back to the garden
© John D. Liu, May 2019
For the past three years a team of international engineers and ecologists called The Weather Makers, (named after the book of the same name by Professor Tim Flannery), have been working on an audacious hypothesis. This far-flung group of researchers and engineers has been designing a restoration project informed by a thesis that has the potential to change the future of the Earth and Human Civilization. To understand what is being considered requires some specific background.
Observing the Earth from Space one cannot help but notice that North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia look very different from most of the other lands around the world. A massive slash of light gold and flaxen colour across a broad region surrounding the cradle of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world highlights arid and desert lands. It is as if a gigantic painter took a huge brush and drew it across the Earth from the left to the right in a graceful but devastating stroke. This view does not easily suggest place names like “The Land of Milk and Honey” or “The Garden of Eden”.
While the earliest writings from the western world come from this region it is only in the last few decades that we could leave the Earth and see this view from Space. We are compelled to consider what it means that the lands surrounding the cradles of all of the early western civilizations are deserts. We are also compelled to imagine how important it would be to be able to describe what caused the desertification of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia? We might also wish to consider whether understanding the cause might help us reverse the impact?
The broad concept that the Weather Makers have been pursuing synthesizes data from many disciplines including physics, geology, microbiology, botany, atmospheric science, hydrology, meteorology and human history. Their multi-dimensional meta-analysis concludes that the massive desertification shown in the satellite image above is human-induced and could be restored.
The Weather Makers are not the first to identify a crucial geographical point that seems to control the fate of the moisture availability for this part of the world and consequently the sweep of human history. The Sinai Peninsula is the historical crossroads at the heart of much of early western development. Although it has always been considered as prime real estate it may ultimately be recognized more for its ecological function than its political and military significance.
[Source: Radarsat-1/Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM)]
It is clear that over historical time people in the Sinai interrupted the natural evolutionary succession that had fully vegetated the land. The trajectory is similar to other parts of the world including those that I have studied in the cradle of Chinese civilization in the Loess Plateau. De-vegetation led to desertification and a host of negative feedback loops. Just as I have witnessed in other parts of the world removing the vegetation causes direct physical changes including massively increased land surface temperatures. The increased temperature create thermal drafts that push all available moist air high into the upper atmosphere disrupting cloud formation near the Earth and massively reducing local precipitation.
Studies of the region including soil core samples reveal that the flow of biodiversity over evolutionary time came from biomes associated with the Indian Ocean. This suggests that the dominant wind direction was from the South. These studies also show that at a certain point in the distant past the wind changed direction and began to flow from the North to the South. This change would have caused a massive shift from delivering moisture-laden air from the Indian Ocean and cycling the regional moisture in the lower atmosphere to creating a wind stream that resembles a vacuum that pulls the moisture away from the region. If you play that scenario forward over thousands of years a plausible explanation emerges for the huge yellow area in North Africa, the Middle East and up into Central Asia that we see from Space.
Understanding how the Earth was scarred in this way makes it possible to visualize the solution. If we re-vegetate the Sinai Peninsula we will lower the surface temperatures holding the moisture in the lower hydrological cycle. If we faithfully complete this task we will alter the wind speed and the wind direction and this would bring back the winds from the South over the Sinai that carries the moist air from the Indian Ocean. This would fundamentally change the future of human civilization.
The team members that are developing this innovative design are not typical tree huggers. They are mainly idealistic young engineers working in an enormous industrial conglomerate. They are bright professionals and young parents that believe that industry can and should have a conscience. As we face increasingly catastrophic impacts from climate change we most definitely need to transform the industries associated with the causes of ecological destruction. The Weather Makers are showing that industry could not only stop doing harm but could use the enormous capabilities that they have to actively restore what has been damaged.
When one reaches a certain level of understanding analysis shifts from the problem to solutions. Numerous already proven techniques have been identified that if implemented have the potential to restore soil, vegetation, reduce temperatures and help regulate the Earth’s climate.
Example of living machine using solar energy (photosynthesis) to remediate water and soils and produce organic energy [Source: John Todd & Organica Ecotechnologies]
Talented and committed ecologists who have decades of experience are joining together to design a future that is based on restoring ecological function to areas that have been destroyed over historical time. The satisfaction and the potential are perhaps now not well understood by many but among those who work on this, there is a growing realization that we are standing at the cusp of a major breakthrough that cannot be denied and must be implemented as soon as possible.
Over the last three decades of documenting degraded lands in China, Central Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North and South America, and Australia. I have observed that there are many landscapes on the Earth where the sand blows over the ruins of once great civilizations. My knowledge of dysfunctional ecosystems drove me to want to experience functional ones and this led me to spend yet more years observing and documenting intact grasslands, wetlands, forests, coastal regions, mountains all over the world. I’ve also been learning how to restore degraded landscapes in many parts of the world. My conclusion is that there is nothing wrong with the Earth systems but there is something very wrong with human systems. The path I see emerging from this understanding is that “we don’t have to accept degraded states” we have to fix them and we can.
In my experience, the differences between functional and dysfunctional ecosystems can be understood by measuring three main indicators. They are biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter (necromass). These factors in functional systems are the basis of a series of processes that create, constantly filter and continuously renew the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle, and soil fertility as well as nurturing diverse life forms. The absence of these factors in dysfunctional systems is the cause of increased surface temperatures, extreme evaporation rates, lack of infiltration and retention of rainfall, wind speed, wind direction and atmospheric vortex activity.
As we face increasingly catastrophic impacts from human-induced climate change it is high time we ask some fundamental questions about value. How can anyone believe that the commercial production of anything that human beings produce could be more valuable than the natural ecological functions that create, constantly filter and continuously renew the Earth’s atmosphere, hydrological cycle, fertile living soils and miraculous biodiversity?
Studying ecology and striving to understand the human impact on climate change requires taking a different perspective on history than the one taught in most history books.
Where I went to school history was taught as if those cultures that enslaved and dominated or killed their enemies were the “winners”. My own experiences as a journalist and as an ecological researcher suggest that when human beings are enslaved and dominated or killed there can be no winners. We are all losers. So much pain and suffering have emerged over millennia through selfishness, blood feuds and pointless megalomania and it is clear that this toxic behaviour has poisoned our air, water and soil. The degraded landscapes we see reflect our degraded consciousness and we need to actively work to make it fertile and clean.
All my experiences tell me that it is possible to restore the Sinai and the evidence is mounting showing exactly how to do it. The principles of ecology are applicable everywhere on the Earth and if we apply these in our gardens we can quickly see the results. If we were to apply these principles on the Sinai in an action as determined as building the Pyramids then in the fullness of time we would see fundamental changes that won’t leave a giant edifice to our hubris but will return gentle streams flowing through forests and grasslands. We need to do this in the Sinai and everywhere on the Earth.