How to make deserts green again

It sounds like magic: turning barren ground into green, lush fields. But this is exactly what Simon Moolenaar is working on at Commonland. He wanted to become a forester when he was young, but now works on connecting science and business to restore ecosystems and combat landscape degradation. I usually (but too simplistically) explain his business as ‘making deserts green again’ (not ‘GREAT again’!). I asked Simon about his visions and personal motivations.

(If you actually want to learn how to make deserts green again, I highly recommend this online course about landscape restoration. This article is more about Simon’s story than about practicalities.)

Could you tell me a bit about your personal role in working on landscape restoration at Commonland?

As a child I was already worried about environmental problems. I’ve always felt responsible to do something about them and loved being in nature. So I wanted to work in this field, and that hasn’t changed until now. When I was studying and working as an environmental consultant, I was pretty positive that we could make a change towards sustainability. I saw many examples and learned many lessons. I noticed this positive movement of possible technologies and policies. It made me realise that it is possible to actually change things and to see the results. I’m not only talking about small changes; change is also possible on a bigger level.


But at a certain moment I came to the conclusion that if you look at a global scale, we are still going in the wrong direction. Fast. That was the moment that I started reorienting myself towards putting more energy in actually realising restoration and started working for Commonland. So in that sense, I am still very positive that the potential of positive change is very large. But to actually realise it… that’s a huge task.

So there is still hope?

Well, it’s quite tough and you need to be obstinate. And it takes a long time. So at the moment, I am very pragmatic about this. I think it is important to work on solutions; doing so gives you hope. That’s an important pillar of our work here at Commonland, returning hope and inspiration. (See their 4returns approach if you want to know more – ed.) But whether that’s enough to make a difference in the bigger picture – I actually doubt it. Nonetheless, it is important to keep trying!

I picture this system change as working with a giant, slow beast, like a Snorlax. I want to push it out of the way, but doing so requires so much effort, it’s all too easy to lose hope. Do you experience that too? 

Yes. It is so important that inspiration returns. That’s partly the charm of what Commonland does, and of what other organisations working in the same way do as well. If you approach a problem very locally, with local partners on the ground, you can see real results. Within a community, within a certain timeframe. Abstract policy papers and regulations can be too conceptual. But if you make things visible and tangible, then you can actually show how things change. It’s still a tough battle, but this makes it into a competition that can be won.

Does this visible, local tactic make the biggest impact? Or is the bigger, abstract and unsexy policy way the way to go?

Both are needed, of course. Commonland goes for the practical, local examples of positive change. I have also done a lot of policy work. That’s not for everyone, though. I like conceptual thinking and it is also rewarding work, because you can really see long-term visions being implemented in practice. Then you can see the positive consequences of that and take big steps. In practice you can see that both sides are needed: doing on-the-ground work, you realise that the nurturing context is missing – by this I mean political support and other socio-economic factors. So then you feel the urge to realise change in that regard. For instance, we’ve just decided at Commonland to work more on lobbying in the EU to change agricultural policies. But at the same time, I’ve noticed that policymakers are asking for practical examples of innovation. They love that and it inspires them to do something on the policy side. It’s reciprocal.

It must be fun to be on both sides. 

Yes, and then there is a third way: education. That’s a longer track: next-generational thinking. I find that very interesting.

Ah, the effect of dropping a pebble in the water! The slow, invisible way of changing a mindset to change the system. Is this equally important as policy and the local examples?

Indeed I believe that in the long term, education is a tool to make different choices with a new generation. But at the same time, I don’t see any interest in this with my own children. Whether you have an interest in this is a very personal matter. But at least, in economic education, we should give some attention to the whole of the economic-ecological system and how everything is intertwined. This is more or less the message of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. There should be way more attention to this in education.

Is that the way forward: changing the educational system? 

Yes, and there is another way: communities of faith. Faith aligns with the return of inspiration. For most people, faith is linked to your beliefs and values. That’s also what we look for at Commonland: whether people have some bigger drive than something technical, ecological or economical.

So by faith you mean vision?

Yes, mostly. If people feel inspired by a larger group, they’ll create a certain kind of drive among each other. They’ll all start to feel the message of hope and inspiration for themselves. And that’s very important, because it gives you the certainty that you should keep on doing what you’re doing, even in the face of big setbacks. Religion can be a force for positive change, just as business can be a force for positive change. The role that communities of faith can play in creating awareness and support is huge. If you can get them on board, you can really make an impact.

I walked away from the conversation with Simon full of new insights. I had never considered the role of faith in solving environmental problems, but it actually seems quite obvious. I also found it interesting to hear Simon’s real-life experience on the importance of local examples vs. bigger (policy) structures, because I often struggle to compare their significance. And Simon’s emphasis on spreading hope inspired me to look for more positive change-makers’ stories on Surebuthow. 

This is how you can make a difference:

  • Find out what inspires you and share your inspiration and hopes with others
  • Make the solution local, visible and tangible
  • Make use of communities with shared visions to increase your reach