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Cattle and sheep cannot thrive on depleted grazing land, but goats are especially capable of being hardcore survivalists. They can live on barren lands, and keep them barren. Simon Fairlie wrote that goats are popular in India, because they can survive on the same wastes that cattle consume. While cows are sacred, goats are not, so it’s perfectly OK to eat them. While a goat is being raised, it can devour ten acres (4 ha) of vegetation. They do not gently nibble on the grass, they can hungrily rip it out by the roots. They kill young trees. Goats can be a disaster.
Paul Shepard wrote that goats are smarter than cattle or sheep, and they are blessed with interesting personalities. They can learn to follow instructions from their master. They are smaller than cattle, so losses to predators are less costly to the herder. Goats get high grades in sex education classes, and are able to produce numerous offspring. Rustlers love them because they are easier to steal than cattle. Goats are known as the “poor man’s cow.” A goat can produce more milk than a sheep.
Shepard imagined that in the coming years, when our reckless turbocharged joyride of decadence runs out of gas, and glides into the misty realm of embarrassing memories, our faithful companions amidst the ruins will be goats, the “avatars of poverty.” They have given us a 5,000 year lesson in environmental catastrophe. He was no fan of any type of domesticated livestock. He called them “hooved locusts.” A primary objective for many pastoralists is maximizing wealth (larger herds), not a loving, long-term, predator tolerant, ultraconservative relationship with their ecosystems.
The Earth Policy Institute (EPI) reported that ever growing numbers of livestock are working hard every day to diminish the health of world grasslands. The EPI has been tracking livestock population trends, nation by nation. They report that when goat numbers are rising faster than those for cattle or sheep, this is an indicator of deteriorating grassland.
Not fussy eaters, goats are the livestock most associated with overgrazing. As vegetation is gobbled up, less greenery survives to absorb periodic rainfall. Consequently, more rain runs off the land, which can lead to destructive flooding. In addition to depleting the forage, their sharp hooves also pulverize the soil surface, making soil particles more susceptible to erosion via wind or water. Stripped landscapes led to massive floods in Pakistan in 2010.
The EPI noted that between 1970 and 2009, while the global cattle population increased by 28 percent, goat numbers more than doubled (100+ percent). The goat trend line began rising quickly around 1980. The Sahel region, south of the Sahara in Africa, is becoming a dustbowl. Every year, 867,000 acres (350,862 ha) of rangeland and cropland are being lost to desertification. Another dustbowl is rising in central Asia, western Mongolia, and western China.
John Livingston noted that only two animals create habitats: goats and humans. Goats create deserts. Humans create ecological train wrecks. Sheep and goats don’t know any better but, in theory, there are some humans who are capable of making intelligent choices. History is clear on one thing, we excel at repeating the same mistakes, century after century. As long as they satisfy immediate needs, self-destructive habits are devilishly difficult to shake.
Daniel Hillel didn’t resent goats, because goats weren’t the problem. The problem was pastoralists who allowed their herds to get too big. When goats were herded on overgrazed rangeland, they ate whatever they could find, because they had no other choice. They were far better survivalists than cattle.
Of course, stepping back even further, and using perfect hindsight, it’s not hard to see a pattern that associates animal domestication with deforestation, soil destruction, and desertification. Wild and free animals do not have a reputation for being desert makers or forest exterminators.
Back when all critters were wild, wolves were simply ordinary neighbors, not demonic enemies. Their role in the ecosystem was to dine on herbivores, which helped limit the herd size, which helped keep the land healthy. Wolves have never suffered from obnoxious beliefs about owning other animals, and gaining personal status by forcibly controlling as many as possible. Unfortunately, herders have zero toleration for non-human predators.
Cedars of Lebanon
Lebanon is located on the east shore of the Mediterranean, just north of Israel. It has a narrow coastal plain, and a mountainous interior. Big Mama Nature originally clothed Lebanon with grasslands and forests, and they absorbed precipitation and kept the springs flowing — a healthy ecosystem. The cedars of Lebanon were described in older sources as a legendary forest, a sacred land (“the cedars of god”). Originally, the forests covered almost 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2). That was prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians.
Tom Dale wrote that, in the early days, the Phoenicians were likely nomads who herded goats. This could have been a low impact mode of living, as long as the population of goats and humans had remained modest, via mindful self-restraint. Agriculture required far more hard work than goat herding, so smart folks shunned it whenever possible. As the human population grew, feeding the growing mob became more challenging. Consequently, farming expanded across the coastal plains, and then began spreading up into the hills.
The agriculture practiced in early civilizations, like Egypt and Mesopotamia, was enabled by irrigation. Folks at the east end of the Mediterranean, like the Phoenicians, were the first to attempt large scale rain fed agriculture on steeply sloped land (up to 34°). They received heavy winter rains, followed by fairly dry summers, the pattern we call a Mediterranean climate (like California).
Over time, experiments in self-restraint (if any) eventually failed. By 2500 B.C., a civilization emerged in Phoenicia. It had an impressive merchant fleet, communities of skilled artisans, and good ports at Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut. The biggest threat to their prosperity was insufficient food production (i.e., insufficient family planning). As hillside agriculture intensified, stone terraces had to be built on the slopes to keep the soil from washing away. Constructing and maintaining stepped terraces took lots and lots of hard work. An increasingly pissed off Big Mama Nature sometimes conjured intense cloudbursts to suddenly wash them away.
King Solomon sent 150,000 men to Lebanon to cut and haul lumber back to Palestine, where it would be used for building temples, palaces, and trophy homes for fat cats. Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt were also growing rapidly, and needed lots of lumber. Wood was traded for food, but the food imports were not enough. So, the Phoenicians created a number of colonies along the Mediterranean coast from which they could extract resources. Their civilization peaked between 1200 and 800 B.C., and blinked out in 332 B.C., when Alexander the Great conquered them, and crucified 2,000 upper class folks in Tyre.
Dale wrote that by then, most of the forests were already history. Over the next few centuries, Greeks and Romans finished off what remained, with a few exceptions (four small groves). Topsoil had largely washed off the hillsides, and silted up the harbors. Clogged river deltas became malarial marshlands. The damage was so severe that the land could not recover and allow another thriving civilization to rise from the ruins.
Anyway, over time, almost all of the cedars of Lebanon got mowed down. Green vegetation emerged amidst the stumps, and herds of goats hungrily chewed it up. Lebanon’s cedars don’t produce their first cones (seeds) until they are about 40 years old. There were almost no inaccessible rocky crags where goats could not eat new trees, as fast as they appeared. Consequently, the forests were doomed. Deforestation, hungry goats, and winter rains were the prime causes of massive erosion that turned Lebanon into “a well-rained-on desert.” It will take many, many thousands of years for nature to replace the lost soil.
Trendy societies destroyed their ecosystems as fast as possible, in order to soar off into a giddy high called decadence (sort of like glue sniffing kids today). For centuries, a series of Mediterranean civilizations took turns rising and falling, conquering and being conquered. Raiders and pirates worked hard to snatch whatever they could, whenever possible, by any means necessary.
Writing in 1955, Dale wrote that today, Lebanon, Crete, Turkey, Palestine, Tunisia, Algeria, Spain, Italy, Sicily, Yugoslavia, and Greece were far more torn and tattered than in the good old days. All had lived way too hard, something like a long intense binge of oblivion drinking (…and then cometh the excruciating hammer blows of a merciless permanent hangover). In the twenty-first century, we (the most “educated” generation ever) knowingly continue repeating the same stupid mistakes, all around the world, on a vastly more destructive scale, at a much faster rate.
In 1938 and 1939, Walter Lowdermilk toured North Africa and the Middle East to learn about how ancient civilizations destroyed themselves. He discovered that only four small groves of Lebanon cedars still survived. The largest one was home to about 400 trees, of which 43 were old ones. One grove was saved because a monastery was built in it, and it was surrounded by a fence to keep the goats out. Lowdermilk took a photo of the walled grove — a modest group of trees surrounded by a vast barren mountainous moonscape.
Land of Milk and Honey
Palestine was just south of Phoenicia. It was home of the Israelites. Like the Phoenicians, the Israelis were pastoralists. Both were Semitic people, and they likely had common ancestors. “Goat” appears in the Bible 132 times, and “sheep” 188 times. Moses helped his people escape slavery in Egypt. They spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Their destination was the Promised Land, located on the far shore of the River Jordan. It was “a land that floweth with milk and honey,” a phrase that appears in the Bible 20 times.
Before they got there, they were blocked by the warriors of seven nations, the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites. All were slain in a single day, with miraculous divine assistance. Their deity instructed the Israelites to burn the chariots of their exterminated opponents, and hough their horses. Hough? It means to slash the tendons of the hind legs, to cripple the animals. Wading through the blood and guts, they finally crossed the Jordan.
Lowdermilk’s tour of the Middle East also made a stop in the Jordan Valley. He snapped a photo of a heavily damaged hilly landscape, and wrote: “This is a present-day view of a part of the Promised Land to which Moses led the Israelites about 1200 B.C. A few patches still have enough soil to raise a meager crop of barley. But most of the land has lost practically all of its soil, as observed from the rock outcroppings. The crude rock terrace in the foreground helps hold some of the remaining soil in place.”
“We found the soils of red earth washed off the slopes to bedrock over more than half the upland area. These soils had lodged in the valleys where they are still being cultivated and are still being eroded by great gullies that cut through the alluvium with every heavy rain.”
“What is the cause of the decadence of this country that was once flowing with milk and honey? As we ponder the tragic history of the Holy Lands, we are reminded of the struggle of Cain and Abel. This struggle has been made realistic through the ages by the conflict that persists, even unto today, between the tent dweller and the house dweller, between the shepherd and the farmer. The desert seems to have produced more people than it could feed.”
Kathleen McLaughlin described how grasslands in Mongolia are currently being degraded by climate change, and by overgrazing the variety of goats that produce cashmere wool. Soft cashmere was formerly used to make expensive clothing. Today, better technology for knitting in China, combined with the fast fashion trend, has moved cashmere products from the luxury class to the mass market. Because herders make a decent income from raising goats, they are now more than half of Mongolia’s grazing livestock. Unfortunately, goats are the most destructive grazers, because they not only eat the roots of plants, but also the flowers that produce seeds for new grasses.
The harsh winter of 2017–2018 killed hundreds of thousands of grazing animals. The Mongolian steppe is twice the size of Texas, and it’s slowly turning into a desert. About 70% of the grazing lands are degraded. A number of lakes and rivers have dried up. Overgrazing is a primary factor in grassland deterioration.
In the 1990s, the former communist government set quotas on grazing animal numbers. Quotas are gone now, and grazing livestock have increased from 20 million to 61.5 million. Dead areas are growing, and soil erosion is rising. Native grasses are being displaced by exotic species that are toxic. Grassland degradation is also a growing threat to wildlife species.