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Allan Savory: What is the philosophy behind holistic management? 

Holistic Management has the potential to solve most our problems by preventing them

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What is the philosophy behind holistic management?

Holistic Management is a way of managing complexity. In the 1950s I became concerned as I observed massive environmental destruction in Africa that threatened wildlife and ultimately humans. My determination to find a consistently successful solution led eventually to developing the Holistic Management framework for management and policy development. At that point (c 1984) when the holistic framework emerged I realized we had accidentally learned how to manage complexity in any situation from single person engaged in a job to family, community, governance and beyond.  At the beginning I had no idea that what I was witnessing in remote areas of Africa was global and that it was the tip of a large iceberg – mankind’s inability to manage complexity throughout history.  As Rebecca Costa concluded, early civilizations did not just fail because of their agriculture, but because they could not address the complexity of rising population and deteriorating environment.  They shelved the problems for future generations and turned away from gaining knowledge (science) to religion and sacrifice. Now we are seeing this on a global scale. More than twenty civilizations have failed in all regions of the world – armies change civilizations, farmers destroy them. And all of this has only one cause which is our inability to manage complexity.

What are your expectations and hopes regarding the practice of holistic management?
We cannot address major issues individually but have to do so through our organizations or institutions.  However human organizations are defined as “complex soft systems” and as such exhibit wicked problems (almost impossible to fix).  My hope is that we can get enough people to insist that policies (particularly agricultural) be developed holistically for our institutions to change in time to save civilization as we know it.  If we heed the research, institutions cannot change from reductionist policy development practiced by all nations today to holistic policy development, until enough of the public insist on that change. There is not one case I can find of any organization ever adopting any new paradigm-shifting insight ahead of a change in public perception – no matter what the cost or how many lives are lost. No amount of data, evidence, danger, cost in money or lives changes institutions ahead of the public – institutions can never lead paradigm-shifting change.

There are different histories of interaction with the land, political systems governing land management, as well as current trends such as population growth and land scarcity.

Not a clear question. Yes over thousands of years a great many different cultures, economies, political systems, etc. etc. etc. but throughout always management and policy development has been reductionist.  So while we blame many things for what transpired and no doubt those things played a role, overall there was no way we could expect anything but unintended consequences when management was reductionist in what we now know is a holistic world.  This no doubt why economists talk of The Law of Unintended Consequences.

What is the potential of holistic management approaches to respond to a variety of contexts?

Holistic management approaches do not work so there is no potential in that line of thinking.  It is similar to pregnancy in which a pregnancy approach will never work – you are pregnant or you are not.  We would be arrogant if we thought we were the first people to think holistically. There is evidence that past people saw their connection to their environment more clearly than most people do today. There is apparently evidence that in North America people tried to think seven generations ahead because of lessons learned when managing their environment but the environment still deteriorated. It seems we have got to actually manage holistically.  In other words it is not what and how we think where the rubber hits the road but how we actually make decisions.  And it is essential to make management decisions at two levels – on the land or in our daily lives and at policy level where so much management is dictated. In all countries I have worked in and visited the mainstream agriculture that is the most extractive and destructive industry ever in history is not driven by famers and pastoralists but by government policies and institutional stupidity (a wicked problem of complex soft systems).

 What is your message for the ones that criticize the holistic approach?

I too criticise the holistic approach because that will never work.  I wish all scientists would criticise the Holistic Management framework, or even the Holistic Planned Grazing process when livestock are managed. We thrive and advance on criticism and I have gone to extraordinary and unusual lengths to encourage and foster criticism. In the early 1980s far-sighted people in the USDA engaged me over a two year period to put some 2,000 people through a week of training in the use of the Holistic Management framework. These people came from NRCS, BLM, BIA, USFS, USF&WL, World Bank, USAID and faculty members from the main US agricultural universities. In the week of training each group was give one hour of every day to do nothing but criticise and do all they could to find any flaws in either the process or the science.  There is a small group of academics who keep publishing papers and reports claiming to be critical of Holistic Management but not one has ever studied Holistic Management or even the Holistic Planned Grazing process. The kind explanation is paradigm paralysis.  One example: These authors James R. Heffelfinger, Clay Brewer,Carlos Hugo Alcalá-Galván,  Barry Hale, Darrell L. Weybright,  Brian F. Wakeling, Len H. Carpenter, Norris Dodd wrote a book about deer habitat management and cited 19 peer-reviewed criticisms of Holistic Management.

Chris Gill a person with a good liberal arts education who was seeing good results from his own management read all 19 papers. None of the authors had made any study of Holistic Management. So Gill then read the papers those authors cited and the papers those authors in turn cited, tracing every one back to source.  Not a single author had ever made any study of Holistic Management – all had criticised various rotational grazing systems bearing no relationship at all to the Holistic Management framework or even the Holistic Planned Grazing process.  So if any of you can criticise and find flaws in the process please do so and I will help you spread those findings world-wide.

How important was/is the interaction with local people (land managers, cattle rangers, farmers, etc.) in your professional career?
Very critical indeed. Initially I worked with ranchers willing to get rid of cattle and manage the land to reverse desertification using only wildlife.  When that failed to give the results sought and when I realized we had no option but to reconsider how we managed livestock then the work with eventually hundreds of ranchers was essential to eventual success. We achieve almost nothing on our own. I believe all we achieve is through working with others and even building on failure of our own or that of others.

How did/do this interactions contribute to shape the concept of “holistic management”?

I had no idea about the need to manage complexity. I was not seeking Holistic Management but was seeking a consistent solution to environmental degradation unfortunately called desertification over most of Africa and the world where the rainfall is seasonal. First I believed, like fellow ecologists still do, that livestock were largely to blame and so I coined the words Game Ranching in 1957 for a project I had in mind to work with only wildlife and restore the environment. Then working with American Fullbright Scholars (Mossman and Dasmann) we later developed what is today the game ranching multi-billion dollar industry. We were wrong the land on all ranches where only wildlife was being managed continued to deteriorate and is still doing so in those environments as are national parks. See this one minute video that shows the extreme bare soil and habitat destruction in national parks under the best of management the world knows how, compared with the covered soil on land managed holistically – same time, same soil, same climate and even sharing some of the same animals – elephants and buffalo.

When I realised that we had no option but to use livestock as a tool to reverse desertification, working with many land and livestock owners became critical. By 1980 I believed we had solved the problem with the grazing planning process we had developed and tested successfully in an international trial, on many ranches and on two Advanced Projects (one in high and one in low rainfall). All were very successful regardless of how good of bad the season.  In the case of the low rainfall Advanced Project we deliberately selected the very worst land we could identify in the country with not a single perennial grass plant in over a 100 miles drive.  This we trebled the stocking rate on in the first year and over the next 8 years produced five times as much meat per hectare, with us unable to cause failure by pushing things to extremes to try to see if we could cause failure. We had over a hundred ranches operating successfully over five countries.

Then we had a four year break when I was forced into exile and lost contact with all of them. On my return all had failed to various degrees and even the low rainfall Advanced Project had reverted back to no livestock on the land and largely bare ground. Clearly we had not solved the problem.

Analysing the failures I found the fault was mine.  I had not understood complexity and like almost all scientists had it confused with complicated. I had in effect learned how to plan livestock use and movement in complicated situations involving wildlife, erratic seasons, crops, etc. but had not addressed the full social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is inescapable in any management. I had also made ranchers working with me consultant-dependent.  Where I thought they were learning by working alongside me they were not. I had then to seriously return to the drawing board and somehow solve the problem of managing the full unavoidable complexity.  From here and in a short time the solution came about by accident.

I had moved to living in Texas and one evening Prof. Bob Steager from Angelo State University called on me at home. I was surprized to see him because Texas universities having first plagiarized my work and failed because they thought it was some sort of short duration grazing system, were extremely hostile to me and my work. He said he had come to ask what I was doing that they did not understand because as he related, I had visited their research station three times.  Each time I had listened to what they were doing and then told them what the result would be and left.  Each time he said they ridiculed me because I did not even ask to look at the data – simply told them the result. But each time the result was eventually exactly as I predicted. So he wanted to know what the hell I was doing that enabled me to predict as soon as I knew any treatment on the land.  I then tried to explain to him what I had built up in my mind over the past twenty odd years of observing and researching – I picked up a pencil and drew on a piece of paper – four ecosystem functions, the “tools” we had as scientists, the influences of humidity distribution and of the tools across a scale of humidity distribution and more. I connected the various ecosystem functions and the various tools humans used with lines like a spider web.

All of this allowed me to predict with a high degree of certainty the results of any treatment to the land.  When they told me what research they were doing I simply thought of that as treatments and so it was a no-brainer to tell them the result they would conclude. I am sure Bob left more confused than he arrived but fortunately my wife had been watching.  It was she who said I needed to keep that piece of paper and build on it  because no one understood how my mind was working.  So I then began using that diagram and with each person as I explained I could easily see what they understood or missed and I kept refining it with the help eventually of hundreds of people till it became today’s Holistic Management framework.

And then when the USDA commissioned me to train the 2,000 scientists and others shortly after that I literally had that large sample of mostly bright minds to help me refine the entire process and help me find if there were still any flaws.  The hardest part in this whole process of many years were first finding out how we could manage livestock without causing desertification by shifting from rotational and other grazing systems to management by process as opposed to system.  And the next was discovering the concept of the holistic context – not in any branch of philosophy, religion or science – to prevent management automatically becoming reductionist as it does even with the most sophisticated inter-disciplinary teams of scientists.

In your talk “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change,” you mentioned a turning point in your professional career when you realized that cattle could actually contribute to tackle desertification, which led to opposite management recommendations to the ones formulated before. How did you handle this paradigm shift from a personal and professional perspective?

That was a pivotal moment again brought about largely by accident. I was violently anti-livestock because of my university training and what seemed obvious – that they were destroying the land and wildlife I loved. I had developed game ranching with others to enable us to “rewild” but that was not yet showing any sign of improving the deteriorating environment other than superficial changes in amount of vegetation with adjusting wildlife populations. Then one afternoon an elderly ranching couple came to my home unexpectedly in Bulawayo. I was surprized to see them in view of my antagonism to ranchers and their cattle but I offered them tea.

They said they had watched the conflict between me and the research stations and government officials and wanted me to help them. They said they had adopted every grazing system, eradication of brush advice, etc. the experts advised and followed all the advice of the Matopos Research Station nearby (our top range management researchers) but that they could see their land was deteriorating.  It was a surprize to me that ranchers cared as much as they did and I agreed to help them on one condition. That was that I did not know what to do, it would be the blind leading the blind, but I would solve the problem.  Once word got around literally hundreds of ranchers began turning to me not only in Rhodesia but in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland, providing me with the most amazing opportunity to work with many people all over five countries.

What did you learn from it?

I think I have answered this. But if not, once I was working with ranchers and their livestock I began reading all the research I could obtain from any nation to see what others had done. Clearly no one had answers despite the arrogance of range science professionals who kept blaming ranchers for not fully following their advice and resenting me who had never studied range science interfering.  I re-read Smuts thoroughly grounding more deeply in his theoretical foundation.

I read Voisin thoroughly and thought he had largely solved the livestock problem on pastures in France. I tried Voisin’s Rational Grazing but ran into trouble quickly as clearly humid European pastures and African veld were very different. I read an article by Acocks a botanist in South Africa who was studying the expanding Karroo desert and his belief that South Africa was understocked and overgrazed. These two men had the only new thinking I could find world-wide.

So I drove down to meet Acocks to hear his views and look at his work. He believed livestock destroyed the land because they were more selective feeders than the vast wildlife populations that had maintained healthy grassland.  He directed me to a ranching couple doing his sixteen paddock non-selective grazing system.

While I was looking at their land where they were forcing sheep to graze all plants evenly,  I noticed a small place with what I was looking for – land in about the same state I had observed with large almost intact wildlife populations. This was where their sheep had concentrated in a snow storm and that was a tremendous breakthrough.  From then on I knew we could do what we needed with livestock and simply had to learn how to do so.  The problem was not selective grazing but lack of herd effect a physical issue not a physiological issue. That led to me talking to rancher clients and getting us to combine Acocks and Voisin’s ideas. Again we came adrift but could see we almost had things right. We now knew we had not only to prevent overgrazing but had to achieve the physical impact necessary – overgrazing of plants was very over-rated when most of the damage was coming from over-resting the land although we still did not understand this well. Even though I had first semi-interpreted this big leap in understanding while tracking people and trying to unravel why different land was either easier or more difficult to track people across, it was to take some years before it became clear to me. I will return to this.

I then said Voisin is not wrong – we have to abandon all grazing systems and rotations no matter how adaptive. We have to use some planning process and Voisin’s was not up to the complications of the African environment and needed improvement. At that point I turned to the military and how they had solved the problem in immediate battlefield conditions and there it was just what we were looking for. The military over centuries had learned to break the problem or situation down into very small bites that even a stressed human could focus on clearly. And to build a plan step by orderly small step ensuring no factor was overlooked no matter how complicated the situation. Adapting this to longer planning times and more dimensions than armies had to face in battles was easy using a paper chart. On that several dimensions can be laid out clearly. Immediately we began to see improvement and often dramatic improvement on every single property over five countries.  But as I wrote earlier, unknowingly I had only solved how to manage complicated situations not complexity.

I said I would return to the physical impact of animals that was to lead eventually to understanding a new concept of partial rest.  Animals on the land but with such changed behaviour that they do not physically disturb soil or plants adequately to ensure health of grasslands in seasonal rainfall environments.  This problem could never have been solved in Africa but needed me working in America to solve because never in my life had I been on land so devoid of all life than is here in America.

Both sides of the fence exhibit severe desertification – on one side national park with no livestock, little life and vast expenditure on various soil conservation measures. On the other side ignorance and overstocking and overgrazing with sheep and no money spent on any soil conservation measures.  Both these treatments have been in place for almost 100 years so we should see a difference.  However there is no difference and so what do we observe and learn as scientists?

Again, I will return to this but want you first to think for yourselves.

Do you have any advice regarding how to handle these “turning point” moments in professional life?

From my own and also years of experience working with many professional people I believe that would depend entirely on what drives any professional person.  In my case I have been driven since a young man to save wildlife and later took this broader when I understood habitat destruction is not just a destroyer of wildlife but of all life including humans.

I was willing to sacrifice my career to achieve my aim and did so because I was never driven by money, a desire for recognition or fame but only driven by a determination to find solutions. I found I could not be a serious scientist working in an institution and subject to so many pressures to publish and so little curiosity and openness to learning first.  So I became an independent scientist having no idea how I was going to support my family but seeing no option if I was to be effective and live a meaningful life as a passionate young scientist and actually save the wildlife I loved.  Because of this it has always been relatively easy to admit ignorance, admit mistakes, not take myself too seriously and to largely ignore all the ridicule, rejection and hostility.

I have often said, and I mean it, that I have no deep ownership in Holistic Management and if anyone in the world can tell us where it is flawed or where it is outrightly wrong and that person has a better way of managing complexity I will adopt it immediately. I am willing to drop Holistic Management tomorrow should anyone have a better solution to saving civilization and all higher life as we face global desertification and climate change.  I will do this with ease because nothing drives me but the desire to see a truly better world.  I have observed that others who put career or money or fame first behave differently to any sudden paradigm-shifting insight and generally it is with extreme anger. This makes it impossible to ever give any advice because each of us differs in our levels of self-esteem.  Any young scientist will have and easy time with any paradigm-shifting new insights as long as they have not pinned their self-esteem to their PhD, academic status or fame.  If they have done that they will, as I have observed, respond with anger to any new insights that are seen as threatening.  During the training of thousands of professional people it became easy to pick out the people who would have difficulty as they introduced themselves.  Those who introduced themselves simply as people with a family and a job generally responded well to exposure to new knowledge and are still involved forty years later. Those who introduced themselves as doctor or professor so and so in some high position and not as humans would almost always react with anger and learn nothing.

Did you have any mentors during your professional career? Who were them?

Yes very much so. I had several mentors who still influence my behaviour sixty years later. Two of those had similar backgrounds in that they were passionate scientists but never got to go to university because of the second World War. One was a mammologist at the end of his career employed by the British Museum but who was a Game Ranger with me in Northern Rhodesia. As a young man I believe he even had a paper published on the status of Burmese rhino while fighting behind the Japanese lines so great was his passion. The other a botanist recognized as our finest field botanist in Rhodesia but coming straight out of the army into the Forestry Commission.  From both these men I learned more about the rigour and discipline of science than I gained from a very good university. A third mentor was an American Fullbright Scholar and professor of wildlife management who I worked with for four years in Africa.  I was also influenced heavily when in my teens I read many philosophers and biographies of men who had achieved great things and found them very inspirational.

What do you think is most important in mentor-mentee relationships?

Difficult one to answer.  Thinking as deeply as I can over the years of mentorship and perhaps what was deepest was truly liking and respecting them greatly because of how I observed them behave. I trusted them enormously because none were anything but humble and truly seeking knowledge and they were consistent and devoted to learning rather than job or career.  I don’t think any of them accepted “proof by authority” and all were genuine scientists in my mind – curious, open, never dogmatic, always crediting others very balanced people.  Criticism if ever needed they gave but always criticism of my actions or ideas not of me as a person.  By contrast I have had over fifty years of unbelievable criticism of me, my behaviour and personality and cannot get criticism of my work from most authorities and academics.  I also greatly respected the Professors I had at university because they concentrated so much on teaching us as scientists – when I did anything sloppy they pulled me (or any of us) up in public and tore into our work. And they made a point of always making it clear they were critical of our work not us as people. So we came to understand that in science it is vital to be able to disagree, argue, and discuss one another’s work not personality or character.  I was later to learn how lucky I was with such professors because this is not the norm in academia and I was to spend my life under personal attack and experience the difficulty I do to this day in getting anyone to simply attack my work which I always welcome but seldom get.

Where/how do you find inspiration?

I am not at all sure how to answer this because I don’t think that way – needing inspiration – I just live what I do and desire which is to see a better world pretty much like the generic holistic context I use when visiting other countries, reading research papers, reports, listening to news, etc.  This is that generic holistic context that I believe all reasonable humans would aspire to or desire We want stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs. Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health in balanced lives with time for family, friends and community and leisure for cultural and other pursuits. All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans.
Anyone developing their own holistic context to guide them in the management of their lives will I believe hardly need to look outside for inspiration.

If you could give a general advice to young ecologists starting their careers, what would it be?

I guess I would say to any young ecologist be a scientist not an academic!  I am serious. Science fascinates me but to me is a mix of observation, interpretation, deduction, experimentation, desire to understand nature.

All of the plants, birds, animals that were domesticated to make civilization possible – even developing six vegetables from one weed – was done by ordinary people observing, experimenting and learning and was science before any “scientists”.  However since we have had academics in agriculture we are losing species, varieties, even our cultures and languages under the name of science and we belittle the observational powers and commonsense of farmers.

Liebenberg wrote a book “Tracking the Origin of Science” and I believe he may well be right that science originated with tracking. I know that had I not spent over twenty years of my life tracking animals and humans in peace and in war, I doubt I could ever have developed the Holistic Management framework. Long sleepless nights in the cold or rain unable to light a fire lead to hours of thinking why was the tracking the enemy easy today but was so difficult a couple of days ago? What were the influences on that land we were tracking the enemy across – national park, hunting areas, farms, ranches or communal lands? How did those influences of wildlife, cattle, goats or fire influence the soil, litter, plants that made the tracking so easy or difficult and why?  The good scientist mentors I had were always probing, questioning and open to learning.

Today I hesitate to call many academics scientists because I believe they are simply academics – never questioning, dogmatic and angry when even questioned, don’t believe in observing, interpreting and deducing but only in peer-reviewed papers. Never admit to error, never retract even when clearly wrong and shown to be wrong. Unethical to an extreme that is embarrassing. It is not just my experience as I learned when reading the story of Prof. Karl Hart in High Price – a tenured professor at Columbia he described academic behaviour as less ethical than the drug gang hood of Miami where he grew up. 

Having had literally thousands of graduates from US land grant colleges through my hands in training sessions, I despair – many young people who must have been bright to get into universities are being turned out brain dead and unemployable except by a government agency or environmental organization.  Again this is not just my conclusion if you read John Ralston Saul’s best selling “Voltaire’s Bastards” on his exhaustive research. I quote “The reality is that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and coordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted. ……In many ways the differences between various languages today are less profound than the differences between the professional dialects within each language. Any reasonably diligent person can learn one or two extra tongues. But the dialect of the accountant, doctor, political scientist, economist, literary historian or bureaucrat is available only to those who become one”.

I see that another independent scientist as I became had much the same view – James Lovelock – when he appealed to academics to become scientists saying they had everything to gain and nothing to lose except their grants!

So my advice I guess would be to be a scientist first academic second if that makes sense.  I said I would return to the matter of physical animal impact and here is the place. That picture I showed above with the land desertifying with severe habitat destruction for all life on both sides of the fence has been like that for close on a century. It is managed by government agencies – US National Parks Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and observed by US environmental organizations, universities and the US has a severe problem of desertification and it arouses no curiosity!!!

How are we training people as scientists with so little curiosity or concern? So little power of observation and ability to see something as dramatic as this and not start thinking, questioning, asking, discussing? I have taken hundreds of academics to that very site and they leave and never follow up with any learning, any interest. Something in our education system is going wrong and endangering the US but it is beyond my understanding. Let’s see how you follow up. What do you conclude, what do you research or read to try to learn why the result is the same on both sides of that fence despite radically different treatments.

Because young scientists are so vitally important to the future I have spent considerable time answering your questions. Yes clearly I a willing to collaborate with you because you are the future.  The youth of today are rebelling and demanding adults take action on climate change.  What is that action to be?  When adult scientists are not even curious about the lack of fence contrast above what hope are we giving the youth?  What action will politicians take if they respond to youth demand?  Politicians have no idea what to do and they can only rely on professional advisors coming out of our universities.

Even much maligned Robert Mugabe stated “We do not have a greater problem than our rising population and our deteriorating environment.  We politicians do not know what to do. All we can do is to take the advice of our professional advisors, but when it goes wrong we get the blame”.  Think of that as future professional advisors and let’s see how I can help in any collaboration to see if we can do better.


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