"Published on Friday, July 20, 2012 by Common Dreams
The Green Deserts of Western Civilization
The following commentary is adapted from the posthumously published Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka (Chelsea Green, 2012). Fukuoka was the author of the international bestseller One-Straw Revolution. He died in 2008. Given the recent news about the extended drought facing much of the United States, we thought our readers might want to read Mr. Fukuoka's deep insight into how Western agricultural practices have helped to create vast deserts across the planet, while on the surface appearing very "green." In fact, Mr. Fukuoka notes, below the grassy surface, soils are being depleted and drained -- becoming deserts under our feet. As you read this, keep in mind that Sowing Seeds in the Desert first appeared in print -- in Japanese -- in the mid-1990s.
Although the surface of the ground in Europe and the United States appears to be covered with a lovely green, it is only the imitation green of a managed landscape. Beneath the surface, the soil is becoming depleted due to the mistaken agricultural practices of the last two thousand years.
Much of Africa is devoid of vegetation today, while just a few hundred years ago it was covered by deep forests. According to the Statistical Research Bureau in India, the vegetation there has also disappeared rapidly over the past forty-five or fifty years and now covers less than 10 percent of the land's surface. When I went to Nepal, officials lamented the fact that in the last twenty years the Himalayas have become bald, treeless mountains.
In the Philippines, on the islands of Cebu and Mindanao, there are banana plantations but no forests, and there is concern that in a few years even drinking water may be in short supply. In Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as farming methods that protected nature have been swallowed up by the wave of modern civilization, the condition of the land has also deteriorated. If the deforestation of the tropical rain forests in Asia and Brazil continues at the present rate, oxygen will become scarce on earth and the joy of springtime on the planet will be replaced by the barrenness of winter.
The immediate cause of the rapid loss of vegetation has been the indiscriminate deforestation and large-scale agriculture carried out in order to support the materialistic cultures of the developed countries, but the remote cause stretches back thousands of years.
The natural world did not become a desert on its own. Both in the past and at present, human beings, with their "superior" knowledge, have been the ringleader in turning the earth and the human heart into wastelands. If we eliminate the fundamental cause of this destruction--people's knowledge and actions--nature will surely come to life again. I am not proposing to do away with human beings, but rather to change the politics and practice of our authority.
My measures for countering desertification are exactly the same as the basic natural farming method. One could refer to it as a natural farming revolution whose goal is to return the earth to the paradise it once was.
Lessons from the Landscapes of Europe and the United States
I first saw the desert and began to have an interest in it the summer I flew to the United States for the first time, in 1979. I was expecting the American continent to be a vast, fertile green plain with lush forests, but to my amazement, it was a brown, desolate semi-desert.
I gave a talk in Sacramento, California, for the state's Department of Conservation hosted by Ms. Priscilla Grew, who was head of the department at the time. I said that the environment in California had serious problems as a result of poor agricultural practices, poor water management, overlogging, and overgrazing. These things, I told the group, are conspiring to create the "Great California Desert." After the talk, I was invited for a private conversation with Ms. Grew, a geologist, in her office on the thirteenth floor of the Resources Building.
We discussed how Japan and California were roughly the same latitude, that both the vegetation and the parent rocks in the two places were similar, and that long ago the Asian and American continents were one. The fossil record shows, for example, that vast forests of Metasequoia 1 existed in both places. The mosses and lichens I saw growing in the undisturbed forests of the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range were also the same as I observed in the virgin forests of Japan.
It was my conjecture that the desertification and climate change in California has been accelerated by mistaken agricultural methods. I suggested that deforestation and the change from the perennial bunchgrasses that once covered the plains to annuals such as foxtail and wild oats contributed to the decrease in rainfall. 2 "Rain doesn't only fall from the sky," I suggested. "It also falls up from below." The vegetation, especially trees, actually causes the rain to fall.