There has been much interest in the failures of the past and the environmental disasters that ensued because of poor land management practices. I argue that the successes of the past are of equal importance, and this is increasingly recognized as early agricultural techniques are rediscovered and reinstated. Some of these systems are not only more sustainable than modern technologies, but more resilient in the face of environmental extremes. Ancient engineering and agricultural methods are often more appropriate for developing countries than modern technologies based on fossil fuel and imported materials. As global warming and desertification increase, it is crucial that we learn how to deal with marginal environments in ways that are sustainable and accessible to people in developing countries. Sustainable agriculture can also benefit the developed world by increasing yields, promoting biodiversity and supporting the rural economy. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.