There’s no such thing as desertification

If you want evidence to support my increasingly frequent contention that environmentalists as a whole really don’t care about arid environments, it’s instructive to look at a bit of jargon in use over the last few decades.

The jargon is used to describe this process: People abuse a piece of land. They overgraze it. They build houses and cut down trees and pump water from wells, drawing down the water table. They use that water to irrigate crops, poisoning the land with accumulating dissolved salts. They start fires, by accident of on purpose, and the fires rage across the countryside. The soil’s protective coat of humus blows away. Animals die. The leaves that are green turn to brown.

In the jargon to which I refer, this process is called “desertification.”

Desertification. The transformation of useful, pleasant, healthy land—an agreed good—into desert, which is assumed to be bad.

What happens to a land that’s been “desertified”?  Fairly often, long-lived plants tend to die out and annual weeds, and their short-lived perennial associates, take over. Weeds are opportunists: they’ll grow in a hurry when moisture is available, set abundant seed, then die. They leave behind dry cellulose: fuel. Fuel feeds fires. Fires kill the remaining long-lived plants, the trees and rhizomatous herbs and such, clearing the soil for a new generation of weed seedlings.

Erosion gets ramped up as well. Water, when and where it makes an appearance, tends to gouge gullies in the landscape. Where a day-long gentle rain would have quietly soaked into the root-bound earth before “desertification,” now there’s nothing to hold it. The topography colects the gentle rain and turns it into flash floods. When the rain ebbs, wind carries away loose soil.

“Desertification” is a global problem, the official environmentalists tell us. It decreases the food security of the world’s most vulnerable people. “Desertification” is an important factor in the crisis in Darfur, in the collapse of the Mexican economy and consequent mass migration of displaced farmers, and a host of other global social crises.

Here’s a photo of “desertified” land.

desertified land in Australia

Here’s another:

desertified land in Central Asia

And another:

desertified land in Darfur

Pretty bleak stuff.

Way bleaker than most actual deserts. Here’s a desert landscape:

Arthur J. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park

Here’s another:

Christmas Tree Pass 7

And another:

Tucson Mountain Park

There is a difference between land that has been “desertified” and an actual desert. 

You may point out that I’ve deliberately sought out beautiful, lush photos to represent deserts, to contrast them unfairly with the trashed land currently referred to as “desertified.” Fair enough. Here’s a lush, beautiful photo of some bonafide “desertified” land, in the long-overgrazed Rio Puerco drainage in Arizona:


Gorgeous, lush compared to some actual desert landscapes, nice pronghorn ready for his close-up. And “desertified” rather than a desert. The Rio Puerco basin gets enough precipitation to be considered steppe rather than desert, and yet look at the monoculture of invasive grass there. There is no diversity to speak of in this shot, except for the pronghorn who can trot off to a more diverse landscape 50 miles away and get there in an hour.

Some people working on “desertification” are beginning to point out this difference between “desertified” lands and deserts, pointing out that deserts are actually diverse and more or less stable habitats with their own values to wildlife and to people, but those same activists tend to call deserts something other than deserts. “Drylands” is common. The fact is, it’s “desertification” that should be called something else. Badlandification. Dustification. Parkinglotification. Burningmanification. If we could actually turn land into desert, there’d be a lot less argument over the sites of things like massive corporate solar concentrating facilities in creosote-tortoise habitat. I’d be thrilled if we could truly desertify some of the land around Bakersfield, for instance, to take the worn-out, selenium-poisoned, groundwater overdrafted subsidized cotton fields there and grow cryptobiotic soil crusts on them, get some rabbitbrush growing and some barrel cacti and some Mojave ground squirrels established.

The problem is that actual deserts are the lands most threatened by what environmentalists call “desertification”: invasive weeds are raging through the deserts like the wildfires they spawn, water diversions cause subsidence and old tree death, and dust storms are more common in the Mojave now than they were during the Dust Bowl. To call this sterilizing of land “desertification” is to reinforce the notion that deserts are worthless, damaged things to be avoided, mended or improved upon, and certainly not places worth preserving when the alternative is cozying up to Big Green Energy.

Most chillingly, the remedy for “desertified” lands is usually referred to as “reclamation.” “Reclaiming the desert,” they call it.

Here is a photo of a reclaimed desert landscape:

waterskiier on Lake Powell

Here’s another:

Phoenix, Arizona

And another:

Bellagio and Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

  1. This is an amazing post, Chris -a perfect mix of images and words.

    It says something about how this language is insidious and pervasive that I, a person who knows and loves a variety of desert areas, hadn’t made the connection between “desertification” and “desert,” let alone the way such language makes it difficult for us to perceive the transformation of desert into “desertified” land -if it starts out as desert and is “desertified” has anything changed? -the language suggests that the answer is No.

    Lots to think on here.

  2. Beautifully written and illustrated post. Perhaps you hit on the right word for what environmentalists are talking about: sterilization. I’ve taken many trips through the desert country and loved every mile. I’ve also stopped into Vegas a few times and it always breaks my heart a little bit to think of how its water needs are destroying such beautiful places. The Bellagio fountains are supposed to be “reclaimed” desert as they say. It looks dead to me.

  3. Good point, Chris. It’s not to our advantage to use the same terminology for two very different things.

    You’ve neglected my personal favorite, golf courses in the middle of the desert. Followed by complaints that sand blows on to the greens.

  4. Yep. Language shapes perception. I’ve long been suspicious of “desertification” as being anything other than a distant concept that takes the emotion out of “rape of the environment.”