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The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge. Diana K. Davis; The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science. Nathan F. Sayre

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The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge.
Diana K. Davis; The Politics of Scale: A History of
Rangeland Science. Nathan F. Sayre
Rebecca Lave, Thomas Bassett, Geoff Mann, Paul Robbins, Simon
Batterbury, Nathan F. Sayre & Diana K. Davis
To cite this article: Rebecca Lave, Thomas Bassett, Geoff Mann, Paul Robbins, Simon Batterbury,
Nathan F. Sayre & Diana K. Davis (2019) The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge. Diana K.
Davis; The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science. Nathan F. Sayre, The AAG Review of
Books, 7:1, 35-46, DOI: 10.1080/2325548X.2019.1546033
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/2325548X.2019.1546033
Published online: 15 Jan 2019.
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The AAG Review OF BOOKS
BOOK REVIEW FORUM
The AAG Review of Books 7(1) 2019, pp. 35–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/2325548X.2019.1546033.
©2019 by American Association of Geographers. Published by Taylor & Francis, LLC.
The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge.
Diana K. Davis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT
Press, 2016. xxi and 271 pp., maps, photos,
illustrations, notes, index. $32.00 cloth
(ISBN 9780262034524).
The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland
Science. Nathan F. Sayre. Chicago, IL: The
University of Chicago Press, 2017. xv
and 265 pp., maps, photos, illustrations,
diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. $40.00
paper (ISBN 9780226083254); $120.00
cloth (ISBN 9780226083117); $10.00–
$40.00 electronic (ISBN 9780226083391).
Introduction by Rebecca Lave, Department
of Geography, Indiana University,
Bloomington, IN.
It is a pleasure to introduce this book review forum on two
related and complementary books: Nathan F. Sayre’s The
Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science and Di-
ana K. Davis’s The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge.
These are important books for many different reasons, as
detailed in the insightful reviews by Thomas Bassett, Si-
mon Batterbury, Geoff Mann, and Paul Robbins in this
forum. The books and the reviews also raise significant
questions about changing knowledge regimes and chang-
ing practices for living sustainably in the drylands of our
planet and perhaps beyond. Although there is much to
be said about these two excellent books, I focus here on
the role of knowledge, expertise, and science. Both The
Arid Lands and The Politics of Scale are notable for the
clarity with which they illustrate how knowledge produc-
tion is shaped by material and social conditions, and how,
in turn, this shapes the material and social. I point to
three powerful shared arguments here to elucidate these
strengths.
First, the very particular physicality of arid and semiarid
lands, defined less by outright lack of precipitation than
by extreme variation, is the cornerstone of both books.
Davis and Sayre implicitly argue that this variability
poses a particular challenge for modernist, scientific ex-
pertise, the strength of which lies in repetition, standard-
ization, and predictability. Those strengths turn out to be
intense liabilities in landscapes defined by radical varia-
tion—spatially, seasonally, annually, even decadally—in
access to water, one of the most fundamental needs of all
living things. Indigenous knowledge has been by far the
better guide; the fact that your livestock and possibly your
family will die if you misread the landscape has spurred
the deep empiricism and intellectual flexibility necessary
to parse arid and semiarid landscapes more accurately.
Arid lands might have been designed by God to smack
some humility into scientists, but it seems she failed to
anticipate the impacts of colonialism and finance capital,
which brings me to my next point.
Structural factors play a second lead role in these books,
as arid lands ecology and range science were from the ear-
liest days called into service for capital and the colonial
state. One of the most important things these books do is
shatter any illusions of academia’s heroic past. Both Davis
and Sayre debunk the myth, so common across university
campuses today, that whereas science is now under attack
by political economic forces, it used to be pure. As French
historian of science Dominique Pestre has demonstrated
so convincingly, scientists have never worked under cir-
cumstances of their own choosing, and those circum-
stances shape their research practice: the questions they
ask (and those they ignore), their findings, and the way
those findings have been put to work in the world (Pestre
2003). Both books demonstrate with painful clarity the
ways in which science has always been a handmaiden of
state and economic power.
36 THE AAG REVIEW OF BOOKS
In The Arid Lands, Davis lays out how the ideological
need to justify colonization and the practical need to
control the colonized drew many arid land ecologists into
assumptions of deforestation and desertification, and of
the inherent supremacy of European landscapes, prop-
erty relations, and environmental management practices.
Eurocentrism and racism play a similarly central role in
The Politics of Scale, as do bureaucratic needs for uniform,
standardized regulation. Here, though, the needs of fi-
nance capital come into the picture as well, as ranchers
in the U.S. West required fixed leases and fencing to se-
cure outside investment. In both books, the requirements
of capital and the colonial state reinforce the power of
particularly compatible received authorities and scientific
lineages, focusing scientists’ attention on some subsets of
the physical world and blinding them to alternative ex-
planations.
Thus both Davis and Sayre show us a science that is not
disinterested and pure, but pushed, pulled, stretched, re-
directed, and spun around in circles by a constellation
of physical and social forces. One of the strongest diver-
gences between these authors, however, is whether they
would add the word distorted to that list of verbs. Davis’s
position on this is unequivocal: Colonial science and its
descendants today are profoundly ideological, and thus
flat out wrong. There are dozens of places in this short
book where she uses today’s climate science and disequi-
librium rangeland ecology as a hatchet with which to
chop open and expose the interested, ideological biases
that dominated arid lands ecology up through the 1980s.
Sayre also draws on current understandings to reveal
blind spots in earlier knowledge claims, but only rarely
to debunk them; early range science is not portrayed as
wrong, but as partial. Further, he does not seem to have
a great deal more faith in disequilibrium ecology than he
does in Clementsian ecology (this catholic skepticism is a
notable departure from the political ecology norm, which
has embraced the intellectual synergies of poststructur-
alism and disequilibrium ecology since at least the mid-
1990s (Zimmerer 1994; Fairhead and Leach 1996; Peet
and Watts 1996; Rocheleau, Thomas-Slater, and Wangari
1996).
The final key takeaway from these books is that arid lands
ecology and range science, shaped by the needs of struc-
tural power and profoundly unsuited to the variability of
arid landscapes, have in turn reshaped those landscapes
in extremely consequential and heartbreaking ways. In
The Arid Lands, Davis shows how a “standard package”
of management techniques, including privatization of
land, sedentarization, forbidding burning, and destocking
(a technocratic euphemism for murdering vast quanti-
ties of livestock), has devastated pastoralist societies on
five continents. Although The Politics of Scale touches
more briefly on the social consequences of range science,
Sayre’s narrower geographical focus on the U.S. West al-
lows him to demonstrate in more detail the profound eco-
logical consequences and threshold changes created by
U.S. range management. Both authors end by noting that
these social and ecological consequences have provoked
a radical rethinking of arid lands ecology and range sci-
ence, which will in their turn produce new eco-social
landscapes. Whether they will be ecologically or socially
preferable to what came before them remains to be seen.
Commentary by Thomas Bassett, Department of
Geography and Geographic Information Science,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
Champaign, IL.
These two new books on the arid lands, and the science
and management that have shaped our understanding of
them, are terrific additions to the political ecology shelf.
The prose is crisp and the narratives move effortlessly,
which means the authors have spent a lot of time honing
their arguments.
Diana K. Davis’s The Arid Lands is a concise and fascinat-
ing intellectual history of deserts, particularly their rep-
resentation as wastelands. In 200 pages, she manages to
survey the literature dating from antiquity to the present
on how arid lands have been perceived and explained.
Her environmental historical approach demonstrates that
desertification discourses are relatively recent and closely
tied to colonial histories.
When I opened the book and read the first chapter, “Des-
erts, Dogma, and Dryland Development Policy,” it all
sounded familiar. The book was reading like synthetic
work bringing together existing research on desertifica-
tion. As I read the second and following chapters, though,
I realized that the book was more than a synthesis. It
quickly turned into an engaging environmental history
that chronicles the origins of key ideas such as desiccation
theory, which linked deforestation with climate change
and ultimately desertification. In short, although the im-
age of deserts as ruined, deforested landscape is relatively
recent, its purportedly constituent processes have been
discussed since antiquity. That is, desertification was not
simply invented in 1928 by a French forester working in
northern Africa. The idea has grown incrementally for
millennia. The great strength and major contribution of
WINTER 2019 37
this book is to trace that history in a clear and engaging
manner. Students are going to love this book.
The Arid Lands also makes abundantly clear that one
cannot talk about trees in Africa without also talking
about ideas of desiccation and desertification. I would add
“savannization” to the list. The French colonial forester
André Aubreville viewed savannization as a precursor to
desertification in the humid savannas of West Africa. It is
a term that is still used today in deforestation studies and
reforestation policies in the subregion.
What I found missing from Davis’s desertification nar-
rative are the perspectives of arid land users themselves.
How do pastoralists view land degradation? Boutrais
(2000) wrote that Fulbè pastoralists of the Adamawa
plateau of Cameroon possess nuanced classifications of
rangeland condition that significantly differ from range
science assessments. Pastoralists prefer to graze their
herds during the rainy season in pastures that ecologists
consider in a state of progressive degradation. Boutrais
noted that pastoralists do not hold this declensionist view
of rangeland but instead see the pastures in a desirable
state. Davis’s narrative could be enriched by such con-
trasting interpretations of rangeland condition to illus-
trate both the politics of environmental knowledge and
the power of Western science to exclude alternative views
of arid lands.
Nathan F. Sayre’s The Politics of Scale: A History of Range-
land Science analyzes the interrelationships between po-
litical and economic processes, especially the state’s need
to regulate rangelands, and the history of rangeland sci-
ence, which evolved to fulfill those regulatory needs.
Sayre examines the emergence of rangeland science
through the lens of land management agencies, rangeland
experiments, and the underlying assumptions of scientists
conducting rangeland research. These assumptions, such
as the need for fencing, predator control, fire suppres-
sion, and the virtual elimination of herding, are recurring
threads that he deftly weaves together to demonstrate
the rise of succession theory as the foundation of range-
land science. Sayre shows how this science and its key
concepts like original condition, carrying capacity, and
stocking rates were coproduced with federal land man-
agers and ranchers whose administrative and economic
goals “conformed to and were ratified” by Clementsian
succession theory.
Using the results of rangeland experiment station re-
search, Sayre chronicles the monumental failure of these
assumptions and practices and thus the limits of suc-
cession theory in the arid lands where nonequilibrium
conditions, notably rainfall variability, exert the great-
est influence on rangeland condition. He shows how the
challenge to the Clementsian orthodoxy and the rise of
nonequilibrium theory emerged incrementally through
scientific research and innovative experiments.
The political economy of this transition is less clear, nor
is it evident how U.S. rangeland science traveled overseas
and took hold in places like southern Rhodesia, where
British colonists set stocking rates and fenced in range-
lands to the detriment of indigenous livestock producers.
The integrated political economic and ecological analy-
sis that guides Sayre’s discussion of the coproduction of
rangeland science and management in the United States
is missing in the discussion of range science and manage-
ment in southern Africa.
On a personal note, I took a range management course
in the late 1970s while a graduate student at the Univer-
sity of California, Berkeley. We read Stoddart and Smith’s
(1943) classic Range Management in which they presented
succession theory and stocking rates as foundational to
rangeland science. I liked the book so much I packed it
on my first trip to Côte d’Ivoire in 1981 to conduct my
doctoral dissertation research. I was taken by the graphs
showing the relationship between increasers, decreasers,
and range condition, and the pragmatic albeit challenging
notions of carrying capacity and stocking rates. I brought
the book with me because I believed it would help me
understand livestock raising in northern Côte d’Ivoire. In
the end, the book wasn’t helpful at all because the graz-
ing lands of the West African savanna did not resemble
the rangelands of the western United States. There were
no fences hemming in cattle, fire was a common pasture
management tool, and animal diseases and farmer–herder
conflicts were major motivations for moving herds. That
is, there were different political ecological conditions that
produced a different sociospatial order about which Stod-
dart and Smith had nothing to say. When I discovered
one day that termites had eaten a good part of the book,
I was disappointed but not devastated. I hadn’t opened it
all year.
There are a number of cross-cutting themes in the Davis
and Sayre books that make them excellent companions
for upper division and graduate-level courses. Salient
themes include (1) the devaluing of local knowledge and
technologies of resource management (e.g., mobile live-
stock raising), (2) the coproduction of science and pol-
icy, (3) the power of value-laden terms such as “original
condition” and “desirable state” that serve as baselines
38 THE AAG REVIEW OF BOOKS
for measuring land degradation and improvement, and
(4) the relevance of nonequilibrium ecological theory to
explain the failure of past policies and development in-
terventions. Regarding the latter, Davis and Sayre view
nonequilibrium ecology as critical to moving beyond the
impasse of failed dryland development schemes. Davis is
optimistic about the prospects of building on environ-
mental variability in charting a more sustainable and
just future in the drylands. Sayre concludes his book on
a more cautionary note with reference to the difficulties
of modeling “threshold changes involving non-linear in-
teractions across multiple scales” (p. 215) and formulating
polices at these scales among actors with different abili-
ties and interests. In the end, both books stand out for
their focus on ecological theory and its intersection with
political economy and policy. The systematic integration
of the ecological and political makes these works exem-
plary political ecologies.
Commentary by Geoff Mann, Department of
Geography, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby,
BC, Canada.
Diana K. Davis’s The Arid Lands and Nathan F. Sayre’s
The Politics of Scale are in some ways radically different
books. They are both fascinating, well-written, and based
in impeccable research—these characteristics they share.
The former, however, is a history of our “knowledge” of
deserts and drylands, focused largely on landscapes out-
side of the imperial core of global political economy. The
latter is a focused history of our “knowledge” of arid and
semiarid rangelands in North America, with particular
focus on the U.S. West. Given the vast differences of cul-
ture, history, and ecology between the empirical terrains
of the two works, it is perhaps unsurprising that they
complement rather than compete with each other.
Yet, that complementarity emerges not only because they
fit together to give us a more comprehensive coverage of
global drylands and the history of their science and man-
agement. It also emerges because they both make it clear
that in the drylands, as Sayre puts it, the nation-state, sci-
ence, and capital meet their limits. In other words, to say
that drylands are defined by their marginality is to make
two points simultaneously: Not only are these landscapes
marginal in the not-very-productive, not-at-the-center-of-
attention sense; they are also marginal in that they mark
one of the limits of modernity. Beyond the well-watered,
the world is much less subject to the defining modes of
modern political, economic, and epistemological organi-
zation.
This is not to say that the triad of the nation-state, capi-
tal, and science has figured everything out everywhere
but in the arid zones. Nor is it to say that the variation
in the landscapes Davis and Sayre study, both ecologi-
cal and cultural, is ultimately insignificant in the face of
the triad. There is, of course, extraordinary variety, even
within jurisdictions (that between the deserts of Davis’s
account and the rangelands of Sayre’s being of particular
note; one might say, roughly, that the rangelands of the
western United States are distinct from deserts in that
they are still deemed profitable, however “marginally”). It
is to say, however, that the multiple ecosystems the two
books cover share a common feature that is, perhaps, the
root of their resistance to the forces of European-Amer-
ican imperial modernity: They have all evolved in the
context of ongoing and extraordinary environmental
variability. The drylands are, as Davis puts it, “a non-
equilibrium world saddled with an equilibrium mindset”
(p. 19). Science, capital, and the state have, with only
very few exceptions, absolutely refused to acknowledge
this. In their efforts to somehow produce a world they
can know, manipulate, and render productive and secure,
they have engendered more than two centuries of “policy-
induced desertification” (p. 5).
In a manner that recalls the agrarian question literature
that lies, usually tacitly, at the very base of both books,
Davis and Sayre show how endlessly troubling for capital
the “mismatch” between its expansionary demands and
the variability of drylands has been. This dynamic is par-
ticularly central to The Politics of Scale, centered as it is on
the U.S. experience and the centrality of particular forms
of private credit to the development of U.S. agriculture.
In combination with genocide, theft, extinction, and
militarization, which emptied the range of its antimod-
ern human and nonhuman populations, ballooning credit
made the range “productive”—but as recent experience
confirms, credit is never just a one-time “input.” Credit
finances itself on future indebtedness. Once finance capi-
tal is involved, expansion is the only way forward: more
land, more productivity, more profit. The level of variabil-
ity in drylands, though, meant that consistent and reli-
able “growth” was impossible, even after the elimination
of Indigenous peoples and predators.
Both books show how dryland science came to the aid
of racist-colonial capitalism in its time of need. In The
Arid Lands, Davis lays out in great detail the way the
“desiccation theory” that masqueraded as the “truth” of
desert ecology aimed to overcome aridity, and manage
the landscapes, their peoples, and their cultural prac-
tices so as to “return” the desert to its “natural” produc-
WINTER 2019 39
tive state via (among other things) privatization, forced
sedentarism, and nothing less than astonishing projects
of socioecological reengineering. The failure of these ef-
forts has been calamitous—but so, of course, would have
been their success. Indeed, among other things, The Arid
Lands convinced me that if the whole apparatus had suc-
ceeded (i.e., if the equilibrium mindset had overcome the
nonequilibrium world), there might be no one left in the
countryside of North Africa but U.S. oil firms. In The
Politics of Scale, Sayre argues convincingly that the en-
tire history of U.S. range science is inseparable from the
effort to save the capitalist range (or better, to make it
even imaginable). In both accounts, the principal agent
behind these efforts was the colonial state, both in “of-
ficial” European colonies and in the colonized U.S. West
and the U.S. imperial sphere.
Indeed, both books are so full of stories of glaring state
capital and science-induced environmental and social de-
struction that one of their shared conclusions—that the
separation between the forces the triad names is not much
of a separation at all—is incontrovertible. Moreover, per-
haps most striking is the fact that almost all of the efforts
to manage or even just plain understand drylands have
failed, again—unsurprisingly, I suppose—from the van-
tage point of the market, science, or policy.
As his title suggests, Sayre builds much of his argument
concerning these failures—and the attendant bureau-
cratic, accumulative, and theoretical shifts they have
helped spur—on a critique of the concept of scale, in
the ecological and consequently the political economic
sense. (As an aside, it is worth mentioning that Sayre’s
examination of the problem of scale is, to my knowledge,
unsurpassed in the contemporary human geography and
political economy literature. It merits a deep engagement
from anyone interested in the question.) He shows how
shifting but usually tacit assumptions about scale have
been central to every pebble in this slag heap of failed
efforts to turn the drylands into profitable, stable, appro-
priable, and enclosable spaces: what is the “right” scale
for this nature and these enterprises and these activities.
A similar problem attracts close attention from Davis, es-
pecially in her examination of the program of rangeland
privatization in Africa. This imposition of an “appropri-
ate” socionatural scale has caused massive degradation—
a result that will not surprise any political ecologists, but
much of the importance of political-ecological work like
this is that it does the tough multipronged research to
uncover these processes in politically relevant ways. Both
books show, for example, how because of variability and
nonequilibrium dynamics the inescapably scalar problem
of landscape “carrying capacity” (the “right” herd size),
has proven meaningless from a management perspective.
The question that both books point us toward—but
cannot answer conclusively, because of the very vari-
ability they emphasize—is how we can restructure our
relations with drylands (and in many cases, with their
Indigenous and nonhuman residents) differently. The
coordinated state–capital operation we call privatiza-
tion, for example, has been a disaster, but as Sayre’s ex-
amination of the United States shows, clearly the mere
maintenance of drylands as “public” land is not, on its
own, a solution. Similarly, although we might seek some
wisdom in so-called nonequilibrium approaches to mod-
eling and ecological theory, it remains the case that
an “equilibrium mindset” is the sine qua non of mod-
ern science—both social and biophysical. A true non-
equilibrium science would, in the end, deconstruct the
generalization—the possibility of nonlocally and non-
temporally specific knowledge—that is arguably what
science is all about. Despite what both books tentatively
suggest, the recourse to “disequilibrium” theory in the
effort to escape the inevitable empiricism that would ac-
company a true nonequilibrium approach is a dead end:
To posit a system as perpetually “out of equilibrium” is
always to posit the existence of that equilibrium as a
fixed if empty locus around which the system oscillates,
however unpredictably. The corollary is that there is no
equilibrium state, but if everything were perfectly as it
should be, then equilibrium would hold.
I suppose there is a way in which this is a marginal im-
provement on the successional theory both books cri-
tique. Certainly successional ecology is in some ways
the most powerful variation on the same speculative
theme that has dominated the study of drylands in its
almost theological rejection of the reality in favor of a
conception of the world that refuses this reality by pos-
iting a tendential, or developmental dynamic that hu-
mans (especially Indigenous humans) hinder. If God
or nature were unfettered, it says, the world would be
radically otherwise, and radically better. Science there-
fore becomes the means by which to diagnose and fix
the failures or sins of this world or particular sets of its
inhabitants. Although Davis does not emphasize it, on
this account successional theory is merely a more recent
instantiation of an older worldview she says was struc-
tured by a “biblical time frame” (p. 74).
These are the problematic conclusions of a worldview
structured by the capital–state–science triad struggling to
40 THE AAG REVIEW OF BOOKS
wrestle cultural-historical and biophysical dynamics that
mock our equilibrium mindset. Equilibrium, even when
it is absent, haunts scientific thought, as science itself is
almost unthinkable without it: Even a nonequilibrium
system is defined by what it lacks. In fact, I would argue
that although nominally erased in the term nonequilib-
rium, equilibrium is usually smuggled in the back door
in the guise of “ecosystem function.” Inevitably, it seems,
our generalizations are based in attempts to identify pat-
terns that are in the most basic sense “normal”; that is,
characteristic of an equilibrium. I am not so sure this will
in any meaningful way enable our escape from what the
economist Dymski (2017) called “equifinality”—in other
words, although not by any means hopeless, it seems the
“biblical timeframe” still structures our thought (50).
Commentary by Paul Robbins, The Nelson
Institute for Environmental Studies, University of
Wisconsin, Madison, WI.
At the start of the 1990s, when I was just entering gradu-
ate school to think about working in arid lands, two
things were humming in the air, electrically setting a new
agenda for political ecology. The first was the revelation
that stable state (equilibrium-seeking) ecosystem dy-
namics did not prevail in many contexts, especially arid
lands and range lands. This was hugely exciting, because
it busted a dominant discourse that had, on many occa-
sions, been put to use to disenfranchise and disempower
whole groups of people, including and especially pastoral-
ists. This was an ecology that was clearly political. Sa-
vory’s (1988) Holistic Resource Management and Behnke
and Scoones’s (1993) Range Ecology at Disequilibrium
perched themselves on countless bookshelves of that era.
The second revelation was epistemological. It was in-
creasingly becoming clear that science was never inno-
cent of its conditions of production. Specifically: colonial
societies (like ours) create colonial sciences that, unsur-
prisingly, reproduce colonialism. By doing genealogies of
scientific knowledge, you could unmask their colonial ori-
gins, especially in the field of natural resource conserva-
tion (Grove 1990; Blaut 1993).
That these two revelations, one ecological and the other
epistemological, were linked, seemed to go without say-
ing. Even so, it is remarkable to me that it took almost
three decades for comprehensive accounts of this re-
lationship to emerge. As it turns out, it was worth the
wait, as we now have not one, but two terrifically rigorous,
beautifully written, and thoroughly compelling accounts
of how and why the arid lands were structurally driven to
be misunderstood for centuries.
In The Arid Lands, Davis demonstrates her formidable
historiography, in two languages, to trace the deep roots
of “crisis narratives” in arid lands. Tracking in particular
the French forestry traditions of the nineteenth century,
she shows the way declensionist views of arid lands have
consistently held local producers, especially herders (and
especially Arab herders) culpable for the aridification of
whole sections of the Earth. As a tool to extend colonial
power, such forms of knowledge, which stressed the need
for greening the landscape and especially tree planting,
became inscribed in management regimes around the
world, and even persisted into the postwar development
machinery of international aid. Their pernicious shadow,
Davis shows, continues to this day, in the United Nations
Convention to Combat Desertification. This is an ac-
count that seamlessly links knowledge and power.
Sayre’s Politics of Scale similarly traces the roots of bad
ideas, their relationships to institutions, and their instan-
tiation on the land. Specifically, Sayre delves deep into the
history of range science, an applied body of knowledge,
emerging especially in the United States and Australia.
Here, he documents how specific institutions, especially
experimental range stations, developed to embolden ideas
that fit poorly to conditions. Notions of equilibrium in
ecological systems, most notably, tied to a Clementsian
vision of succession dynamics, are an incredibly poor
match to rangeland dynamics, which are marked by in-
stability and variability. The ideas and institutions, Sayre
further shows, evolved along with the cattle industry, its
needs, and the territorial systems of capitalist accumula-
tion that followed westward settlement. This is an ac-
count that seamlessly links knowledge and power.
These two books, together, fulfill the promise made in
1991, to show how a mismatch between ecologies and
ideas come into being and persist, through institutional,
economic, and political processes. In this sense, the two
books should be read together.
Two questions hover over these works, however, one em-
pirical and the other epistemological. First, it is striking
how much of Davis’s narrative focuses on trees, losing
them and getting them back. The obsession of French for-
estry with afforestation is clear, as is the inherited power
of that narrative, which pervades contemporary land
management policies throughout the colonial subtropics.
Tree planting in arid lands across Africa and south Asia
is the ongoing obsession of range managers, a regrettable
fact that is reinforced by the new obsession with carbon
WINTER 2019 41
forestry. Although stocking rates are a twin obsession
(shared by Sayre’s Forest Service officials), Davis’s book is
very much about trees.
Sayre’s book, conversely, has little to say about affores-
tation (or reforestation). Indeed controlling shrub en-
croachment and various forms of woodiness is the con-
verse obsession of Sayre’s range scientists. This is puzzling.
Is it the manifest ecological differences of U.S. and Aus-
tralian rangelands from African and Asian contexts that
drive the differences in scientific emphases on woody
species? Is sand dune control simply a materially distinct
practice from restoring range grasses, such that different
policies would stray in such different directions? Or is it a
difference in the intellectual lineage of the traditions of
forestry science and range science? Put differently, if the
French had colonized the U.S. West, would the range sci-
ence history look significantly different?
A second question is epistemological. Both The Arid Lands
and The Politics of Scale do a formidable job of showing
how specific contributions to science in arid lands were
skewed by institutional context. Whether it is Cadet de
Vaux at Davis’s Museum of Natural History, irreversibly
linking forestry to climate, or scientists adopting Clem-
entsian theory at Sayre’s Santa Rita and Jornada Experi-
mental Ranges, both books attend closely to the political
and economic conditions that impinge on the production
of knowledge. Indeed, both books are, at bottom, detailed
histories of how we can get things so “wrong.” This is the
twin magic of these books that makes them major contri-
butions to the history of knowledge.
Conversely, neither book does much in the way of ex-
plaining how, and under what conditions, we get things
“right.” Surely if knowledge and power are intertwined,
then it should be symmetrically possible to explain the
emergence of, and swift adoption of, new ideas in arid
lands science and management. How and when do old
paradigms get overthrown? If such paradigms are bol-
stered not only by the weight of evidence (and the evi-
dence against old arid lands and range sciences is truly
immense and has been for a long time), but also by co-
lonial political economy, what political economy makes
space for new ideas when they arrive? Should we not
hold in suspicion the new ideas of arid environments
(championed by both authors) insofar as they might
simply be convenient for a different form of capital,
power, and accumulation—say, ecotourism or real estate
development?
Indeed, Sayre’s hindmost chapters document the incred-
ible rapidity with which equilibrium thinking gave way to
disequilibrium thinking, as Brian Walker, Mark Westoby,
and Imanuel Noy-Meir ride to the rescue of the hapless
range management community, introducing a chaotic
new theory of diversity, variability, and path dependency,
the uptake of which was incredibly fast.
Conversely, Sayre dedicates two lonely paragraphs on
page 206 to explaining this epistemological upheaval. He
suggests, timidly, that the scientific shift paralleled a de-
cline in ranching itself, and the rise of multiple use and
amenity demands on range lands. I find that explanation
plausible, but its brief treatment is unconvincing. Much
more would have to be documented about how institu-
tional conditions bend in new directions and push new
ideas to the fore.
Similarly for Davis, only on pages 169 to 173 do we see
new emerging forms of knowledge. For example, Davis
provides examples of farmer knowledge, intertwined with
new thinking in international development agencies,
coming to grips with the power of foresters in Niger and
making room for real forest recovery exactly where ex-
perts have the least power. Even here, however, there is
little hint about the conditions that allow such farmer
knowledge to become “true.” We are told that where the
state loses power, better knowledge prevails, which is
again compelling but still somewhat incomplete.
We might chalk these silences up to the simple fact that
writing one book at a time is enough for anyone. The
main purpose of this work is a critical account of oppres-
sive regimes. I would argue, however, that there is some-
thing more at work. The asymmetrical critique of old
and new forms of knowledge, and its tacit progressivism,
is more likely a product of epistemology. Both Davis and
Sayre are soft constructivists, critical realist scholars who
believe in a universal ecological truth. Bad ideas must be
explained, and good ideas are “facts.” That is a fine place
to leave it, perhaps.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, though.
If ecology is the “science of empire,” as both authors in-
sist, and neither colonialism nor capitalism have given
way to some alternative political economic form, how do
we account for innovations in thought? Surely we don’t
succumb to a heroic vision of progressive science, wherein
we simply await better scientists (Latour 1993)?
As an alternative theory, one might hypothesize instead
that a science, like that now emerging in the arid lands,
that stresses variability, uncertainty, and diversity of con-
ditions, might itself be very convenient to a certain kind
of capital, investment, and state form. Regrettably, these
42 THE AAG REVIEW OF BOOKS
otherwise excellent works adopt an epistemology that
makes even asking such a question impossible.
Commentary by Simon Batterbury , Lancaster
Environment Centre, Lancaster University,
Lancaster, UK, and Research Fellow, School of
Geography, University of Melbourne, Melbourne,
Australia.
These two books were a pleasure to read. They tackle the
history of ideas about regions deemed “marginal,” and the
ideas and practices that have kept them so. Sayre and Da-
vis deal, respectively, with misperceptions held about the
marginal and arid U.S. West, and global arid lands (with
a focus on the Sahara and its fringes). Having lived and
worked in southern Arizona, central to Sayre’s book, and
in the West African Sahel, featured in Davis’s work, I can
see links between the two volumes, although they target
different audiences. They both revolve around the conse-
quences of misconstruing the nature of environments and
the actions of peoples in arid lands, power-laden scientific
assumptions, thwarted development aspirations, and hu-
man responses to aridity.
Sayre has worked in, or studied, the U.S. West since 1986.
His aim is to tell the story of “rangeland science,” which
applies ecological theory to understand soils, vegetation,
fire, and other characteristics of “rangelands” (the term
denotes social rather than biophysical marginality, as a
“residual category”—p. 3). Historians of science have not
covered this field in any depth at all, so this is a pioneer-
ing work—and wisely it is published as an affordable pa-
perback. Sayre shows how the intensity of scientific efforts
to understand the arid U.S. West in an “inward-looking,
U.S.-centric discipline” grew in the early 1900s, accompa-
nying a realization that grazing cattle on the arid range-
lands produced value for investors as meat and hides, and
offered decent livelihoods for ranchers expanding west-
ward and displacing Native Americans. There was a ready
market for their cattle as the urban population grew.
Rangeland science was commissioned and officially sup-
ported when ecological variability began to challenge the
sustained economic viability of open and unfenced graz-
ing (p. 7). In other words, there was a widespread assump-
tion that cattle were degrading the range. Early scientific
efforts to determine optimal stocking rates and the effects
of fire were partial and often incorrect, led in the early
years by an overbearing ecologist, Frederic Clements,
with his controversial theory of plant succession. He sug-
gested climax plant communities were not being attained
due to overgrazing (his theory worked better in the Great
Plains, but not, it turned out, in the arid West). Related
work by his student, Arthur Sampson, was misapplied to
advocate and enforce fixed stocking rates on public lands.
Suppression of fire, fencing, and killing off wolves resulted.
The West’s first two experimental ranges, however, Jor-
nada and Santa Rita, yielded data that challenged climax
theory and “carrying capacity” calculations, even though
alternative theories were slow to arrive. The counternar-
rative of nonequilibrium rangeland ecology, in which we
now believe climate rather than ruminant actions has the
largest influence on vegetation, was only widely under-
stood and recognized by the 1970s, through the work of
Ellis, Swift, and Sandford, among others. It demonstrated
unpredictable ecological variability as a norm in drylands,
dismissing the idea of climax vegetation.
The problems faced by rangeland science over the decades
are attributed not only to false starts in the advancement
of scientific knowledge, but also to its control by key indi-
viduals and the “bureaucratic division of scientific labor.”
Scientists largely ignored generations of native knowledge
of the drylands, and research was oriented to the needs
of private ranchers. Science helped government efforts to
tame and control rangelands, and to increase their pro-
ductivity and profitability. Although Clementsian theory
was exported elsewhere to attack “overgrazing” by the
world’s pastoralists, Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons”
did so even more effectively from the late 1960s. Sayre
does detail some of the traffic in rangeland science be-
tween the United States and other dryland regions, al-
though his account is focused on the U.S. West. Australia
shared “marginal” arid conditions (and displacement of
the Indigenous population to accommodate cattle), but
its scientists later played a strong role in developing non-
equilibrium models.
Whereas long leaseholds and private property were fea-
tures of the U.S. West and arid Australia, the areas grazed
on the margins of the Sahara generally lacked private
property, and this is still the case today (see Bassett’s ear-
lier commentary in this forum). As Diana K. Davis shows
based on her long engagement with North Africa, African
pastoralists also occupy land considered “marginal” by co-
lonial scientists, and even by sedentary African farmers.
With highly advanced sensitivities to grazing quality and
seasonal rainfall, nomadic societies like the Fulani and
Bedouin traveled with their herds, sometimes oscillating
around fixed settlements or between fixed points depend-
ing on pasture conditions. Potential clashes with other
herders or ethnic groups were traditionally negotiated, al-
though not always without violence. Their major problem
WINTER 2019 43
was the colonial powers, who deemed nomads to be trou-
blesome and ungovernable (which meant, hard to tax—p.
128). Various large “pastoral development projects” were
established to offer livestock health programs and water-
ing points, allowing better colonial surveillance. There
were also demonstration farms, and North African sheep
were crossbred with European breeds. In addition, irriga-
tion projects and boreholes facilitated agriculture where
rainfall was insufficient or unreliable.
In some regions, access to land or water for herders was
constrained. As France’s colonies encircled three quar-
ters of the Western Sahara, accusations continued. Davis
provides one of the clearest accounts in English of the
origins of this colonial discourse in nineteenth-century
France. Flahault and his students identified “natural” veg-
etation they believed to be disturbed by degradation or
overuse (most important, affecting tree cover; see Rob-
bins’s commentary earlier in this forum). Links to Cle-
ments’s later work are clear (p. 125). As in the United
States, ecological knowledge developed in North Africa
was exported, inappropriately, south of the Sahara. Fears
of desertification appeared in francophone literature and
in colonial policies. Pastoralists found themselves seden-
tarized, forbidden from burning pastures to regenerate
them, and denied access to forest reserves by the 1930s.
As in the United States, it was overgrazing (controlla-
ble) rather than the weather (not controllable) that was
thought to determine the outward spread of the Sahara.
That was the science of the day, but Davis’s argument is
that the colonial period saw “accumulation by desertifica-
tion” (p. 167)—from the 1920s, accusations of bad local
management permitted the extension of commercial irri-
gated cultivation of cotton or groundnuts and some trophy
hunting, at the expense of local populations well adapted
to an unstable desert-edge regime. Davis also claims that
the United Nations, attached to the United Nations Con-
vention to Combat Desertification, retains a suspicion of
“overgrazers,” despite the research findings of nonequilib-
rium ecologists and new evidence about the ebb and flow
of biomass and climate signals on dryland regions.
The two books demonstrate the magnitude, and the
power, of coalitions of policymakers and scientists in in-
fluencing the fate of the drylands in the late 1800s and
early 1900s. A failure to unpack the variability of dryland
ecosystems, attributing degradation almost exclusively
to human actions, resulted in inappropriate structures
and policies that affected the lives of millions across the
world’s drylands. The books raise the pressing issue of
whether the marginality discourse represented by “de-
sertification” language has really changed today. Whereas
many organizations and individuals try to nudge Western
scientific knowledge of drylands toward coexistence with
the refined understanding of ecological and social dy-
namics held by dryland peoples, both of these books hint
at the need for a fuller coproduction of rangeland and arid
lands science. Unfortunately the conditions faced by dry-
land peoples—including pastoralists in Africa and ranch-
ers in the U.S. West, Australia, and elsewhere—leave
them as minor players in the environments they inhabit
(Filipová and Johanisova 2017).
Response by Nathan F. Sayre, Department of
Geography, University of California, Berkeley,
Berkeley, CA.
It is a rare privilege to receive such careful and construc-
tive commentaries on one’s work, especially from schol-
ars whose own work I admire and have learned from so
much. I want to start by thanking Rebecca Lave, Thomas
Bassett, Simon Batterbury, Geoff Mann, and Paul Rob-
bins, as well as Maria Fernandez-Gimenez—who also par-
ticipated in the Authors-Meet-Critics session at the 2017
American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting
in Boston—and Diana K. Davis, who led the effort to
convene the session and to convert the session into this
book review forum.
I readily concede the point, made by Bassett, Batterbury,
and Robbins, that The Politics of Scale shifts abruptly be-
tween chapters 5 and 6, when it turns from the develop-
ment of rangeland science in the United States to the
overseas travels and travails of the resulting model. My
primary goal was to explain the former, which as Bat-
terbury notes had not previously been done, and the
latter was quite simply too big a topic, spread over too
many countries, continents, languages, and institutional-
environmental contexts, to address in anything like a
comparable degree of detail. I took heart in the fact that
many articles and monographs had already been written
about the failures of “pastoral development” on the U.S.
range-and-ranching model, and I hoped instead to fill in
something of a lacuna in many of those works; namely,
where had this model—which when viewed from overseas
seemed so patently flawed as to defy explanation—come
from to begin with? I was further heartened when I read
The Arid Lands and found that it encapsulated the longer
overseas history so beautifully.
This might also serve as a partial response to Robbins’s crit-
icism that The Politics of Scale does not sufficiently inves-
tigate the conditions that enabled the post-Clementsian,
44 THE AAG REVIEW OF BOOKS
nonequilibrium model to coalesce in the 1970s and 1980s
into a viable alternative to successional range science.
This is why chapters 6 and 7 had to be in the book, despite
their differences in scope and epistemology: because the
export and forcible imposition of the range-and-ranch-
ing model overseas was not only a disaster for pastoral-
ists, but also served to smash open the previously closed
world of range science, whose hegemony in post–World
War II development circles was entirely derivative of U.S.
dominance in the halls of the United Nations, the World
Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and associated
institutions. It is also the case—as I attempted to summa-
rize in the two paragraphs Robbins alludes to—that sev-
eral of the domestic circumstances that had made succes-
sional theory so exigent in earlier decades had eroded by
the late 1970s, such as the political hegemony of ranchers
in the West (which I simply asserted to be true, admit-
tedly) and the institutional monopoly over range-related
science by the U.S. Forest Service (which I had detailed
in the preceding chapters). The core point, vis-à-vis Rob-
bins’s concern, however, is that “new” knowledge does
not emerge simply or necessarily when scientists observe
or “discover” it—plenty of scientists at the Jornada and
Santa Rita Experimental Ranges had tried to give voice
to nonsuccessional insights for decades. Rather, extra-
scientific events in the world can help to demolish “old”
knowledge by making its flaws too obvious (and in this
case too expensive, obscene, or dare I say tragic) to ig-
nore, and thereby helping to create opportunities for al-
ternatives to gain traction.
Moreover, as Lave and Bassett correctly note, I am not
(yet) persuaded that the nonequilibrium model of range-
land science is right where the successional model was
wrong, and although I consider it premature to pass judg-
ment one way or the other on empirical grounds, I share
the theoretical doubts expressed so well by Mann in his
commentary. Rangeland ecologists continue to debate
the geographical and ecological limits that distinguish
equilibrium from nonequilibrium settings or systems, but
they rarely even pose Mann’s question, let alone try to
answer it. Like carrying capacity, equilibrium is an ideal-
ist concept disguised as a scientific “fact” about the em-
pirical world; its underlying normative aspirations cannot
be excised by methodological refinements or sophisti-
cated statistical analyses. Moreover, if, as Mann puts it,
there is no real separation among the components of the
state–capital–science triad—and this is perhaps the fun-
damental point that motivates The Politics of Scale—then
it becomes rather unclear what “soft constructivism” even
means as an approach to science. In other words, Robbins
is absolutely correct to ask whether nonequilibrium ideas
subserve the needs of newly ascendant forms of capital
accumulation and state territoriality—but they probably
can only do so if the deeper contradictions that afflict
the triad in relation to the world’s people and landscapes
remain obfuscated, euphemized, and misrecognized (as,
for instance, in the concept of resilience).
Response by Diana K. Davis, Department of
History, University of California, Davis, CA.
To benefit from scholars whose brilliant work has in-
spired me for many years and whose generous comments
here continue to provoke new questions and new ways of
thinking is very precious, an uncommon privilege. I am
very grateful indeed to Rebecca Lave, Thomas Bassett,
Geoff Mann, Paul Robbins, and Simon Batterbury, as well
as Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, for their close reading of
our work, their thoughtful and stimulating commentaries,
and for participating in the Authors Meet Critics session
at the AAG meetings. I am especially grateful to Lave for
her insightful introduction and to Bassett for deftly chair-
ing our session. Nathan F. Sayre is an outstanding col-
league and I am grateful to him for being such an incisive
coparticipant in the session and helping to put together
this forum.
The embarrassment of riches contained in these reviews
makes it difficult to respond to them all in the words
allowed here. Thus I have chosen to concentrate on a
few overlapping themes that emerged for me from these
meditations. First, though, I would like to acknowledge
my large debt to both Afghan and Moroccan pastoralists
with whom I have worked because it is their profoundly
intimate knowledge of their environment and their ani-
mals, and their sophisticated understandings of drylands
that led me to ask the questions that resulted in this
book. As Bassett rightly points out, the book would have
been richer with the addition of these kinds of indigenous
knowledges, but as I had published on this elsewhere I
felt that I should use my limited number of words for this
book in other ways.
As with most of the founders of nonequilibrium ecology
who worked with pastoralists for a great many years in
Africa and elsewhere, I was pushed to think differently
based on my experiences with pastoralists in Afghanistan
and Morocco. For most of these dryland denizens, vari-
ability and unpredictability are the “norm” and not some-
thing somehow defined compared to “equilibrium.” In this
sense, I believe that many pastoralists “think outside the
constraining box” of the equilibrium-based triad of state–
WINTER 2019 45
capital–science laid out by Mann, and thus have much to
teach us. As both Lave and Batterbury point out in their
reviews, the coproduction of the science of rangeland and
arid lands ecology would benefit from more engagement
with Indigenous, or nontriad, understandings of the ways
drylands work and how to sustainably live in them.
Although I am cautiously optimistic, as Bassett notes,
that we might be able to build on new understandings of
variability in the drylands for a more just and sustainable
future, this is not to say, as Robbins hints, that I believe
in a “universal ecological truth” as somehow revealed by
disequilibrium ecology. Knowledge is continually chang-
ing; the key is to understand how it is changing and why,
who wins and who loses. The power for me, in moving
beyond equilibrium thinking in science and other sectors,
is that it facilitates a clearer understanding of “how we
got things so wrong” in the past as Robbins notes, and
helps us to be able to “undo” old harms. I think it likely
that disequilibrium ecology is simply one step on a long
route of “trying to get it right” that will never reach “per-
fection.” How can we construct or imagine a way of life
that is “universally” socially and ecologically just and sus-
tainable? Whether we can construct a future ecologically
or socially preferable using these new understandings, as
Lave suggests, remains to be seen, depends on multiple
and complex factors, and is deeply political.
Robbins asks, in essence, how will we know when we
finally get things “right,” whether with disequilibrium
thinking or some other body of knowledge. This is an
important question, but involves ontology as much as
epistemology in my view. I have been tempted to hope
that the inherent disequilibrium and unpredictability of
the drylands might somehow tame the state–capital–sci-
ence triad and become some of the “roots of resistance” as
Mann puts it. I agree with Robbins that it is more likely,
however, that the triad will find new ways to drive accu-
mulation in the drylands despite their variability, a “dis-
equilibrium fix” if you will.
Accumulation by desertification has long been accom-
plished with various land dispossessions justified with
faulty (neo)colonial narratives that blame local peoples
for land degradation. New and related narratives, how-
ever, many based on the alleged biological worthlessness
of drylands, are driving new enclosures by the triad in the
form of, for instance, huge solar arrays like Nur-Energie (to
power Europe) in North Africa and various national large
solar farms like that in southern Morocco, which dispos-
sess local peoples and fences off large areas of former graz-
ing land. Wind farms as well as petroleum prospecting and
production, including shale and gas, have also resulted in
new waves of enclosure and dispossession in the drylands.
At the moment, these activities are somewhat restrained
by the current technologies to store and transmit energy.
Ecotourism and “green grabbing” with national parks and
other protected areas, usually driven by the triad in some
form, are further restricting local land uses and resource
access in the drylands around the globe. As Mann makes
clear, once finance and capital is involved, as it is in these
examples, expansion is the only way forward. The new dry-
land enclosures are beginning to work around the inher-
ent variability in dryland regions to facilitate the consis-
tent and reliable growth necessitated by capitalism. Future
developments, especially in battery and energy transmis-
sion technologies, will facilitate this expansion and the
dispossession that accompanies it. Epistemological and
ontological revolutions, not equilibrium-based “adapta-
tion” and “resilience building,” will be required to change
this trajectory and help to build the resistance. As Sayre
hints in his response, disequilibrium ideas might help us
to begin to dismantle the obfuscation, euphemization, and
misrecognition of the triad’s contradictions that have long
resulted in a great deal of social and ecological harm.
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ORCiD
Simon Batterbury https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2801-
7483
... Rangelands are defined as expansive land areas, which are not covered in forest or ice, and are not cultivated or built upon [40]. Globally, rangelands host a variety of diverse species of flora and fauna and provide ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, provision of high-quality habitats, pollination, and soil fertility [41][42][43]. ...
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