Suddenly, we find that it's all gone

As vital to life as oxygen, soil is rapidly depleting, says Ashok Khosla, President of IUCN and chairman of the New Delhi-based Development Alternatives Group, an IUCN Member.

Ashok Khosla

On the status of soil and land

Land is a major resource. Its importance is under-recognized and it’s under great threat. There’s considerable evidence that the quantity of soil now being lost to erosion, urbanization, roads, agriculture and so on is far greater than the quantity being regenerated by nature. The amount lost each year could be as much as a factor of one hundred times greater than the amount being created. It’s pretty awful, no matter what the exact numbers are.

The issue, of course, is that feeding the nine-odd billion people that we’re likely to have soon unless we change our development strategies is not the only thing that soil is essential for. Bricks for our buildings are made entirely of soil. None of our forests, grazing lands and productive ecosystems could survive without healthy soils. Soil is as essential to sustain life as water. The waste of good soil is no less a crime, both in the present and against the future, than destroying the oxygen we need to breathe.

Why is the value of soil so widely ignored? No farmer or Third World villager could ever forget its fundamental importance to daily survival. But one big reason for our ignorance is that, ever since humans started moving away from agricultural livelihoods to industry and from rural settlements to the cities, we’ve just stopped seeing it. Even for those of us who do see the erosion of soil, we often do not recognize the other equally important invisible things that go with it, like the breakdown of bio-geochemical cycles. I mean the depletion of nitrogen and phosphorus, the loss of humus, carbon and moisture in soil, the loss of trace elements and other micronutrients and the accumulation of salt, alkalis and toxic chemicals.

Things like this hit us all of a sudden. It’s sort of like falling off a cliff. We’re driving merrily along and by the time we realise the road ends in a sheer drop into the abyss, it’s too late to stop. Our soils lose their vitality, slowly at first and then all of a sudden, we find that it’s all gone. This is what happened in the 1930s with the Dust Bowl in the United States, and more recently as a result of the Green Revolution in the Punjab in India.

Nutrient depletion, salinization and degradation of soil are now going to haunt us for the foreseeable future. Given that the population of the world is outstripping the capacity of the soil to produce food, our present systems for providing nourishment to citizens in almost any part of the world are showing signs of severe strain. If we don’t radically change our cropping patterns, our constructions methods, our use of ground water and our use of soil, and do it now, we are creating a very big mess for all.

On the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

The UNCCD has a long-standing mandate from governments – a mandate that goes right to the heart of the environmental problematique the world faces today. Yet, it is one of the global environmental conventions that is most neglected, particularly by the rich and powerful. By their actions, and often by even their words, those who dominate decision making in such arenas don't seem to understand that soils and land productivity are the most stark examples of the old maxim ‘anyone's problem is everyone's problem’. While the rich have been able – temporarily – to deal with their soil and productivity problems by measures such as remediation or even removing land from use, the poor cannot afford such measures.

Despite the fact that soil loss in one place will have a huge impact in all other places as the world's population has access to less and less food, the affluent have been reluctant to endorse the importance of these issues because they fear the additional financial demands they will face. This is really short-sighted because it’s going to rebound on them very badly. UNCCD has a mandate to bring back the rapidly degrading and desertifying lands on the planet. And if we are losing land at the rate of 60 or 70 thousand square kilometers a year, that cannot but be a threat to the wellbeing of everyone on the planet.

The subject addressed by UNCCD, restoration of land and ecosystems, could well be the number one environmental issue facing the planet. One of humanity’s biggest challenges is the regeneration of forests, the revival of grasslands and the rehabilitation of wastelands. It’s essentially about bringing nature back to its former health. Such activities do cost money. You’ve got to prepare the ground, you’ve got to bring the water in, you’ve got to be able to do the kinds of things that any new venture needs, including capital investment up-front. But the pay-offs are so huge, the return on investment is so high, that it’s a no-brainer. It’s where the first money should be going, and it’s much more important for human survival than building more shopping malls, factories and airports that serve the greed and passing desires of a relative minority.

On the need for new indicators of poverty and development

To understand where we are in terms of the really important things in life, and where we are going, gross domestic product (GDP) is a very poor indicator. It has its limited uses, but we certainly can do a lot better. Economic indicators are needed that include factors that normal GDP calculations leave out entirely: the unpaid work of women, the earnings of informal sector industries, the large number of goods and services that are bartered. In the global south, such transactions may well add up to more than the entire formal economy, which is all that is measured by GDP.

And then there is the huge subsidy provided by ecosystem services. These factors are not only omitted from GDP but treated as income when they are often actually increased liabilities in the form of lost capital. And then what does GDP have to say about the things that really matter – human fulfillment, security and happiness? We seem to have got stuck with tools for decision making that were OK for the middle of the 20th century but have completely outlived their usefulness.

Bobby Kennedy once said, GDP measures everything except what we really value. I think the idea of the former king of Bhutan to create the National Happiness Index was a great way of responding to that problem. But, again, it’s pretty obvious: if you’re going to use an indicator that is so flawed as to give the wrong signals, you’re going to do the wrong things. GDP does not take account of the fact that we are using up our material resources at an abnormal rate and that we’re in serious trouble, now. So basically, GDP is going to have to be revised considerably.

The fact that after 14 years of deliberation, the UNCCD’s Committee on Science and Technology has come up with only two indicators, neither of which means very much because of its generality and relatively low importance, shows that our international policy making structures are broken and need urgently to be fixed. They have to be made more democratic, participative and interested in results. Our present systems seem unable to hear the anguish of three billion people who remain outside the mainstream economy, one billion of whom go to bed hungry every night.

It’s sad that we continue to be represented in international forums by people with little sensitivity, few ideas and inadequate authority to make the commitments needed, sitting around the table saying, ‘No, no, no, you can’t say that!’, either because they’re afraid to put more money into the kitty or because they can't see that a sustainable future for the privileged few is only possible if there’s a better world for all.

On aid and development efforts

After about 60 years of so-called international development, it should amaze the powers that be that we’ve ended up with 3 billion people left outside. This is as thorough an indictment of the trickle-down theory as one can imagine. But the powers that be seem to be quite oblivious to all this. If policies are based, as they almost always are today, on what is good for the rich, what is good for the stock markets, what is good for foreign direct investment, if they are designed to make more money on defense, on wars, on exploiting the earth, then it is only logical that the world will end up with three billion poor people. There’s just no way around that. Even if you believed that neo-classical economics had any meaning in the 1950s or 1960s, you cannot believe in it now. Much less [can you believe in] neo-liberalism, which dominates the world of decision making today

There are people going around saying that climate change is the biggest market failure. What the hell, then, is poverty, for goodness sake? If there’s one market failure that humanity ought to be ashamed of, it’s the massive poverty that exists. Our entire focus today ought to be, how to remove poverty, because poverty is not only degrading for the poor, even the rich are paying a heavy cost for it. The bigger the population, the more the resources it needs.

On civil society and the role of business

I don’t know of many countries that nurture civil society any more. India, like the US and, to some extent, the UK, had a vibrant, huge civil society. The whole freedom movement in India was a civil society movement, and for thousands of years, philanthropic and voluntary work has been the basis of Indian society as much as it has been, more recently, in the US, a country that one can admire greatly for its commitment to voluntarism. But this is now under threat both in the US and in India. There are some very large countries, like China, that don’t even have civil society movements, and their future generations will pay a heavy price because of that. All sectors are needed: government, business, civil society, but unfortunately, the mix has lost its balance. The big corporations are now so influential, so heavy, in most countries that even governments don’t have much say any more, and civil society has virtually none.

I have devoted a lot of time and effort trying to convince businessmen to see things differently. Every time I talk to business about socially responsible investment, however, the response I get is, “Yes, but our first responsibility is to our shareholders.” I don’t know of any businessman who takes the long view, unless that long view happens to mean very good profits within the tenure of that particular CEO.

This article was published in UNCCD News - a bi-monthly update on the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Work area: 
Climate Change
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