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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Harrop

‘Men Against the Desert’ - Abstract

In the 1930s, from the blown soils of the American Southern Plains to the Central Highlands of Kenya, soil erosion and desertification were regarded by scores of international scientists and colonial officials as a problem of global proportions, spanning across national borders, empires and continents. This was the world’s first truly global man-made environmental crisis, and the ways in which it became a pressing issue in the minds of scientists and politicians and came to dominate international conferences and books throughout the 1930s and 1970s gives valuable insight into the colonial legacies that inform modern environmentalism today. Engaging with the idea that humanity has now entered the Age of the Anthropocene - that is to say, the impact of human activity on the environment is such that can be considered a geophysical force in its own right - this essay seeks to illuminate the long and contradictory history of modern environmentalism through the prism of global fixations with ‘desertification’. It argues that discourses surrounding the perceived global threat of ‘desertification’ and the knowledge production that sustained efforts to address it were rooted in colonial-era misperceptions of deserts as abnormal, underdeveloped landscapes, and were structured by the asymmetries of power left by the unfinished process of decolonisation. Tracing how desertification was discussed by empires, nations and global governance structures from the 1930s until the 1977 United Nations Conference on Desertification, this essay examines the cyclical nature of global discourses about desert environments, with ideas developed under colonial rule carrying over into the UN efforts to combat desertification in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, it outlines how the story of what can be considered the first ‘global’ environmental crisis is one inextricably linked to imperial exploitation, developmentalist thought and the marginalisation of indigenous knowledge, which continues to frame global environmentalism today.

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