Flowers in the Desert, Collettivo Epidemia

‘I’m fed up with this adaptation stuff. I don’t want to adapt, I want to fight climate change’. Elke tells us that from her point of view, the idea of adaptation is off track for dealing with climate change: there is a risk of riding it, of taking it for granted, of forcing it into an imagined shape or of going along with it according to preconceived patterns. Like that of desertification, perhaps, according to which Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata and Apulia will fall first. Catania University ecologist Christian Mulder said in 2021 that some areas of Sicily would be like Tunisia in the future. The South takes the North, so we think that desertification will proceed more or less evenly as a new Saracen invasion from Africa from the South to the North. Mulder then points out that ‘after all, Tunisia lies opposite’. I wonder if even in Tunisia, they say, ‘here it is like being in Sicily’?

In Sicily, the MixWheat project overseen by the visionary geneticist Salvatore Ceccarelli aims to create evolutionary mixtures of wheat populations in such a way as to obtain productive and nutritious seeds suitable for agriculture to combat desertification, i.e., the essential characteristic of which is to be able to productively cope with arid climates, such as those of Tunisia. Or ‘like the
climate of half of Europe, if we know how to wait,’ according to a young agronomist explaining the project’s vision to an audience of entrepreneurs and scientists. We will be able to sell these seeds adapted to today’s harsher Sicilian climate at a high price and soon fill wheat fields from Campania to Provence and even as far as Ukraine, giving time to time.

If Tunisia is the desert in this vision, one can also say that the desert is already there in Italy: aridity is a stable condition in the Mediterranean. For how long?

For example, at the beginning of the Xylella crisis in Salento, activists recorded an organic matter percentage of 0.6 on some soils where dying olive trees stood. In the system for measuring the organic matter present in soils (SOM), values below 1% are usually attributed to the status of desertified soil. This is why the attention paid by Salento activists to the lack of organic matter in the soil as a possible cause of the death of olive trees is understandable. In this version of the story, the past use of pesticides has decimated the fertility of the fields: intensive overuse of the land or simply ecologically senseless management? In any case, here, desertification is anthropic, and the unpredictable effects (the disappearance of the olive forest caused by the bacterium) we call climate change. For now, the consequences of the disappearance of the forest mainly include fires and forest fires, which are evidence of climate change but are not exhausted in it.


The Apulia region and companies supported by ministries such as the Ministry of Agricultural Food and Forestry Policies and the Ministry of Ecological Transition are proposing farmers an alternative to the wild greenery that tries to grow by the roadside or under what remains of the olive trees: a new plan for the post-Disaster Xylella landscape. These are still mono-variety olive groves, but this time to be managed from the comfort of the sofa at home through apps that can coordinate new automated machines from the tablet. The gem of these new ecologically innovative plants is that apart from drones, GPS systems and the miraculous cultivar resulting from genetic selection FS-17 or Favolosa, Agroindustry 4.0 also guarantees super-competitive yields and harvests thanks to micro-irrigation. This technique allows an ‘incredible’ saving of water by dropping only a few drops at a sophisticatedly calculated point relative to the olive tree’s crown and trunk to optimise irrigation for production. Thus, new mechanised and super-intensive 4.0 olive trees would be the future against climate change and desertification.

Yes, it would be a new monoculture (profitable this time?) but with ingenious water saving.

Is it reasonable to think that planting new automated monocultures is a courageous act of resistance to climate change? Consider how this narrative relates to this summer’s drought in Padania, which brought northern Italy’s agroindustry to its knees, while the reservoir on the Iato dam on the outskirts of the Belice Valley between Palermo and Agrigento was still overflowing with water in September due to last December’s ‘monsoons’. Institutions and the entrepreneurial class are sure of the desertification coming ‘from below’, but they do not know how to talk about the unpredictable climate change has in store for us. Perhaps monocultures help us resist climate upheaval because they can participate in the madness of the agro-industrial market by consuming less water. Less water than whom, then? The answer is always that country we thought was a desert beyond the Strait of Sicily.

Desertification and climate change seem to be building a path that goes down two different roads at some point. Desertification is portrayed as certain and linear, a line of ‘sudification’, while we know that climate change is strange and unpredictable. The phenomena of one are those of the other, and in part, they are, especially if one looks for the cause in anthropogenic reasons. But they also seem contradictory, and we risk ending up claiming that the linearity of desertification positions a climate change event within a rational scheme.

Mulder mentioned his perplexity in the abovementioned interview: ‘I don’t understand why an expanse of solar panels does not already cover central Sicily. He says there are economic resources here to combat climate change. We need solar panels to provide clean energy for the cities, especially since the hills in the centre of Sicily are desertifying because the cultivation of wheat, done that way, leads those lands to certain death. But desertification, as we have said, is not just climate change. Yet the supposed linearity of its processes helps a narrative that imagines it can not only manage but also dominate some of the processes related to climate change with the same tools and rhetoric that produced it in the first place.

Those who plan, direct and dominate the relationship between humans and nature seem to forget that the lesson of climate change is unpredictability. The risk we identify is that by appealing to a scientific calculation that describes the advance of the desertification line as inevitable, predatory and speculative entrepreneurship takes over the phenomenon’s narrative and, consequently, the practices aimed at counteracting it.

Excerpt from SUD, menelique magazine #8, autumn/winter 2022
Author: Collettivo Epidemia
Illustration: Kevin Niggeler

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