Compost Blanketing the Sahara

Last night, Daniel and I were talking about what might happen with Africa in this century.  It’s an interesting question, considering that Africa has an unusually young population, many unstable governments, metals that are hard to find anywhere else on Earth, significant presence of both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and very uneven distribution of resources.  All kinds of things could happen there!

Daniel had an idea that had never occurred to me before, which I think is fabulous!  We haven’t fully explored the science behind it (and we can see some potential pitfalls) but as an idea for what Earthlings could achieve if we tried, I think this is really inspiring.

The Sahara Desert covers almost as much land as the United States but is habitable to less than 1% as many people.  “Huge areas are wholly empty,” says the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but there is archaeological evidence that more people lived there in prehistoric times.  The Sahara has grown over the course of human history, partly because of climate change and partly because of unsustainable agricultural practices.  This is the region of Earth where human beings first developed agriculture.  This land fed people for thousands of years, but now it is used up, dried out, blowing away.

Is that just what happens?  Do we live in a place until we use it all up and then move on?  What will happen when we run out of places?

We humans have learned a lot over the years.  Maybe we can prevent our current croplands from becoming deserts, but just in case we can’t, isn’t it time to start increasing the livable area on our planet?  We have the means at our disposal.  Literally.

Every day, millions of tons of biodegradable garbage go into landfills and incinerators around the world.  What if we diverted some of that compost to the Sahara?  What if we just sheet-mulched the whole desert?  We could start by piling compost along the southern edge of the desert and gradually expand.  We could plant trees in the new soil to anchor it, and other plants would grow from coincidental seeds in the compost.  The plants would create a carbon sink to help reduce global warming!

Over time, the increase in plants would change the climate of the Sahara so that more people could live there, and the improved soil would make it possible to grow food there.

We don’t need to colonize Mars.  We have lots of room here on Earth, if only we use it wisely.  It is so much easier to terraform a Terran desert than to terraform Mars.  Even before you start thinking about the transportation costs, the Sahara has a huge advantage over Mars because it already has air!

So how about it, humanity?  Could you set aside your apple cores and coffee grounds to make the Sahara green again?  How much would it really take?

I was picturing just Spain, Italy, and Greece sending over all their compost, because they’re nearby–and I realized, that’s a lot of tomato seeds!  Imagine gorgeous tomato crops thriving where once were barren dunes.  Imagine the new varieties of tomatoes that might emerge from this brave new land of Darwinian gardening!  (On the other hand, European species might mix with African species to create dangerous new super-plants.  It’s hard to predict.)

How to Work Composting Into Your Kitchen Routine
If collecting the world’s food scraps and transforming a desert into fertile land sounds like too big a project for you, how about improving the barren patches in your own yard with just your own food scraps?  Check out my article at Kitchen Stewardship for convenient tips to work composting into your kitchen routine!

Visit Waste Less Wednesday for more great ways to use resources wisely!

8 thoughts on “Compost Blanketing the Sahara

  1. I love this post, Becca!
    (Have you read The Atlantic article about Pleistocene Park? Scientists are apparently trying to resurrect the ice age biome in Siberia, and your musings about transforming the Sahara reminded me of it…)

  2. Geoff Lawton has been working on this in Jordan for a few decades now. It’s a slow process, but here’s the update from 2009: I haven’t heard an update recently, but I know he’s still working on it.

    The desert isn’t just lacking organic matter. Sand is what’s left after the organic matter, clay, and silt particles have all blown away. So to restore desert soils to optimum health we would need to dredge the river deltas and rinse out the sea salt before bringing the mud back inland, which is a monumental task. However, if it could be broken down into smaller tasks and incentivized, there are millions of people who could each do a bit.

    • That’s a good point. Everyone go get a bucket of mud! Deliver it to claim your free camel ride! 🙂

      Thanks for the link. It’s sobering to see someone who has really studied the problem saying exactly what Daniel and I thought to be true about the huge band of dried-up land across all of North Africa and the Middle East: “This is the remains of what was once called the ‘fertile crescent’. It is the result of thousands of years of abuse.” 😦 We looked at some satellite photos; it’s like a big yellowed scab on our Earth.

  3. Hi Becca,
    Very interesting and thought provoking article. It really makes more sense to use our earth than go to Mars. I believe this is a feasible task – wouldn’t be easy and would take time but could be accomplished. Whatever we do we need to be taking care of the land and waters we have so that we do have a future and using desert land to me would be a goal to secure our future. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas. Congratulations on being featured on #WasteLessWednesdays. Pinning & tweeting. Have a healthy, happy & blessed day.

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