I was on a panel today that included Dr. Elvis Paul Tangem, the coordinator of the Great Green Wall initiative of the African Union Commission. His presentation was a welcome antidote to the reductive thinking that so often prevails in discussions on climate change.

The Great Green Wall is a reforestation, land healing, peace, water restoration, and anti-poverty project spanning the entire African continent, from Senegal in the west to Eritrea nearly 5000 miles to the east. Originally conceived as a way to contain the growth of the Sahara Desert, it is not simply a wall of trees but a complex mosaic of indigenous land use techniques for restoring life and livelihoods across the Sahel.

Dr. Tangem’s most striking observation was that the biggest obstacle to the project is social strife. He related a story of young men who joined a terrorist group in the region—I can’t remember if it was Boku Haram or another (he named several). The men joined not out of any particular ideological commitment. They joined because they had not found any other way to be useful. Poverty, unemployment, the disruption of traditional economies, the migration of most of the grown men to cities from which they send their meager paychecks home… all contribute to a feeling of uselessness. The terrorist group steps into this vacuum of meaning and puts them to a use. These violent groups present a formidable obstacle to the greening of the Sahel.

The causes of African poverty are a tangle of complexity. Fundamentally, Africa is a rich continent in human and natural terms. What makes it poor is primarily the stripping of those resources by external powers. It started with the slave trade, which was succeeded by the resource extraction of the colonial era. Following the independence movements of the 1960s, explicit colonialism gave way to debt servitude, as African nations sell their raw materials and labor to raise hard currency to make payments on development loans. To enforce the necessary sacrifices, external powers bribe local elites to comply with their development policies, regime-change them if they won’t, or, more insidiously, educate them abroad in the ideology of development. That educational regime, transplanted back to Africa, defines Africa as backwards and defines progress in terms of emulating the West. Not only does that cement the debt regime in place, but it also deals a devastating blow to local cultural vitality. Traditional sense-making yields to Western science, values, and ways of life. The crisis of meaning then contributes to the turn toward addiction, violence, and extremism among the young men.

I have described just one or two of the clumps of the tangle. The clean arithmetic of carbon emissions and sequestration is seductively simple by comparison. Can’t we just save the world in the same way we are ruining it? Can’t we just apply technology to maximize some numbers and minimize others? Can’t we just continue to exploit Africa (for example, by mining rare earth minerals from the Congo to make electronics for “green“ energy technologies) and save the planet at the same time?

No, we cannot. We cannot, for scientific, social, and spiritual reasons.

As I argue at length in my book Climate: A New Story, the environmental movement as a whole seriously misapprehends the nature of the present ecological crisis. The biggest threat is not CO2-induced warming—that is merely the most convenient threat, the one that facilitates technocratic and financialized solutions. The biggest threat is the reduction and destruction of ecosystems: soil, oceans forests, wetlands, and so on, at all scales. Overfishing, deforestation, mining, tree farms, industrial agriculture, toxic pollution, draining wetlands, coastal development, urbanization, and electromagnetic pollution degrade the living organs of our living Earth, rendering her unable to maintain balance.

For example, massive deforestation in the Congo and Amazon cripple the biotic pumping function that draws moisture inland from the oceans. Its impairment brings drought to neighboring regions (like the Sahel) and disrupts climatic flows globally. Megadams (including many new ones in Africa) rob downstream ecosystems of floodwater and silt, drying out wetlands and impoverishing the people who live there. Overfishing and ocean pollution damage the marine food web, resulting in growing marine deserts where whales and fish no longer exercise nutrient transport functions. A development belt between the Andes and the Amazon cuts off migration corridors and reduces the resilience of the rainforest.

Simply put, life itself maintains the conditions for life on earth to thrive. Life is not at the mercy of geomechanical forces; it sculpts those forces, maintaining homeostaic processes like the water cycle, carbon cycle, and nitrogen cycle; it regulates cloud formation, affects winds and currents, and more. Earth has a living physiology. Technical carbon-focused policies often ignore all that, viewing life mostly in terms of carbon storage. Treating earth as an engineering object, they sometimes make the problem worse with megadams, monoculture biofuel plantations, and mining operations (for batteries). These make sense according to superficial carbon math but do great damage to Gaia’s organs. Of course, a lot of regenerative projects also benefit from the greenhouse gas narrative—including the Great Green Wall.1 But it often gives short shrift to programs that don’t easily lend themselves to carbon calculations.

Whether we celebrate the Great Green Wall on the basis of carbon drawdown or ecosystem restoration, Dr. Tengam’s story make it clear that its social dimensions are at least as important as its scientific. Tree planting along with the other ecological interventions of the project cannot be done on industrial scale using industrial methods. Human beings must nurture and protect the trees and integrate them into culturally viable systems. Large scale save-the-world schemes, such as planting millions of trees by drone, should be viewed with skepticism. They have a track record of disastrous unintended consequences. China also has a Great Green Wall program that is hopefully learning from its mistake of planting environmentally inappropriate trees in non-biodiverse plantations, often choosing fast-growing species to more quickly offset carbon emissions. In some places, they sucked up all the groundwater and then died, leaving the land worse off than before.

More generally, we ought be suspicious of industrial solutions to problems caused by industrial systems. We are in a revolution deeper than that, one that restores unique, place-by-place relationships between humans and nature.

The species and land uses that are appropriate to one region may be harmful in another. The right mix of forests, pasture, and cropland for one valley may be wrong for the next. The people who live there usually know best, especially when they can draw on the traditional knowledge of many generations. Rather than an industrial-type project applying standard practices over an entire continent, the Great Green Wall is a mosaic of local projects animated by a shared idea.

Give that phrase free rein and see what it inspires: “A mosaic of local projects animated by a shared idea.” That may be a motto for the kind of healing that earth and society need today. Not a single solution that scales up, but an ecosystem of related solutions, each unique to its place.

To heal the world, people must no longer be treated as standardized producers, consumers, functionaries, or medical objects in a global, industrial system. Not only does that alienate them from the local knowledge and relationships needed to heal the places where they live, but it creates legions of superfluous human beings. Standardization makes us replaceable, whether by another human being or by a machine. The former replacability alienates us from our sense of having a unique contribution to make the to world. The latter instills a relentless anxiety as our usefulness becomes ever more precarious.

The boys in Dr. Tangem’s story are an extreme example of what happens to human beings when they feel useless. Remember, this is no mere psychological dysfunction that the young men suffer. A world has been created around them that gives them little discernible use. They are an extreme example of something that, in more dilute form, affects billions of people on this earth. We cannot leave them behind as afterthoughts on the road to sustainability, because we are them and they are us. Most modern humans, even and especially in highly developed societies, are familiar with the feeling, at school or work or staring at our phones, “I was not put here on earth to do this.” We want to be put to higher use. This is not arrogance—higher doesn’t mean “higher than other people.” Its frustration accompanies an indignation that anyone is exploited, misused, or cast off.

If we are not put to good use, most of us react the same way Dr. Tangem’s boys do. The unused life force turns against itself in the form of addiction or depression, or it finds an outlet in violence. Often it takes the form of zealotry or a crusading mentality. That is why a vacuum of sense and meaning makes societies so vulnerable to cults, fascists, and totalitarians.

For society to put people to good use, it must hold a general agreement in answer to the question, “What is a human being for?” That is the wellspring of the ideas that animate the mosaic of projects. It creates the feeling, “We know why we are doing this.” It is a shared story that encodes shared values. Anyone grounded in it will be immune to the blandishments of extremists, cultists, and fascists with their false stories of what a human being is and why we are here.

What is the true story? I might say, “Human beings are a sacred gift, here to serve with love the next unfolding of life and beauty on earth,” but that is too vague, too contained, too tidy in the face of the mystery. Whatever the story is, we recognize projects like the Great Green Wall as part of it. The time of having no discernible use is coming to an end. Crisis—environmental, social, political—has shattered the sheltering and imprisoning walls of normality. A breeze wafts through the gaps, stirring the feeling “Now I know why I am here.” For some that stirring is as yet faint. It will grow stronger as the breakdown accelerates.

1 That is because carbon sequestration is usually synonymous with soil building and biomass increase—healthy soil and more life.


Teaser photo credit: By NASA – Cropped from Image:Africa satellite plane.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1654153