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Force Without Firepower - Peace, Colossal Action

"We advocate that all standing armies everywhere be used for the work of essential reafforestation . .. in the countries to which they belong, and that each country . .. shall provide expeditionary forces to cooperate in the greater tasks of land reclamation in the Sahara and other deserts. "

--Richard St. Barbe Baker. Green Glory (The Forests of the World); 1947; Out of Print; A.A. Wyn; p. 242.

Definition: The employment of military capability, especially logistic, in constructive social enterprises of enormous magnitude, possibly requiring ships in the thousands, aircraft in the tens of thousands, personnel in hundreds of millions, and dollars in the hundreds of billions per year.

On January 26, 1975, the New York Times reported that Algeria had begun a 20-year project to plant a 950-mile tree-belt, up to 15 miles wide, to contain the ever-spreading Sahara. It was to cost $100 million a year and involve up to 100,000 servicemen. The September 19, 1977, Newsweek reported that seven nations along the Southern Sahara had announced a $5 million plan to start a similar barrier in their danger zones. Fine, though a far cry from May 1976, when Henry Kissinger had proposed a $7.5 billion ten-year plan to "roll back the desert." All of these would be a good start.

Precedents: In 1808 the French visionary Charles Fourier prophesied that the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and the St. Lawrence Seaway could be built by huge industrial armies of both sexes organized to a fare-thee-well, motivated by love and lust, fun and games. These wonders were all accomplished, if not quite as joyously as Fourier planned. His grandest challenge of all, which he suggested in the same breath, still awaits farsighted political-military leadership: "The conquest of the great Sahara desert... by ten or twenty million workers. .. [who] will transport earth, cultivate the soil, and plant trees every where."7

Fourier, a self-taught geographer, had reiterated the battle plan in 1822. He scaled the army down to a mere four million, who would work six to eight months a year over a 40-year period. Their operations would involve reforesting by stages, so as to restore the water sources, fix the sands, and gradually improve the climate.

A century and a half later the Saharan idea was revived on the same scale (without the other Utopian trappings) by the noted British forester Richard St. Barbe Baker, who was the father of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The same approach as Fourier's — water retention and climate change by massive tree planting — was and is at the heart of Baker's concept for making the Sahara livable: not 100% forest, but a terrain newly checkered with fields and orchards in all directions.

Baker has led two Sahara expeditions: the first in 1952-53, a 9000-mile drive, including 2600 miles across the desert itself; and in 1964, a 25,000 mile circumnavigation by land, air, and water.  In 1954 he sketched a preliminary containment phase: a tree shelter-belt around the transitional zones of the Sahara, half a mile wide for 20,000 miles.  As mentioned, various nations, including Algeria, Senegal, and Egypt, are attempting their sectors of it.

In 1959 Baker urged that an army of 20 million be deployed along a 20,000-mile front to stop the "relentless march of the Sahara," the number he gave being "equal to the present standing armies of the world today."10 Even then the Sahara was sweeping southward up to 30 miles a year. The immense famines and droughts which have more recently afflicted the Sahel and beyond have lent horrible urgency to his warnings.

A lot of impetus came from Wendy Campbell-Purdie, who met Baker in 1960 and took his idea seriously. She set off in 1964 to begin planting the shelter-belt herself in Morocco, in Tunisia, in Algeria. Till then. Baker had been, hterally, a voice in the wilderness, pleading with statesmen and diplomats to declare war on the desert.
By 1976, Campbell-Purdie and her local vanguards had won the first skirmish, at Bou Saada, Algeria, where 130,000 trees became a life-sustaining barrier. Fruit, vegetables, and grain are growing there as a result of her efforts.

Meanwhile, there is no detailed "Baker Plan" that I know of. His 1966 book Sahara Conquest was inspiring but discursive. Campbell-Purdie did offer a six-page "blueprint" in her 1967 book Woman against the Desert. But if we are going to avoid the world catastrophe of famine and desertification — if we are going to attack the Sahara on the scale which Fourier, Baker, and Campbell-Purdie indicate — then it is time for some general-staff- and United Nations-level planning on the logistics and theaters involved: the millions of troops, the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Icebergs, desalination, solar energy, ecology, wind-chimney turbines must all be considered: This is war!

Much has been written about "arid zones" and their improvement, but desert-research literature is surprisingly arid for how little it has to say about reclamation on such a momentous scale. Baker emphasizes the colossal size of the Sahara, and of the armies needed to replant a desert larger than the U.S. or Australia. He estimates nearly four billion people could live in a green Sahara.

Is it technically possible? The Roman army alone had made ten million acres of the Sahara usable, building terraces, walls, and reservoirs. Baker and Campbell-Purdie cite the relatively recent discovery of vast underground freshwater aquifers. Figures on volume and extent vary but are enormous. "We are walking on water," says Campbell-Purdie.

Not that the Sahara could simply be irrigated by well; the recharge rate must be known and balanced. Rather, the main prospect is that vast tree-plantings raise the water table, lower the temperature, prevent flash-flood runoffs, and generate humidity and rain by transpiration. (This microclimate assumption has been disputed, but the reverse effect cannot be doubted, thanks to overgrazing and reckless deforestation.) Wendy Campbell-Purdie has already proven that crops will grow once the tree-sentries take hold - reversing the usual course of agriculture, which is to slash and burn the trees out.

Cornells Lely, instigator of Holland's gigantic Zuider Zee Dam and reclamation project, said of it that "the technical side is easy; it is the political which causes difficulty."l2 The political problems of a Sahara rebirth will be, like the plans themselves, as enormous as those of World War II.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also engaged in some colossal action and city-building in the desert overseas. No Sahara forest; no $7.5 billion Kissinger Plan to roll back the desert; no new cities for the world's homeless: not these, but a prodigal program to build a war machine and military infrastructure for - Saudi Arabia. The Center for Defense Information (CDI) in Washington has listed $24 billion worth of military construction projects being managed there by U.S. Army Engineers, including five military cities, two naval bases, three air bases, two military academies, and three defense headquarters.

The CDI's Defense Monitor of August 1981 revealed that "nearly one-fifth of all U.S. Army Corps of Engineers activities are in Saudi Arabia." It further stated:

Taken together, the Corps of Engineers projects in Saudi Arabia rival the U.S. MX missile system construction programs, but are almost unknown to members of Congress and the public.  (Emphasis in original.)

The largest project, and the most questionable, is the King Khalid Military City; a self-contained military base and city being built in the middle of wasteland desert. Originally planned as a $3 Billion project, costs are now estimated to be at least $8.5 Billion, or more than $100,000 for each of the 70,000 people it can house when completed in the late 1980's.

Thanks; I needed that. Now back to our dream world.

Of course, the Arabian peninsula is a continuation of the Sahara region. Adding it as another sector to Sahara reclamation would make the effort about 20 percent larger. Would not this be a better investment for petrodollars?

Ideas: Elsewhere I have discussed over 30 ideas for colossal action, roughly grouped into proposals for:
1)    Global Campaigns (e.g., Buckminster Fuller's World Game);
2)    Regional Development (e.g., Mekong Plan);
3)    Urban Construction (e.g., Tetra City - Bucky Fuller again);
4)    Energy Systems (e.g., "sea-vaporation" and Qattara Hydro);
5)    Cosmic Cooperation (e.g., Gerard K. O'Neill's L5 space colony).
Students and others ought to research simulate and war-game - or "world-game" - the many aspects of a Sahara conquest. Let us call this Conquest World War IV, so that with this moral equivalent, we may skip World War III.