was thinking similar: not only could the moon be hard to access (eg all dishes could be wiped out, or perhaps there are massive electrical storms that prevent transmission) but the moon receptable could be destrooyed eg by a meteor (perhaps a shower strikes the moon and the earth).

I think multiple copies and multiple formats and multiple languages would be the only solution with full redundancy. I think you would need to include a non-electrical format.

Pace Arko:

I think, for a number of reasons, the risk of an impact destroying the archive on the Moon is not serious enough for us to abandon it as a prospect for safe storage.

The odds of two large masses striking the Earth and Moon at the same time are much, much lower than the odds of a single large impact on one or the other body. I suppose a comet of enormous size could calf into multiple pieces and strike the Earth and Moon at the same time. We do have evidence of this with that comet that recently struck Jupiter.

Secondly I think the archive would be buried somewhere near a lunar pole (To prevent radio eclipse.), leaving only its solar cells and communications gear exposed. On the airless moon, that means an impact would have to be very nearby or very large to damage the facility.

Continuing in a Mad Max frame of mind, if society had collapsed to such a point were all radio communication technology had been completely destroyed and forgotten obviously the scheme wouldn't work. So there needs to be backups in Antartica as well as contingency plans for abandoned libraries and museums.

I also agree that multiple forms of archives in different mediums (Paper, perhaps even etching in stone and glass!) will help. Governments and large businesses now routinely store their paper and electronic data in large, climate controlled vaults in abandoned mines. Iron Mountain is one such company that does this.

Imagining more cosmic disasters, eventually we'll want to put these archives in many places in the solar system, perhaps on geologically dead Jovian moons or in asteroids with orbits normal to the solar ecliptic. Eventually--getting very ambitious here--we'd want to build these things in other solar systems, with periodic radio updates.

This whole idea reminds me of that Arthur C Clarke short story "2001" was based off of, "The Sentinal."

Getting back to more near term issues, I have to agree with Flannel, it's going to be very hard to convince governments and people to spend money on this. And obviously, intellectual property issues may prevent a lot of material from entering the archive. If the universe forgets Mickey Mouse but remembers the Pyramids just so Disney can make a few bucks, is that so bad?

Perhaps this should be approached in stages starting with Antartica and then working our way up to the Moon and beyond.

Pace Arko:

By the way, full disclosure, my name is on a microdot aboard the Stardust comet probe in deep orbit around the Sun. So I guess I got my chance at immortality, might even last as long as Nixon's name on the LEM.


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