On the verge of retirement, noted environmentalist and celebrated systems analyst Lester Brown has a dire warning for the world he has spent more than half a century advising on issues of food and energy policy: there is no end in sight for the interrelated scourge of climate change, global poverty and hunger.
In fact, according to Brown, in several vulnerable areas around the world, the situation may be about to go from very bad to much worse.
“We are pushing against the limits of land that can be plowed and the land available for grazing and there are two areas of the world in which we are in serious trouble now,” said Brown, who founded both the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, in an interview with the Guardian‘s environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg.
“One is the Sahel region of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia,” explained Brown. “There is a huge dust bowl forming now that is actually stretching right across the continent and that dust bowl is removing a lot of top soil, so eventually they will be in serious trouble.”
At some point soon, he added, “there will be a reckoning” in those regions.
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According to this NPR report from November, based on the work of the Earth Policy Institute, the dust bowl conditions forming in northern Africa and across central Asia are already having dire consequences:
In China, dust storms have become almost an annual occurrence since 1990, compared to every 31 years on average historically. In northern China and Mongolia, two large deserts — the Badain Jaran and the Tengger — are expanding and merging, often swirling together in massive sand storms when strong winds blow through each spring. The Gobi desert is also growing, inching ever-closer to Beijing as the grasslands at its edges deteriorate.
Meanwhile, in the Sahel region of Africa, millions of acres are turning to desert each year in countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Dust from Chad’s Bodele Depression been traveling the globe for many centuries — in fact, scientists think it helped make the Amazon fertile. But the amount of dust blowing out of West Africa has increased in the last 40 years. Dust clouds from the Sahara can affect air quality as far away as Houston, and may even harm Caribbean coral reefs.
According to Brown, as the situation worsens in these areas, the impacts will likely be much worse than they were in the United States during the 1930s. “Our dust bowl was serious,” Brown explained to Goldenberg, “but it was confined and within a matter of years we had it under control … these two areas don’t have that capacity.”