GREENING THE DESERT Andrew McKillop
In the real world, the non-polar deserts are growing at a rapid rate, totally overwhelming the small but valiant attempts at pushing them back. http://hqweb.unep.org/geo/GDOutlook/
One neglected cause among many includes the annihilation of tropical forests. These contain 600 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to about 4.6 trillion barrels of oil or 145 years of oil-burning at the present annual rate of 32 billion barrels a year. This amount of carbon is almost as much as is contained in the atmosphere, but much of it is likely to be released into the atmosphere in the next decades by uncontrolled logging and deforestation.
To be sure, the deserts will advance unless there is massive action very fast. The UN Environment Programme has many times stated that only a miracle could save the world’s remaining tropical forests.
Another and better recognized cause of desertification is the constant and massive damage perpetrated on the world’s soils by industrial monocrop profit-only agriculture, totally oil dependent and totally dependent on huge machines and toxic chemicals. In country after country, attempts at pushing agriculture into dry and very dry areas has only speeded the expansion of deserts. The world’s huge expanses of monocrop industrial food production land, wrongly called “farmland”, are themselves effective deserts: without irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides they can produce almost nothing. More than 75% of world water supply is taken by industrial food production, and water shortage is a sure and certain menace for our survival.
The world’s soils contain about 1600 billion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as in the atmosphere. Fighting the desert’s advance, then pushing it back, is a global necessity for survival because carbon from the world’s desertified “farmland” may be rapidly released unless there is a rapid switch to sustainable, multicrop, largely organic agricultural practices. The first key to Greening the Desert is therefore a total change of world agriculture, obviously needing total change of society.
WHILE THE JURY IS OUT
Climate change is a certain cause of the desert’s advance, but global warming is a confused and uncertain theory subject to highly rational scientific doubt. Anthropogenic climate change, notably through the desertification of millions of square kilometres of mid-latitude areas – what we can call the “industrial monocrop food production belt” – is different. It is a sure and certain threat to our existence.
Conversely, for the media, politicians and corporate for-profit interests, anthropogenic global warming is a politically-correct theme for rousing the masses. Restoring the world’s soils to health, feeding the world and pushing back the deserts are real causes that the masses should adopt – rather than be sidetracked by childlike pursuits such as “fighting” global warming to save the polar bear.
In the 21st century, bioresource and environment conservation will obligatorily move up and out from their 1970s mould. Due to so many wasted and lost decades, and the obsession with trivia like carbon finance and trading, the world’s coming shift to Greening the Desert, and saving the world’s soils by abandoning our present toxic industrial food production methods, will have to be effective and will have to target the real issues. The legacy of waste and loss – called “farming” – and its allied quest of economic growth, urban growth and population growth, in Europe, causes the loss of natural ecosystems converted to “farm” desert and concrete desert, of more than 3 million hectares a year. Like any desert, the ever growing concrete wilderness is another sterile wasteland.
Conservation has to become more “people friendly” and in particular this starts with the ultra basic goal of feeding the world. As the UN FAO makes it clear, year after year, at least 900 million persons are short of food today. This is close to the total population of the 30-nation OECD group of high income countries, where obsesity and how to buy another car, consume more fast food and more industrial goods are “normal” concerns for the masses. This criminal lack of real concern, either for other people or for the survival of the the world’s ability to remain a living planet, will increasingly have a political conflict dimension, only flimsily hidden by Al Qaeda hysteria and the Clash of Civilizations.
The clash is between those who eat and waste, and those who do not eat in a world environment where the ability of the planet to produce more food, through industrial “farming”, is very close to saturated.
Media, public and political attention to subjects as “uninteresting” as the now permanent world food crisis was well shown in 2009: only 2 heads of state turned up to the FAO global food crisis conference held a few weeks before the Copenhagen climate summit – where 130 heads of state arrived, to worry in public with Al Gore and Raj Pachauri on the fate of polar bears. One simple reason for this deliberate lack of interest is that neither deserts, nor global hunger are believed to be “remediable” or – if they are – will not deliver huge profits to the world’s agribusiness players.
In fact we have no choice and no alternative to abandoning industrial “farming” and greening the deserts. We are obliged to create functional and working, living landscapes. We must move on from creating ever more sterile wilderness areas, possibly through inadvertance but certainly for-profit. We will be forced to engage in massive development of fisheries and tree plantations, breaking up the vast swaths of agricultural monocultures and expanses of degraded and marginal agricultural land, in a global process of rebuilding and relaunching the biosphere.
FORGET THE PAST
The new agriculture, sylviculture, mariculture, aquaculture will become more productive and intensive in real terms, measured in average biomass production, basically carbon fixation per unit area, but to us at present in the early 21st century the results could look like a return to wilderness. The changeover will almost never be rapid, making for periods of both economic crisis and social distress, with its sure and certain political spinoffs.
In the past, almost every major desert in the world has had its own recovery and forestation plan, often leaving disastrous results, especially in ex-Soviet central Asia, in India and Pakistan, in China and Australia, in the US and Chile, in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) and elsewhere. One common cause of failure has always been the attempt to apply agribusiness “farming” methods in the desert: for example intensive fertilizer use. Conversely, the application of aquaculture biomass recovery and development methods, and mariculture for seaboard desert areas, has rarely been applied.
Today in several world regions, attempts are under way to show the potential of growing crops in the desert with only the use of salt water and renewable energy, notably using salt water greenhouses, concentrated solar power and solar cells, algae cultivation ponds and salt drying facilities. The major problem is the keyword “crops”, meaning commercial food-surplus agriculture, rather than traditional self-sufficient and local-consumed food production. Authorities on sustainable agriculture, among them Jules Pretty and Miguel Altieri consider it as close to synonymous with “traditional agriculture”.
We therefore already find two main causes of failure in projects claimed to bet setting out to Greening the Desert: the use of agribusiness “farming” methods and the goal of producing exportable crops at a profit. This second goal can come – but later. Because traditional bioresource-conserving agriculture is treated by any major aid donor or international development organization like the World Bank and its regional development banks as a handicap to economic growth. Governments and international agencies are keen to prevent indigenous peoples from practising it anymore, and force them to adopt industrial for-profit agriculture. Where the available land is semidesert – with no large stock of nutrients to mine and species to pillage, for profit, to effectively destroy with agribusiness – we find the basic reason why no major government, development agency or transnational corporation funds action to green the deserts. With no near term prospect of agricultural surplus, and therefore profit, there will be no investment.
The reason why we are trapped in the past can be summarised as follows: Sheltering behind the business-as-usual claim that because of continuing population growth and urbanisation only intensive agriculture can ‘win the race’ against rising numbers of mouths to feed, the world’s deserts must grow. As we know from the FAO’s annual reports on world hunger, this ‘race against hunger’ has been lost for at least a decade. As we know from climate change, anthropogenic desertification has very long term and large negative effects on global ecosystems and bioresources.
DRIVING THE CHANGE
Despite its never ending quest to force the global economy, urbanization and industrialization down the throat of all peoples, calling it No Alternative, the World Bank has also commmissioned many reports which clearly show the superiority of traditional agriculture. Long-known trees, shrubs, vegetation, crops and animal species are always the best choices, do exist, and have existed for a long time. Traditional methods of “desert control” exist, worldwide, but only a few organizations (such as ICRISAT) study these ready made solutions, while gimmicks such the Bill Gates “plan” to fight world hunger and exploit lower-grade agricultural land, with the help of Monsanto are given massive free publicity in the media.
Any programme for greening the desert to produce alternate energy resources, necessarily biomass, will therefore need to integrate all available local and traditional knowledge and practices, and blend the modern with traditional. Indicating the sensitivity of desert-prone areas to the wrong types of agriculture and land use, before about 3500 BC the Sahara included many areas of sustained food production and animal husbandry. Even as late as about 500 BC, the Garamantes of what is Libya today had achieved this development by digging tunnels far into the mountains flanking the valley to tap fossil water and bring it to their fields. However, due to population growth and military expansion, the Garamantes civilization collapsed through insufficient slave labour to dig the tunnels to find available water in the aquifers. As we know, not only the Sahara but many other deserts have large amounts of fossil water resources, but the type of bioresource and ecosystem development applied for greening the Desert will always be critical.
Like it or not ‘modern’ fossil energy, pesticide and fertilizer dependent agriculture is on the way out. Diminishing returns extend from pesticide and fertiliser use, through irrigation, to the diseconomies and damage caused by the use of GM or ‘transgenic’ plants and animals. Rarely understood by observers taking the apparent total oil demand of world agriculture as “only a few percent” of total oil demand, the long and complex food production, processing and supply chain is intensely dependent on oil. This especially includes the worldwide transport of essential food imports for the growing number of food import dependent nations, as well as operating tractors and farm machinery, farm buildings, producing fertilisers and pesticides, and processing and packaging food products transported to supermarkets. One example is the food transport need of the overpopulated and over-urbanized UK: this requires about 85 billion ton kilometres of food product and animal feeds transport, brought into the UK by sea, air and road, needing the consumption of about 1.6 billion litres of fuel, each year.
A more vulnerable, fossil energy dependent, and inefficient situation is difficult to imagine. The “collateral damage” of ever-growing desert areas worldwide completes the picture of a destructive (and self destructive) system that has reached the end of the road. As with the Peak Oil paradigm, of oil becoming more expensive until it is only affordable to minorities, the food scarcity paradigm driven by the wanton destruction of the world’s bioresources and ecosystems threatens us all.
Greening the Desert is therefore a basic necessity. The simple fact this subject is almost totally absent from the media, and totally ignored by all politicians, merely underlines how No Alternative “thinking” or the refusal to face up to reality dominates our society.