New Constructions of Environmental Orientalism: Climate Change Mitigation Solar Power Projects in the Sahara Desert

Khaoula Bengezi, York University


The Sahara Desert represents a binary duality: it is imagined as a spatial abyss of non-production and thus useless, while simultaneously continually capturing the colonial and capitalist imaginaries of the West and national elites as a site from which a new clean modernity can be materialized. These imaginaries are rooted in colonial-capitalist conquests and the Western modernity project. Popular imaginings and imageries of the desert in today’s socio-technical imaginings of the desert reflect orientalist understandings of the desert as a barren, bare and ever-expanding space that is confined in a time capsule of primitivity due to its unproductive ‘nature’.[1] This paper relies on a post/anticolonial theoretical framework to explore the ways in which the desert’s arid ecological composition has and continue to be constructed and represented vis-a-vis the West’s orientalist imaginary gaze. I analyze the ways in which environmental orientalist dualities of the desert continue to be reproduced through climate mitigation solar power technologies and what such renewed imaginings of a green modernity may mean for desert communities, their desert ecologies from which they have generationally sought provisioning, as well as greater regional and international ecological harms.

Colonial-Orientalist Constructions of the Desert and its Inhabitants

The environmental history of North Africa has been inundated with exaggerated orientalist constructions of declining ecologies that were once fertile due to the mismanagement of environmental resources (Davis 2007; Davis 2020). The desert was framed by colonial powers and administrators, particularly the French, as an increasingly desolate, barren and useless space that needed to be revitalized and saved by modern and progressive Western scientific knowledge and technologies (Davis 2007). In “Orientalism”, Edward Said (1978: 55) makes evident the ways in which time and space as well as history and geography are “more than anything else, imaginative”. Said describes how the social construction of subject/object by so-called experts and scientists is imaginative knowledge that is rendered objective and natural. This analysis provides the analytical optics from which I discern the orientalist trajectories of the desert through the gaze of privileged Western expertise. I apply Said’s analysis to build on Diane K. Davis’ analysis of the environmental history of North Africa, wherein we see the ways in which the North African subject was depicted in relation to constructions of their collapsing environment.

According to Davis (2011), the French colonizers fictionalized the narrative of the lazy and primitive North African subject as being responsible for what they perceived as the degradation of their environment. This narrative fits well into dominant orientalist discourses that were circulated about the Arab/North African subject. Davis (2011) highlights how dichotomies and binaries were constructed to represent what the Western was/is and what the Orient Other was/is by referencing the work of Montesquieu and his work on despotism. Montesquieu’s characterization of despotic governance of the East (Althusser 1978; Lockman 2004) was based on “classical beliefs that northerners are active, strong, and brave due to the cold while southerners are weak, passive, dull and therefore more servile due to the heat” (Davis 2011: p. 114). The incapable Orient and their degraded environment was the basis for the dissemination of ‘desiccation theory’ by colonial administrators, military personnel, missionaries and scientists. The spread of desiccation theory relied on “blam[ing] the indigenous peoples, especially herders, for deforesting and degrading what was once the apparently highly fertile ‘granary of Rome’ in North Africa” (Davis 2007: 2; Davis 2011). These constructions and their fear-inducing exaggerated narratives of desertification were widespread in the Maghreb during the colonial period (Adams 2001). Such fears were largely driven by embellished fears about an ever-expanding desert and an increasingly desolate environment rooted in Christian notions that deemed the desert’s aridity a result of the original sin (Davis 2007; Davis 2020).

The orientalist imaginings of the desert and the North African subject were produced in conjunction with the imageries of the desert as a potential site from which progress and socio-technical imaginaries can be actualized by the West.[2] For instance, French orientalist art mirrors the European discourses on Orientalism wherein such art provides a contrasting duality that, on the one hand, depicts a “barren, sunbaked and lifeless wilderness… entirely devoid of hope” against “more optimistic images” (Heffernan 1991: 38). According to Michael J. Heffernan, the most common utopian imagining of the desert is depicted through the “heroic efforts of mankind, and particularly through the energetic activities of Europeans” (ibid). Davis (2007: 6) echoes this by examining the ways in which “armed with the colonial environmental narrative, the French passed new laws and policies as early as the 1830s to curtail and criminalize many of the traditional uses of the environment by the Algerians”. The colonial laws on property and land tenure, as well as laws pertaining to forests and grazing in the Maghreb “transformed the use of the land but also effected the appropriation of large amounts of land and resources for the settlers and the French administration” (ibid). These orientalist environmental narratives, according to Davis (2007), are utilized to justify the expropriation, exploitation and extraction of environmental resources and dissolve subsistence production and economies in the name of progress, modernity and the environment itself. Colonial-orientalist dualities such as these continue to be reproduced in the Maghreb’s Sahara Desert through fearful scientific and mainstream discourses about an ever-expanding desert against the backdrop of rhetoric of the utopian and world transforming potentials of utilizing the desert for solar farming (Sawyer  & Agrawal 2002; Davis 2011; Al-Marashi 2019).

New Versions of the Same Old Colonial-Orientalist Dualities of the Desert’s Demise and Potentials

Much of the rhetoric and understanding of the environment of the Maghreb is rooted in the colonial-orientalist conceptions of a declining environment that needs to be attended to through the socio-technical imaginaries of the West (Sawyer & Agrawal 2002; Davis 2007). Sustained narratives continue to place blame for the current ecological crises on the mismanagement of resources and destruction of ecological surroundings by the peoples of Global South (Sawyer & Agrawal 2002; Davis 2007; Davis 2011; Al-Marashi 2019; Davis 2020). For instance, Taraf Abu Hamdan’s contribution to this collection discusses the ways in which the Jordanian desert landscape is subject to similar socio-technical imaginings as other arid lands like the Sahara through the legitimization of scientific ‘expertise’ while local knowledges are rendered ecologically harmful. This harm is rooted in the narrative that indigenous ecological practices are a threat to “…the ecological conditions of a given region, due to mismanagement of recourses, overstocking, and overgrazing” (Abu Hamdan, 2022). According to Clemens Hoffmann (2018: 94), such narratives that glorify a certain type of expertise while simultaneously rendering local ecological knowledge and practices as useless and harmful maintain an imperial oriental assumption “that a scarce nature is mismanaged by societies and states overall incapable of negotiating modernity”. While these constructs are not as visible as those explicitly disseminated during the colonial era of a backward and lazy orient, they continue to be reproduced in how socio-technical imaginings prioritize variations of Western techno-scientists gaze of the desert and its potential.

According to William M. Adams (2001) the desertification industry, which links environmental degradation, poverty and utopian imaginaries of development, has captured much of the international environmental rhetoric since the Sahel drought of 1972-4. This rhetoric, often produced by scientists, environmental organizations and international actors such as the UN and the World Conservation Strategy, has become a key focus within sustainable development discourses and policy practices. The UN was greatly influenced by the World Commission on Environment and Commission’s report titled “Our Common World” (1987) which stated that “each year another 6 million hectares of productive drylands turns into worthless desert” (Brundtland 1987: 2). Without denying the validity of ongoing desertification and its real-life consequences to those who call the desert home, it is critical to highlight how the threat of desertification was and continues to be exaggerated by Western environmental experts and utilized to justify its transformation into a site of production. Climate change and desertification are real, but in this context are largely exaggerated and utilized to fuel the socio-technical imaginaries of techno-scientists while dismissing desert ecologies and their usages by locals entirely (Adams 2001: 180; Davis 2020).

The attention given to technocratic scientific visions of the Sahara and its pitfalls and potentials is rooted in positivist Eurocentric traditions that uphold the myth of objectivity as a marker of truth (Halpern & Heath 2017). According to Sandra Halperin and Oliver Heath (2017: 55) “This has been subjected to great criticism by those who argue that knowledge production, through social-scientific research, cannot be value-free and is constantly shaped by various external factors, such as politics, power relations, cultural beliefs and meanings, as well as the researchers own biases” (ibid). Within the realm of sustainability governance, science and technological innovation rely on technoscientific visions to be legitimized through positivist accounts that are rendered as objective and taken-for-granted universal truths (Benessia & Funtowicz 2015). This fixed logic within sustainability governance discourses can be seen with mainstream media’s techno-scientific orientalist accounts which depict a fearful narrative of an ever-expanding and creeping desert against the backdrop of utopian greener socio-technical imaginaries.

For instance, an article produced by NPR in 2018 visualized this through an image of the Sahara Desert ‘creeping’ on an oasis of palm trees and greenery with a description that read “The Sahara Desert creeps up on a palm field” (Charles 2018). This solemn imagery was juxtaposed with the idea of covering the barren, useless desert wasteland with solar panels (ibid). In citing the works of atmospheric scientist Eugenia Kalnay, the article states that inhabiting the desert landscape with solar panels can not only provide the world with four times as much alternative and green forms of energy production than is currently being consumed but can also prevent further desertification. This is because solar panels are dark enough not to reflect the sun’s light and thus can induce rain-inducing air currents which eventually would reverse the cycle of desertification and thus increase in vegetation (ibid). This socio-technical imagery has taken off and has been continuously reproduced by techno-scientists, scientific websites and mainstream media in general (e.g., Moroccan City Defies Desertification by Harnessing Solar Power and Treated Wastewater 2017; Armstrong 2018; McGrath 2018).

Other headlines produced by science-related websites like Live Science and Enterra Solutions read: “Here’s How to Make the Sahara Desert Green Again” (Geggel 2018) and “Solar Power: Taking Advantage of Desertification” (DeAngelis 2010). These articles detail the ways in which desertification can be used as a tool for utopian socio-technical imaginings of a new modernity based on the extraction of solar energy to fuel the world over. These utopian imaginaries have become part of the mainstream discourses on the Sahara Desert and are largely fueled by the colonial-orientalist assumptions that the desert is truly nothing but a barren and unused wasteland. Moreover, mainstream Western news sources as well as various YouTube videos repeatedly ask the question, “Why don’t we build solar panels in the Sahara Desert?” (e.g., Rogowsky 2014; Jade 2019; Regen Sustainable Power Solutions 2021; Ted-Ed 2021), “What If the Sahara Desert Was Covered in Solar Panels” (e.g., Bright Side 2019; Lockett 2021; Real Life Lore 2021; What If 2021). Moreover, it is important to note that these orientalist understandings and imaginings of the desert are not grounded in realities of financial and logistical implications that covering 20 percent of the desert would entail, particularly for the developing countries of the Maghreb.

One country that has taken on the task of populating their desert landscape with solar power is Morocco. Among the various driving motivations for Morocco’s turn to sustainable technologies two interlinked and dominate factors have been economic growth and energy production, as Morocco had largely relied on importing fossil fuel from neighbouring countries like Algeria (Hamouchene 2016). These imaginaries have captured the Moroccan monarchies attention and goals for economic growth and potentials for export energy production. As such, in 2016, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the desert town of Ouarzazate, King Mohammed IV of Morocco proudly announced the completion of phase one of the four phases of Noor Ouarzazate (NoorO) Solar Power Plant, estimated now to be the world’s largest solar power plant (International Climate Initiative 2016). While the initial phase of this project is aimed for national consumption, the Moroccan monarchy has set great sights on exporting solar energy to Europe (Alami 2021; Hamouchene 2016; Hanger et al., 2016). Since Morocco’s leap into sustainable infrastructure and technology, Libya and Tunisia have followed suit with initial phased constructions of two massive solar power plants in Kufra and Rejim Maatoug respectively (Guest 2012; Construction Review Online 2020). In fact, the ten largest solar power plants in the world have been constructed in deserts (Lu & Smith 2021). However, as I will demonstrate in the subsequent section, these utopian imaginaries pose harmful consequences to desert ecologies as well as the ecologies of spaces and places beyond the desert.

Utopian Imaginaries, Dystopian Realities: Potential Consequences of Ambitious Socio-technical Potentials of the Desert

“If you think that the desert is empty, you do not know how to look at it”- Amazigh Proverb

The win-win rhetoric that has been popularly perpetrated about the potential for solar power as force by which to revitalize the Sahara Desert back to the mythical oasis it once was while simultaneously sustaining energy and saving the planet from ecological demise can have harmful implications not only to local desert communities but also to regional and global climates and thus communities of the Global South. Zhengyao Lu and Benjamin Smith (2021) bring to light the ways in which covering 20 percent of the Sahara Desert with solar energy may have detrimental effects regionally and globally as the remainder of the sunlight not absorbed by solar panels is returned to the environment as heat. Moreover, in their text “Impacts of Large-Scale Sahara Solar Farms on Global Climate and Vegetation Cover”, Lu et al. (2020: 1) found that “a redistribution of precipitation [would cause] Amazon droughts and forest degradation, and global surface temperature [to] rise and sea-ice loss…”. Drought is increasingly plaguing the Amazon Forest and its ability to withstand the effects of climate change (Boulton et al. 2022). Thus, the utopian prospects of filling the Sahara Desert would exacerbate the threat of drought in the Amazon and thus further making vulnerable the already marginalized diverse Indigenous communities that inhabit the Amazon who continue to face the effects of drought due to climate change (Ellwanger et al. 2020).

Consider the effects of solar energy on water resources. Water scarcity due to climate change is an issue that plagues North Africa. Morocco particularly is at risk of losing all of its water resources by 2040 (Rignall 2016). According to farmers and nearby residents, the depletion of Morocco’s water resources have been magnified since the construction of the first phase of the NoorO. Wet-cooling concentrated solar power plants (CSPs) require vast amount of water for cooling; this is especially the case for the massive NoorO project which taps into the regions El-Mansour Eddahbi Dam water dam (Ryser 2019; Belghazi & Sammouni 2020). This has caused much anxiety in the surrounding communities about not being able to access water for daily provisioning and sustaining the ecological habitats that they have nurtured and have sustained them (Rignall 2016; Hanger et al., 2016). According to Amin Belghazi and Mohammed Sammouni (2020) most of the farmers in the vicinity of the NoorO plant are struggling to grow and make a living off of the crops that have provided them a livelihood due to the dire water shortages that have increased since the construction of the first phase of the project. One farmer situated near the dam complained that “obtaining water, even for drinking, has become a daily struggle. The ground is dry and cracked” (Belghazi & Sammouni 2020: para. 8). While the Moroccan government did not adequately anticipate this consequence, they have since addressed this by shifting towards dry-cooling CSP technologies for the subsequent phases of the project (Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex 2020). The governments shift from wet-cooling to dry-cooling technologies between phases prompts the question of why the government decided to pursue the first phase of the project, which covers a massive 450 hectares of land, using a wet-cooling system (ibid).

Ultimately, the ecologically dangerous effects that Western utopian socio-technical imaginings of the desert produced through the placement of millions of solar panels across the deserts landscape are reminiscent of the capitalist aspirations of the 19th century French colonizers of the Sahara. Such utopian imaginaries, which confine the narrative of the desert to that of a barren and desolate abandoned space erases the communities that have and continue to call the desert home and presents adverse effects to them and their ecologies.

Conclusion: Some Suggestions on ‘Decolonial Alterities’

This paper has sought to provide a trajectory of the ways in which colonial-orientalist dualities of the Sahara Desert are formed and framed both during the colonial era and in the present day. Ultimately, in framing the desert as a useless and barren space, the colonial mind is able to rationalize their colonial-capitalist utopian imaginaries of transforming the desert landscape to something productive. The socio-technical imaginings of the desert that are now being envisioned privilege the visions of Western techno-scientists who attempt to make the desert a space from which a new green modernity can be visualized through clean energy that can sustain the world over. Anna M. Agathangelou and Lily H.M Ling (2004: 536) ask “whose desires are privileged and whose needs are sacrificed” in such imaginaries. This guiding question is pertinent when examining desert ecologies and local peoples’ knowledge of the desert environment in a world that has rarely appreciated that not only such ecologies exist but have kept communities alive for centuries.

I echo Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian (2021: 822) and their call for ‘decolonial alterities’ through inventions that expose and counter “capital fantasies and irrationality”. They see a need for the creation of conditions for multiple decolonial ecologies that evade being enslaved by capitalist-colonial utopian imaginaries. Ecological knowledges of peoples indigenous to the desert need to be taken up within academic, scientific, governance and mainstream spaces to counter the commonly exaggerated narratives about the desert and its lack of ecological provisioning. This is further backed by Catherine A. Odora Hoppers (2011: p. 398), who states that “the local contextual expertise and technologies that indigenous knowledge frames offer can complement some of the mechanical and technical precision capabilities of the Western knowledge systems to generate forms of creativity that benefit and empower everyone. But for this to happen, power must shift”.

This subject of power requires us to ask, “what else could have been known if the leaders of modernity and modern knowledge had not limited, appropriated, and even obliterated sources of life and inventions and their contingent visions about the planetary and life in the name of a global racial planetary capitalist order?” (Agathangelou & Killian 2021: 822). Limited but emerging scholarship on SWANA indigeneity and alternative ecological possibilities has begun to take shape. This scholarship centres the fluid and temporal ecological knowledge of local farmers and their ability to grow and sustain life in harsh climates (Briggs 2007; Davis 2007; El-Kholei & Al-Jayyousi 2016). However, more research needs to be done outside of the discipline of environmental science, particularly within political science research that examines the global governance-development nexus and new fascinations with developing climate change solar energy technologies.




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[1] I use the term orientalism broadly to encompass the larger colonial project based on the colonizer’s construction of distinct binaries of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rooted in gender, racial and spatial differences.

[2] I use socio-technical imaginaries the same way that Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyum Kim do in their book “Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power” 2015. Here Jasonoff and Kim (2015: 4) define socio-technical imaginaries as “collectively held, institutional stabilized and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through and supportive of, advances in science and technologies”.