If there is one major theme that keeps resurfacing when it comes to my critiques of mainstream environmentalism, I would say that it has to do with universalized ideas of what is best for the communities at hand. Oftentimes, those with the “power” to decide on the solutions are far removed from the problems (or sometimes non-problems that get problematized), leading to wrong presumptions and de-contextualized conceptions of what “regeneration” or “resilience” means.
In today’s piece, with inspirations from a few recent Green Dreamer interviews, we unravel some initiatives, such as mass tree planting projects and post-superstorm Build Back Better proposals, which have largely been viewed as being universally supported though really ought to be politicized and questioned.
If you enjoyed my last piece, “Diversifying Anthropocentrisms”—in which I question there being one “eco-centrist” consciousness and challenge the idea that all projects of “greening” landscapes are “regenerative”—then I want to strongly recommend my recently published conversation with Rosetta S. Elkin, whose work I referenced.
In our conversation, Rosetta points out the problematic roots and uses of the word “desertification”—which is tied to the presumptive conclusion of drylands as “unproductive” landscapes needing to be fixed. Even though the United Nations states that drylands are associated with food insecurity and economic poverty, I was more curious to critique the confounding factors of land access, land privatization and borders preventing open migration, and intensive and flood irrigation-dependent agriculture not suited to such bioregions.
“A lot of us… forget that over 40% of the planet is considered a dryland biome. The United Nations, and especially the UNCCD, is hinged on the term ‘desertification.’
The ‘United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’ really is set up to solve the ‘dryland problem’—as if drylands were a problem rather than a biome.
Of course, they link it to health issues and the interdependence between human health and access to resources. But really, most of the time, human health is suffering in drylands because of abuses from non-dryland environments and populations. So the term desertification is in itself quite political.
I prefer the term drought. You're either in a drought-stricken or drought-vulnerable environment. You're either waiting for drought or just coming out of drought.
Indigenous Americans in ‘Nebraska’ used to say that drought was like a whale that would rise up and you didn't know where it would take a breath, but it would pass. There are ways of understanding that drought came in, but drought also left, and you wanted to have enough foodstuffs and you would expect it, but it kind of moved and it almost moved underground like the entire grassland biome was an organism, like an ocean, and drought moved through it.” –Rosetta S. Elkin via Green Dreamer EP390.
Speaking to the origins of the word “desertification,” Rosetta encourages us to re-examine the ways in which these words have been wrongly utilized and reinforce certain presumptions that need to be challenged.
“Desertification is a term that was coined by a French forester in 1949—his name was André Aubréville. He used it to describe the humid biome. He was working in Cote d'Ivoire, which is humid, not dry, in our generalized terms here. It's a rainforest. He used the term to describe what would happen if slash-and-burn forestry was repeated over and over, over a decade or two decades or some years. What would happen is in this very humid biome, the ground would desertify, which would make it less profitable for the foresters…
But the French authorities were very smart, I suppose. They engineered their way out of that by using the term to refer to deserts.
By expressing dryland or drought-prone areas as desertified, they made a call for fixing it by planting trees, which allowed them to just grab more terrain, more area, and territorialize further.
They didn't have interest in deserts before, because as foresters, they didn't know how to have interest in deserts. But they started moving north, moving west, and they started planting trees as a way to ‘invest in the future’ under the rubric of desertification.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that history.
What we might want to do is learn where the word desertification comes from and when it should be used and when it is ill-used, at least to move forward into a more hopeful, informed, and generous future that I think we all want.
But we've got to shake some of these keywords that are problematic.”
Relationships over checklists
Notably, my discussion with Rosetta pushes back against initiatives commonly thought of as politically neutral and universally supported. This includes million- or billion-tree planting projects, which are often parts of off-setting schemes that attempt to equalize deforestation with afforestation (or mass tree-planting in biomes that historically have not supported the thriving of richly arbored landscapes).
In the end, many of such endeavors end up more performative than actually supportive of the well-being of their terrains—not to mention the many communities who have been displaced in the name of conservation.
As Rosetta shares:
“Unfortunately, some of the larger tree-planting projects around the world have no post-planting reconnaissance or any rigorous plans to go back and check on any of the projects. There's no relationship. […]
The managerial tactics of tree planting do not love the landscape. They have only directives and no understanding.
You can't have understanding when your mandate is to plant a million trees. You're just checking your boxes. […]
Restoration isn't a hit-and-run kind of design typology. It's re-establishing relationships between organisms that don't currently have a relationship. And relationships take time.”
All of this boils down to Rosetta’s invitation for us to reorient toward growing trees rather than planting trees—with an emphasis on long-term care and rebuilding relations as healing.
I think it is easier for people to see the problems with imposed ideas of agricultural soil productivity when they pertain to reducing lush rainforest ecosystems into monoculture farmlands—as Kristina Lyons and I previously discussed. This is why I really appreciated getting to rethink through “desertification” and “regeneration” with Rosetta. It shines the light in the opposite direction—when similarly imposed ideas of “productivity” aim to turn drylands and deserts into wetter and “greener” terrains, completely denying such biomes of the unique biocultural diversities, communities, and life that they already are and support.
Retreat as adaptive resilience
Another initiative often supported without question is post-hurricane responses to “Build Back Better.” How could one criticize investments going towards building “resilience” for frontline communities, right?
As Rosetta points out, though, “resilience” is a word much like “desertification” that ought to be questioned and unraveled. What does resilience really mean? Who defines this vision, and who does it serve and benefit? What are alternative dreams for ensuring the longer-term safety and well-being of the people currently living in places that are changing in the direction of increasing limits and risks for disaster?
Instead of engineering higher and thicker sea walls and building taller buildings, what if we engaged with the possibility of retreat and unsettling as building adaptive resilience?
Rosetta tells me that she sees retreat as a possibly more resilient strategy—a stronger form of adaptation that recognizes the risk one lives with.
“When living with risk, some communities knowingly choose to not build back because they cultivate a respect for the landscape and the changes it undergoes. By bringing some of these stories together, Landscapes of Retreat relays some of the creative evidence that shows humankind can adapt to a changing climate when informed by the environment and freed from regulatory policy.
In our times, fixed settlement is beginning to seem like a maladaptive response. The results suggest that retreat is consistently defined by a firm respect for the land that is ‘left behind.’
Furthermore, because the collective decision to resettle away from risk and vulnerability is not the same as being forced to move, in this book, the term ‘retreat’ is only applied to the former, while the term “relocation” is used only to describe involuntary processes of resettlement.” –Rosetta S. Elkin via Landscapes of Retreat.
Of course, there are several layers of nuance to the idea of retreat for resilience. One, as Rosetta points out, is the need to differentiate between collective decisions to retreat versus forced displacement. There are also the questions of whether people have appropriate, alternative, and accessible options for somewhere else to retreat to—and if they have the means, capacity, and resources to do so even if they wanted to. This leads to me to consider communities that have traditionally been migratory in order to respect and live with the changing dynamics, seasonalities, and characteristics of the land—yet who may now not be able to do so due to the constructs of national borders, habitat fragmentation, or privatized lands.
Vince Beiser of The World in a Grain points out in our recent interview on the commodification of sand (to publish later this spring) that people have always known that it is not a smart idea to build concrete settlements right on evershifting coastlines.
“Miami Beach is investing $400 million in building seawalls, elevating streets, and installing pumps to combat an anticipated increase in flooding caused by the rising ocean. Around the world, coastal cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, and Bangkok, Thailand, are spending billions on giant seawalls and other protective measures.
In retrospect, it was obviously folly to build so much so close to the ocean’s edge. But now there are millions of people and billions of dollars worth of buildings in place; how could we undo all that? No one knows, and few are asking. Which leaves us more or less obliged to keep rebuilding beaches, both as defenses against the ocean and magnets for tourists.
The question is, how long can we keep it up before either the money or the sand runs out?” –Vince Beiser.
Here, I also think about the difference between subsistence communities whose livelihoods are being detrimentally impacted by sea-level rise, versus the many beaches and oceanfront spaces dominated by luxury mansions, hotel chains, and other commercial developments. In regards to the default post-hurricane responses of building “resilience” such as Build Back Better, I cannot help but think about how they, just like other political proposals with disproportionate influence from moneyed interests, might also be related to the deep pockets that line the coastlines.
In any case, even though it might still just be a minority raising such questions, I, too, wonder about whether collective resilience can really come from attempting to push back the ocean and double down on further calcifying concrete settlements on shifting shorelines—or whether they really call for learning to respect, listen to, and realign with the lands’ everchanging qualities, configurations, and sentiments.
As always, there are never any easy answers. But I think it's more important than ever to question dominant narratives and responses and think beyond our boundaries.
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Rosetta S. Elkin: Troubling mass tree-planting and afforestation (Green Dreamer Podcast)
Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation by Rosetta S. Elkin
Landscapes of Retreat by Rosetta S. Elkin
The World in a Grain by Vince Beiser
“Diversifying Anthropocentrisms,” my last Substack piece
On March 29th, I will be hosting and moderating the live digital book launch of Mossback: Ecology, emancipation, and foraging for hope in painful places by David Pritchett. You can sign up for the event here, and check out the book here.
Green Dreamer’s spring season began last Thursday! We started off with a conversation with Enrique Salmón on ancestral foods that enrich local landscapes. I’m also really excited to share upcoming episodes on entanglements with the virosphere which challenge individualism, somatics for healing trauma, scaling up small gestures of kindness, technology making the world more difficult to understand, and more. Tap in here.
Kamea and all,
Agreed. A wise person in one of my networks mentioned recently that we need to avoid ‘generating a path internally, motivated by our own desires, which are often colonial, despite good intentions, but we are responding and mobilizing to requests by other leaders’.
This is a common trap.
This person goes to say ‘I perceive this as a shift from self-authorizing our power to enacting responsibilities …it feels much more work has gone into establishing organizational protocols than relational ones.’
Many of us tend to focus on organizational protocols that makes us feel better and that actually retain our power as opposed to the difficult work of working through it.
Your point about ‘solutions being removed from the problems’ is part of this dynamic where we work from a set of problematic assumptions and keep tripping over ourselves with our good intentions.
Only when we go to the root causes of our behaviour (and assumptions) can we understand and feel what “regeneration” or “resilience” really mean.