Prof. Diana K. Davis, a geographer and veterinarian in the History Department at the University of California, Davis, has written an intriguing account about deserts and dry lands, which cover 40-45% of the earth and support about 38% of its population. Deserts come in several varieties: 1) hot and dry, 2) foggy, 3) cold/frigid, and 4) marine; Davis examines the torrid, arid ones. These are, in fact, ecologically dynamic zones due to quantities and variability of rainfall.
Davis relies on her own fieldwork among peoples in southern Morocco, southeastern Afghanistan, and Baluchistan; she also draws more broadly on extensive publications that focus on other desert and dry land regions and their inhabitants around the world and through time. The book, written for specialists, comprises a list of illustrations, a forward, a preface, a list of abbreviations, six chapters, extensive endnotes, and an index.
Davis traces the history of attitudes by non-desert dwellers (mainly Europeans and other Westerners from classical antiquity until the present) about “desertification,” an erroneous, ideologically and politically driven concept lacking universally accepted definition or quantification and a notion whose meaning has morphed over the centuries. She argues persuasively that many current policies endorsed by the UN, national governments, various NGOs, and other institutions and individual specialists have been conceived, in part, based on western ignorance about desiccated places and what caused them to become so.
Attempts over approximately the last two centuries to impose anti-desertification programs on marginal arid lands, especially in North Africa and the Middle East during colonial times, have been myopic and disastrous. European and British desires to increase agricultural production at home and then in their overseas colonies initially drove these misguided policies. More recently, various international agencies, national governments, and individual experts have perpetuated earlier European colonial beliefs that anthropogenic activities cause desertification. They have sought continued funding to ameliorate desertification and justify control of those groups, usually nomadic or semi-nomadic, who live in these peripheral areas. These agencies, institutions and governments blame indigenous peoples and their poor land management practices, especially overgrazing by their herds and flocks, as primary causes of desertification. This then justified colonial and reinforced more recent attempts to sedentarize and control these migratory populations. On October 23, 2016 The Seattle Times published an article entitled “China's deserts taking over as they expand into vast sea of sand.” This report perpetuates, in part, the myth, so clearly presented by Davis, that indigenous peoples are somehow to blame for “desertification.” The United States government replicated European colonial resettlement efforts of nomadic populations by forcibly relocating Native Americans to reservations. Such governmental actions around the world also assisted, both in centuries past and currently, in the promotion of nationalization efforts by newly emerging or politically weak states. It was not until 1994 that the UN grudgingly added climate as a cause of desertification.
By displacing nomadic/pastoral groups and attempting to “reclaim” or otherwise “improve” wastelands, governments and institutions like the UN have, in fact, further degraded these areas. Increased irrigation has led to serious salinization of the soil. Without adequate drainage the land becomes waterlogged, and stagnant water leads to the spread of water and airborne diseases. Reforestation and agricultural projects have often introduced alien and invasive species that have further lowered the water table, driven out indigenous plant species and fauna, or destroyed sources of fresh surface water. In some circles there was and continues to be the specious belief that trees attract rainfall and, conversely, that the dearth of arboreal zones leads to decreased precipitation. This misperception appears at least as early as the fourth century B.C.E., when Theophrastus associated deforestation with changes in climate and decreased rainfall.
Egregious examples of disastrous mismanagement of desert regions include: Soviet efforts to grow cotton, resulting in the rapid disappearance of the Aral Sea; the negative consequences of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt; and British colonial practices in areas of India. By contrast, indigenous nomadic traditions optimize use of deserts and dry lands and have done so for many generations. These itinerant groups engage in more efficient, productive, and sustainable activities, and they are also socially more resilient and economically less vulnerable to climate variability and drought.
Nothing demonstrates more starkly the negative attitudes towards and stereotypes about these desiccated places than their use by governments as areas in which to test nuclear weapons. Davis notes this practice by the USA in New Mexico and Nevada, by the USSR in Kazakhstan, and by the French in parts of Saharan Algeria. She might have added, as well, by the Chinese in the Lop Nur region of the Taklimakan Desert.
Davis asserts that until about the fifteenth century, many outsiders’ notions about deserts were fairly benign or neutral. Ancient Greek and Roman authors like Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder viewed residents of deserts as rich in animals and valuable resources (mainly minerals); deserts were natural, not man-made, phenomena. They were not empty, degraded places where crops should be planted. Those peripatetic desert residents were proud, fierce warriors or bandits. Yet, at least some living in antiquity clearly did not share these positive contemporary views of deserts. From his own fieldwork, this reviewer knows that a number of travelers crossing the Eastern Desert of Egypt in ancient times repeatedly expressed fear and apprehension, and appealed to deities to protect them. They recorded these sentiments in numerous graffiti carved on rock faces throughout the region.
Many classical Greek and Roman writings were temporarily “lost” during the European Middle Ages, permitting the ascendancy of Judeo-Christian ideas of deserts as realms of evil spirits associated with chaos, darkness, death, and as places of punishment for human transgressions; they were wastelands of torment, sources of original sin. These were the prevalent attitudes espoused by European colonialists from ca. 1450 to 1900. The rise of a capitalist mindset also promoted the desiccation theory and the concomitant need to optimize profitable use of such marginal lands by developing them.
During the fifteenth century and later, the European belief that deserts and marginal lands were degraded places misused by indigenous peoples who overgrazed their animals there led to the notion that these peripheral areas required reclamation. Reforestation efforts have been the most popular expressions of desert reclamation and these have been almost universally all failures. They have actually aggravated the situation. The Sahara, in fact, dried up naturally between ca. 4500 and 2500 BC. Deforestation or other types of misuse by indigenous populations in no way caused this phenomenon.
Among many Westerners during the eighteenth century an association developed between the ideal landscape of the Garden of Eden and tropical islands with lush vegetation. This likely stemmed from European colonization experiences in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean. These optimal landscapes became affiliated with positive moral implications; ergo, and conversely, deserts and dry lands were linked with evil.
The book, as a whole, presents a contrarian, yet compelling explanation for the desiccation of large parts of the world caused by natural phenomena and not due to human activities. This publication represents a relatively recent trend among western specialists that examines long-held beliefs about deserts and dry lands. It reflects a new way of thinking about these marginal places and the people who call them home. There are some minor errors. Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337) did not decree Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (38), but merely made it legal. Theodosius I (reigned 379-395) made it official. Additionally, “Sahara desert” (45) is a tautology, as sahara means desert in Arabic. Although the endnotes are extensive and contain many citations, the book lacks a master bibliography, which would have been useful.