Terrors of the desert sublime: Historical political ecology for a sustainable future

CMES and the Institute of the Environment present:
Terrors of the desert sublime: Historical political ecology for a sustainable future
Diana K. Davis, PhD
Associate Professor, History
University of California, Davis
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
4pm in Marshall 490
Development in the deserts and arid lands of the world, approximately 41% of the earth’s surface, has met with many failures over the last century.  This paper argues that a significant reason for many of these failures lies in the problematic notions of the desert that inform our understanding of arid lands.  Our conceptions of these regions are most often as barren, defiled, parched places, wastelands with little value.  These most widespread perceptions of the desert, those that inform global development and anti-desertification agendas from local NGOs to government bureaucracies to international institutions such as the United Nations, derive primarily from long-standing Anglo-European notions of the desert that are centuries old.  This western conception of deserts and arid lands is problematic for many scientific, social and environmental reasons.
Deserts in the western imagination have experienced profound transformations over the last 2000 years from rather benign classical views of deserts in the Middle East and North Africa to the condemnatory notions of human culpability that arose with early Christianity and were later solidified during the long European colonial period.  This historical political ecology of the desert shows how tightly western thinking about deserts is related to notions about forests, in effect equating deserts to ruined former forests much of the time.  The current belief that deserts are ruined wastelands that need to be improved is ideologically informed, politically motivated and has a very long history that must be understood in order to be able to formulate sustainable development policies in arid lands that will be ecologically appropriate and socially just.

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