04 Jun 2006

Save That Desert!

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Agence France-Presse via Yahoo tells us that the UN is now warning us about “endangered deserts.”

The world’s deserts are being threatened “as never before”, particularly by climate change, but can still be used as a key resource if action is taken to protect them, according to a report released on Monday.

The study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights the problems facing desert areas but also their potential uses in vital sectors such as energy, food and medicine.

Shafqat Kakakhel, from UNEP, said: “Far from being barren wastelands, (deserts) emerge as biologically, economically and culturally dynamic while being increasingly subject to the impacts and pressures of the modern world.

“They also emerge as places of new economic and livelihood possibilities, underlining yet again that the environment is not a luxury but a key element in the fight against poverty and the delivery of internationally-agreed development goals.”

At least 25 percent of the Earth’s surface — 33.7 million square kilometres (13 million square miles) — has been defined as desert and is home to more than 500 million people, according to the report, “Global Deserts Outlook”.

But one of its authors, University College London geography professor Andrew Warren, said the unique landscapes, ancient cultures, flora and fauna in deserts were at risk of disappearing….

Kaveh Zahedi, deputy director of UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre based in Cambridge, eastern England, added that action was needed.

“These deserts are unique and dynamic eco-systems and, if sensitively treated, can provide the answers to many of the challenges that we face today, whether it’s for energy, for food or for medicine,” he said…

“The pharmaceutical potential of desert plants has yet to be tapped,” the report notes.

This, plus sustainable eco-tourism and conservation schemes, could benefit not just the local desert communities but the wider population, it added.

Isn’t it amazing how all the world’s most worthless real estate is unique and precious, and always (whatever the climate, no matter how barren) a treasure house of marvels just waiting to be found?

There seems be no hierarchy of desirability to any of this marvellous uniqueness.

Suppose we could convert some miserable arid, baking, rocky desert into a nice wet, fever-ridden swamp. Or, alternatively, we decided to change it into a hot, steaming and impenetrable jungle. Or we changed our minds again and froze the whole thing into the precise equivalent of Alaska’s North Slope (solid ice 10 months of the years; open water, soggy ground and a mind-boggling number of mosquitoes for two months — but fewer snakes). Or we waved our magic wand, and produced… New Jersey!

Exactly which of all these unique and marvellous alternatives would offer the most intellectually and aesthetically intriguing diversity of life? Which would offer the richest gifts to Science? I hate to admit it (since I loathe New Jersey and kind of enjoy a good snake), but, if you think about it, you know exactly what would win.


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