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Book Exposes Myths About Drylands

Professor Diana Davis’ latest book, The Arid Lands, overturns long-held notions of deserts as wastelands in need of restoration.

In this book, released by MIT Press in March, Davis argues that deserts and drylands—which cover about 41 percent of the earth’s landmass and are home to roughly 38 percent of the global population—are resilient, biologically diverse environments in which indigenous peoples have lived sustainably for centuries.

A recent review in the Times Higher Education called The Arid Lands “a fascinating account” of the historical assumptions underlying our views—and misguided policies—aimed at “reclaiming” deserts from nomads who had allegedly overgrazed them.

“All those lone and level sands that stretch far away: poetic metaphors at best, but mostly just parched, useless, woeful wastelands crying out for development,” according to the London-based magazine. “Or so centuries of colonial rulers, savants and sundry pontificators had it, anyway, despite indigenous knowledge and ecological reality to the contrary.”

cover of book by UC Davis history professor Diana K. DavisDavis is a geographer, born and raised in the high desert of New Mexico who also became a veterinarian. She did this in order to be a better geographer since she planned to work with nomads and their livestock. Davis specializes in the environmental history and political ecology of the world’s arid lands. Her research has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation and the ACLS Ryskamp Fellowship (American Council of Learned Societies). 

Her 2008 book Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa was awarded the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, the Meridian Book Award from the American Association of Geographers and the AAG’s James Blaut Award for innovative scholarship in cultural and political ecology.

In a review for Arab studies ezine Jadaliyya, Max Ajl at Cornell University, said The Arid Lands expands on that groundbreaking work. He called Davis “the rare social scientist who has the gift of traversing the social-natural disciplinary boundary.”  She plans to continue to traverse this boundary in a future project analyzing the history of arid lands ecology as a scientific body of knowledge.