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Fertile farmland is a primary concern worldwide. Countries in North Africa bordering the Sahara are learning to push it back with the Great Green Wall.

Fertile farmland from the desert. Progress is being made along the Great Green Wall in the Southern Sahara to recuperate land, grow crops and fortify communities.

Fertile farmland from the desert. Progress is being made along the Great Green Wall in the Southern Sahara to recuperate land, grow crops and fortify communities.

We consider the Earth once again.

An apple of fire and pressure with a skin capable of supporting life, its crust a narrow band of comfortable temperature on a tiny ball in a limited band of habitable orbital range. A pinpoint speck of the universe supports everything we eat, do, create, and dream. Savannas, forests, farmland, swamps, and deserts house all the people and plants and animals of the Earth. Swatches of the land grow all the food we eat. The rocks beneath provide every raw material necessary to support our endeavors and industries.
(Audit of the Universe chapter 4.1)

With a wave of his hand, our guide Galacti moves our perspective to several hundred miles above the Earth.

“I like much of what you have done with the place,” he says, experimenting with human slang, which he seems to find amusing. “You have found abundance in even the remotest areas, and turned those resources into creations even a being like me finds impressive.”

“Thank you,” I say on behalf of all humankind. “We do try.”

“You have even flung parts of this Earth far away, cast them out into space to find new lands to inhabit. Or should I say conquer?”

Another wave of Galacti’s hand and portions of the globe glow a warm, comforting green. “Here,” he says, pointing to the cities of Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, and Bombay. “Here you have turned desert into paradise through nothing but the ingenuity of your minds and the works of your hands. And here he indicates cities on the Italian coast, beaches in Malaysia and expansive farmland in Denmark and Holland “you have captured land from the sea itself.”

A third wave and the green disappears, replaced by blotches of angry red scattered across the globe. “But your accomplishments have come at a cost. You have turned the lush jungle into a desert, former farmland into waste, entire lakes into poison. Though these are also impressive in their own way, I wonder at the wisdom of it.”

Humanity has great accomplishments but many at a cost. Is the glass filling or emptying? Share on X

I think to explain that those scars on the land are not intentional, that they are but side products of the wonders Galacti mentioned, but I realize he already knows that.

“Both are true,” I say instead.

“Let us look closer,” Galacti says. “You have accomplished much, and have proven you can repair much of what you break in your race to make those accomplishments. In the end, have you done more good or more harm to this fragile home of yours?”

Land: Supporting Human Life

Land is supremely valuable to us humans. With the exception of a few dozen astronauts, everything humankind has ever done, seen, felt tasted, or smelled comes from the Land. We sense that value when we step from a plane or a boat onto the earth. Our language itself underscores the importance with phrases like on solid ground or salt of the earth describing safe situations and trustworthy individuals.

From a human perspective, our most important use of land is agriculture. Without farmland and the food that it brings us, nothing else we attempt would be possible for longer than it takes to die of hunger.

Agricultural Advancement

The first real use we humans made of the Land was to eat the food that grew from it. After a time, inhabitants of the Earth moved from eating what they found to producing what they ate. Later, this change led to the formation of cities, specialized experts, and technological advancement.

Early man learned the basics of agrarian farming, how to plant with the cycles of the seasons, to fertilize our fields with the remains of previous crops, and to rotate crops in ways that kept the fields fertile and productive. In the East, cultures growing rice discovered that keeping fish in their rice paddies fertilized the soil while simultaneously reducing pests and increasing a population of natural protein sources.

The Netherlands, of which 1/8th is below sea level, first farmed on artificial hillocks. They later built a system of dikes that protected the region’s flood plains and made the area habitable and arable. Most of the region wouldn’t exist without that network to keep the saltwater sea away. It provides over 11,000 square kilometers—the area of Jamaica—of arable land the Dutch use to feed themselves and export food to other nations.

Disappearing Farmland

You don’t see the word desertification much on the news, but it is a significant crisis that results from our use of the land. The term means agricultural land that becomes unsuitable for farming, often changing into barren rock or arid waste. A June 2009 report by the United Nations identified desertification, amplified by global climate change, as the most significant environmental challenge of the current epoch.

We discussed the Aral Sea in the previous chapter as one example of the speedy, accelerating pace of human-caused desertification. Lake Tchad in Africa is another. Between 1970 and 2010, the lake has shrunk from 25,000 square kilometers to only 5,000 due to a combination of water over usage and reduced precipitation to refill the lake. The entire body of water is in real danger of vanishing, and with it the ability to farm for every community at its edge.

According to UN reports, approximately 1/3 of the human population live in arid zones, and 60 million inhabitants of Subsaharan Africa have had to leave their homes because the water supply no longer supports local farming.

“You consume more than you create, and it leads to suffering. You can say it was unintended, but you can’t pretend it was not forewarned,” Galacti says.

“But we solve our problems,” I object. “If we do anything well, it’s rising to the occasion and overcoming trouble.”

“That is true,” he responds. As he speaks, a warm green line appears in sections along the southern border of the world’s largest and most famous desert.

The Great Green Wall movement emerged as an attempt to curb desertification in Subsaharan Africa by developing and planting genetically engineered trees that grow roots quickly and require very little water to thrive. Workers plant these trees along the border of the desert, where they take root and begin fixing arable soil in place. The Wall “holds the line” against the advancing desert, and stage two will plant a second Wall advancing into the Sahara itself. This movement spans multiple countries and required cooperation among numerous scientific disciplines and the breadth of a continent. It is truly a wondrous project that celebrates the best of what humans are capable of.

As of 2017, more than 80% of the originally planted trees have died. You might think this has brought an end to the program.

On the contrary, it had the virtue of focusing populations on a significant problem, and human ingenuity has now come to play a large part in recovery and upswing. The idea is to work with and encourage nature. Planting continues, but the more significant emphasis is on working with trees that naturally sprout and grow. Indigenous knowledge of past conservation practices with regard to water by building retaining plateaus and protecting trees and shrubs have been put to better use.

Great Green Subsaharan Wall: 80% of the originally planted trees died, but indigenous ingenuity leads on Share on X

“Impressive,” Galacti allows, “but how often have your solutions caused their own set of problems?”

“More often than not,” I admit. “But in  Subsaharan Africa, headway is being made for the benefit of many communities.”

This blog post is an excerpt from chapter 4.1 of the book Audit of the Universe.


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