Desertification is a dangerous Myth – A new book explains why
Oxfam researcher John Magrath reviews an explosive new book
I started off life as a newspaper journalist so I appreciate the power of a good story. And that’s what the concept of desertification provides. Since the great Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, we’ve become familiar with the idea that humans cause environmental desiccation and destruction on a huge scale; local people, usually, herders and pastoralists with too many animals, strip vegetation, soils blow away, temperatures climb as the merciless sun shines down on the newly reflective landscape and often, hunger (and conflict) ensues. This is a powerful metaphor – a morality tale – for what humankind is doing to the Earth, and the answers to this simple narrative can seem equally simple: move people and their animals into settlements, fence off land, plant trees.
The desertification story has had enormous influence. There is a UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the word has recently been incorporated into Sustainable Development Goal number 15. And most importantly, measures intended to prevent and reverse desertification are being pursued, especially in Central Asia and in China. Desertification in this narrative is almost irreversible unless superhuman efforts are employed – ‘great green walls’ of trees spanning nations being a popular strategy.
So it is quite a shock to be presented with an abundance of evidence that ‘desertification’ doesn’t happen – leastways, not in anywhere near the sense in which it has been explained. Scientifically it is a meaningless and indefinable concept; the desertification of the Sahel that created the scare happened for quite other reasons (and wasn’t irreversible); and the standard policies to reverse desertification generally do more harm than good, to environment and to people.
This is the thesis of a new book by 20 experts in the field. “The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands” is a collection of essays edited by Roy Behnke and the veteran drylands expert Mike Mortimore. Published with the help of the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development andTufts University in the USA, and launched on 8th July, it pulls no punches (nor do the publishers – at $229 a pop, this blog is probably as much as you are going to read, although you can read a few pages of each chapter before you start reaching for your credit card, see http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783642160134).
Read the full article: Oxfamblogs