Two-thirds of Spain is at risk of permanent desertification. The cold and wet country of Iceland holds half of all Europe's deserts. China's Gobi Desert is expanding rapidly, swallowing thousands of villages and threatening to envelop the capital city Beijing. In just 40 years a third of the plant's arable land has eroded, and each year desertification destroys the potential to grow 20 million tons of grain.
Once again, a show all about sand, but this time we're not building with it; we're running from it. What are some of the long-term systems that lead to desertification? What are some of the simple causes? And in what ways does human and economic development play a role in this process?
Thanks Jandun for working on this transcript!
[0:04] I'm David Torcivia.
[0:06] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[0:08] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky the end of the world.
[0:19] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be.
[0:32] Civilizations rise and they fall, and it turns out that climate is a big factor in that process. The US NASA Jet Propulsion Lab has used infrared and radar satellite imagery to help researchers explore the buried remains of ancient societies, from space. And it appears that drought was the main impetus for the collapse of civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia, several states within the ancient Egyptian hegemony, the Mayan empire, and more. To the west of the Himalayas, the valley that is formed by the Indus River near the border of present-day Northern India and Pakistan, was once home to an ancient civilization. The people who lived there 5,200 years ago were part of the largest and earliest urban civilizations on Earth, with trade routes linking them with Egypt and Mesopotamia. At one point 10% of the world's population could be found here and despite their prominence, we were not even aware of their existence until the 1920s. Well, that's because like all ancient civilizations, they rose and then they fell. I know that's a cool on intro here, Daniel, but I feel like we had to have that after the debacle of last week, and sorry to all those that were looking forward to a new episode. But this week you're definitely gonna find that, even though I am here in Austin, Texas at South by Southwest Broadcasting, while I'm also here for some work that I have on display in the film competition, so.
[1:54] You're at Southwest by South, wait, you're at South by Southwest, David, are you trying to get famous like Tim Ferriss, trying to push a book deal, trying to make some connections among the tech startup world?
[2:07] Well, mostly I've just been standing on a street corner yelling to everyone that the world is about to end. And it's not the most popular way of getting the word out there unfortunately, it seems.
[2:16] Obviously not a bad idea. I appreciate you doing the good work out there.
[2:22] I'm doing what I can. Trying.
[2:24] And you're in a hotel right now, that's why your audio quality sucks?
[2:27] I mean, that's the blunt way of putting it, but yeah, that's exactly it.
[2:30] I didn't say your voice is bad, David, I just said the audio quality.
[2:34] Just implied.
[2:36] Alright, well, let's keep going. You know, there was a 2012 research paper that studied the likely cause of the collapse of that Indus Valley Civilization, and it concluded that climate-related changes, specifically monsoon patterns, were responsible. And many researchers now agree, there's another paper that came out in 2017, which is a collaboration between two American universities and two Chinese universities that took oxygen isotope core samples of ancient cave rock, and confirmed the same premise, that changing rain patterns had dramatic impacts on the fate of various civilizations in the valley of this Indus River. And so, before the rise of civilization in this region, the Indus River was wild.
[3:22] Heavy patterns of monsoon rains channeled amazing energy into the system. The river cut deep valleys into the Earth. Flooding was intense and frequent, and so much sediment was rushed through the rivers that huge plains were deposited in broad strokes to the east, the land between the Indus and the Himalayas, laying the foundation of fertile land that would become the bedrock of this ancient civilization. Eventually though, the rate of these monsoon rains decelerated, and that tamed the river, it subdued the massive flooding, which allowed people to kind of move into the area and found this civilization along the river in the fertile plains it had created. They grew crops, and through the surplus yields that they were able to reap, a vibrant civilization took shape. And this was the time of the great Indus Valley Civilization, which lasted from about 5,200 years ago to 3,000 years ago.
[4:17] Of course, the problem was this deceleration of monsoon rains kept going and eventually there was not enough rainfall to support the river system that would have been needed to maintain the level of agricultural and urban development that had grown. And so the land began to dry, and as a result people abandoned the cities that they had created.
[4:38] Something interesting really stands out about the rise and fall of this civilization. Here's Liviu Giosan from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, "These were an enterprising people, taking advantage of a window of opportunity, kind of Goldilocks civilization. As monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers, still fed with water and rich silt, was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost two thousand years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end." So basically the Earth, over a long period of time, many years of energetic, geological, and biotic activity, accumulated a massive reserve of stored energy and wealth. Humans then migrated onto this store of wealth, in this case agricultural productivity, and used it to build up a great civilization. A couple thousand years later, and as that wealth became depleted, the structures that humans had built up around it began to deteriorate and eventually collapsed.
[5:35] Yeah, and I can't help but consider that in the context of our modern world where, you know, the Earth has built up this unbelievable store of concentrated energy and wealth in the form of oil. And we have, just over the past couple hundred years, built up our entire civilization around this reserve. We build our buildings out of oil, our plastics, our food comes in large part from oil input, our electronics, there's so much of our modern life that is made possible through oil. And if that reserve went away, would we fare any better than the people of the Indus Valley? But, it goes further than that, David, I think our situation is unique from many of these ancient civilizations that rose and fall, because it's not just oil, right. We rely on so many reserves. We've figured out how to design an economic system that can exploit the Earth of its reserves anywhere, whether those reserves are fertile soil, forests for lumber, oil for combustion, water for drinking and bottling. You know, we've discussed the way that our economic models have shifted, in a big way, beginning in the 1970s, from these isolated models focused on national self-sufficient economies, to this broad economic model that is globally interconnected. Turning those once independent national economies into export-led cogs fueling a much larger system, which allows some regions of civilization to persist beyond the depletion of certain resources and even beyond the collapse of local structures of society.
[7:05] You know, with a globally connected economy that's focused on these specialized exports if, for instance, the lumber, or the soil, or the oil reserves of one nation becomes depleted, the rich countries that import those commodities can generally just shift supply chains around to deplete the same resources somewhere else. Meanwhile, the people of that smaller nation simply collapse into poverty and misery. And I think that is the main difference between the rise and fall of civilizations in the ancient world, and the ones that we have today, right. I mean, 3,000 years ago the collapse of civilization in the Indus River Valley had absolutely no impact on life for people halfway around the world, because the resources that sustained them were local.
[7:46] And in contrast the resource extraction that is necessary to sustain a wealthy nation like the United States, nations in Europe, other large consumers like China, this process is causing the collapse of societies all around the world, today. And people in the heart of these rich countries are largely unaware of this process, unless they somehow connect the dots between their economy and the refugees that show up on their borders, with the fact that their store-bought coffee or banana has a new country of origin label on it. And so, I feel like the main difference here is one of scale. Mis-extraction of natural reserves will continue, up until there are no more poor countries left intact to exploit, at which point us people back home might start noticing when the shelves of our grocery stores aren't being restocked. I feel like I've gotten a little bit off of the topic of what we're going to be discussing today though, David.
[8:41] Maybe a little bit, Daniel, but, so let's try and pull this back into what the main thrust of what we're really talking about here. And that, of course, is desertification, but also these larger forces of globalization and the processes that drive this all around us and can lead to this sort of collapse that we're talking about.
[8:58] So, going back to this basic idea, it's a simple framework. In the same way that a city must be supported by a larger footprint of land for agricultural material inputs, things like crops or lumber, global economies need cheap imports of the same things, but on a larger scale. To do this, as transportation networks are improved, manufacturing, agriculture, and industry all settle in regions with the cheapest labor, the fewest environmental regulations, and the most pro-business policies. The insidious result of all this is hidden in land degradation and resource depletion around the world. For instance, Pakistan and India are on the brink of war, right now, due to their shared water resources which are in sharp decline, forcing cities to ration their drinking supplies. Yet at the same time much of the clothing that is consumed in the United States is produced with the cotton grown in Pakistan, and this is one of the most water demanding crops you can grow. Today 60% of the global population lives in countries that have to import water in some form.
[9:57] Another difference between the collapse of ancient civilizations and our modern world is what comes after collapse. While ancient climate variability disrupted social structures built up around particular places, people were able to flourish after these institutions faded away. The cities that were built up by the people around the Indus River, for example, could not be sustained once the river ceased supplying fertile ground for agricultural surpluses, which was necessary for supporting a large urban workforce. But although these cities fell, the people themselves merely migrated east where more reliable but weaker monsoon patterns enabled small-scale, self-sufficient agricultural communities to thrive. But today, if we don't do something dramatic, the impact of modern global human development means permanent and irreversible climate shifts, and those will threaten life everywhere.
[10:44] So this episode is kind of the confluence of several topics that we've discussed so far. Mostly ones of land use, like our agricultural episodes, in addition to our water scarcity episode, that's Episode 30 "Parched," our heat episode, 25 "Heat Death," and as long as we're talking about desertification, David, we have to mention our episode specifically on sand, although in that context sand as a commodity, and that was Episode 56 "Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach." I mean, this is where all of these kind of come together, in the shifting land patterns around the world, where we see once fertile regions that had plentiful water turn dry, turn to desert, and really turn into this permanent desert, where in the past it's very normal to see cycles of desert come and go, with natural changes in climate variability. But what we're seeing with human intervention, human development, is the permanent alteration of land to one that can support life, to one that is completely devoid of life. And so that's really the topic of this episode: deserts, their encroachment, and what leads to them. And we can start by looking at this trend going on in Spain, Iceland, China, and Mongolia.
[12:00] Yeah, let's look at some examples here, Daniel. So, deserts are creeping up from the south of Europe, all over the place. Ninety percent of Spain was covered in forests in the Middle Ages, and now two-thirds is at the risk of becoming a permanent desert. For millennia, farmers along the Spanish mountains cultivated agricultural terraces, which allowed them to capture intense but sporadic rainfall for agricultural purposes. And for hundreds of years, up to the present, Spain had a pretty complex system of canals and terraces that distributed all this water across the countryside. But these have largely been abandoned in recent years. Of the agricultural terraces that were cultivated along the Iberian mountain range, only 5% are still in use today. Now this abandonment started in the 1970s, and has since been spurred by the over-exploitation of water for tourism, and other spurious uses along the coast. And the luxurious residential communities being built alongside these, and it's important, I think, to note here, Daniel, that Spain constructs more homes in a year than France, Germany, and Great Britain all combined. And as a result of all this, once ...
[12:59] Well those are small countries, David.
[13:01] Oh yeah, you know Germany, it's only got, what, nearly a hundred million people. So, you're talking small, small amounts right?
[13:07] Yeah, you know.
[13:08] But, I mean as a result of all this home construction, these once flourishing areas, they've seen an invasion of shrubs. Invasion of the shrubs, I mean that's a silly thing to talk about, and we'll talk about them more later.
[13:19] It's actually super interesting, David. I want to talk all about shrubs at some point in this episode.
[13:25] This is really a secret episode, so we can just talk about shrubbery. But all of this adds up, and it ends up in things meaning lowered biodiversity, and then that starts the cycle kicking off that leads to this complete degradation of the land in the end. But like I said, we'll get to that in a moment.
[13:40] And, I mean, it's not so simple to just blame the home construction. The home construction is going on to support what is the explosion of tourism and like, luxury hotel developments along the coast of Spain.
[13:53] That ends up using a ton of, ton of water resources from these mountain areas that depend on that water for stable vegetation that can keep that soil intact. I think I heard that the average per capita use of water on some of these Spanish coastal towns is like eight times the average of other European nations. But let's look at another European country and that's Iceland. And this is really interesting, David, because people don't typically think of deserts existing in cold, wet areas, which is exactly what Iceland is. But, in fact, half of all of Europe's deserts are found on this island nation. And it's an island that once had 25% forest cover but now has just around 1%. And, you know, this is because early human settlement on Iceland removed some of that initial forest cover, but the growth of livestock and grazing animals really kicked this trend off. There are some 600,000 grazing animals, mostly sheep, on Iceland, which ensure that vegetation cannot grab hold of the soil. And it's one of the biggest obstacles to preventing desertification on the island. Although, this is a process that is potentially reversible on Iceland because it does have plenty of water, in comparison to Spain which is quickly over exploiting its water reserves. But this interaction between soil and water is a process that we're going to dive into a little bit deeper later on in this episode - probably when I talk about shrubs, David.
[15:23] I'm looking forward to that. Anytime we're talking about scale and how big these things are, in especially deserts, we always have to turn Daniel back towards China 'cause they do everything bigger than the rest of us and that includes this desertification process.
[15:37] The Gobi Desert is like the largest desert in the world.
[15:41] Exactly, and China's dry lands are, we were just talking about Europe here, but they by themselves are as large as all of Western Europe. And they're getting bigger, rapidly, via these enormous dust storms that devour whole villages and towns in their wake. And we actually have some pictures of these, we'll be sure to post 'em on the website if you want to check it out, it's very intense, humongous stuff. And, now in northern and western China some 4,000 villages, so far, have been abandoned due to this encroaching desert. And between 2003 and 2008, 650,000 people were evacuated out of rural areas in Mongolia. Now, Mongolia, in the same area, is another country whose efforts to curb desertification are challenged by animals. In Mongolia 250,000 camels that were present 10 years ago have been reduced to just 50,000 camels today, due to these harsh conditions of desertifications and sandstorms. And I know that sounds crazy, Daniel, like, well camels they should love the desert, right?
[16:35] Yeah, they have all that water stored in their humps.
[16:37] Exactly. But these conditions are so intense, and so desolate, that even these camel herds are being cut down by them. And, to make it worse, these 50,000 camels and all the additional herd animals that exist in Mongolia, are actually accelerating the process of desertification, because these conditions that allow this process to kick-off have reached this tipping point. And, now one of the forces of soil erosion is wind, that means the looser the soil gets the more the wind picks up, the more arid a place becomes, the more wind will occur, and this is what leads to those giant dust storms we just talked about. And then that adds up, and now the plant cover in Inner Mongolia and places like China have disappeared because of all this. There's no dirt to hold the plant down, these storms blowing them out of the way 'cause of the additional wind, and now that the plant cover has disappeared, that means the soil is even more exposed, is broken up even further by the hooves of all these animals trying to find something to graze upon. They rip out what little plants are left, and then you have this process continuing and getting even worse. And so researchers at a German university found that when herding animals walk across exposed soil, the wind can pick up 20 times more sediment than if they hadn't. And this accelerates the process of wind erosion by as much as 40 times.
[17:48] And these sandstorms, well they're also reaching China's capital city, Beijing. Since the 1950s, major sandstorms hitting the city have increased in frequency by 15 times. These trends have spurred the Chinese government to support what's known as the Green Great Wall of China, or the Three-North Shelter Forest Program. It's a giant line of trees that are being planted along the northeast, north, and northwest regions in China. And it's humongous, it spans over 14 provinces and it's ultimately meant to prevent the spread of this rapidly expanding Gobi Desert. The project began in 1978, and so far 66 billion trees have been planted, Daniel. That's a lot of trees, and it's not even done yet. I mean, this project is still going on, it’s gonna continue until at least 2050. And, of course, like any sort of thing China does, and anything with this sort of scale, it's not been met without criticism. One researcher looked into the program and estimated that only 15% of the trees planted have actually survived the following years. And while it has slowed the rate of land erosion a bit, in some areas this comes at a massive trade off, as new trees merely accelerate the loss of water resources, particularly around the Yellow River, which is a major source of water for agriculture. And in other areas, the monoculture models of tree planting means that all these trees, which are identical, are leaving themselves very vulnerable to disease coming in and wiping them all out at once.
[19:13] Nonetheless, I think this is, like, clearly the largest scale green project probably in the world to try and curb some of the impacts, the really destructive impacts of this global climate change. And there's an anthropologist named Jerry Zee, out of a California university, and he writes in a paper he visited Minqin County in China's northern Gansu Province. It's a county along the Silk Road, it's wedged between two encroaching deserts, and he writes about how this encroachment of desert is impacting the people there. And I found a voice actor to read a little bit from his paper, some of the things that he saw while he was there. "From a pavilion on Hongyashan Hill, Minqin County is visible as an island between two deserts. The city and it's buried hinterlands are visible in the distance, specks against the enormity of these deserts that extend beyond each horizon. It is this view through which Minqin is narrated as the site of a coming disappearance.
[20:21] The site of a quiet future disaster. Minqin is haunted by its future. Sitting at the throat of the Badain and Tengger deserts, Minqin is a place running out of time. Moving through the county, evacuated villages and ecological refugee settlements built by the government juxtapose and suggest a demographic process locked into the rambling of an ecological one. The Earth overtakes and reorganizes places too quickly for names and habits to follow, and places become disjointed. Toponyms have not kept up pace with the changes in the environment. They mismatch with present realities, drawing attention to absences, like the vast saline alkaline field that used to be, and is still called, Qingtu Lake at the county's edge. Farmers who have lost their fields to sand, now work as labor in the construction and maintenance of the various biotic and abiotic infrastructures for sand, noting where things once were. People my age tell me of how a decade earlier they might have swum in the basins that now supply fine alkaline minerals to the wind, materials for dust storm.
[21:40] Each one of these landscapes of memory and habit suggests not only a past law, but as desertification rolls on, gestures at a future one. The lost lake serves as a cautionary landscape for places not yet swallowed by sand."
[22:06] And it was in reading Jerry Zee's paper, David, that I realized just how tripping the idea of desertification is. He describes how this landscape can be understood through "sand time" because the movement of sand represents not just a spatial reorganization of the world but, literally, a visual representation of time. Every inch of progressing sand represents a different point along a timeline of past, present, and inevitable future. He writes, "The slowness of this process of desertification is nonetheless too fast, so that desertification engenders a vertiginous politics of time, oriented at a process of ecological change that is at the same too fast and yet demands patience." And, you know, this temporal spatial nature of desertification and the reality of this county's position within this process, becomes like a vision into the past or future for towns and cities elsewhere in China. He goes on to write, "The emplotment of Minqin's desertification as a cautionary example of desertification in other more important places, especially Beijing, indeed suggests a national landscape that can be graded into moments in desertification. It haunts the national territory as making every place a site that is pre-disappeared."
[23:34] And, I just thought, I found that really kind of haunting to think about, David, like, these places along this expansion of the Gobi Desert are pre-disappeared, existing on this timeline of inevitable swallowing up by dust and sand. Because, it's literally what it is, you know, these people live in these towns and you can watch as the sand gets closer and closer to these barriers. There are these huge dust storms and it gets into every building, every town. Sometimes the dust storms are so intense it cracks the glass off of windshields of cars. I mean, it's like, both dramatic but also like he writes very slow, kind of like this encroachment. And at the end of the day all of these examples have a common denominator whether that's Spain, China, Iceland. And that's overuse, right. We have the over-exploitation of water for agriculture and commercial use in Spain and China, which has caused vegetation to fail, allowing this desert creep. And in Iceland, overuse of grazing in particular areas have destroyed the vegetation that holds the soil together. And everywhere climate change exacerbates these processes by changes in the variability of rain, changes in heat, which affects evaporation and air moisture, which leads to different changes in soil moisture, and this process of drought which we'll talk about. And, needless to say, David, it's not just these countries. This is happening all over the world.
[25:01] Well, Daniel, that sounds like an excellent time to work in our bread and butter of this show, and that of course is endless stats. Okay, so here are some of those endless numbers right now. Over the past four decades, 33% of the planet's land that could have supported vegetation has eroded away. And every year an additional 12 million hectares of arable land are lost to desertification. And that's enough land to grow 20 million tons of grain. We're losing forests at a similar rate. Twelve million hectares, by the way, is around 30 million acres, and to put that in perspective, the county of San Francisco, including the city, it's just 150,000 acres.
[25:41] And, to be honest, I don't know why I picked San Francisco. But the largest urban city in the world, and what should have been my first choice, is New York City and its surrounding metro area, and that together is 2 million acres. So every year a land size that is 15 times larger than the biggest city in the world, by area, is converted to desert. The process is affecting 170 countries, probably more than that, around the globe at this moment. And of course there is an irony, because while this problem is highlighted as an international crisis by bodies like the UN, the reasons we are supposed to be alarmed is because desertification puts stress on our abilities to grow food and access fresh water. And it's estimated by the food and agricultural organization that food demand will increase 60% by 2050. But in the end it's this very industrial food system itself that is adding a lot to this land use crisis in the first place. Especially our system of meat production, which encourages deforestation, overgrazing, intensive water use, which, as we'll talk about, ultimately accelerates all this desertification.
[26:43] Let's take a step back, David. I feel like, you know, someone could ask at this point, look, I understand deserts, you know, you can't grow anything there, but I don't live around deserts. Ultimately why do I care? Because this process primarily takes place on the margins of, you know, semi-arid and arid land. So all this land degradation is taking place primarily in the drylands. And, you know, someone might be saying, well why do I care if one region of dryland becomes a little bit more dryland, right?
[27:14] But something I didn't realize is how, just how significant drylands play in our world today. Over two billion people live in drylands. One of every three crops grown today are actually found in these drylands. And we discussed the importance of seed banks and community efforts to preserve ancient species of plants as a hedge against global climate change, and we discussed that in 52 "Killing Fields". And drylands are one of the major climate zones where this seed bank process takes place around the world. And almost half of global carbon is stored in drylands, which means that land degradation in these areas has the potential to release even more carbon into the atmosphere. And, David, if that were not enough, for all you lovers of McDonald's Big Mac out there, well, 50% of all livestock is raised in drylands, and that's where our meat comes from. And, you know, not all drylands are deserts, of course. Drylands include hyper-arid ecosystems like deserts, but also semi-deserts, grasslands, and rangelands, which all have varying levels of aridity.
[28:18] But what's particularly significant, though, is that drylands are the most sensitive to these changing water, heat, and climate patterns around the world because they already naturally exist in this state of limited resource availability, and so even small changes can have enormous impacts.
[28:35] And so let's hone in real quick on this aridity, and the processes of water fluctuation in arid climate zones. [28:43] So today, under the business as usual climate models, that is if we assume economies continue to grow and consume rising levels of energy, the Earth will see these drylands expand by an additional 10 to 23% by the end of the century. Most of which will occur in developing countries, but which will also heavily impact the western United States and Central and Western Europe. Okay, this is a massive increase in arid lands. And it's important to note out that within the drylands, obviously as this expansion is going on, the more semi-arid regions will be turning more arid, and so desertification goes hand-in-hand with this process. And if you remember, David, from your grade school textbooks, you'll recall that land types are usually categorized by the amount of rainfall they receive in a given year. You know, a rain forest is defined by x amount of centimeters of rainfall per year, but, at the end of the day aridity is actually a lot more complex than this. It's not a function of just annual precipitation and other forms of water supply, but also the rate at which moisture leaves the system through evaporation and plant transpiration, or evapotranspiration. And what drives the expansion of aridity, then, is primarily drought. So it's not enough to say how much rain an area gets, is basically what I'm saying, but also what is the condition of the soil and the vegetation on the ground, which determines what happens to that water once it hits the Earth.
[30:09] This of course makes drought itself another complex process. Now the simplistic way of thinking about drought is that it's just a lack of rain, or maybe we depleted some aquifer, and from this you have crop failure, lack of drinking water, et cetera, blah blah blah. But when we experience the economic or social consequences of drought, we're really just feeling the end result of what is a very complex system that has likely been playing out for a very long time. For instance, you have something called meteorological drought, which plays out in the atmosphere and is driven primarily by climate change, and this is where over time you see the combination of decreased rainfall, higher temperatures, higher winds, increased evaporation, fewer clouds, et cetera. All these things adding up, which leads to a deficit of moisture in the soil, and this leads to both ecosystem drought and hydrological drought. And that means less plant growth, more crop failure, and then once that rain finally does hit the ground, because it's so dry and hard it quickly runs off the soil, doesn't get absorbed, doesn't add to the groundwater reserves, and the rivers that supply them all start to deplete. It's from this complex feedback that we then finally experience the economic fallout, accelerated as it is by unsustainable groundwater depletion, and agricultural runoff that gets down into that groundwater and pollutes it. Already, two-thirds of the entire global population regularly experiences extreme water scarcity from this complex system playing out in real time.
[31:30] Right, so let's look at, you know, just broadly, what are some of the very broad causes of this desertification. And we've kind of alluded to this already, but overgrazing is one. When we put too many animals on a particular land that cannot provide all the resources necessary to support that amount of animals, then the livestock depletes those resources, depletes the vegetation, which ends up depleting the water resources, and it can kick off this process. Deforestation is another big one.
[31:58] And one that I think is really interesting here and the cause is, Daniel, is actually a symptom of the other causes adding up to drought. And that's when poverty or severe famine hits, most of time caused by these droughts hitting and being, lasting for a while, intensifying it, but they can also themselves exacerbate this process, making it even worse for the people caught up in it. So, if you're in a famine situation, you're gonna do what you have to do to survive in that moment, and that often times mean making bad choices for long-term solutions, sacrificing that future wealth for just survival at the moment. This could mean pumping more water out of those ground water deposits, which might save you in the moment but will doom you in the future. This could be overgrazing fields, which exacerbates that soil being loosened up, causing dust storms and desertification, like we talked about earlier. All these things where you're sacrificing the future for the moment because you have no other choice, actually end up causing a cycle making this problem even worse.
[32:54] Another cause, if you read a bunch of stuff on desertification, David, you'll see a lot of people reference overpopulation. I mean, speaking of poverty and famine, a lot of the population growth in our world today is occurring in developing nations but, overpopulation in this context is really about consumption and urbanization. Because, as we'll talk about, these are the types of trends that really incentivize these changing land-use patterns that lead to land degradation. And all these causes play into larger feedback loops, right.
[33:26] Yeah, loss of vegetation loosens the soil, loose soil can be blown about, it covers up vegetation, or loss of vegetation means rainwater becomes runoff, further carrying sediment away. This prevents the absorption of water into the soil, or maybe soil gets drier, which makes it even harder for vegetation to grow. Salination sets in, that means nothing is gonna grow in that salty soil. Less moisture in the soil means less evaporation or transpiration, so the air is drier, that makes it rain less. And then, you know, natural disasters can become more dangerous because of this. The loose soil can cause flooding, lack of vegetation and soil microbes make pollution worse. All this stuff adds up together, to lead to poverty and famine, which, like we said, that encourages people to focus on these short-term things, which makes it all worse. It's this really powerful, dangerous death spiral, that once you're in it is really hard to escape. Because the main initial causes might be at least partially natural, we really exacerbate it immensely with the way that we live our lives. But a lot of it's because we don't have a choice. There's nowhere else to move, there's no some better valley just down the stream that we can head towards instead. We have no choice, we have to make these short-term sacrifices in order to survive, and that dooms us increasingly in the future.
[34:37] Well, we can certainly talk about the choices that we make on a global scale that lead to these problems. And, you know, it is important to point out, again, that this process of desertification that we're discussing is one of permanent and tragic loss, right.
[34:51] The natural world, without human intervention, it does experience drought and shifting sands, but these patterns go through cycles and where deserts form in the short-term, vegetation can come back. But I want to read from a landmark 1990 paper that was published in Science, and I'm calling it landmark here because apparently it's been cited in over 2,500 other papers, which is the most I've ever seen. But in this paper they examine the process of desert formation in southern New Mexico. The authors write, "Historical evidence indicates that natural climatic patterns produce cycles of drought, followed by periods of relatively higher rainfall. Losses of agricultural productivity and the associated social and economic disruptions during drought cannot be said to represent desertification, unless the landscape is so altered that a full recovery during relatively moist conditions is impossible. When long-term change in ecosystem function has been observed in arid lands, direct intervention by humans, rather than climate change, usually appears to be responsible, although there are exceptions." And this paper goes on to describe the process of long-term desertification on the local scale. And it's actually super fascinating, to me at least. So David, let me ask you a question: How do you think deserts form? Like, if you're just on the land somewhere and you're just, like, looking out at your field.
[36:15] I mean, how does it go from having all this vegetation to just being sand dunes that you can walk up with your boogie board and then slide down.
[36:26] Wait, if I'm just like living there and then now I have a boogie board?
[36:30] No, okay. No, visualize the boogie board, but the question is, like, what do you think is this process of, like, going from grass to nothing but sand. Like, what's going on beneath the hood, so to speak.
[36:44] Well, I mean, what I wouldn't have said in the past, before I have all this information in me now that I don't think I'm supposed to vomit out here, is it stops raining. You know, there's not much rain and now my forest dies, and then it becomes shrubs, and then those shrubs die, and next thing you know I've got sand dunes and I'm boogie boarding all day long.
[37:04] Close, David, close. I mean, it's all part of this complex system that really ultimately comes down to the soil, right? So, typically desertification occurs as a transition between semi-arid grassland regions, and arid deserts. And when you have grassland ecosystems, right, just picture fields of grass, well, in the soil there's moisture, there's organic and inorganic compounds, like nitrogen and other soil resources, and they all exist in this homogeneous distribution. They are uniformly and evenly spread throughout the soil. Because the roots of these grasses are pretty shallow, and because these grasses are uniform throughout, they consistently disperse all these resources. And so even for grasslands in which rainfall is intermittent, the grass species themselves will conduct photosynthesis in seasonal patterns to match the level of rainfall, so it's a very balanced ecosystem that's in tune with the inflow and outflow of resources. And so, when it does rain, pretty much all of that rainfall gets soaked up by the grass roots. There is very little runoff, and the moisture ends up distributed evenly along this thin upper layer of the soil, 'cause grass roots don't go that far. And that's where this process of mineralization, nitrogen fixation, takes place, where all these microorganisms live at the very, very fertile top layer of soil. Right, so everything is pretty stable, evenly spaced. But then you introduce something like livestock, and you don't manage that livestock properly, and you get something like overgrazing. So, not only in this instance do the animals eat up large patches of grass and leave the soil exposed, but they also trample the soil, right. Going back to Mongolia, how those camels kick up dust and that contributes to dust storm. All this trampling, and this removal of grass, prevents water from infiltrating that top layer of soil, right.
[39:01] And because of that, grass can no longer grow in these dead zones, for lack of a better phrase, and these soil resources that were once uniform across the landscape begin to concentrate in deep layers of the soil, which become known as islands of fertility. And that's when you have the invasion of shrubs, David! Right, you have these islands of fertility, the shrubs come in, they dominate these grass species, and they take advantage of these deep pools of concentrated resources, because their roots extend much further into the soil. But this only accelerates the process. Again, from this 1990 paper, "Shrub dominance leads to a further heterogeneity of soil properties because effective infiltration of rainfall is confined to the area under shrub canopies. Whereas, barren inter-shrub spaces generate overland flow, soil erosion by wind and water, and nutrient loss. The cycling of plant nutrients, largely controlled by biotic processes in any ecosystem, is progressively confined to the zone beneath shrubs."
[40:09] Who knew when we started this show, Daniel, that we'd spend so many episodes just talking about soil.
[40:14] Right. Yeah, we've lost all our listeners who are fans of air. Like, you don't talk about air enough, you only talk about soil.
[40:20] Okay, so I'll have to do an air pollution episode soon. They've got the CO2 episode in the meantime.
[40:24] True, true, true. And, so anyway, going back to shrubs, David, don't take us away from shrubs.
[40:30] It's all about the shrubbery.
[40:31] Right, this process, well, it literally changes the climate of the region. Now, David, you mentioned, you know, lack of rainfall leads to deserts. But really, the rainfall comes after this process, because now these shrubs come in, right, they transpire less moisture. And so not only does the soil start to dry out where there once was grass, but the air itself dries out. There is less moisture in the air, and that means less cloud formation, which means less precipitation. There's greater sunlight now, and that causes the surface temperature to rise. And so, it's really this really fascinating process where this overgrazing, for example, but there are other things that can cause this, agriculture, for example, I mean, the famous one is the Dust Bowl from the United States in the 1930s, where we didn't know how to farm correctly, we exposed the soil and the wind picked it all up, that's what's going on here. And it's really fascinating how just this simple human intervention, changing the soil, can totally alter the climate of a region. And this transition exacerbates the impacts of climate change because intermittent, predictable patterns of rain is now replaced by this episodic, extreme spectrum of events of rainfall and windstorms, which really destroys the soil and obviously puts nearby communities in danger.
[41:50] I'm sorry, listeners, as interesting as this soil and shrubbery talk is, going on, I am also at the current moment surrounded by parties. I've got the "Vivo" party on one side of me and "The Onion" party on the other side. 'Cause this is a big music conference, and so the bands just started playing a second ago. You can probably hear it in the background, bear with me, hopefully doesn't give us copyright takedown notices, we've already got enough fines to deal with there, but.
[42:16] Something about shrubs that just makes people want to party.
[42:19] Yeah, it's, I mean, that's why I'm here right now. Like, I was too excited so I had to go somewhere and burn some carbon dioxide to get here. But, that aside, you know this shrub paper, like you mentioned, Daniel, is such a big paper in talking about this process and revealing it. But, you know, this pattern is not just related to Southern New Mexico, and we see it playing out all over the world. I found another one that was talking about Patagonia and the same process in 2000, this paper was written. They called this the, this paper studies the above-ground net primary production, or the ANPP, of grasses and shrubs up here in Patagonia, which of course is the southernmost tip of South America. It's along Chile and Argentina, down there. It's a beautiful, amazing place that I desperately want to visit. And this is a quote from that paper: "In the Occidental District of the Patagonian steppe, grasses have a shallow root system concentrated above 30 cm in the soil, and absorb water mostly from this horizon. Shrubs concentrate most of their roots below 30 cm in the soil. Manipulative experiments in the same ecosystem demonstrated that shrubs absorb water exclusively from deeper layers, whereas grasses absorb mostly from the uppermost layers."
[43:32] But what's most important from this, and what you should take away, is that researchers showed how grasses and shrubs in the region respond differently to various levels of rainfall. And, importantly, in opposite ways. So, "Spring/summer precipitation had a high effect on grass, whereas fall/winter precipitation had a higher impact on shrub annual transpiration. This implies that the conditions maximizing the production of one functional group may not necessarily maximize production of the other. The response of one functional group may offset the response of the other." And so, what's important here to take away is that it's not just a matter of simple water comes down and it impacts this biomass on the land, and that of course impacts of soil, but specifically how the rain falls, when it falls, all this can be playing into effect, of what type of vegetation is found in this area, how successful it is. And that vegetation is a critical, key component in this process of desertification and the degradation of this land (as a rock guitar plays).
[44:28] Yeah, and it's really fascinating to me how, you know, again, I don't know why it fascinates me, but something that's so simple as just overgrazing can set this process of shrub invasion and climate change off. But I want to come back to overgrazing because it's worth expanding on. And as you know, David, a lot of our listeners have asked for a show specifically on meat. One person commented on our sugar episode from last week, saying, you know, why are you talking about Big Sugar, you should be talking about Big Meat, and.
[44:58] You're totally right, you're not wrong at all.
[45:01] Yeah, and we're gonna do a show on meat at some point, because it's true that the world population consumes way too much meat at this time, and that the growing demand for meat is accelerating way faster than we can possibly ever supply it. And this plays a big role in this process of global land degradation and desertification. And looking at the land use patterns around the world, I was really shocked, David, I thought I knew how destructive livestock was, but I just didn't realize the scale. And looking at the numbers it becomes a no-brainer. We have food insecurity for a huge proportion of the population, scientists are scrambling to figure out how to feed everybody, but I want you just to consider the amount of land that is taken up by livestock production. Okay, of the total habitable land on Earth, that's all the land that a human could possibly live on, 50% of it is taken up by agricultural production, which includes crop production and land to support livestock, okay. Of the total land that is set aside for agriculture, this 50% of all land, 77% of it is used exclusively for livestock production, including grazing land for livestock themselves, or crops that are grown for animal feed, alright. That's a huge amount of our agricultural land that goes to livestock. But, it goes further than this because out of this agricultural land, this 50% of all land in which only 23% is used to actually grow crops for human consumption, where does the bulk of our global calories and protein supply come from? You might be tempted to say meat, but, in fact, that livestock production only supplies 17% of global calories and 33% of protein. I mean, so this is really profound. If you're a visual person, we've put up some graphs on the web page for this episode, that show this relationship, and I encourage you to check it out. What it means, if we could shuffle all these different land types around on a map, livestock land would cover all of North America, Central America, and South America - that's the entire Eastern Hemisphere. Cropland would cover just China and the Southeast Asian peninsula. And this land use is to support the built environment of cities and modern infrastructure that would take up an area the size of Libya.
[47:19] I mean, this shouldn't be a complete surprise to the listeners of this show because we’ve spent a ton of time talking about the destruction that is industrial agriculture.
[47:29] Right, but it's really mind-blowing that, I mean, we have all this industrial agriculture, but most of it is competing with the vastly far superior size of land that we set aside for livestock, right. And it makes you wonder, David, like, part of the reason for all this intensive industrial agriculture that we discuss on this show, that's destroying the planet, a lot of this intensive agriculture takes place because we have to squeeze bigger yields out of a dwindling source of arable land. And we're not even using all of our arable land for this crop production. We're using most of it just to raise cattle, right. If we reduced our demand for meat, we could free up land for more sustainable agricultural methods, while still enjoying the same, or even greater, total food availability, because we're getting so many of our calories from crops, but we use such a small part of our arable land for those crops.
[48:20] Well, I mean, remember too, Daniel, a lot of this is just to support the modern city lifestyle. And cities themselves, even though they have small physical footprints, have huge impacts on the greater land use of the entire world when collected together. 'Cause it's concentrations of people, and people need supplies, and those supplies have to be produced somewhere. So let's look at some patterns of these cities, the processes that create them, and the effects they have elsewhere, real quick. And I think that this story about cities is how dramatically we've moved into them over the past few years. So, only 10% of the global population worldwide lived in cities in 1900. But that number today, you want to guess, Daniel? 'Cause it's literally crazy.
[49:02] 10% in 1990
[49:05] In 1900
[49:06] In 1900, we've, like, quadrupled by 10 times the global population, so we're probably at, like, 40, 50%.
[49:14] No. But, I mean, I think that's a very reasonable guess. If you had said 50%, I would have been, like, yeah that sounds good, but it's actually 85% of all humans are right now living in a city somewhere. That's staggering. And this trend, of course, exacerbates all the land degradation that is caused by these cities.
[49:34] The reason for that is because everyone who doesn't live in a city, the World Bank says that they live in abject poverty, and they feel embarrassed about that, so they move to cities.
[49:45] Yeah, it's a World Bank peer pressure cause and effect. But, I mean, cities are very energy intensive. A city might be a small concentration of area, just in terms of the actual size that we draw up on the map, but they require 200 times the land area they occupy, to meet their food, energy, and material resource demands. And that together accounts for over 70% of all current global greenhouse gas emissions. And, of course, all that concrete, well that prevents moisture from penetrating the soil, it can lead to floods, and polluted runoff. And this naturally is contributing to land degradation, habitat loss, and it further encourages the growth of transportation, to feed this city from all of the areas they need to get it. And that infrastructure has the same problem of this, but spread out even farther. And so, this means as more and more land is put to work supporting these giant cities, these natural habitats, the forests, the pastures, the wetlands, all these have to be ultimately converted to some sort of industrial productive land that can ultimately be used to support this city living. This means ecosystems get fragmented, a wetland might get cut in half by a road or a bridge, habitats are lost. The ecosystems that we discuss in "Irreplaceable" go away. And what we're left with are sectioned-off, divided, very artificial monocrop systems. These unmoving pens of grazing animals, that are there solely to meet meat consumption, that in this process destroy all the grass necessary to prevent that desertification we're talking about. This means we need people to work in these hog farms in areas, whatever they are, and that means we have to build residential housing to support them, more roads, more plumbing, all this additional infrastructure. And that has the same problem, we're in another death spiral here. This urbanization puts increased pressure on the agricultural land that we might have once considered high quality and productive. But as more and more of this, what we would have considered once high quality and productive land, is set aside to support this city way of living, to support these massively growing population numbers, we have to work what little land we have much harder.
[51:48] And that usually means less sustainably. And we've talked about the destruction this industrial agriculture can cause when it's not done in a sustainable way, in Episode 52 "Killing Fields" and also in earlier episodes, Episode 16 "What We Reap," things like that. All of this is making sure we have those short-term yields, the short-term success that we need to survive in the moment, by sacrificing the long-term health of all the soil through this over intensive extraction, and ultimately destruction.
[52:15] It's also important to point out that infrastructure does not scale at a one-to-one ratio with human population growth, and this is a concept we outlined in Episode 5 "End of the Road." The more we spread out through these road networks or through suburban sprawl, the more infrastructure that must be built per capita. An, you know, example that we brought up in the episode which I think about a lot is, the city of Lafayette in Louisiana, right. There were 5 feet of water pipe per person in 1945 but by 2015 there were over 56 feet of pipe per person, a tenfold increase in infrastructure with only threefold increase in population. This trend occurs with the totality of our development and is happening worldwide. In the past 40 years, global population has increased by a factor of 1.8, whereas the built environment has expanded by 2.5.
[53:08] The main point that we're trying to get across here is that human development impacts the Earth. And this often times unfortunately leads to land degradation. And it's not enough to say that we shouldn't build cities and infrastructure to support human life because that, of course, isn't gonna do anything. And besides, a lot of the things we build are actually good, they improve our quality of life, they connect people to one another. It's just that we go about them in the most unsustainable and wanton fashion possible. And I think that questioning this process is worth exploring. Not that we build things, necessarily, but asking why do we have to build them to excess? Why do we have such unsustainable scales, and what would need to happen to shift this pattern? For that, and, I mean, I always hate to say this phrase, but maybe we need to look at the economic incentives that are at play here. And so this next passage is from the 2018 World Atlas of Desertification which is a massive, unbelievable tome on this topic, we'll link to it, if you're really interested in it you should check it out, but it goes as such:
[54:12] "The geographic connectedness of any point on Earth to all others is a useful indicator of its current economic standing, and a predictor of future economic opportunity. The construction of roads and railways is one of the more widespread ways the natural landscape has been modified. Among their many impacts, roads lead to the destruction of natural vegetation, fragmentation of habitats, obstruction of animal migratory routes, the spread of exotic species, disruption of flows of rivers, alterations of natural biogeochemical cycles, and increased accessibility by humans. Furthermore, increased human accessibility leads to an expansion of the agricultural frontier, especially in developing countries, since the obstacles to, or the cost of, marketing commodities grown in remote areas significantly decreases. Accompanying this expansion of agricultural frontiers is the far larger infrastructure footprint when immigrants settle to take advantage of cheap land and new economic opportunities."
[55:15] I think the key concept there, David, is how connectedness is important for economic growth and opportunity, you know, under the current economic paradigm, that is. And this development begins with our transportation networks. Our ability to get from A to B to Z quickly and efficiently is what incentivizes the construction of commercial, agricultural, industrial, and residential zones along the way, resulting in this exponential crowding-out effect on the natural world. Now that we have a global economy built on the assumption of growth through extraction, connectedness means access to resources, access to markets, and access to labor. We discussed in Episode 37 "Logistics of Slavery," how logistics is itself reshaping the world, subverting political borders, and remaking space in terms of the efficiency of moving goods. And when the world is envisioned in this way, it does not make any sense to leave part of the earth untouched. You know, why leave a forest the way it is when you can convert that forest to a lumber commodity, connect it with an international trade route, and then sell it for profit to European home buyers. Why leave a productive carbon sequestering and biodiverse grassland halfway around the world alone, when you can convert that grass to fuel for livestock, process the meat, and put it on a newly developed rail car bound for a regional city, for sale to high end restaurants. Never mind that those railway tracks will lead to eventual mega wildfires like the ones we talk about in Episode 12 "Up in Smoke." Never mind that those animals will loosen the soil for wind erosion, leading to the encroachment of desert, and the type of particulate air pollution of the kind we discuss in Episode 38 "Dead Air." As long as this global economy is premised on this, you know, connecting every part of it to market so that we can easily exploit labor and extraction, we're always going to be encouraging more development, more crowding out of natural habitat. And like we said in the introduction, we honestly don't even care. We don't care that 4,000 villages have been swallowed up by the Gobi Desert. We don't care that, you know, societies collapse in Latin America from poverty because of our actions. Because we can always - until we can't - shift our supply chains around and just pull resources from somewhere else.
[57:53] Damn, Daniel, that's pessimistic. Keep going, sorry.
[57:58] So as we move into this final section of the episode, the what can we do, I think that's important to keep in mind that, yes we can implement local solutions and things to protect the land. But ultimately, as long as we support a global economy that thinks it's okay to treat the natural world as a source of commodities, and this source of extraction, this land degradation will continue unabated until the sands swallow us all up.
[58:32] Sands of time. What was that quote that we mentioned way early on in this show, Daniel, where we were talking about farming and agriculture and stuff? But the fact that modern civilization exists, and everything we have we owe to the fact that there's 30 cm of good topsoil, and the fact that it rains. And we're doing our best to take out both of those things as quickly as possible, because that is the infinite wisdom of our overconsumption. But at least we have it in the moment, our short-term thinking is definitely got us some nice little pleasures in the meantime, until it all falls apart. So, I think that's a good point to bring to us, the end of this show. Our perennial, our weekly question of what can we do and what should we do?
[59:19] And fortunately, there's a lot of things that can be done. Not for most of us, probably, because we're not out there farming, we're not on the edges of these areas that are degrading quickly in their land, though our actions definitely are exacerbating them, and I'll get to that in a moment. But if I'm, you know, in one of these places, there are tons of things that can be done, and are being done, all around the world to help fight this process. So in India right now they're building short stone walls and terraces that are meant to help prevent soil erosion and improve water retention. In Mount Kenya they have micro basins that are capturing rainwater, and trying to avoid exposing the soil through the use of mulch and cover crops, to help retain that important soil moisture. Some people are planting desert grass in square patterns bordered by straw. This process has enabled communities within the Gobi Desert to actually fight back some of this encroaching sand, while still making use of the land.
[1:00:11] Careful land management along the banks of the Meta River in South America has helped retain soil and protect water resources downstream. In East Africa, the protection of forests along semi-arid rivers helps to regulate stream flow and maintain healthy springs for both human use and wildlife preservation. And in Haiti, small homesteads have reduced the impact of hurricanes through reforesting their areas, and growing gardens along sloping hillsides. And even on this show we've had Chris on here explaining his permaculture processes, how important it is to make sure that soil is never exposed, to mulch it, to cover it, to retain that moisture in it and prevent it from being blown away. Because as long as you're taking care of your soil, not leaving it exposed to be cooked and dried out by the sun, to lead to those Dust Bowl activities that is so often the case, and in result of this monocrop industrial-scale agriculture, well, then you're being a good steward of the land, and we're not gonna have these problems popping up. So, I mean, Chris right now is in the Philippines or Malaysia, or where is he?
[1:01:09] The Philippines.
[1:01:10] Helping to spread some of these responsible, sustainable practices to farmers there, teaching them how important soil health is. Which is really exciting, we're excited for you Chris. I don't know if you're still listening, hopefully you are.
[1:01:22] I'm super angry at Chris actually.
[1:01:24] Why's that?
[1:01:26] 'Cause he didn't take me! And I see these pictures of him, like, literally like, living on this island, the beach is right there, and he's, you know, growing all these, you know, the sun is shining, and he's growing these trees, and I'm just sitting here in this, I'm surrounded by drywall and I'm speaking into a computer.
[1:01:43] Yeah, well you can go to the Philippines. I'll go to the Northern Marianas and we'll report from paradise instead. "Ashes Ashes from Paradise," it can be our next series.
[1:01:55] And then the seas will rise, and paradise will be over.
[1:01:57] And we'd drown.
[1:01:59] You know, those are great examples, David, that you outline of, like, local solutions. And, you know, ultimately we're not farmers. And even expert farmers can't really, you know, recommend without truly understanding the local place that they're recommending solutions to. This is something that Wendell Berry wrote about extensively, about the ones who are best able to implement local solutions, are local people who have intimate knowledge of the land that they stand on. And, I think, what is our contribution to this problem? I think it's supporting those people in any way we can, whether that's buying, you know, our groceries locally, supporting local farmers. But also broadly, you know, when we consider politics, you know, do we support policies that enhance this kind of imperial, abroad, exploitation of countries, you know, converting their lands into these monocrop export systems for us back home. Or are we willing to sacrifice a little bit of our own national economic hegemony for the self-sufficiency of people around the world? You know, those are things, and, again, a lot of these topics they're so interconnected, we talk a lot about what can we do. There's two concepts, I think, I would want to emphasize here. And that's number one, again, coming back to land ownership. This is so weird to me, that we don't actually think about land ownership in this larger context where, especially here in America, you know, property rights reign supreme, and if you own a land, you know, you own a house, and you have a yard, you can basically do whatever you want. You know, you can move into a house, you can cut down all the trees, it doesn't matter. And okay, fine, whatever, but when it comes to agriculture, I think this is something we should question. Again, if the small farmers are the future of not just food security but, you know, protecting and being stewards of the land, you know, maybe we should question what we allow in that domain. And, I mean, does it make sense to permit absentee owners to own the most arable land that we have, and live halfway around the world while it's not being farmed.
[1:04:07] If food security is truly going to be a matter of life and death, as it already is for people all over the world, should we consider the productive working of that land to be something of, you know, national security? And if it is, why do we permit these large companies, or these absentee owners, from using it unsustainably? Why do we allow people to just destroy the soil upon which our future depends? And extending from that is, I think, our concept of poverty, which really needs a transformation, right? I alluded to this earlier, about how we view people in poverty. And so much of this destruction of our land occurs because of the economic incentives to do so. And I think there's a great irony in that we still classify farmers and subsistence communities around the world as living in states of poverty. It really drives me crazy. I was watching a documentary about desertification around the world, David, and the camera went to this one woman, I think she was in Mongolia, she was tending to a herd of goats, and the narrator says, "This is the state of abject poverty." And it really annoys me because what are we basing that on? This woman has her needs met.
[1:05:22] She has a herd of animals, she has food for herself and her family, she lives in a community. But for some reason because she doesn't have a Chase credit card she's somehow living in poverty? This overemphasis on accumulating fiat money is in part what drives consumerism, encouraging people to give up sustainable modest lifestyles for urban ones.
[1:05:43] That urban development that 85% of us now live in, which is, you know, requires this 200 times extra land just to support. And going back to these small farmers, as it relates to this, when we had Ian McSweeney on here in Episode 26 "Barriers to Growth," one of the major issues that he pointed out, to preserving small farmers in the United States, is that fewer and fewer young people actually want to do it. So retiring farmers who have held onto land for generations have no one to pass it on to, and are forced to sell out to these large destructive companies. But why would young people want to farm them? Why would they want to stay on the land when we as a society keep telling them that the only way to value yourself is by the size of your consumption, the car you drive, the accounting job that you can get.
[1:06:32] Because we don't value contribution to community and the land, right? And this kind of goes back to an earlier episode where we talked about, oh yeah, it was the "Bullshit Jobs" episode, right, where we talked about if we could provide for people's basic needs, and decouple the need to make a wage with our value in society, it would free us up to actually care about these values, beyond just mindless consumption. And one of our listeners, Nick, reached out to us. He's part of a community here in the United States, in Colorado, that is, you know, recognizes this threat of climate change, and land degradation, and all these associated topics that we've discussed. And they're trying to come up with a plan to move forward in the face of that, in a better way. And so Nick provided us with a summary of the project that his city is trying to implement. And I want to read that here now, as an example of communities that are actively going forward in the face of this and looking for positive action to take.
[1:07:33] "Times of uncertainty are times for making wagers. Our wager is that in a small city with no traditional economic hopes, we have the freedom to put the crises of our time front-and-center. Maybe, just maybe, saving the city can be a step toward saving the world. Our plan is called the Carbondale Spring, and it is composed of four initiatives. In the face of an unsustainable food system, we are going to build an urban food system within the city itself, to provide a safety net of healthy food that can allow us to weather any disruptions in the current food system. In the face of a shredded social safety net that leaves people without homes, without treatment, and without someone to really listen to them, we are going to build a team of care workers to meet people who are suffering the many effects of poverty with compassion and with resources, rather than with the threat of isolation and incarceration. In the face of climate change, we are going to build a renewable energy fund to pay to put up solar panels and other clean energy projects on people's homes, businesses, and city buildings. And in the face of closing businesses throughout the town, we are going to build a cooperative business fund that will provide funds and consultation to transition those businesses into worker-owned cooperatives.
[1:08:52] We plan to fund all these initiatives by reducing the Carbondale Police budget to a size that is in line with the national average. Currently, our city spends double the national average on police. In the two weeks since the Carbondale Spring has been published it has swept the town. It seems to have given a concrete vision to something that had already operated as a public secret, something many people had privately imagined but thought was impossible to really want. In a sense, it has given a whole lot of people permission to admit what they want. A group of healthcare and social workers have already self-organized to discuss how to develop the proposal around care workers. A group of permaculturists and sustainable food systems folk have already begun to discuss a plan for food autonomy. It's taking off and we're very excited. There are going to be obstacles, of course. While there are a few people running for our local elections at the moment who have endorsed the plan, it's possible they won't get elected.
[1:09:52] It's also possible that if they do, people will put their hopes in them, and lose the initiative that is needed to carry this through. We've been very clear that no matter who is elected, we are going to develop these initiatives, campaign for them, and implement them as far as we can. The cracks in civilization, cracks that listeners to Ashes Ashes are familiar with, too often appear as overwhelming abstractions, as things happening everywhere, such that no individual place seems relevant in relation to them. This problem mirrors a larger problem of the relation to place, that has been developed in the last few decades. As people have left their hometowns, blown around by the demands of money, too many of us have come to see ourselves as just passing through, wherever we are. This superficial relation to place makes it hard to commit to defending any individual place. If it gets too bad we just move away. This is an existential recipe for ecological collapse. Our wager is, if we want to fight back against the wave of world destruction, we have to dig in and transform where we live". Thank you for that, Nick. If you want to find more about that initiative you can go to Carbondalespring.org. We wish the best for your community and hope you'll keep us updated on any progress.
[1:11:12] As always, that's a lot to think about. But think about it we hope you will. You can read more about all of these topics, you can see those charts, you can see the photos of those dust storms, or find a link to that huge paper that we mentioned, as well as read a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.
[1:11:31] A lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible, and we will never use advertising to support this show. So if you like it, would like us to keep going, you our listener can support us by giving us a review, recommending us to a friend, and giving us some support at patreon.com/ashesashescast. We really appreciate it. Also, you can send us an email at contact@ashes ashes.org.
[1:11:59] We are also on all your favorite social media networks at ashesashescast, and we have a great online chat community via Discord, that you can find a link to on our website. If you go to the website, navigate to the top, you'll see something that says "Community." Drop down from that and you'll find a link to be invited to our Discord server. There's lots of great people on there, we hope you can come join us and hang out. Next week we have a show we don't know about. Next week we've got another great episode, so we hope you'll tune in for that, but until then this is Ashes Ashes.
[1:12:28] Bye Bye.