The Harper government just announced plans to pull out of the United Nations Convention on Desertification. This move, which caught the Convention’s offices in Bonn by surprise, would make Canada the only nation on earth outside the agreement. Minister Fantino cited high costs and a “lack of results” as the move’s reasoning.

To put those costs in perspective – as much as $350 000/year – it’s a little more than what Hamilton libraries are budgeting to fight bedbugs this year ($200K) or what it’s cost Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital to drop “Memorial” from it’s name as a part of their new re-branding effort ($290K). Hardly cost-prohibitive in the world of international relations, where people often make many times that much in a year.

But what is desertification, anyway, and why does Harper like it so much?

Desertification is what happens when an ecosystem dies. Through removal of plants and degradation of soils, regions can lose their ability to attract and retain water, resulting in a breakdown of the water cycle. This can be caused by agriculture, grazing, logging and climate change and it threatens to displace fifty million people over the next decade. It’s one of the most dramatic effects of humanity’s effects on the environment, and given the drastic changes it brings about, one of the most undeniable.

Climate, it turns out, isn’t just a product of sunlight and air chemistry. Plants, soils and trees play a large role in regulating temperature and rainfall. Think of plants as tiny, branching wells which dig deep into the earth. Some produce shallow webs of roots, like grasses, which hold the soil in place even on steep hillsides. Others have deep tap-roots which bring up water from many metres deep which would otherwise drain away. They then breathe out water, helping to seed clouds and produce rainfall through a process called transpiration. Other benefits include holding and storing water in both droughts and floods, and breaking down to produce a rich soil when they die. Without all of this, soils become sand and wash or blow away easily and rainfall levels fall to those of a desert.

A lot of work has been done in recent years regarding climate change on a local level across history. Global climate change might require all the technologies of industrial civilization, but regional climate change doesn’t require much more than axes or fire. Deniers like to remind us that climate change has always been happening, but it’s important to remember that for thousands of years now, it’s been happening by our own hands. The tragic spiral of rising populations and dwindling rainfall seems to have played a fairly significant role in the fall of many ancient civilizations (Anasazi, Maya and Harrapan Valley, for instance), going right back to the collapse of Babylon through irrigation which salted their own fields. When this process began, the Middle East was one of the most rich, lush and “fertile” places on the planet. Today, it exists largely as desert.

As for desertification in the modern world, it’s likely to become a much larger problem in the near future. Our over-reliance on water buried in “fossil” aquifers which see little natural “recharge” means many regions which are now the world’s breadbaskets may soon become dust bowls. One such area, spanning the eight states dependent on the Ogalala aquifer, produces around a fifth of America’s wheat, corn, cotton and cattle. Added pressures from climate change will only add to this, as will the growing industrial and urban demand for fresh water. These threats are real and have the potential to starve and/or displace millions of people.

Withdrawing from an important global efforts like the fight against desertification is, of course, just another day on the job for Stephen Harper. This kind of blatant disregard for the natural world fits his record like a glove, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t some profits to be made by disregarding these restrictions. This careless and wanton disregard for international agreements evokes dark memories of George W., and given their common origin in national centres of oil production, it’s hard not to see a pattern developing. It doesn’t take many G8 nations dropping out of conventions such as this to cast doubt on all of them, as most nations will be hesitant to limit their economies (or arms stockpiles) unless they’re sure their competitors are going to play along. Policies of rabid economic expansionism tend to drag neighbours down with them, forcing a ‘race to the bottom’ as others are forced to lower their own standards to remain “competitive”. While I’m often critical of such agreements (too little, too late…), abandoning the little progress they have made is no way forward.

Desertification isn’t just a crisis, it’s the culmination of many crises: climate change, deforestation and careless agricultural and pastoral practices. It’s a frightening reminder of how easily an entire ecosystem can shatter under our weight. Failing to deal with our environmental problems at this stage, especially for these paltry sums, shows a complete incapacity (and unwillingness) to address ecological issues at all. Harper is playing a very dangerous game here, and with a billion and a half people already affected by land degradation worldwide, it’s hard to imagine how much more callous his policies could get.

How much longer are we, as the people of (or at least, residing in) this nation going to let this maniac represent us on the world stage?

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