Desertification is one of the most pressing problems facing life on earth, yet we know so little about it. In May 2022, at the COP15 conference in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, participating heads of state declared that they would, “Give the highest priority to the issue of drought and desertification.”
About 40 percent of the land on earth is at risk of turning from arable land into desert. This area is home to three billion people. Desertification has already reduced agricultural productivity and incomes, leading to drought and dust storms, leading to poverty and starvation. In 2005, it is estimated that over 400,000 people died from cardiopulmonary issues associated with dust storms.
Empires fell because of desertification, including Syria’s Akkadian Empire in the third century BCE, the ancient Egyptian Kingdom, The Mayan civilization in Mexico and China’s Tang Dynasty.
The Sahel region spans north Africa, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It lies between the Sahara in the north and the Sudanian savannah in the south. It traverses 14 countries: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. According to the United Nations, millions of hectares of land are lost each year as the Sahel spreads, turning fertile soil into desert.
The Gobi Desert is the fastest expanding desert on earth. Each year 3,600 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) are turned from grassland into desert. According to the UN, in Mongolia, 90% of the grassland is at risk of desertification. And in South America, 25% of the land is considered vulnerable.
Remember the days of fundraising campaigns to plant trees in Israel? Today, Israeli technology companies are involved in the Great Green Wall initiative to rehabilitate 100 hectares (385,000 square miles) of land in the Sahel region by 2030, capturing 250 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Desertification may be partially caused by climate change, and it certainly contributes to it, because the land becomes unable to absorb and retain carbon. Dust and sand storms can have a negative impact on the climate.
In short, the loss of arable land to desert is happening at a terrifying rate and will affect the entire globe with its potential to bring with it famine, drought, violence, illness and death, and displacement of millions of people from their homes.
Allan Savory has dedicated his life to the fight against desertification. Born in Bulawayo (which is now in Zimbabwe) and educated in South Africa, he has spent decades studying the underlying causes of land degradation.
It quickly became apparent to him that the main issue was overgrazing of the land by animals. In the 1950s, he was involved in setting aside large areas of land which became national parks, removing farms, people and livestock, in order to allow the grass and trees to grow and spread and push back the desert. But the land began to deteriorate even more rapidly.
Savory did his research, looked at the data, and came to the conclusion that elephants were the problem. In a TED talk, Savory said, “I did the research and I proved that we had too many. I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers, and bring them down, to a level that the land could sustain.”
Stop and think about that for a minute. What would you do if you were trying to save the land from the encroaching desert, but the solution would involve killing thousands of elephants? On the one hand, your research has shown you that this is the only way of potentially saving millions of lives in the future. On the other hand, would you be prepared to pull the trigger and order the cull of the largest terrestrial animals? Think of the political repercussions. What would it mean for conservation efforts or anti-hunting measures if the government began slaughtering elephants?
“It 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,” Savory said in his Ted Talk. “And it got worse, not better.”
After culling tens of thousands of elephants, the desert continued to encroach. Savory had not only killed the elephants but destroyed the land he was trying to save.
“Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life and I will carry that to my grave,” he said.
Can you imagine the weight of that fateful decision to cull the elephants, and then living with the knowledge that it was exactly the wrong thing to have done.
Rather than give up, Savory determined to dedicate his life to finding solutions for the danger of desertification.
He came to a conclusion that he calls holistic management. He says that livestock is not the problem. Rather, it is the fact that livestock is kept penned within fences and farms, rather than being allowed to roam free across the landscape. When animals graze, they also fertilize the plants as they go. They spread seeds and create plant litter which stores carbon and improves the climate.
Thousands of years of nomadic farmers and wild animals had prevented the spread of the Sahel region. Confining people and animals to small areas allowed the Sahel to take over more and more fertile ground. In other words, as Savory puts it, “The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow.”
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.
He has used holistic management to improve and reclaim areas of desert, turning barren, dry soil into green, lush arable land. His research has increased food yields and saved families from poverty.
His work spans 15 million hectares on five continents. But this is just a drop in the bucket. There is still so much more to do. Hopefully the world will act before it is too late.
For months, I have been haunted by Savory’s decision to cull the elephants. With hindsight, it was the biggest blunder he ever made. But what would I have done if I had been in his shoes at the time? Every decision we make has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are unforeseeable or unknown. But in this case, thinking it was the only option for pushing back the desert, Savory knew the consequences and had to prioritize one over the other.
I always make huge leaps connecting the first part of what I write to the parsha. This may be the biggest leap yet (or as my father would say, “I’m drawing a long bow”). But please bear with me, because Jacob also had to prioritize one of two options, and surprised Joseph with his decision.
The Torah tells us that Joseph was told that his father, Jacob/Israel was sick, so he brought his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim for a final blessing. Genesis 48 (13-20) states:
Joseph took them both, Ephraim on his right, to the left of Israel and Manasseh on his left, to the right of Israel. But Israel stretched his right hand and placed it on the head of Ephraim, though he was the younger, and his left on the head of Manasseh. He intentionally directed his hands, though Manasseh was the firstborn. And he blessed them…
Joseph saw that his father had stretched his right hand to the hand of Ephraim and it was bad in his eyes. He grabbed his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s hand towards Manasseh’s hand. Joseph said to his father, ‘Not like this, my father, for this one is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his head.’ But his father refused and said, ‘I know my son, I know. He will also be a nation and he will become great. However, his younger brother will be greater than he and his children will become a multitude of nations.’
Rashi explains that Jacob saw prophetically two great leaders that would be descended from his two grandsons. Gideon was destined to come from the tribe of Manasseh, and Joshua would be from the tribe of Ephraim.
The story of Gideon is recounted in chapters 6-8 of the Book of Judges.
After 40 years of peace (following the victory of Deborah and Barak over Sisera and his army), the Israelites turned away from God and were therefore conquered by the Midianites and Amalekites for seven years. The oppressors overran the land and destroyed all the crops, leaving the Israelites so distraught that eventually they cried out to God.
Gideon was chosen to repel the invaders and save the Israelites. At first he protested (Judges 6:15):
My family is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the youngest in my father’s house.
However, God assured him that He would be with him, and he would prevail. Yet Gideon asked for three Divine miracles to convince him. Eventually he gathered soldiers from the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali (but pointedly, not from Ephraim) and set off to fight Midian.
But God said there were too many soldiers. With numerical strength, the victory would not seem as miraculous. So, Gideon whittled his army down from 32,000 men to only 300. He gave them each a shofar, and when they blew them, they startled the Midianite camp and defeated them. “And the land was quiet for forty years,” (Judges 8:28).
Gideon’s victory was explicitly miraculous, with a small group of soldiers defeating a much larger army.
In contrast, Joshua’s conquest of the land, with the exception of the Battle of Jericho, was almost entirely without overt miracles. He had superior numbers. He also had losses as well as victories. And the task was not completed – pockets of resistance remained after Joshua’s death.
Without Joshua, the Israelites would not have been able to settle in the land of Israel. But Gideon’s miraculous victory showed God’s role more clearly.
Perhaps Joseph thought that the victory with only 300 men, which showed God’s role in the world, should receive the greater blessing. But Jacob gave priority to Joshua’s triumph, which involved the entire nation.
In effect, when Jacob crossed his hands to bless his grandsons, he was saying that the greater good is more important than the victory of the few.
For Savory, that meant sacrificing tens of thousands of elephants for the greater good of the people of Africa and for the world.
Israel’s new government took power last week. One of the first pieces of legislation was to overturn the previous government’s increased tax on disposable goods and sugary drinks. Raising taxes on these items was seen as a direct attack on the ultra-Orthodox community which relies on them disproportionately.
I cannot fathom why it is essential for ultra-Orthodox Jews to drink sugary beverages. Do obesity, diabetes and similar health issues not affect them? When Jews campaign against health, it seems to me that it is no longer Judaism.
But I do understand their reliance on disposable goods. Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox community does depend heavily on plastic plates. Maybe they do not have dishwashers, or space to store real dishes.
I recently returned from a visit to New Zealand and Australia. In both places it is almost impossible to buy disposable dishes. I don’t think I saw a single plastic bag the entire time I was in Wellington, and certainly did not use any plastic plates or cutlery. People there very quickly adapted to alternatives for the greater good of the environment.
However, such legislation must be enacted sensitively and with serious thought about its consequences.
Is there a solution which caters to the needs of ultra-Orthodox Jews but also cares for the environment? I hope there is.
But if we must choose between the two, like Savory and the patriarch Jacob, should we not aim for the greatest good for the majority, even at the heavy expense of a minority?