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Desertification -- The Oldest Form of Climate Change

New America Media, Commentary, Franz Schurmann Posted: Mar 28, 2006

Editor's Note: The only way we can address desertification -- perhaps the worlds oldest form of climate change -- is by taking a holistic view that blames not human-induced activities so much as natural processes that have been at work for thousands of years. The Chinese may have evolved the most advanced approach, based on an understanding that people have found ways to live with and even flourish in desertified regions. Franz Schurmann, emeritus professor of history and sociology at UC Berkeley, has watched the impact of dust storms from China from his home in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO--On Feb. 19, 2001, Dave Schneider, who works for the Alaska Volcano Observatory, made a discovery of global proportions that only sophisticated satellites could encompass.

In the words of science writer Ned Rozell, Schneider discovered a now-famous dust cloud born in Eastern Mongolia and the Taklimakan Desert in Western China. The cloud extended some 2,000 miles along the Mongolia-China border.
Gobi dust
A few days later atmospheric scientist Glenn Shaw noticed a milky haze where there were supposed to be high mountains. He quipped the Alaska Range has just been obliterated.

Here on the Pacific Coast, this writer noticed an unusual yellow sky stretching as far to the east as the eye could see and noted the date: Feb. 19, 2001. Only much later did I learn that the two Koreas, Russian territories and the entire North China breathed in tiny yellow particles from the dust cloud during that same period.

Even the Hawaiian islands, depicted in most maps as dangling in the vast Pacific far to the south of the United States, probably had yellow dust particles in their atmosphere. Although the islands generally have warm temperatures, residents there -- like people on the Pacific Coast -- have endured increasingly cold winds coming from the northwest over the past decade. Ive experienced temperatures in Hawaii in the 40s.

No public mention was made of the dust cloud by either the Bush administration or the scientific community. The likely reason is that it evokes the spectre of desertification -- a term coined in 1949 by the French geographer Andre Aubreville for the process by which productive savannahs, grasslands and scrublands of north and equatorial Africa turned into unproductive desert. Desertification now threatens the livelihood of some 1 billion people in 110 countries, according to the United Nations Kofi Annan. Widely attributed to human practices that affect fragile ecosystems, it is viewed as irreversible.

Yet historical and archeological evidence make clear that desertification has been going on relentlessly for some 5,000 years. And while some forms continue to spread after thousands of years, other forms are only just beginning -- as when the purple thistle, a plant that sucks water from all other plants and has bedeviled ranchers in Nevada, now suddenly sprouts along the Pacific Coast.

Historical and archeological evidence also demonstrates that desertification gave rise to great cultures -- along the Niger, Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Indus, Melong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers. In all these settings, village-based agriculture flourished, utilizing a water management system called a qanat (Persian) or kareez. In most of them towns arose and some great cities had urban plumbing close to modern standards.

Taklimakan Desert in Western China is one origin of the dust storm that Dave Schneider saw in 2001. The main city of the Taklimakan is Dunhuang, with a current population of 180,000. It is a city surrounded by huge sand mounds. Yet 2,000 years ago, Buddhist priests and nuns lived in thousands of caves on that site that poor people today still inhabit.

While most experts blame desertification on human-induced actions such as overpopulation, overstocking with livestock, overcutting of trees, poverty, inadequate technology and warfare, a Rhodesian wildlife biologist Allan Savory came to a different conclusion while working in West Texas. There he saw that money, technology and education were all abundant in the region, Yet West Texas was desertifying as rapidly as the worst areas of Africa or Asia. Savory concluded that understanding desertification requires a holistic vision that includes human-induced as well as natural forces.

In China, where almost a third of the land mass is now desert, the chief of the Desertification Control Center has warned that dust storms could harm and possibly even cancel the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But while the Chinese dont minimize the threat, they are developing something that comes close to Savorys call for a holistic approach.

China itself aims to reclaim a quarter of a million square kilometers of land through, among other measures, investing in solar and wind energy so people don't have to cut down trees for fuel and making the money private companies spend on fighting desertification tax-exempt. China is even planting a "Green Wall" in the northeast, which will eventually rival the famous Great Wall in length, to prevent the spread of deserts.

As they expand construction and aid projects in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, China seeks solutions to the desertification conundrum based on the confidence that human settlements throughout history found ways to provide a reliable supply of water and irrigation in hot, arid and semi-arid climates.

Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute

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