Greening the desert

By lambert strether

I should have put this up yesterday, but Memorial Day is the day to plant in Maine, so I was outside gardening, instead of inside, meta-gardening. So herewith, the famous “Greening the Desert” permaculture video with some discussion and links. (The video is from Geoff Lawton, who you may remember from a beautiful video about edible forests here a few months ago.)

From the editor of the video at the Permaculture Institute:

When there’s no soil, no water, no shade, and where the sun beats down on you to the tune of over 50°C (122°F), the word ‘poverty’ begins to take on a whole new meaning. It is distinct and surreal. It’s a land of dust, flies, intense heat and almost complete dependency on supply lines outside of ones control. This is the remains of what was once called the ‘fertile crescent’. It is the result of thousands of years of abuse. It is a glimpse at a world where the environment – whose services provide for all human need – has all but completely abandoned us. This is a glimpse at the world our consumer society is inexorably moving towards, as our exponential-growth culture gorges itself at ever-increasing rates. … The work profiled in that clip demonstrates that humanity can be a positive element within the biosphere. Man doesn’t have to destroy. Man can repair.

Through this work we see desertification stopped in its tracks, and reversed. We see this century’s dire water issues getting resolved. We see productive work for millions in bypassing the irrelevant efforts of our ‘leaders’, to instead build a new kind of culture – a culture based on cooperative effort and learning. It’s a culture where its members have regained a sense of their place in creation, where they become land-based stewards of remaining resources; creating a culture where we at last find ultimate satisfaction – promoting and building peace and low-carbon, relocalised, community-based prosperity.

Maybe. Then again, a secular version of Pascal’s wager might impel us to invest in a vision like this. And although people do back-slide — burning organic matter, for example, instead of composting it, or running drip-lines uphill — it seems to me that if there were enough sites like the single site in the video, they would begin to reinforce each other. Especially since these systems seem reasonably robust, despite human folly:

[T]he Greening the Desert site has received no serious funding or management for 6 years, and yet a number of the plants seem to be thriving. Better yet, soil seems to be replenishing itself through the system of swales—a form of rain harvesting trench—that the original team put in. Impressive stuff

Efforts like this make me think that worries about feeding the world might be completely misplaced. If we haven’t greened the desert, have we even really tried?

NOTE I wonder, given the impending water shortage in the American Southwest — or, rather, its reversion to a more natural pattern (here, here, and here) — if there are similar efforts taking place in that environment. Readers?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Not in the sense that a corporate hierarchy does, no. In the sense that “small pieces loosely joined” do, I hope and believe so. In a way, it’s the distinction between horticulture and agriculture. You don’t have giant granaries. If a lot of people end up doing horticulture, it scales. Also, too, they get to eat.

    2. Austin Fletcher

      Permaculture scales perfectly. The design methodology that produces a productive back garden can be used to run a 20,000 acre farm. The design principles are identical, the deployment is dependent on analysis of the particular environment.

      One basic Permaculture principle is paying attention to ‘succession and evolution.’ In other words looking at the history of your particular bioregion/ecosytem and where it’s headed in terms of a likely range of ‘climax species’. Design with this natural flow and not against it, substituting your own climax species at the right time.

    3. Doug Terpstra

      Ah, but the key question is, “can one still suck on the taxpayer teat and then export sufficient quanitities of subsidized commodities via SHAFTA to evict campesinos from their ejidos?” If the answer is yes then it is a viable free market model. If not, then it’s a dangerous, utopian commie plot that must be “discouraged”.

    4. different clue

      Permaculture as-such may not scale but it can certainly spread. A hundred thousand people each doing their own little permaculture is quite a lot of permaculture. It is also enough wide-spread far-scattered good examples that it might inspire a million more people to do a million more permacultures. And then many millions more people doing many millions more permacultures after that.

      As to scaling a single permaculture effort under a single management or management team, partial versions of that might be seen in Dick Yeoman’s Keyline Agriculture concept and his descendants’s work and consulting on Keyline Agriculture. Yeamans wrote a book about it called Water For Every Farm. He also invented a subsoil-water-infiltrogenic farm implement called a Yeomans Plow I believe. I can’t offer any links from this sad little public library computer.

      Perhaps a combination of broadscale keylining among cooperating landowners and/or land-managers could adapt a landscape for hundreds of separate permaculture efforts on that keylined landscape. That would allow for spreading AND scaling.

  1. brazza

    Loved this post! You do well to occasionally shift our hypnotized focus from the abstracted mirage of finance and economics, to stuff that actually matters.

      1. brazza

        only for as long as we deem it to be so … and only in relative terms. I need food, shelter and sex – everything else just feeds the matrix :-)

  2. Austin Fletcher

    I’ve been involved in Permaculture projects in the UK and Europe for some time. Water shortage is not usually a major problem. I would guess that for areas like the American Southwest two key components are required to ‘green the desert.’
    1. Swales – built on contour swales will slowly push a lens of water under dessicated land. It’s a slow process, but it works over time.
    2. The keyline system. For pastoral land the keyline system, developed by Australian Tim Yeoman, is probably the answer. It’s too detailed to go into here, but interested readers can simply Google to find more.

  3. Sean brennan

    If you like this sort of thing, go out to Where they talk about geoff lawton, growing food without using irrigation nor any chemicals at all,and how to do it in all types of climates,all the time.

    1. Lidia

      LOL! I was just listening to one of wheaton’s podcasts, a guilty-trippy “I’m doing this all on my own and I need to reach 5 million -I mean 50 million- people to tell them about Hügelculture!!” And when I saw lambert’s post: ding! here’s my chance!

      So, here’s a link to Hügelculture:

      It really is pretty cool.

  4. Romeo Fayette

    While I support the impetus behind “Greening the Desert,” I’m curious what the consequences of coaxing a change in an ecosystem may be. Greening a desert may serve to dislocate something locally or even globally by some butterfly-effect-like property, no?

    1. Austin Fletcher

      Many deserts aren’t natural ecosystem, they’re the end result of human activity destroying an ecosystem. The destruction of the western zone of the ‘fertile crescent,’ (once home to most of the ‘founder crops’ now used throughout the world), is a case in point. Human activity: draining acquifers;, de-forestation and soil erosion; over heard irrigation causing salination, monocultural techniques, etc, have produced a wasteland that we call a ‘desert,’ a place which has been ‘deserted’ by life.

  5. Norman

    A timely video. The California aquifer system in the central vally and high plains is being depleated by the pumping of the groundwater, which is unsustainable at the rates being used. Perhaps in this country, until it resembles that of the middle east, the fools running the show wont invest the money, effort, education to create what is easily implemented.

  6. Paul Tioxon

    Since the ecology movement of post WWII, the overall recommendations to build our communities based on principles of sustainable development as opposed to numerical growth measures in $, there have been many bold, but small attempts to demonstrate the economic viability of what is now call a green economy. Israel was founded with the communal kibutz system, long since passe, which brought back many desert acres under a then, new found drip agricultural practices. In urban areas, passive solar design showed housing could be constructed without central heating systems, aka oil or natural gas or electric heating. In 1984, a whole block of rowhomes in North Philadelphia was constructed using passive solar design. 10 years later, in the Jul/Aug 1995 issue of SOLAR TODAY magazine did an analysis of the specs. The homes used 63% less energy than a comparable home of 1280sq ft. The elimination of indoor combustible heat sources combined with the inevitable transition to all electric powered cars will wipe out most respiratory diseases in such a way as vaccines wiped out polio. The extra money spent on fossil fuels can be recirculated into the local economy on food, clothing, education instead of exporting the $BILLION/day, and growing to OPEC and many more dollars to hospitalization and prescriptions.

    In the seminal work, “DESIGN WITH NATURE” BY IAN MCHARG, the simple and rational uses of land as appropriately determined by informed principles of sustainability and renewable resources, replacing unlimited geometric growth, demonstrated a clear path to a civilized civilization. Civilized not only towards one another but to a natural environment that not only sustains us, but which we are a part of. Unlimited growth is a mechanical and closed system that can not change, it can not learn, it can not adapt. Unlimited growth has its cogs and gears forged into a perpetual nature that only stops when it runs out of energy. It won’t change itself to survive, it only changes everything and everyone else around it so it can feed. Until there is nothing left around for it to feed on.

    While any rapid impact will have to wait for the full force and credit of government policies to take effect, much more activity is going on than ever before. Of course, there is long standing political opposition. Much of the solar electric industry was destroyed by being bought up by the oil industry decades ago and put on the shelf. But now, with Detroit decoupled from big oil, the electric car will begin to take over the commuter transit needs in the coming years. Agriculture is also changing for the better with greater public understanding of the pitfalls of factory farming: toxic chemical soaked produce and disease ridden meat processing. I am very optimistic that changes are well underway, and institutionalized to be transmitted from the living memory of activists from the 1960’s.

    Here is a sample of greening the desert in the mighty city of Detroit by the survivors of deindustrialization, drones couldn’t have done a better job of doing that city in. Liberated Stalingrad lost fewer people.

    1. Lidia

      “Unlimited growth has its cogs and gears forged into a perpetual nature that only stops when it runs out of energy. It won’t change itself to survive, it only changes everything and everyone else around it so it can feed. Until there is nothing left around for it to feed on.”

      This can’t be emphasized enough. Our current industrial systems and -almost more important- our debt-based monetary system is Incompatible with Life Itself.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      The work in Detroit is awesome and oddly, or not, it isn’t part of the narrative of “the news” at all.

      I’d be very interested in any more links to the Detroit efforts.

  7. René


    “I had an interesting conversation with the local community in the Taita Hills, Kenya. Whilst standing in one of the ‘erosion gullies’. I asked them what their biggest problem was? They answered: The lack of water. So I asked them: What do you think caused this ‘erosion gully’? For a moment they all turned quiet. Until the smarter ones started to laugh, and answered: ‘that’s caused by the water’.

    So I told them: ‘The problem is not lack of water… but the fact that the water cannot infiltrate the soil anymore’.

    Peter Westerveld’s movie “Climate Engineering”

    Basically, when the water falls in arid regions it immediately flows off to the lower lying areas and into the river and subsequently into the sea taking lots of fertile land with it. Because when it rains in those arid areas, it tends to rain cats and dogs.

    Peter Westerveld put forward the idea of using the military for assisting in digging the trenches in arid/desert areas so that the rainfall can be stored in those trenches and agriculture can be made possible.

  8. Susan the other

    Our contradiction is capitalism v sustainability. They are somewhat incompatible. To build sustainability, such as perma culture agriculture, Geoff starts at the foundation; Monsanto starts at the dna to create plants that grow in toxic, patented desolation (just don’t eat them, OK). Swales are the very geometry of the thing. Never heard of nitrogen fixing trees before, or as he called them, legume trees. Very good information.

    The Desert Southwest could certainly do this. The driest states are Nevada with 12″ of rainfall annually and Utah with 13″. Arizona and New Mexico get some monsoonal weather. Farming a new variety of plants would put a serious hitch in industrial agriculture and genetic modification. And if we stopped eating so much corn and wheat we would all be healthier.

  9. Lidia

    “They are somewhat incompatible.” No, they are entirely incompatible. I liked the rest of your comment, though, and I’m curious to see what the corporate-government response will be if/when this starts to threaten agribiz profits.

  10. Aquifer

    In a sane country – this “transfer of technology” would be the basis of our foreign policy. Help each region feed and clothe itself on its own land with its own resources – use our “troops” to culture and not kill, let them be real heroes – help start the process, teach, and then LEAVE. Let our drones drop compost and not missiles – let life not death rain from the skies and we will be amazed at how much more peaceful and secure we would all be.

    He’s right – all our problems could be solved in a garden, where we began …

    This could be be done, you know – it is not “utopian”, it is doable, all it lacks is the political will. It is up to us to demonstrate that will ….

    1. brazza

      We have to be willing to go back to the horse and cart if needed. We may not have to do it, but we must be willing to do so in order to make decisions that will start being aligned with some sustainable strategy, and respect values of community and common decency. While we covet the next gadget, polka-dot tie, or slimming cream … we’ll feed the system on that drives us over the edge. Consumerism is what feeds the greed. How many products and services are on the market that serve NO real purpose except to fill someone’s coffers? I’d venture 90-95%. Am I the only one that cheers every drop in GDP? Capitalism won, bully for it! The faster this Frankenstein monster collapses the better. The longer it drives decisions, the greater the desert areas we as a race will eventually need to painstakingly allow nature to reclaim.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      That comment on what our foreign policy could be is important and should be returned to. One or two F-35s would probably green a continent.

      But we condense our wealth into killing machines instead of gardens. Why?

      1. René

        Please ask the transnational revolutionary oligarchy!

        There will meet this coming Friday in Chantilly, Viriginia.

  11. Klassy!

    Would this be useful in much of the southwest (and actually much of the the Plains States)? I’m no expert, but it seems like these areas were never fit for permanent settlement by humans– didn’t stop us though! I was really surprised to read in Cadillac Desert that even places such as Nebraska and Kansas were never really fit for farming! It appears that this was more a triumph of marketing by land speculators and the railroads.
    The video sure made my water conservation efforts seem pretty pathetic.
    Thanks for these links.

    1. Susan the other

      Well, yes. Permaculture is what existed before the push West. And after all the abuse, it could exist again.

    2. albrt

      Phoenix was one of the largest population centers in North America prior to about 1450. Of course, those folks also appear to have over-intensified.

  12. timar

    The challenge is the “tragedy of the commons”, whereby a productive ecosystem is looted by individuals for short term gain- trees cut for wood, farm the newly productive soil for 1-2 crop generations and then abandon the increasingly unproductive land. I would posit that this is what led to the desertification in the first place.

    Permaculture on a large scale would require ongoing community support and political stability to prevent looting/destruction and eventually redesertification. Perhaps in a virtuous cycle the permaculture helps foster these qualities.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I’d say that the “tragedy of the commons” is deeply bogus as a concept (as it must be, if your second paragraph is to “come true.”) If we think about the history of “the commons,” the idea began as the enclosure movement in England took off (so landowners could, IIRC, graze sheep in the pastures they enclosed, in a form of “primitive accumulation,” by putting fences around). If the commons were destroyed after that, it was because they had become “ecological islands” that were too small and insuffuciently complexified to sustain the demands put on them. Before the enclosures, “the commons” had done fine for many centuries; in fact, when everything was the commons, there probably wasn’t even a word for such a thing. I am in a rush, so can only provide only a few references, but see here:

      Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved.

      and especially the work of Elinor Ostrum:

      The 2009 Nobel Prize for economics is a useful reminder of how easy it is for scientists to go wrong, especially when their mistake jibes with popular beliefs or political agendas.

      Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University shared the prize for her research into the management of “commons,” which has been a buzzword among ecologists since Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” His fable about a common pasture that is ruined by overgrazing became one of the most-quoted articles ever published by that journal, and it served as a fundamental rationale for the expansion of national and international regulation of the environment. His fable was a useful illustration of a genuine public-policy problem — how do you manage a resource that doesn’t belong to anyone? — but there were a couple of big problems with the essay and its application.

      Dr. Hardin and his disciples had failed to appreciate how often the tragedy of the commons had been averted thanks to ingenious local institutions and customs. Dr. Ostrom won the Nobel for her work analyzing those local institutions.

      So, I’d replace “the tragedy of the commons” with “the black farce of neo-liberalism” in your thinking…

      1. timar

        Perhaps I don’t have the full appreciation for the debate surrounding “tragedy of commons”, I am intrigued and will read further on that topic.

        I do believe, however, that a delicate ecosystem that can be exploited and destroyed by an individual for short term gain is at risk without strong structural support from the underlying society. Witness the destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

        1. Klassy!

          Well, as he mentioned above it would be useful to study the history of the enclosure movement.

          1. Klassy!

            Oh hell. I just read my comment. It comes across as snotty. That was not my intention!

  13. patricia

    Sometimes the constant dreadful news makes me dry and powdery as that soil. Seeing a desert patch being restored to complexity and life suggests that I too can be restorative even with the small amount left at hand.

    Thanks for the inspiration, Lambert!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      That is what “the news” is intended to do, turn you dry and powdery (and easy to blow away). Feature, not bug. Turning off your teebee to titrate your dosage of the toxicity is very important.

      1. patricia

        Yah. No teebee here, though. News is harsh these days whether propaganda or semi-accurate. I get blown away merely from reading sewious online sites. (And from being forced horizontal due to health.)

        Accept it, your post simply brightened my way :-}

  14. different clue

    There is a company or group called Groasis designing tiny little dewcatchers for watering and anchoring one tree at a time in desertified areas. Again, no link possible from this sad little computer.

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