The Arid Lands

From History for a Sustainable Future

The Arid Lands

History, Power, Knowledge

By Diana K. Davis

An argument that the perception of arid lands as wastelands is politically motivated and that these landscapes are variable, biodiverse ecosystems, whose inhabitants must be empowered.





An argument that the perception of arid lands as wastelands is politically motivated and that these landscapes are variable, biodiverse ecosystems, whose inhabitants must be empowered.

Deserts are commonly imagined as barren, defiled, worthless places, wastelands in need of development. This understanding has fueled extensive anti-desertification efforts—a multimillion-dollar global campaign driven by perceptions of a looming crisis. In this book, Diana Davis argues that estimates of desertification have been significantly exaggerated and that deserts and drylands—which constitute about 41% of the earth's landmass—are actually resilient and biodiverse environments in which a great many indigenous people have long lived sustainably. Meanwhile, contemporary arid lands development programs and anti-desertification efforts have met with little success. As Davis explains, these environments are not governed by the equilibrium ecological dynamics that apply in most other regions.

Davis shows that our notion of the arid lands as wastelands derives largely from politically motivated Anglo-European colonial assumptions that these regions had been laid waste by “traditional” uses of the land. Unfortunately, such assumptions still frequently inform policy. Drawing on political ecology and environmental history, Davis traces changes in our understanding of deserts, from the benign views of the classical era to Christian associations of the desert with sinful activities to later (neo)colonial assumptions of destruction. She further explains how our thinking about deserts is problematically related to our conceptions of forests and desiccation. Davis concludes that a new understanding of the arid lands as healthy, natural, but variable ecosystems that do not necessarily need improvement or development will facilitate a more sustainable future for the world's magnificent drylands.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262034524 296 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in 24 b&w illus., 8 color plates


  • This book is a call for a new understanding of arid lands, their history, their future, and their possibilities. Turns out deserts aren't such a dry subject after all.

    Landscape Architecture


  • In this concise, clear, and convincing critique of discourse about drylands from Herodotus to UNESCO, Diana Davis exposes hoary myths that still govern modern practice in dryland management around the world. Exacting historical scholarship with immediate relevance to the real world.

    J. R. McNeill

    University Professor, Walsh School of Foreign Service and History Department, Georgetown University

  • In this book, Diana Davis excavates the fascinating environmental history of arid lands and their variegated histories as no one else has done before. This masterly crafted account will indeed change forever the way we look at, understand, and engage with desert lands.

    Erik Swyngedouw

    University of Manchester, author of Liquid Power and Social Power and the Urbanization of Water

  • In her new book The Arid Lands, Diana Davis conducts us on an exhilarating trek through more than 2,000 years of history to demonstrate the extraordinary diversity of the idea of the desert. But this is no piece of mere academic genealogy. Far from it. Rather, it's an intensely practical exercise in historical retrieval, providing crucial resources for reimagining the desert in our own time in order to fashion a new and critically engaged political ecology of the arid lands. For, as she so eloquently demonstrates, reimagining the desert is the first step toward disrupting the colonially charged assumption that deforestation, desiccation, and desertification are causally intertwined.

    David N. Livingstone

    Professor of Geography and Intellectual History, Queen's University Belfast

  • Diana Davis has produced an extraordinarily important and engaging book, a tour de force of historical geography and intellectual history and a must-read for anyone concerned with the environment of nearly half the world's landscapes.

    Nathan Sayre

    Professor of Geography, University of California, Berkeley