“Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert,” begins Allan Savory in this quietly powerful TED talk. And terrifyingly, it’s happening to about two-thirds of the world’s grasslands, accelerating climate change and causing traditional grazing societies to descend into social chaos. Savory has devoted his life to stopping it. He now believes — and his work so far shows — that a surprising factor can protect grasslands and even reclaim degraded land that was once desert. – TED.com
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Allan Savory – How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change
Allan Savory – President and founder, Savory Institute
The most massive tsunami perfect storm is bearing down upon us. This perfect storm is mounting a grim reality, increasingly grim reality, and we are facing that reality with the full belief that we can solve our problems with technology, and that’s very understandable. Now, this perfect storm that we are facing is the result of our rising population, rising towards 10 billion people, land that is turning to desert, and, of course, climate change.
Now there’s no question about it at all: we will only solve the problem of replacing fossil fuels with technology. But fossil fuels, carbon — coal and gas — are by no means the only thing that is causing climate change.
Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert, and this happens only when we create too much bare ground. There’s no other cause. And I intend to focus on most of the world’s land that is turning to desert.
But I have for you a very simple message that offers more hope than you can imagine. We have environments where humidity is guaranteed throughout the year. On those, it is almost impossible to create vast areas of bare ground. No matter what you do, nature covers it up so quickly. And we have environments where we have months of humidity followed by months of dryness, and that is where desertification is occurring.
Fortunately, with space technology now, we can look at it from space, and when we do, you can see the proportions fairly well. Generally, what you see in green is not desertifying, and what you see in brown is, and these are by far the greatest areas of the Earth. About two thirds, I would guess, of the world is desertifying.
I took this picture in the Tihamah Desert while 25 millimeters — that’s an inch of rain — was falling. Think of it in terms of drums of water, each containing 200 liters. Over 1,000 drums of water fell on every hectare of that land that day. The next day, the land looked like this.
Where had that water gone? Some of it ran off as flooding, but most of the water that soaked into the soil simply evaporated out again, exactly as it does in your garden if you leave the soil uncovered. Now, because the fate of water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils, you give off carbon. Carbon goes back to the atmosphere.
Now you’re told over and over, repeatedly, that desertification is only occurring in arid and semi-arid areas of the world, and that tall grasslands like this one in high rainfall are of no consequence. But if you do not look at grasslands but look down into them, you find that most of the soil in that grassland that you’ve just seen is bare and covered with a crust of algae, leading to increased runoff and evaporation. That is the cancer of desertification that we do not recognize till its terminal form.
Now we know that desertification is caused by livestock, mostly cattle, sheep and goats, overgrazing the plants, leaving the soil bare and giving off methane. Almost everybody knows this, from nobel laureates to golf caddies, or was taught it, as I was.
Now, the environments like you see here, dusty environments in Africa where I grew up, and I loved wildlife, and so I grew up hating livestock because of the damage they were doing. And then my university education as an ecologist reinforced my beliefs.
Well, I have news for you. We were once just as certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then, and we are wrong again. And I want to invite you now to come along on my journey of reeducation and discovery.
When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvelous areas as future national parks. Now no sooner — this was in the 1950s — and no sooner did we remove the hunting, drum-beating people to protect the animals, than the land began to deteriorate, as you see in this park that we formed.
Now, no livestock were involved, but suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I did the research and I proved we had too many, and I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain.
Now, that was a terrible decision for me to have to make, and it was political dynamite, frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did. They agreed with me, and over the following years, we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better.