Davos Newbies Home

One of the things Davos tries hard to do, and sometimes succeeds at, is raise issues that are deeper than those on an immediate agenda. As Klaus Schwab likes to say, “It’s more crucial to deal with the important than the urgent.”

An issue that is both important and urgent, but which rarely makes the news, is biodiversity. In Britain this week, the Millennium Seedbank, a project of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, opened. Over the next 10 years, 20% of world’s seed-bearing plants will be stored, and the seedbank will eventually hold 260 million seeds from 24,000 species.

Is this of more than scientific interest (and it certainly is that)? The seedbank will be a defence against the tide of species extinction: 30% of the world’s estimated 300,000 plant species are endangered or threatened in the wild. As Peter Crane, head of Kew Gardens, explains, “What we are doing is developing a programme that gives a helping hand to the plant kingdom — keeping open our global options for the future. This project takes the long view in a world increasingly preoccupied with the short term.”

It’s encouraging that the seedbank could raise the nearly $120 million it needed (from the Millennium Commission, Wellcome Trust and Orange). An equally vital project that labours virtually without funding is the attempt to maintain part of our own species’ diversity: language.

A quarter of the world�s 6,000-odd languages are spoken by less than 1,000 people, while 96% of the world�s population speaks 4% of the world�s languages. A language dies when there is no one left to speak it. Although hard statistics are difficult to come by, at least 3,000 languages will die in this century. That means at least one language must die, on average, every two weeks or so.

Some believe, of course, that the world would benefit from a return to a pre-Babel state, with the ease of communication and understanding created by a single, shared language. In a recent book, David Crystal provides five answers as to why we should care about language death: the need for diversity (by analogy to ecology, Crystal promotes a green linguistics), the connection between language and identity, the importance of language as a repository of history, languages� contribution to the sum of human knowledge, and the intrinsic interest of languages themselves.

So what can be done? First, there is the need to create awareness of the issue. Then there can be major mobilisation to support the kind of revitalisation schemes that have proved successful in a number of cases. As one fieldworker quoted by Crystal puts it, “To fight to preserve the smaller cultures and languages may turn out to be the struggle to preserve the most precious things that make us human before we end up in the landfill of history.”

Take a look at The Foundation for Endangered Languages, which seems to be fighting this depressing tide. In an activity as vital as the seedbank, the annual budget for the foundation is slightly over $8,000. I’m all in favour of resources for maintaining species diversity on our planet, but we have to maintain the richness of our own species as well.

***A mathematician speaks
John Allen Paulos brings great good sense to the Florida election mess. “Not to be too cryptic, let me simply state that the vote in Florida is essentially a tie. The totals for Al Gore and George W. Bush, out of nearly six million votes, are so close that the results are statistically indistinguishable from what one would get by flipping a coin six million times.”

Neither the courts nor the two contestants will ever admit this, however. Paulos proposes flipping a coin. In New Mexico, one tied race was settled by a game of five-card stud. Take your choice.

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