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  • Translator: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Morton Bast

  • 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 soonerthis 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.

  • Loving elephants as I do,

  • that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life,

  • and I will carry that to my grave.

  • One good thing did come out of it.

  • It made me absolutely determined

  • to devote my life to finding solutions.

  • When I came to the United States, I got a shock,

  • to find national parks like this one

  • desertifying as badly as anything in Africa.

  • And there'd been no livestock on this land

  • for over 70 years.

  • And I found that American scientists

  • had no explanation for this

  • except that it is arid and natural.

  • So I then began looking

  • at all the research plots I could

  • over the whole of the Western United States

  • where cattle had been removed

  • to prove that it would stop desertification,

  • but I found the opposite,

  • as we see on this research station,

  • where this grassland that was green in 1961,

  • by 2002 had changed to that situation.

  • And the authors of the position paper on climate change

  • from which I obtained these pictures

  • attribute this change to "unknown processes."

  • Clearly, we have never understood

  • what is causing desertification,

  • which has destroyed many civilizations

  • and now threatens us globally.

  • We have never understood it.

  • Take one square meter of soil

  • and make it bare like this is down here,

  • and I promise you, you will find it much colder at dawn

  • and much hotter at midday

  • than that same piece of ground if it's just covered with litter,

  • plant litter.

  • You have changed the microclimate.

  • Now, by the time you are doing that

  • and increasing greatly the percentage of bare ground

  • on more than half the world's land,

  • you are changing macroclimate.

  • But we have just simply not understood

  • why was it beginning to happen 10,000 years ago?

  • Why has it accelerated lately?

  • We had no understanding of that.

  • What we had failed to understand

  • was that these seasonal humidity environments of the world,

  • the soil and the vegetation

  • developed with very large numbers of grazing animals,

  • and that these grazing animals

  • developed with ferocious pack-hunting predators.

  • Now, the main defense against pack-hunting predators

  • is to get into herds,

  • and the larger the herd, the safer the individuals.

  • Now, large herds dung and urinate all over their own food,

  • and they have to keep moving,

  • and it was that movement

  • that prevented the overgrazing of plants,

  • while the periodic trampling

  • ensured good cover of the soil,

  • as we see where a herd has passed.

  • This picture is a typical seasonal grassland.

  • It has just come through four months of rain,

  • and it's now going into eight months of dry season.

  • And watch the change as it goes into this long dry season.

  • Now, all of that grass you see aboveground

  • has to decay biologically

  • before the next growing season, and if it doesn't,

  • the grassland and the soil begin to die.

  • Now, if it does not decay biologically,

  • it shifts to oxidation, which is a very slow process,

  • and this smothers and kills grasses,

  • leading to a shift to woody vegetation

  • and bare soil, releasing carbon.

  • To prevent that, we have traditionally used fire.

  • But fire also leaves the soil bare, releasing carbon,

  • and worse than that,

  • burning one hectare of grassland

  • gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants

  • than 6,000 cars.

  • And we are burning in Africa, every single year,

  • more than one billion hectares of grasslands,

  • and almost nobody is talking about it.

  • We justify the burning, as scientists,

  • because it does remove the dead material

  • and it allows the plants to grow.

  • Now, looking at this grassland of ours that has gone dry,

  • what could we do to keep that healthy?

  • And bear in mind, I'm talking of most of the world's land now.

  • Okay? We cannot reduce animal numbers to rest it more

  • without causing desertification and climate change.

  • We cannot burn it without causing

  • desertification and climate change.

  • What are we going to do?

  • There is only one option,

  • I'll repeat to you, only one option

  • left to climatologists and scientists,

  • and that is to do the unthinkable,

  • and to use livestock,

  • bunched and moving,

  • as a proxy for former herds and predators,

  • and mimic nature.

  • There is no other alternative left to mankind.

  • So let's do that.

  • So on this bit of grassland, we'll do it, but just in the foreground.

  • We'll impact it very heavily with cattle to mimic nature,

  • and we've done so, and look at that.

  • All of that grass is now covering the soil

  • as dung, urine and litter or mulch,

  • as every one of the gardeners amongst you would understand,

  • and that soil is ready to absorb and hold the rain,

  • to store carbon, and to break down methane.

  • And we did that,

  • without using fire to damage the soil,

  • and the plants are free to grow.

  • When I first realized

  • that we had no option as scientists

  • but to use much-vilified livestock

  • to address climate change and desertification,

  • I was faced with a real dilemma.

  • How were we to do it?

  • We'd had 10,000 years of extremely knowledgeable pastoralists

  • bunching and moving their animals,

  • but they had created the great manmade deserts of the world.

  • Then we'd had 100 years of modern rain science,

  • and that had accelerated desertification,

  • as we first discovered in Africa

  • and then confirmed in the United States,

  • and as you see in this picture

  • of land managed by the federal government.

  • Clearly more was needed

  • than bunching and moving the animals,

  • and humans, over thousands of years,

  • had never been able to deal with nature's complexity.

  • But we biologists and ecologists

  • had never tackled anything as complex as this.

  • So rather than reinvent the wheel,

  • I began studying other professions to see if anybody had.

  • And I found there were planning techniques

  • that I could take and adapt to our biological need,

  • and from those I developed what we call

  • holistic management and planned grazing,

  • a planning process,

  • and that does address all of nature's complexity

  • and our social, environmental, economic complexity.