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Greening the world's deserts with lots of cows

Since I was a kid, the idea of greening the Sahara desert (and smaller deserts) looked immensely noble to me. Now, Anthony Watts became unusually excited about a particular approach to this goal, one that involves the propagation of cows (and some other, related or unrelated ideas).

A bridge in the climate debate – How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change (WUWT)
His excitement was ignited by the following 22-minute L.A. TED talk by Allan Savory:



It may be a good idea to watch it before we discuss it.




First, the talk was very persuasive but at the beginning, I wasn't repelled just by the phrase "reverse climate change" in the title of the talk. My disapproval continued at the beginning of the talk. In the first minutes, Savory said that having lots of people – e.g. 10 billion people – is the biggest problem of a sort, and so on. You probably know that I consider these "population limit worries" irrational.

The Earth hosts more than 7 billion people simply because the people were able to overtake the space, resources, and potential, and the Earth was able to offer them. As soon as at least one condition ceases to hold, the population growth may slow down or get reverted. There's no sign that any "global pressures" of this kind are already acting. The growing population isn't a cause of big problems in nearby future; it's a consequence of having no big problems in the past.

And you may remember some of my estimates suggesting that even with the current technologies and almost nothing new, the Earth could easily host 20 billion people. With the predictable propagation of evolved technologies, 50 billion or 100 billion don't seem to be a problem. Before you say that I am silly, you should realize that you are silly if you claim that these scenarios are impossible. The same invalid "no-go theorem" could have been said at any moment in the history – when the Earth hosted 1 billion people, 100 million people, or even fewer people. None of these predictions had any reasons to be right and none of them was right.




But let me get to the beef of the talk, the positive stuff.

I agree that the desertification is probably the #1 process that negatively contributes to the value of some land. About 2/3 of the Earth's landmass is something that could be called "desert" in a broader sense. The deserts may see lots of precipitation but the soil isn't covered and these huge amounts of water simply evaporate (plus other processes).

Even when there's some grass, the underlying soil may be bare and covered by algae, and this situation still leads to lots of undesirable evaporation. Cattle is generally believed to eat grass and contribute to desertification (methane farts indirectly pump the carbon atoms into the atmosphere which is also bad because the biomass "permanently" leaves the soil). In fact, the speaker himself once determined it would have been a good idea to shoot 40,000 elephants. The desertification got worse. He will carry the bad conscience to his grave, we hear. He decided he had to find a solution.

When he came to the U.S., he was shocked by some arid desert-like national parks. He was told it was natural. He wanted to prove that cattle caused the desertification but he found the opposite. Other "experts" attributed the desertification to unknown processes. Ordinary litter on the surface reduces temperature fluctuations.

He described the healthy ecosystem in which predators force the cattle to run from place to another place and uniformly s*it and p*ss at, or what are the polite verbs, the land. People replaced some of the processes with artificial fires that reduce the dead material and allow the plants to grow. He explains how bad this policy is, not only because the fires produce lots of toxins.

Fine, at 12:20, he proposes to emulate the bunched and running cattle by artificially moving livestock. Lots of it.

The lying grass with feces on it is able to store the humidity and carbon. So in his plan to compensate his genocide of the elephants, Savory is teaching pedagogically talented African women to teach how to bunch the animals and do other things. It seems to work: crop fields increase in regions treated in this way (which involve a five-fold increase of cows). The pictures look impressive. He literally turned deserts to something that looks like the Czech landscape. Sheep in Patagonia did something similar.

At 19:00 he mentions fossil fuels, but thankfully not as the largest problem. He still wants to eliminate fossil fuels but says it won't help. He also claims that the cow-treated de-desertification can lead to the absorption of CO2 and return the concentration to pre-industrial levels which I don't consider to be a good thing but greening 1/2 of the world's deserts would be more important.

I think it's common sense that if this treatment of flocks of animals makes the land locally fertile, they should do so. At the end, the host asks Savory what do the large flocks of animals eat if everything is dry to start with. I didn't understand Savory's answer. His talk was nice but I would still prefer a version of the talk that is stripped of tendentious claims about fossil fuels, the need to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, and concerns about the population bomb.

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reader John said...

Bulldust. Australia's semi arid areas have been covered with as many cows as the country can support for more than 100 years but they aren't getting greener.


reader George Christodoulides said...

we organised an event about the design of energy efficient buildings on saturday and instead all we heard was about global warming, the end of the world, consumerism and bad capitalism. nothing about design. they were undercover communists.


reader Cees de Valk said...

Yesterday, I checked the criticism by one of his adversaries, Sam Fuhlendorf, on http://www.ted.com/conversations/16860/campaign_to_get_the_un_to_offe.html, who refers to Rangeland Ecol Manage 61:3–17 (2008) as disproof of Savory's claims (see http://agrilifecdn.tamu.edu/briske/files/2013/01/REMSynthesis08_13.pdf).

Have a look at their Figure 1. It shows that with relatively high stocking rate combined with rotation (as advocated by Savory), production per area increases while not reducing standing crop. Pretty much like Savories claims (as far as you can conclude anything from such experiments; it seems to me that it would be very difficult and expensive to carry them out properly). But their misleading discussion arrives at just the opposite conclusion. So much for established peer-reviewed science in rangeland ecology. So although words like "holistic" put me off a bit at first, I think that Savory might actually have a good point and his ideas are worth trying. One might suspect that government-paid ecologists like Fuhlendorf already "know" the truth even though it is contradicted by the experimental data, and publish this stuff to defend existing policy of banning cattle from government-owned land.


reader Bob Bateman said...

John,
Regarding Australian rangelands, do you know the herd densities and land rotation policies over the last hundred years there?


reader windy2 said...

To me the most stunning aspect of the talk came at the 11 minute mark where he admits that Africa burns 1,000,000,000 hectares of grassland per year and each hectare burnt emits the pollution of 6,000 automobiles. By my maths that is an equivalent of 6,000,000,000,000 automobiles which is 95,000 times the amount of automobiles in the USA.

If you recall at COP-17 in Durban South Africa a group of scientists tried to draw attention to the CO2e being caused by land use change being greater than that of fossil fuel use based emissions but they were censored by the UN. Why are we only focused on fossil fuel pollution when it may only be a small contributor?


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Windy, your question is a good one but it also has a good answer. Grassland is "renewable" so if you burn it every year and it grows again, the amount of carbon stored in the soil vs the atmosphere is the same after another year.


Fossil fuels don't regrow like that.


From this viewpoint, the burning - however large - is mostly irrelevant for the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere because it's just one side of a coin that inevitably has both sides.


reader thejollygreenman said...

Hi Lubos,

I watched the talk by the 'Hooray Henry' Savory last night and was not impressed. I know his type, they are mostly engaged as Safari guides and earn their keep spinning yarns about big game and game hunting to gullible American tourists. At night, sitting around a camp fire, whilst burning ticks off his ball bag with his Bic lighter, tourists can be spell-bounded by factoids that a lioness mates for 25 hours when she gets in season, and the lion copulates more than 40 times during this mating session. Cue blushing honeymooners when these facts related.

His talk failed to mention the rainfall cycles that are a common feature in that part of the world. I know the area very well and have actually worked in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was called before liberation by the Marxists.

He failed to mention or understand the greening of the planet that is taking place because of the increased carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.

If you want to find out how to make a desert green, look no further than Israel. There they have developed drip irrigation systems that deliver water direct to the roots of a tree, and also a system of covering the soil with plastic membranes with holes at regular spacing through which the plantings can grow.

Lastly, anybody who walks with shorts in the African bush is a fool and deserves to get tick-bite fever. Look at the difference in the uniforms worn by the Rhodesian troops and the South Africans. Long trousers prevent ticks getting to your family jewels and also reduces the chances of a direct fatal snake bite.


reader thejollygreenman said...

Hi Lubos,


Sorry, but I thought it was common sense to realise that the grass must decay, either through the gut of game or cattle, or a veld fire. I could never understand the argument that cattle, which assists this compost making cycle, be blamed. The grass will rot, decay, and form compost with or without animals.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Jolly Green Man, I wanted to write exactly the things you did but didn't want to break Anthony's toy right away. ;-)


reader anna v said...

but isn't part of his point that the burnt areas do not regrow but desertify?

Anyway, one would need more data to trust such extrapolations. I have personal experience with goats and doubt anybody's claim that a large herd of goats will help anything regrow. They climb up and eat the trees not only the grass.


reader thejollygreenman said...

Holistic is a word coined by Field-Marshall JC Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa and Minister in the British war cabinets of both WWI and WWII. He was one of the main drivers behind the establishment of the Royal Air Force as an independent arm of the Military. As an amateur interested in the flora of South Africa he studied field grasses and has a grass type that he identified named after him. That grass species is still one of the main seeds sown on fields used for cattle ranching. Holistic is a good word if applied correctly.


reader papertiger0 said...

The NYTimes did a write up on Peter Frampton's predicament the other day.

The Professor, the Bikini Model and the Suitcase Full of Trouble.



Thought you might like to see it, Boss.


reader Honza said...

What fascinates me is his enthusiasm and almost religious belief in being right no matter what. Also, he can set the win-win scenario quite nicely.

He gets the idea that the desertification is caused by elephants - kills 40,000 of them, but that is obviously no problem for environmental groups, as afterwords they can just declare another emergency, namely endangerment of elephants. They of course will not bother to identify the real cause. And if he gets another idea which will backfire into his face, he will just create another emergency which can be used. ("You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Rahm Emanuel)

What this guy is missing is any kind of accountability.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Right. I had these feelings, too!


reader John H. said...

True but a few months ago I saw a doco by an aged Australian agricultural chemist who had transformed arid soil into fertile soil with a few clever tricks, particularly introducing certain bacterial specimens into the soil. I think there is real hope in greening deserts, in fact I consider that it should be an ongoing research project for Australia because so much of this place is a bloody desert. We can do this, I know this because I have played Masters of Orion 2 and soil enrichment is possible so there. :) Here is one study that touches on a different but like approach. http://www.ajbasweb.com/ajbas/2012/March/826-839.pdf. This one looks at cattle manure as a source of improvement: http://www.readperiodicals.com/201112/2565600611.html#b


reader Luboš Motl said...

Right, John H. Your recipe sounds as a more modern attitude. One doesn't have to run kilotons of cows if the only real goal is to pump a few bacteria to the soil...


reader Peter F. said...

More rain-dancing is also to be recommended! (Seriously, clever water management must be the surest way to improve such conditions.)


reader windy2 said...

Thanks. What will happen if Dr. Savory gets everyone to replace burning the grass with using livestock to remove grass and wouldn't that reduce aerosols too?


reader John H. said...

Yes Peter, most of our water goes in the wrong direction: North. I'm too ignorant to analyse it all but apparently water diversion from the northern Aust rivers down south is very expensive. It was proposed in the 1930's(Baron River near Cairns. http://johnston-independent.com/bradfield_scheme_a.html). Nonetheless I cannot see why this can't be done on a gradual basis so that we can learn from our inevitable mistakes before taking on the really big projects. We built the Ord River Scheme on the premise the crops would grow well up there and the people would come. Hasn't happened, too friggin' hot and too many bugs. The liberals in WA did propose a water diversion scheme in the election before last but that crashed and burned and the federal coalition recently proposed a massive Northern Australian scheme but that was just a discussion paper with cliff notes structure which is like incredibly stupid way to conduct a discussion. Geo-engineering is the future and Australia is ideally placed to take advantage of that, especially given our expertise in agriculture and mining. The greenies and the aborigines will hate the idea of transforming the desert. If they like the desert so much they can go live there and not bother the rest of us.


reader Gordon Wilson said...

lol. Peter Frampton wouldn't know an elementary particle from an elephant. He is a British rock musician. You mean "Paul"...:)


reader Gene Day said...

Savory is profoundly unscientific in attitude and could compete with Al Gore for the world championship in that category.
The big problem is that he (and Gore) frees his audience from the need to actually think; all they need do is BELIEVE. The audience is relieved of responsibility and the preacher makes a good living, sometimes a very good living. It’s a winning combination.


reader papertiger0 said...

Awww. I robbed Peter, and gave Paul. Subconsciously.




This probably means I'm a Sleeper Democrat, waiting on the code word to activate my inner zombie. lol.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Right. And the officially presented motivation is flavored with would-be moral imperatives. He has killed elephants so of course everyone has to wish him to undo the murder. He wants to make you believe that it's immoral to even question whether the theory he is presenting and the explanations of the greening lands are true.


reader Chad Jessup said...

I was raised on a 25,000 acre cattle ranch in the high desert area of northern California where we would improve some land by pasturing cattle on it and feeding them baled hay. The following year we could harvest that land by adding some fertilizer (in addition to the vast amount of manure previously deposited by the cattle) and WATER, not by bunching cattle and running them around for a while.



There are desert areas where the soil is rich but, like the Sahara, just lacks moisture.


reader Shannon said...

A great majority of TED presenters are full of themselves in one way or another.


reader Honza said...

I came across the commentary on the Allan Savory talk written by Chris Clark and Quoted on PZ Myers Blog.

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/03/15/ted-talk-spreading-bullshit-about-the-desert/

It makes a nice point of being great difference between desert and desertified grassland But, for AGW supporting people which they are, I was surprised by this sentence, they use against Savory:

[H]e says stuff in the talk like “There is no other option” but to follow his program, a phrase that should cause any sane person to back away slowly with her hand firmly protecting her wallet.



For once I can totally agree on a point with AGW alarmists. I doubt that they realize what they are saying. ;-)


reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, what an irony...


reader Bernhard Jordan said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-nsU_DaIZE