[LMB] OT: Practice for terraforming Beta Colony on Earthly deserts.

Beatrice Otter beatrice_otter at zoho.com
Mon Jun 21 02:07:03 BST 2021

---- On Sun, 20 Jun 2021 16:47:10 -0700 Sylvia McIvers <mailto:sylviamcivers at gmail.com> wrote ---- 
So here's a question for the list mind. 
People are reforesting, and people are praising that. 
Most re-foresting is a reclamation of old forests that were ruined by 
agriculture, but given the new techniques, some people want to shrink the 
deserts. Reclaim the land for ... wait for it ... agriculture. 
Do you think it's likely, and what effect do you think that damaging a 
desert ecology will have, a generation or two down the line? 
Timeline - ploughing the prairie a la Little House by Laura Ingalls to the 
Great Dust Bowl of 1930, eventually blamed on pulling up prairie grasses 
with their long roots, ~100 years. Ma & Pa Ingalls were safely dead, Laura 
died in 1957.   She was 72 years old when J Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath 
in 1939, but I don't know if people realized the cause of the Dust Bowl at 
the time. 

Beatrice Otter:

My grandma was an Okie. People did understand at the time that plowing the prairie under caused the dust bowl. But it didn't matter. There were a number of factors going on that drove the increasing plowing of the prairie *even in the midst of the Dust Bowl when they knew it was just making things worse*.

1) Ideology. Prairie land is wild, untamed, given to us by God to be used! Progress must happen! (European-style) Agriculture is the mark of Civilization and the small family farm is the ideal to which every American should aspire! Ecological damage is irrelevant, if you even understand what it is, because crop farming is inherently Good and Right and Moral and Civilized and we are Taming The West and Bringing Civilization which means White Farmers On Family Farms!

2) Government policy. Homesteading and other government policies to encourage farming, all shaped by the ideology in point one. (BTW, the Homestead Act was in operation until the 1980s, and there was still large-scale homesteading up through the 1920s. I know this because my great-grandfather and several of his brothers homesteaded in North Dakota starting in 1916.)

3) Money. In a good year, with modern machinery you can grow a SHIT TON of grain, and then sell it, it's very profitable. Somewhat for the farmers, but mostly for large-scale food processing plants which were growing by leaps and bounds at the time. Also, very profitable for people trading commodities on the exchanges. If you have a good year, plow up more land so you can plant more next year and have an even better year! If you have a bad year, plow up more land so you can plant more next year to make up for what you didn't make this year! No matter what the problem is, the solution is always the same: plow up more land so you can have a bigger crop next year!

4) Emphasis on current good results and not on future bad results. Sure, people had been talking about "why we shouldn't completely plow up the prairies" for a couple of decades before the Dust Bowl hit, but they didn't know how bad things were going to be until they were in the middle of it, and also, mostly people didn't believe that anything bad was going to happen. The prairies were so lush and green! Nobody realized that the Midwest has a cycle that lasts decades looping from dry to wet and back again. You have a really dry decade or two, some medium decades, a really wet decade or two, some medium decades, and back again. Homesteading on the plains started with the beginning of the cycle going from dry to wet; they assumed that the wet part of the cycle was the way it always was, and didn't listen to the people who'd been living there for centuries. Anyway, most people didn't believe it possible that human industry could change the climate for the worst, because (European-Style) Agriculture is Progress and Progress Is Always Good (see point 1). Many of those who had a problem with turning the prairie into cropland weren't objecting out of any scientific understanding of environmental factors, they were just operating on a Romantic desire for The Untamed Wilderness and wanted to keep it "wild". Which made it really easy for the hard-nosed Progress! types to ignore and pooh-pooh the few people who actually did have enough knowledge of the plains ecosystem to spot the Dust Bowl coming.

4) Lack of other options. Okay, so you've got your farm, which you or your parents homesteaded. You have no training in anything else *but* farming. You have no resources to *get* training in anything else; there are lots of government programs to help farmers be the most efficient and best farmers they can be, but none to retrain you to do something *other* than farming. You have no money besides what you need to run your farm and live off of (and less than that, once the Dust Bowl sets in). The only asset you have is your equipment and your land ... and the value of both of those things plummets once the Dust Bowl sets in. By a couple of years into the Dust Bowl, everyone knows what causes it; you can *see* that areas that are still prairie are faring *waaaaaaaay* better than those that are plowed and have a crop on them. But there was no other option for a farmer. What are you supposed to do, starve? And the prairie grasses are already plowed under on your land; you don't have the money or knowledge to re-plant them, and anyway if you did, then what would your family eat? And see point 3 about "the answer to both good and bad years is to plow more land in the hope that next year will be better."

My grandmother was ... rather bitter about all of this, and if you got her going, could hold forth on "why they should never have brought the plow to the prairies"

As for shrinking the deserts, pretty much every project (proposed or actual) I have heard about is to reclaim land that deserts took because of human-made climate change. For example, several provinces in China were devastated by industrialized unsustainable farming and mining in the first half of the 20th Century, and large swathes of those turned into deserts. Several of them have been reclaimed and turned back into productive agricultural land through the use of sustainable farming techniques. Africa, also, saw the Sahara expand dramatically over the course of the late 20th Century, as a product of the so-called "Green Revolution" which had the idea that mechanized European-style farming was always superior to the local methods. This was not the case, and there is a huge effort (still in the early stages, but very promising) to push back the desert and reclaim the land with a combination of going back to traditional farming techniques + research by local scientists on sustainable ways to improve their traditional farming techniques.

The only proposal I've heard of for turning desert into green space that *isn't* just reclaiming land the desert took in the last century or so is a proposal to re-green the Sinai Peninsula. Not to use it for agricultural purposes (though this may follow) but rather to mitigate the desertification of farmland in the surrounding regions. A lot of wind sweeps over Sinai, and if it picks up even a little bit more moisture there, it would bring moisture to areas that used to be wetter but have become desertified through human development. Egypt is considering it as an investment in stability. When farmland turns into desert, people lose their livelihood, and it becomes much easier to radicalize them.

Beatrice Otter

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