Apparently desertification, the degradation of arable, productive farmland into barren desert, is the "greatest environmental challenge of our time." At least that's how the UN's top drylands official, Luc Gnacadja, sees it.
Today kicks off the UN decade for the fight against desertification. Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, warns, "The top 20cm of soil is all that stands between us and extinction."
Land conflicts in Somalia, dust storms in Asia and the food price crises of recent years all stem from the degradation of land, he said, due to overuse by humans and the impacts of global warming. Since the early 1980s, a quarter of the planet's land has been despoiled and 1% a year continues to be lost.
The better known issues of climate change and loss of biodiversity are both rooted in the global loss of fertile soil, said Gnacadja, as the soil harbours a huge stock of carbon and the health of creatures living in the soil underpins global food production and forest growth. The reason desertification has not been a priority is because 90% of the 2.1 billion people who live in drylands live in developing countries, he said.
" Even in their own countries, they are the poorest among the poor and live in remote areas," said Gnacadja. " The world is driven by city dwellers: political leaders are setting agendas to satisfy people who live in the cities, we therefore tend to perceive soil as just dust, or mud, or a dumping place. But if we don't preserve that first 20cm of soil, where will we get our food and water from?" Half the world's livestock are raised on drylands and a third of crops, especially wheat.
Gnacadja is pushing for carbon credits to be earned by drylands people for preserving their land. I don't know how well that's going to go over. Paying people to not harm themselves, for not destroying their own property perhaps isn't as straightforward as it sounds.
Desertification leads to starvation and that leads to wars of subsistence and other perils. It is intertwined with a gaggle of environmental challenges beginning with the big two - global warming and freshwater exhaustion - and includes deforestation, species extinction and migration, resource depletion, disease and pest migration, air/soil/water contamination, the collapse of fisheries, drought and the increasing frequency of severe storm events and, underlying them all, overpopulation and global security threats.
Here's the thing. You can't fight any one of these successfully unless you fight them all. They're all interconnected. They all share some common causes and they all require some similar solutions. Gnacadja is right. That top 20 cms. of soil is all that stands between civilization and extinction but so does that onion-skin of atmosphere that wraps our planet and so does the distribution and recycling of the earth's freshwater resources. Without them life becomes a matter of weeks, days or even minutes.
What I find frustrating in the annual climate change summits is that world leaders take global warming in isolation and then try to apply skewed mechanisms that ultimately block effective solutions. At the end of the day the only thing that can block carbon emissions is carbon rationing enforced through effective carbon pricing - the very policy that Harper and Layton used to destroy the Dion Liberals.
These challenges need responses that measure the problems and calibrate the responses according to what is required to rectify them, not a haze of negotiations, dubious "targets" and offsets. These are organic, living problems and that means they're moving targets which defy convoluted solutions based on out of date data. All you can do with the current approach is to chase your tail.
This isn't about saving the earth. The earth will be fine. It isn't about saving the trees. They'll be fine too. It is entirely about saving mankind and preserving our civilization but in a form that can live in harmony with the very finite limits of our biosphere. Even if you believe that biblical claptrap about god promising never to destroy earth again this has nothing to do with a god destroying anything. It is solely mankind that's destroying, not the planet, but man's and a lot of other animals' ability to keep living on earth. Your god has nothing to do with this. This one's on you.
I feel badly for Stephane Dion. He had the vision we need in our leaders but he utterly failed to lead the Canadian public to his vision or to defend his vision against the unscrupulous attacks of Stephen Harper and Jack Layton.