Is bill gates hatching a doomsday plot to eradicate all life on Earth?
F. William Engdahl isn't sure.
You experience doubts of a different kind as the unmarked helicopter sets you down on this godforsaken rock in the Barents Sea midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. As you stumble out onto the frozen ground, the merciless wind rips at your parka and the cold cuts to the bone. This island strikes you profoundly as a dead place: Even the sky seems stripped of color and as far as the eye can see, there is no living creature.
Except for that scruffy-looking penguin smoking a cigar.
"You gonna stand there admiring the scenery?" the penguin asks. "Because it's no skin off my beak but the bus leaves in about two seconds and I'm gonna be on it."
"Figure of speech." He points a flipper in the direction of the mountainside looming over your shoulder. "It's this way. But we gotta walk. C'mon."
Minutes later you are out of the wind but no warmer. You are under the permafrost of this island called Spitzbergen, vertically 426 feet above mean sea level and thus on dry ground even if the ice caps melt, horizontally 393 frigid feet deep inside the mountain. You have still seen no living thing, with the exception of the penguin, and this puzzles you.
"What's the deal on security here? We passed through two blast-proof doors, each with motion sensors, through two airlocks, I know the walls are steel-reinforced concrete a meter thick, but there are no guards. What's up with that?"
An insufferably smug expression comes over the penguin's face. "Lucky for you, you got Tux the Linux penguin to get you through all that security, huh? Yeah, we in the Linux community keep a close eye on anything Bill Gates is up to, especially hush-hush stuff like this vault."
"I don't know how hush-hush it is. I heard about it on BBC radio." Seeing the penguin bristle at being contradicted, you quickly add, "But the absence of guards?"
"Don't need 'em. This place is so remote the electronic and physical barriers are all they need. Of course I had no trouble getting through any security Microsoft's boss can set up."
Electronic indeed. The place looks like Bill Gates' bedroom. Not that you've ever seen Bill Gates' bedroom. But you can imagine. "But isn't there a village on the island?"
"Under two thousand people. Probably all bought and paid for by the Gates Foundation. Rice milk?"
"You want rice milk? Perrier? Disaronno on the rocks? Pickled herring?"
You look around for any suggestion of a refrigerator. Although it occurs to you, given that the temperature in this vault is a brisk -20 Celsius, that installing a refrigerator in this setting would be likethat it would be a joke.
"Do you actually have rice milk?"
"Do you see any of that crap here?" he snaps, poking you with the cigar. "Jeez, I was just trying to be gracious."
"And succeeding marvelously," you reply. Whatever his shortcomings, and there's a phrase you might want to eliminate from your vocabulary for the duration of the visit, along with shortcake, shortstop, and Burgess Meredith, whatever his defects, he's your guide and your only humanor whatevercontact here in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
And with that thought I'm going to leave you there under the permafrost, examining the specially wrapped seeds from all around the world, while I consider the question, why is Bill Gates donating $30 million to this project of the Global Crop Diversity Trust?
Maybe it's a dumb question. Some might consider it a wise precaution to set up a secure vault to store seeds for millions of varieties of plants against the possibility of their becoming extinct in the event of a disaster like runaway global warming, a massive meteor strike, nuclear or biological war, or pollution of the genepool from transgenic plants.
But I first stumbled on this vault in an essay by economist F. William Engdahl, author of Seeds of Destruction, which I think raises appropriate concerns about genetic manipulation of food crops by a few powerful corporations. Engdahl sees the Vault, though, as part of a Strangelovian plot involving Hitler's eugenics scientists, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Jorio Dauster, the former president of the Brazilian Coffee Institute.
I'd go under the Spitzbergen permafrost before I'd accompany Engdahl on that trip.