The Case of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future
In 2020 Kim Stanley Robinson published the latest in a series of novels that address climate change and other emerging aspects of the Anthropocene, a 563-page tome titled Ministry for the Future. The novel opens with a searing description of an imagined heat wave in Uttar Pradesh, India that kills 20 million people when the wet bulb temperature exceeds 35 deg. C (95 deg. F. and 100% humidity) and excess demand for air conditioning causes the power grid to fail. Given current trends this is an entirely plausible scenario. This episode is a staggering piece of writing. Monica Byrne wrote on Twitter that “I feel like my circles have divided between those who’ve read the opening chapter of The Ministry for the Future and those who haven’t.” I understand what she means. You think about climate change differently after you’ve read it. After reading it, you’re a different person.
Robinson’s novel is set in the near future. The Paris Climate accords have failed to produce the necessary outcome in reducing carbon emissions (not exactly a fantasy scenario), and so the United Nations establishes a Ministry for the Future, a bureaucracy with the mandate “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own.” Beyond concern for humans alone, the ministry is further charged with “defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection” (16).1 Dense with policy prescriptions and bureaucratic wrangling (it’s about a UN ministry, after all) the novel certainly appeals to policy wonks. Ezra Klein called it the most important book of the year. It was chosen as one of his favorite books of 2020 by no less a policy geek than Barack Obama.
In some ways it is an ideal Anthropocene novel, doing many of the things I have looked for, but usually found lacking, while teaching the genre over several years. It describes our current situation well, and it prescribes plausible–if certainly debatable–scenarios for mitigating the worst of the Anthropocene. Numerous chapters dramatize the plight of climate refugees, contributing to an important subplot. Cautiously hopeful in tone, it is neither utopian nor dystopian. It offers, instead, the realism of muddling through. It addresses causes and possible solutions rather than simply transporting us into a post-apocalyptic landscape where primitive frontier fantasies prevail–an all-too common scenario in climate change novels, alas. Its scale is global, taking us from India to Switzerland to California to Antarctica to Africa.
Unlike the bourgeoise novels criticized by Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement–Holocene novels, let’s call them–works obsessed with the personal concerns and interior lives of a few characters while oblivious to the threats the planet faces (a sort of sophisticated solipsistic climate denialism that pervades most contemporary literature), Ministry makes confronting climate change its principal concern. Eschewing the plot staples of the Holocene novel, in Ministry action sequences are limited, potential romance scenarios muted, inner lives are considered but not dwelled upon; there are more important topics to address.
Though focused mainly on a few characters, the novel includes multiple narrative lines and points of view. It has variously been described as polyvocal, heteroglossic, or polyperspectival. Influenced by John dos Passo’s experimental style in his U.S.A. trilogy, as one reviewer notes the book combines “traditional narrative with other prose forms like the encyclopedia article, the think piece, the news report, meeting minutes, the Socratic college seminar, the prose poem, the riddle game, and more.” It embraces what is often considered an unforgivable offense in the bourgeoise Holocene novel: didacticism. Reading Ministry, we actually learn something. Sometimes we are literally lectured to. Some chapters are narrated by objects (or hyperobjects, if you prefer) such as carbon atoms, photons, or blockchain technology.
The Ministry for the Future is headed by an Irish woman named Mary Murphy (modeled loosely on Ireland’s one time president, Mary Robinson). Under her leadership, and with the prodding of a man who survived the massive heat death in India, the ministry enacts a wide range of steps. Most central is the development of a digital currency called the carbon coin, which is to be paid to nations and corporations for carbon abatement and sequestration. For example, Arabia (no longer called Saudi Arabia after the imagined overthrow of the monarchy) is paid handsomely in carbon coins for agreeing to cease pumping oil. Convincing the world’s major central bankers to adopt the new anti-carbon currency is one of the main plotlines of the novel. I have no idea whether such a carbon coin is plausible, or would be effective, but some economists believe it might be, and the book has spurred renewed interest in the concept. (A major flaw in Robinson’s portrayal of the digital coin is his failure to address the massive energy usage of cryptocurrency.) But Robinson realizes that no single approach will solve the problem of climate change, and the novel adopts an all-hands-on deck approach. Many other strategies and tactics are adopted, including carbon taxes, rewilding projects, and a new socially responsible internet; the book even contemplates a new Earth-based religion. While working within the framework of current neo-liberal economics (for which it’s been criticized), the book also offer up alternative cooperative economies such as the Mondragon system in the Basque region of Spain.
And the book also envisions environmental terrorism. An eco-terrorist group that forms in India following the heat death disaster, calling themselves The Children of Kali, engages in a range of terroristic activities, such as assassinating oil industry executives, sabotaging industrial facilities, blowing up airplanes to frighten people away from air travel, sinking cargo ships to dissuade global trade, even infecting cattle with mad cow disease to discourage meat eating. The book is decidedly neutral on these activities, and includes several discussions along the lines of: if these oil industry executives are engaging in activities that kill hundreds of thousands of people and are destroying the planet, why is it immoral to kill them? A reasonable, if uncomfortable, question.
The book also describes a number of geoengineering schemes, including the injection of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, dyeing the Arctic Ocean yellow to reduce heat absorption, and a major subplot of the novel involves a complicated scheme to slow the movement of melting glaciers by pumping water from underneath them and pouring it into the Antarctic interior.
In spite of whatever flaws one might find in it, it’s hard not to admire the novel for its ambition, its willingness to take bold risks. All in all it is the sort of rich, sophisticated, capacious, experimental, erudite, yet passionate and engaged novel one might hope for in trying to grapple with the realities of the Anthropocene.
And so I was all the more disappointed to see Ministry perpetuate a misguided and outdated xerophobia, a notion that deserts might reasonably be sacrificed in the interests of climate mitigation.
We might define xerophobia as an irrational fear of and contempt for arid places. It manifests in portrayals of deserts as fearsome, god-forsaken, empty wastelands. This xerophobic imaginary entered European consciousness with Christianity, and later, from the Orientalist inflections of colonialism. In spite of the efforts of bioregional scholars, Indigenous people, arid zone ecologists, and many other desert dwellers, artists, writers, and activists, the notion that deserts are wastelands rather than lively, thriving, vital ecosystems that support a wide array of flora, fauna, and human communities, remains pervasive in much scholarship, literature, and global development discourse. In contrast to the xerophilia of Indigenous desert dwellers, for whom a desert is a beloved and comfortable home, a dwelling place filled with food sources, migration routes, stories, ancestors, cultural meanings and memories, and which functions as a community of worthwhile companionate plants and animals, xerophobia sees deserts as empty, trackless wastelands inimical to life. In the lingering colonial legacy of the xerophobic imaginary, deserts should either be transformed into something else–preferably something greener and wetter–or else they can be considered expendable and useful only as sacrifice zones.
But I would offer that any environmentally responsible discourse pertaining to deserts should begin with the understanding that deserts are healthy, biotically and culturally diverse ecosystems, perfectly fine just as they are, as worthwhile and as worthy of protection as any of the other biomes on the planet. And any ecocriticism or environmental literature that implies that some of the healthiest and most biodiverse ecosystems on planet Earth are nothing but abject wastelands to be feared and, when possible, transformed, should be viewed with suspicion. Unfortunately, this is the vision manifest in Ministry for the Future. The UN Ministry’s mandate to protect “all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection” seems limited by the novel’s xerophobic imaginary. Its otherwise radical ethics of care for planet Earth does not, it would seem, extend to the planet’s arid zones, which constitute roughly 30% of the Earth’s land mass, are home to approximately one billion people, and contain some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.
I first suspected this xerophobic dimension of the novel when Mary Murphy makes a visit to San Francisco to meet with the head of the US Federal Reserve and other central bankers to pitch her idea for the carbon coin. Throughout the novel California is held up as a progressive model for how to address climate change, and so Mary takes the opportunity to investigate some of the state’s ongoing climate-mitigation projects. In a conversation with the state water board she is provided with background information to contextualize the situation. In spite of California’s extensive water management efforts, they tell her, climate change was introducing increasing unpredictability into the system, with the weather swinging between exceedingly dry years and exceedingly wet ones. “The upshot,” she is told “would be more forest fires, then more flash floods, and always the threat of the entire state going as dry as the Mojave desert” (184).
On the one hand this is a perfectly plausible discussion, providing useful information on California’s hydrologic situation and increasingly unpredictable climate. But then one reaches that final sentence, and it jumps out that the Mojave Desert is being presented as just the sort of landscape we should hope to avoid, a dire potential destiny. While it’s fair for the water board members to be concerned with increasing aridity in the formerly more mesic regions of California, nevertheless the denigration of the Mojave Desert signals that the novel is inflected by a disturbingly xerophobic imaginary, one in which deserts would serve as the abject places of the planet, as examples of that which we should not become.
It’s admittedly a minor moment, easy enough to dismiss, and I thought perhaps I was being too sensitive. And by itself this scene would not be worth discussing. But several later sections of the novel confirmed that my anxiety about the passage was justified: One section is a discussion of geoengineering ideas that put arid endorheic valleys at risk, one is a related section that involves a scenic tour of planet Earth that takes us over a greatly altered Saharan landscape, and another is a litany of environmental organizations and their efforts to stem climate change, some by “greening” deserts or erecting great green walls of trees to stem their alleged advance. In each case the desert is stereotypically rendered as a wasteland, as a sacrifice zone, as a looming threat, as a place we should be perfectly willing to alter or destroy in order to save ourselves from climate change.
Flooding Endorheic Basins
One of the subplots of the novel involves a team of glaciologists in Antarctica seeking to reduce sea level rise by slowing the increasingly rapid slippage of glaciers into the ocean. Their specific project involves pumping water from beneath the sliding glaciers, hoping to slow glacial movement by increasing friction against the rocky surface beneath them; but, being engineers, in their spare time they also speculatively discuss other massive water pumping terraforming ideas. One of these involves a scheme to pump water from the rising oceans and pipe it into the endorheic basins of the planet, nearly all of which are located in arid regions. Their collective voice, narrated with the hubristic authority of geoengineers, explains:
The endorheic basins of the world, meaning basins where water does not drain to the sea, were many in number. And many of them in the northern hemisphere were dry playas, where water had existed at the end of the last ice age but dried out since, partially or all the way. The Caspian Sea had been helped to dry down to its current level by people, the Aral Sea even more so. The Tarim Basin was completely dry all on its own, Utah’s Great Salt Lake was the remnant of a much bigger lake from the past–on and on it went, mostly in Asia and North America, and the Sahara. Of course there were people living in some of these places, but not many of them, given the problems of desertification, or disasterated shorelines in the case of the Caspian and Aral. If you added up their volume of empty available space, it was considerable. A lot of seawater could be relocated there, in theory. We ran the numbers; well, it would do for a meter or two of sea level rise. But then all those basins would be full . . . (260)
Based on their number crunching, at this time the engineers reject the idea of flooding these desert basins. The volume of sea water that could be sequestered in them, though sizable, was not sufficient to substantially reduce the amount of sea level rise anticipated if the glaciers continued to slip into the sea. So, for now, they redouble their efforts in Antarctica. However it is noticeable that they express no concern for any environmental damage that such a flooding of arid lands might cause. Indeed the implication is that since during the Ice Ages many of these basins were filled with water, and other basins, such as the Aral and Caspian Seas, had only recently been depleted due to human actions, such a project was restoring an earlier and ecologically healthier and preferable condition.
Fair enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. It’s worth noting, for example, that the Aral Sea is a massive freshwater lake. Despite the name, it is not really a “sea.” Hence pumping ocean water into it would not restore a lost ecology but would instead destroy whatever freshwater ecology remained. Similarly, the Caspian Sea is more accurately a massive saline lake, with a salinity roughly 1/3 that of the planet’s oceans. Filling it with sea water would likewise ruin rather than restore its remaining ecosystem. If one were truly concerned about the preservation of both the Aral and the Caspian seas it would be better to advocate for an end to irrigated agriculture (mostly for cotton) in their watersheds rather than for their inundation with sea water.
To Robinson’s geoengineers, the lingering aquatic ecology, and the surrounding arid lands within these endorheic basins, as well as the “not many” people who reside there, are treated as expendable. This attitude is not much different from the typical xerophobic thinking that considers deserts primarily suitable as places where one can blow up nuclear bombs or store toxic waste. In this case, they are seen as places to store excess sea water.
Colonial Origins of Desert Flooding Schemes
The idea that it is fine to destroy desert ecosystems if doing so serves some alleged greater good hardly represents the sort of innovative, environmentally aware thinking we need in order to confront climate change. Rather, it represents the desert wasteland imaginary linked to hubristic terraforming schemes that derive from colonial ideology. Everywhere that European colonialism encountered deserts–India, North Africa, Southern Africa, the US Southwest, Australia, northern Mexico–such deserts were perceived as impediments. The drier the desert the greater the impediment. Deserts, that is, resist colonialism. How perverse. If only they would be more like France or England, how much simpler colonization would be. And colonizers, therefore, have expended great effort to transform them into something resembling France or England.
Versions of Robinson’s geoengineering scheme to flood the endorheic valleys have persisted in the xerophobic colonial imaginary for at least 150 years. In 1874 the French military official François Élie Roudaire published an article titled “An Inland Sea in Algeria.” He proposed constructing a canal from Tunisia’s Gulf of Gabes to the Chott Melrhir in Algeria.
“When we see the dismal and desolate regions of Chott Melhrir,” he wrote, “we think of the profound changes they would experience due to the presence of the sea, which would moderate the climate, regularizing the rains and thus developing the natural fertility of the soil” (qtd. 327). The completion of the Suez Canal only a few years earlier, in 1869, suggested the technology for such a feat existed. Despite his enthusiasm, however, Roudaire could not persuade the French government that the project was worth the considerable expense and effort.
A few years later, in 1877, Donald Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, proposed a similar scheme. He outlined the proposal in a book titled The Flooding of the Sahara, with the imposing colonialist subtitle, An Account of the Proposed Plan for Opening Central Africa to Commerce and Civilization from the North-west Coast, with a Description of Soudan and Western Sahara, and Notes of Ancient Manuscripts, &c.
Mackenzie proposed to flood the basins of the Sahara via channels directing Atlantic ocean waters from Morocco’s Cape Juby region into the El Djouf basin on the present border of Mauritania and Mali. Like Roudaire’s proposal, Mackenzie’s plan was never put into effect. However Jules Verne envisioned a similar scenario in his final novel, Invasion of the Sea, published in 1905. In that novel, the engineering project fails, but, ironically, a massive earthquake opens a channel that accomplishes the same end.
One might conclude that in order to ward off a serious global crisis of sea level rise, the sacrifice of desert basins would be a perhaps lamentable but necessary solution. Such a notion, however, ignores the valuable role endorheic basins might play as carbon sinks. A recent study done in the Tarim Basin of northwest China concluded that “extensive sequestration of dissolved inorganic carbon can occur in the terminal lakes of endorheic basins.” The researchers concluded that “endorheic basins represent an important carbon sink on the global scale, with a magnitude similar to deep ocean carbon burial” (Yu Li, et al.). The subject is complex, with multiple variables, many as yet unknown. Serious research on the role of endorheic basins in sequestering carbon has only recently begun. But it’s quite possible that pumping rising seawaters into desert basins may prove to be counterproductive, reducing their ability to sequester carbon and so contributing to the very sea level rise their sacrifice is intended to mitigate.
Scenic Tour of Planet Earth
Robinson returns to this theme of flooding the desert toward the conclusion of Ministry for the Future. Our main character, Mary Murphy, has been introduced to Art Nolan, a dirigible pilot (a muted romance subplot). She is told that “he flies an airship all over the world, following wildlife corridors and wilderness areas, basically looking for animals. He takes people along with him” (464).2 A few chapters later, just before Mary retires from her leadership of the ministry, she makes a journey to San Francisco for one final meeting with the world’s central bankers. There she reconnects with Art, who invites her on a world-circling trip on his airship, the Clipper of the Clouds, (named after a Jules Verne novel) as a pleasant, scenic, and carbon neutral way for her to return to Europe.
This is a clever means for Robinson to provide readers with a sense of global scale. And it functions as a suitable conclusion to the novel, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the state of the planet. First, Mary and Art fly north, to the Arctic Ocean, watching wildlife along newly created corridors such as the Yellowstone to Yukon, and examining climate change effects and mitigation efforts along the Arctic Ocean. They then drift south over Greenland, cross Europe, then cruise over the Mediterranean to North Africa, where, alas, the xerophobic issues arise again as we see the effects of desert flooding projects we are expected to celebrate.
Across the Atlas Mountains, east over the Sahel. Here there were new salt lakes and marshes being created by water pumped up from the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. Salt seas in dry basins, an interesting experiment. They definitely changed things. Here in the Sahel, the dust storms that used to fly off these desert basins over the Atlantic were much diminished, . . . . For now, the desert below them was dotted by long lakes. Green, brown, sky blue, cobalt. Cat’s paws. Little towns hugged their shores, or stood on outcrops nearby. Irrigated fields formed circles on the land, circles of green and yellow like quilting art. Local culture was said to be thriving, Art said. Polls indicated most residents loved their new lakes, especially younger people. Without them we would have left, they said. The land was dying, the world had killed it. Now it would live. (527-28)
Here we see xerophobic colonial hydrological schemes repackaged as environmental improvements which the local people (according to polls at least) all love. For nobody, surely, could love a desert. Jean-Yves Puyo has proposed that colonial visions of an inland sea, though discarded in the 19th century, nevertheless continue to “‘haunt’ the long-term world of global planning.” Robinson’s Ministry for the Future seems a good example of such continued haunting.
One of the polyperspectival chapters in Ministry consists of nothing but a series of unidentified people at a gathering of environmental organizations introducing themselves by first announcing where they are from, and then identifying the organizations they are working with. The chapter opens this way:
Hi, I am here to tell you about Argentina’s Shamballa Permaculture Project. We are representatives of Armenia’s ARK Armenia, happy to be here. Down in Australia we’ve connected up our Aboriginal Wetland Burning, Shoalwater Culture, Gawula, Greening Australia, How Aboriginals Made Australia, Kachana Land Restoration, One Acre Small Permaculture Project, Permaculture Research Institute, Purple Pear Farm, Rehydrating the Landscape, Regenerate Australia, and the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor (425).
The litany goes on in precisely this fashion, alphabetically by country, for four pages, the entirety of the short chapter. It’s a clever way to get a sense of global scale and community into the novel. These all seem to be actual organizations, and the extensive list is intended to be hopeful and inspiring. And really, for the most part it is. Many of these organizations from around the world are doing important work in mitigating climate change and restoring damaged ecosystems.
But reading through the list I became troubled by how many of these organizations were involved in efforts to “green” or to reforest various deserts or semi-arid grasslands. The Chinese delegation mentions “Greening China’s Desert,” the “Horqin Desert Reforestation” project, the “Kbuqi Desert Greening the Silk Road,” and “Transforming Deserts to Cropland.” The delegate from Egypt announces that he represents “Creating a Forest in the Desert.” The Israeli delegate is from a group similarly called “Growing Forests in the Desert.” The Jordanian represents an organization called “Greening the Desert,” while the Mexican delegate represents the more specific “Greening the Chihuahuan Desert.” Both the Moroccan and South African delegates represent separate organizations with the perennially popular name “Making the Desert Bloom.” The representative from Qatar is a member of “Sahara Forest Project.” And the representative from Senegal lists the “Great Green Wall Initiative” and “Rolling Back the Desert” as organizations (426-27). Perhaps some of these projects are doing great work. But forgive me if I’m skeptical. Their names alone betray a xerophobic attitude toward the desert that yet again considers “green” the ideal color for a landscape and that encourage what are almost certainly bioregionally inappropriate and damaging afforestation efforts.
Research on the efficacy of these sorts of projects is decidedly mixed, and tends toward negative assessments. Recent research has identified the harm of afforestation projects in arid and semi-arid savannas, grasslands, and deserts. For example, an article in Birdlife International argues that
Grasslands are important for both carbon sequestration and biodiversity but are often misidentified as providing opportunities for forest restoration. Restoration of forest in grassland biomes can be devastating for biodiversity and ecosystem services and illustrates the importance of better integrating the distinct ecologies and conservation needs of forest and grass biomes into science and policy.
Similarly, ecologists Kate Parr and Caroline Lehmann argue that tree planting projects in grassland ecosystems provide little in the way of meaningful carbon sequestration but are environmentally damaging and can lead to species extinction.
A study by Geraldo Wilson Fernandes and colleagues makes the useful distinction between reforestation, that is, the replanting of forests in landscapes where they have recently been denuded, and afforestation, the planting of trees on landscapes where they have not previously existed. For the most part, the “great green wall” and similar projects listed by Robinson in Ministry are more often afforestation rather than reforestation. Fernandes and colleagues warn that “afforestation of open [grassland] ecosystems is an incongruous disturbance and, indeed, an impending ecological disaster” (147). In a similar vein, South African botanist William John Bond argues that “concerns over deforestation have led to attempts to identify suitable areas for reforestation around the world.” These efforts, he notes, often target arid and semi-arid grasslands: “vast areas of open grassy vegetation have been identified as suitable for reforestation.” Bond argues that many grasslands are ancient and very biodiverse and that their afforestation would be environmentally damaging.
With this context, let’s take a look at two of the largest scale, most celebrated, but also more dubious projects Robinson mentions, China’s Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt and Africa’s Great Green Wall.
Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt
Many of the Chinese efforts Robinson lists in Ministry are subsumed within the large “Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt” project, begun in the late 1970s. The effects of this 50-year-old project have been the subject of recent research and assessment. For example, an article in Journal of Arid Environments seeks to answer the question of its title: “Has the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt Program solved the desertification and dust storm problems in arid and semiarid China?” In their review of previous research, X. M. Wang and colleagues note that a 2008 study “provided a strong argument that large-scale afforestation has failed to solve the desertification problem in many parts of arid and semiarid China.” They cite another research project from 2005 that concluded that “the large-scale afforestation in the Three Norths had produced largely unfavorable results.” After a comprehensive review of the existing research. Wang and colleagues conclude that
Although the past three decades of the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt program are claimed to have achieved dramatic rehabilitation of the ecological environment of arid and semiarid China, our results suggest that the program’s effectiveness at combating desertification and controlling dust storms in this region must be questioned. (14)
The article alludes to the often well-meaning but naively boosterish propaganda such projects elicit. Given the political and economic contexts, there is ample motivation to be overly optimistic, and little incentive to voice skepticism:
. . . although local governments and previous studies have claimed that the Three Norths program achieved considerable success, the program’s efforts towards combating desertification and dust storms may have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. (21)
In short, although the Chinese government has invested vast resources, labor, and national prestige in the Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt, behind a smokescreen of patriotic green propaganda the project can be seen to have achieved minimal measurable positive outcomes.
Africa’s Great Green Wall
Africa’s “Great Green Wall Initiative” is another interesting case. Begun by the African Union in 2007, the plan involves planting a 10-mile-wide swath of trees completely across the African continent along the northern edge of the Sahel, with the intent to hold back the allegedly creeping Sahara. Supporting the project, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, declared that “the desert is a spreading cancer.” “We must fight it. That is why we have decided to join in this titanic battle.” But a bit of investigation into the The Great Green Wall Initiative opens a window onto a vast colonial and neocolonial enterprise steeped in xerophobia that undermines the president’s dramatic assertion and that questions the very premises of the effort.
Colonial Roots of Desertification Narratives
In her book The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge, Diana K. Davis provides important evidence to challenge the widespread idea that the Sahara and other deserts are spreading and unpacks the colonial roots of the notion. She explains how European colonial officials in Africa came to the continent with their own xerophobic biases, leading them to believe “that deserts were landscapes in need of repair–misused and abused by indigenous and nomadic peoples.” This idea, she argues, “became a predominant feature of the colonial narrative justifying western science as the salve for the world’s ills. Europeans propagated alternative myths of arid landscapes as ravaged by overgrazing or as lush and fertile but poorly developed” (xii). That is, notions of desertification have served the interests of colonial powers, providing a pretext for the removal of often nomadic Indigenous people from their lands and a justification for claiming colonial control over those lands in order to save them. Davis points out that “the assumption that the world’s drylands are worthless, deforested, and overgrazed landscapes has led, since the colonial period, to programs and policies that have often systematically damaged dryland environments and marginalized large numbers of indigenous peoples, many of whom had been using the land sustainably” (4).
Similarly, in an exposé of the discourse of desiccation, Tor A. Benjaminsen and Pierre Hiernaux point out that the notion that the Sahara is expanding, though widely believed, is contradicted by long-standing scientific research:
The desertification narrative in the West African Sahel has had a long and successful life, despite being contradicted by scientific research from the early twentieth century. (223)
That is, early colonial fears about widespread desertification have been disproven by evidence, but such fears persist in part because they are useful for colonial and neocolonial enterprises.
The idea for the African Great Green Wall was first proposed in the 1930s by a British forester, E. P. Stebbing. Richard Grove discusses Stebbing in Ecology, Climate, and Empire, explaining how “perceptions of the dry season Sahelian landscape provoked [Stebbing] into writing a feverish warning on what he saw as the dangers of desertification” (35). Benjaminsen and Hiernaux explain that in order to stop the perceived advance of the Sahara, Stebbing “proposed to reserve two parallel forest belts through the French and British colonies, which should be fifteen miles deep and 1,370 miles long. These two belts would be closed and protected from farming, fire and grazing” (216). This early 20th-century colonial idea has served as inspiration for the current Great Green Wall initiative.
Davis points out that tree planting projects in arid regions usually fail. And when they “succeed,” that success is often at the expense of native biodiversity. “Many afforestation projects fail,” she explains, “because they are attempted where trees have not grown previously under the prevailing climate conditions.” When such projects do succeed in growing trees, she continues, “they have frequently used so much groundwater that local water tables have been lowered, wells have run dry, and nearby soils have been desiccated, reducing agricultural yields.” Citing recent research Davis concludes that tree-planting projects “can significantly impair ecosystem functions, damage the regional hydrology, and diminish biodiversity” (6-7). As a case in point, Davis describes a tree-planting project from Algeria in the 1970s. This was a so-called “green dam” effort to hold back the Sahara. The project planted a 1,500 km corridor of trees in southern Algeria. The project failed because “a great many of the trees died,” but as a consequence of the project “the nomads through whose traditional territory the green dam was planted were forced to relocate and sedentarize.” The effort, she concludes, “is now largely considered a failure” (7).
Benjaminsen and Hiernaux discuss how current concerns regarding climate change have revived worries about so-called desertification, and so in turn revived projects such as the Great Green Wall. They note that at the Paris climate summit in December 2015, the Great Green Wall project “was promised, in addition to the initial 100 million USD, another four billion USD from donors, as well as additional support from France for its anticipated contribution to mitigate climate change” (233). Though founded on dubious science, and with a history of failure, ecological harm, and the displacement of nomadic people, afforestation projects remain popular in the climate change donor community, but, as Benjaminsen and Hiernaux suggest, perhaps for less than idealistic reasons.
The Great Green Wall project meets the needs of northern governments to demonstrate a will to take action on climate change, while at the same time avoiding difficult political discussions at home. This is combined with the continued desire to stop the marching desert, which remains a powerful image in international media and policy-making. (223)
Benjaminsen and Hiernaux argue that the narrative of desertification and the need to deal with it has produced winners and losers. NGOs and other aid organizations, they claim, “have used the image of the spreading desert to collect funds, especially for planting trees to stop ‘desert encroachment’. These are examples of the winners emerging from the desertification narrative, while the losers have been Sahelian farmers and pastoralists” (224). And in spite of their dubious record, money continues to flow into such projects. At the November 2021 COP26 gathering in Scotland, Jeff Bezos pledged an additional $1 billion to Africa’s Great Green Wall effort.
There are, indeed, powerful incentives to promote great green walls and similar projects. Such efforts offer feel good solutions that seem to be win-win for all involved. Donors in the global north–governments, corporations, billionaires, and NGOs–can absolve their guilt for carbon pollution by funding these efforts. African governments, in turn, receive billions of dollars in aid. It all sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to support planting trees to stop desertification and sequester carbon? Raising doubts feels cynical, churlish.
It would be one thing if this was simply wasted money, a salve to the conscience of wealthy polluters, but otherwise harmless. But this is far from the case. Benjaminsen and Hiernaux make clear that these projects have harmful consequences for the local people: “Their livelihoods and rights to use land and natural resources have been restricted, and the desertification narrative has served to justify such restrictions” (235). Davis likewise argues that significant social problems have been created by great green wall efforts, including “the marginalization and impoverishment of many local peoples in the drylands and, quite often, the expropriation of their land and other resources” (165-66).
Perhaps this harm to local populations could be justified in the service of a greater good if these projects actually succeeded. But a report from 2016 says that more than 80% of the trees planted in the Great Green Wall initiative have died. Jim Morrison writes in Smithsonian
Planting trees across the Sahel, the arid savanna on the south border of the Sahara Desert, had no chance to succeed. There was little funding. There was no science suggesting it would work. Moreover, the desert was not actually moving south; instead, overuse was denuding the land. Large chunks of the proposed ‘wall’ were uninhabited, meaning no one would be there to care for the saplings.
However, Morrison explains, some useful lessons can be learned from the failure. While studying the issue scientists noted that “farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso . . . had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms.”
That is, rather than engaging in a massive continent wide, internationally funded afforestation program–a titanic battle against a spreading cancer–it might be more sensible to allow local farmers to encourage natural regrowth of native species on their own lands. And in fact Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative seems to be evolving in this less dramatic but more promising direction. Efforts are now being directed toward the re-establishment of indigenous agro-forestry systems, locally evolved and adapted regenerative agricultural techniques that had been abandoned during the colonial era. The idea is for “farmer-managed natural regeneration,” the nurturing of naturally sprouting native vegetation being integrated into and around agricultural fields. Environmental specialist Mohamed Bakarr explains how the idea has evolved: “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”
Perhaps the failure of Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative will lead to something less xerophobic, less ambitious and less seductive to environmental groups, government agencies and foreign donors, but more successful, more suited to the ecology and cultures of the region.
In a recent article titled “Phantom Forests: Why Ambitious Tree Planting Projects Are Failing” Fred Pearce quotes Lalisa Duguma of World Agroforestry, an international research agency in Nairobi, Kenya: “Too often . . . tree planting is ‘greenwashing’ aimed at grabbing headlines and promoting an image of governments or corporations as environmentally friendly.”
Pearce concludes his article by noting that many forest ecologists are now advocating that global tree planting efforts evolve in ways similar to the direction Africa’s Great Green Wall is trending:
. . . many forest ecologists say creating space to allow nature to do its thing is usually a better approach to restoring forests than planting.
“Green Wall” projects and flooding schemes, aren’t the only threats deserts face as humans look for ways to deal with climate change. The xerophobic attitudes manifest in such efforts–that deserts can serve as sacrifice zones for mitigating climate change–also align with the promotion of massive solar energy projects in deserts. Of course solar energy development is necessary. But must facilities be located in environmentally healthy desert landscapes? According to Basin and Range Watch and Desert Apocalypse there are currently multiple projects moving forward to install solar facilities that entail the destruction of healthy desert lands. These include the Aratina Solar Center in Kern County, California, set to destroy 2,400 acres and remove 4,200 Joshua trees; the Oberon Solar Project in Riverside County, California, that will bulldoze 2,700 acres and destroy ancient desert ironwood trees; Gemini Solar near Las Vegas, Nevada, which will cover 7,100 acres and threaten more than 1,000 endangered desert tortoises; and the Yellow Pine Solar Project, also near Las Vegas, encompassing 3,000 acres and set to destroy 90,000 Mojave yucca.
The Sawtooth Solar project near Beatty, NV threatens 70,000 Joshua Trees.
How ironic: The very desert Robinson derided, the Mojave, is in fact under threat from solar projects whose ostensible purpose is to protect the planet from climate change. There are so many other, less destructive ways to develop solar energy, so many other less ecologically sensitive sites where they could be located, that bulldozing the desert seems perverse. Environmentalists have begun to revolt against such ostensibly “green” projects.
The general public is often puzzled by such a negative response to solar projects. And, unfortunately, a book like Ministry for the Future, which offers the destruction of deserts as a positive tradeoff, provides little ethical guidance for understanding why such desert destroying projects are harmful.
Deserts Mitigating Climate Change
Reading all these descriptions of proposals to sacrifice deserts in the interests of offsetting climate change, I began to wonder what role, if any, regular deserts, left to their own devices, might play. The environmental movement, with its notorious tree fetish, focuses primarily on forests, and promotes tree planting as a way to sequester carbon. Sometimes, in the right location, with bioregionally appropriate species, that’s certainly a useful activity. While often overlooked, grasslands and prairies, with their deep-rooted, carbon sequestering flora, also have a major role to play. But what role, I wondered, might deserts serve in carbon sequestration?
A bigger role than one might think, I discovered. In addition to the role played by endorheic basins as carbon sinks, discussed above, other studies conclude that leaving deserts alone, or restoring damaged ones to their healthy ecological condition, might be the best way arid places can help us mitigate climate change. Range scientist Susan E. Meyer, for example, argues that “in a world where the metrics of the carbon economy have become a major issue, it may come as a surprise that intact cold desert shrublands [such as North America’s Great Basin] can sequester significant amounts of carbon, both as biomass and in the form of SOC (soil organic carbon).” Likewise, “xerophytic shrubs,” she explains, “invest heavily in belowground biomass, placing fixed carbon in an environment where it turns over only very slowly. In order for humans to gain this important ecosystem service,” she continues, “desert shrublands must be kept intact.” She concludes that “the best use of cold desert shrublands is mitigation of both short term and long term climate disruption.”
In short, it seems clear that deserts don’t need to be greened, or walled off, or flooded, to play a significant role in mitigating climate change. We just need to leave them alone. Given the evidence for this, it is surprising that a deeply researched novel such as Ministry for the Future, written from a progressive environmentalist perspective and brim full of intriguing ideas, nevertheless continues to recirculate out-of-date xerophobic tropes about the need to green the desert.
I wish to thank the Desert Futures: Sahara/Sonora collective for the opportunity to develop this paper, originally presented at their conference at Notre Dame University, Dec. 2, 2021.
- A fair criticism of the novel is its failure to acknowledge the roots of these legal ideas in Indigenous cultures. For a quick overview of this topic, see Ruby Russell, “Rights of Nature: Can Indigenous Traditions Shape Environmental Law?“
- It’s worth noting here that Robinson has been an enthusiastic advocate for dirigibles and blimps as carbon-neutral forms of air travel. They appear in a number of his novels, including New York 2140 and the Mars trilogy. Similarly he also advocates a return to sailing ships that use high tech sails and hydrofoils.)