Nature Isn’t Good Enough: Let’s Fix North Africa.

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The Sahara Desert: the world's parking lot. Big, empty, hot, miserable, sparsely populated, expanding rapidly, only marginally habitable, and more or less useless to us as human beings. True, there is a substantial amount of life there, if you know where to look, but snakes and desert rats and Tunisian sand flies and various nasty parasites are hardly what we’d call endearing, or even useful. From a non-environmentalist perspective, the Sahara is more-or-less useless. It takes up a lot of space, it doesn’t support many people, it doesn’t produce much. It’s 3,600,000 square miles of awful - roughly the size of the United States - and it’s getting bigger by the day.

The only sizeable body of water in the desert is “Lake Chad,” which, not surprising, has a massive share of the human population of this blighted region. Lake Chad is not a garden spot, shallow, polluted, chock full-o-debilitating parasites that can kill or cripple people. It *is* water, though, and it produces fish, which puts it head-and-shoulders above the rest of the desert.

Furthermore, the lake is unstable. From 1960 to the end of the 20th century, it shrank by 95% according to some accounts. This was blamed on Global Warming, Global Cooling, Agriculture, The Awfulness of Humanity, or whatever particular cause of the week you happened to support. Over the last decade or so, however, it’s been growing again. Curiously, this hasn’t been widely reported on, presumably because it’s hard to put a cynical spin on something good happening, so many Evangelical Environmentalists would prefer to just ignore it and hope it goes away.

I’m being facetious.

In fact, some or all of the stated causes may be correct, but archeology tells us that the lake has *always* been waxing and waning. Sometimes it’s much bigger than it is now, some times in the past few thousand years it’s dried up entirely. It always comes back, but it always goes away again. It’s unstable, and dependent upon the overall climate of the world, it seems.

Now, the standard party line from the environmentalist movement - both the militant nut jobs and the normal rational people who simply want to be good stewards - is that Mother Nature Knows Best. Though I totally understand how one would come to this viewpoint, I’ve always bristled at it. It seems to be largely based on the somewhat blind assumption that the way things are is the only way things can ever be, and that the status quo is best. I disagree.

Take, for instance, Global Warming. Yes: the world is getting hotter. No: it’s not our fault. The temperature of the world has risen and fallen a *lot* over the last three million years, ranging from hot age to ice age about 35 times, give or take. Clearly, our species had nothing to do with those, since we didn’t really exist through most of that period of time. It’s got to do with the position of the continents: North America and South America joined at that point, and the environment has been in flux ever since. It’s not our fault. Prior to 3 MYA, the climate of the world was generally substantially warmer than it is now. Some scientists believe that around a billion to 800 million years ago, the world was frozen solid. The point being: the world is a huge, active, complex system that we don’t really understand all that well, and it changes a lot. Assuming those changes are our fault is as silly as assuming that all changes are bad.

And yet, much of the environmental movement assumes just this. They say that we must preserve things as they are now, or maybe push things back to how they were in the 19th century, because that’s how things *have* to be. This is a lack of imagination, and a lack of faith in humanity.

I posit that if we really put our minds to it, we can not only fix the parts of the biosphere that we’ve damaged (Undoubtedly there are many), but we can actually *IMPROVE* on nature.

Which brings us back to Lake Chad: in the last ice age, fed by massive rains, it was much, much larger than it is today. Check out poorly-constructed map using a Funk & Wagnals map I modified with whiteout and a highlighter pen: It’s accurate, and shows the size of the lake in that period.

North Africa

In those days, the Sahara was not a desert, but a lush, dense tropical rain forest rivaling that of the Amazon Basin. It supported a stone age human population, millions of animals, billions of animals, untold trillions of plants. Any way you slice it, it’s pretty impressive compared to the general waste of space the Sahara is today.

So let’s fix it!

The lake basin is still there. The lake dried out because the weather changed. That’s a problem to our stone age ancestors, but not to us: A few nuclear reactors, a few desalinization plants, some pipes, and it’s a simple matter to re-fill the basin. Time consuming, but simple: It would take years, but it’s not particularly high-tech. You’d also need to build a few dams to block some of the old river basins that flowed out of the ancient sea, but that’s cutting edge 19th century technology: not a problem for us. We can build a new sea in the middle of the desert!

“Well, that will mess up the local ecosystem.”

Well of course it will, that’s the point: the local ecosystem sucks. Screw it. Let’s restore it to a more amenable point in the past. We know it’ll work because it *DID* work in the past, and the reasons it’s not working in the present are ones we understand, and easily circumvent. We can bend nature to our whim, make it better.

Why would we do this?

Well, why *wouldn’t* we? Screw sand fleas and parasites: jungle is better than desert. It just *is.* More growing stuff and more water is better for everyone. But let’s look at it a bit more pragmatically: Take a look at the map. Now, imagine it surrounded by thousands of square miles of irrigated croplands, farms, towns, and so on. Imagine how many millions upon millions upon millions of people that could support! Imagine how much that would improve the lives of pretty much anyone in North Africa! Imagine how that would allow them to start supporting themselves agriculturally and economically, rather than being at the mercy of Europe and America! This is, after all, the stated goal of every western Democracy regarding Africa: allegedly we want the continent to be self-sustaining, and not reliant on our handouts. Seems to me giving them a million or so square miles of cropland would be a good way to go about that. It’s good for Africans, it’s good for us, it’s good for the biosphere, it’s good for everyone. Win/win/win. More life = good, right?

So we’ll have improved on nature.

Now, that’s not to say this *new* Chad sea will be any more stable than the old ones. It’s held in place with dams here and there, and we’ll need to keep pumping water into it from our desalinization plants. That’ll be a more-or-less perpetual industry. But the payoff is good, and perpetual industries are a good thing. Nice secure jobs, nice stable economy. If we want to keep the sea, we’d need to keep working to maintain it. But this is actually advantageous, both because it’s profitable, but also because if it turns out that the sea was a bad idea, all we need to do is *nothing.* Just *stop* maintaining it, and it’ll go away in a century or so. Easy!

Downsides? Expensive. Four countries would lose land, three of them substantially. The nation of Chad itself would lose about 50% of its territory. However, I think the advantages more than outweigh that loss. What’s better: a quarter million miles of desert, or a thousand miles of tourist-friendly lakefront? I know which way I’d go if I were their president. Yes, a lot of people would have to move. Inconvenient. But ultimately if it improves the region and their lives, and the biosphere, this is a good thing, yes? Not to mention re-verdanting the central Sahara would more-or-less halt the expansion of the desert elsewhere.
As I see it, the technology is well within our capability. The only immediate obstacles are political. The long-term problems are less obvious, but I’m sure some will arise.

Case in point: what effect will this have on the climate of Europe? Basically you’re going to end up with a large, perpetual low pressure zone a thousand miles to the south. Clearly this will affect stuff. But how? We don’t know. Warmer winters? Cooler summers? Hotter summers? Murderous winters? About the same, but with bohonkin’ huge storms? Who knows? Definitely something, though. And that something will percolate out into the rest of the world.

Remember how I said that global weather is a hugely complex system that we don’t really understand all that well? Well a project like this is *how* we find out more about it. Think about it: Everything we know about weather now is basically what we see. We don’t *cause* the weather. But with this, we would. We’d be able to experiment. Does the Chad Sea affect Europe? What if we raise or lower the water level thirty feet? Ten? What effect does all this have on Asia or Australia? (Australia itself having a similarly huge, similarly useless basin just aching to be filled). Can we make the climate of the world more amenable? Projects like this are the way we crack that code: we need hands on experience.

Remember I said the world is getting hotter? It is. It’s not our fault, but let’s pretend for the sake of our environmentalist friends that it is: we can use projects like this to offset any temperature increase humanity has caused. If industry raises the temperature of the earth five degrees in a century, I’m pretty sure the New Chad Sea could reduce it by the same amount. Projects like this could provide vital, and amazingly important methods of regulating climate change. This is, after all, the stated purpose of the Environmentalist movement, yes? That Climate Change is bad? That we need to do anything to stop it? Well, here’s your best bet.

Best of all: it’s optimistic. It’s reminding ourselves that humans don’t only *break* things, but that we can fix ‘em, or even improve them. We’re clever little plastic-working apes. The logical extension of our tool using abilities is that nature itself will become a tool, and will come to increasingly depend upon us. Environmentalists are frightened of this godlike power, but I see it as a fait acompli, and a desirable one at that: it’s our destiny to control our own destiny, and not to be dependent upon the capriciousness of nature. What are you, a man or a caveman?

Projecting this on into the future: this could be good for our expansion into space. I don’t actually believe it’s possible to terraform any of the worlds in our solar system, but I *DO* believe that it’s ridiculous to talk about doing that to other planets without at least gussying up the crappier portions of our own. I mean, what’s easier? Re-flooding the Lake Chad Basin and making the desert bloom, or terraforming Mars? And when you get around to trying to terraform Mars, wouldn’t it be good to have a little hands-on experience in continent-sized hydrological re-engineering projects?

So that’s my thought on the subject. What say you?