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Barry Dossenko interview with Allan Savory

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Mr. Savory we know historically that the deterioration of food production systems in past civilizations and their inability to cognize encroaching complexity of population growth and governance in a holistic context leads to unbroken chain of civilizations’ collapsing. Do you think we still have time to avoid this on a global level now? Is there a way to create a new hope and new vision?

We we do not know, but Britain did not know if they could survive after the fall of France and most of Europe – but with good leadership, pushing aside egos and personal gain and acting on a war-footing they more than survived. Never has human civilization faced a graver danger than now with global finance and ecological illiteracy of our institutions driving the massive environmental degradation destroying our only habitat. Ordinary people know that all species, including humans cannot survive without suitable habitat. If world leaders (heads of governments and UN) put the massive environmental degradation that culminates in global desertification and the climate emergency on a war-footing and lead we have great hope for future generations.

Can you elaborate on the different impacts that ‘policy’ vs. ‘practice’ has on this impending problem of reforming agricultural systems worldwide?

Yes. Without agriculture there is no city, church, university, army, business or government – no civilization. Without a new regenerative form of agriculture (not crop production, but the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters) global civilization will fail. This is because all forms of agriculture historically have led to the failure of civilizations in all regions of the world and now the same threat is global. Few things in my life have taught society more clearly how interlinked our survival is than the present pandemic. Armies change civilizations. Farmers, foresters, fishermen, pastoralists destroy civilizations. So, we face the situation in which mainstream institutional, industrial agriculture led by our universities, governments and corporations supported by global finance, is the most destructive and extractive industry ever in history. And all forms of organic, sustainable, permaculture, grass production of livestock ever known led to failure of many civilizations in all regions long before chemicals and machinery. So, if we keep discussing different practices and people keep vying for validity and funding for their favoured practice we know we will fail. What world leaders on a global war-footing need to do is to address agriculture at the policy level by focusing on the cause of agriculture, throughout history, being so environmentally, socially and economically destructive (while feeding ever growing numbers of people).

By governments and all large institutions addressing at policy level the cause of the ever-growing environmental destruction reflected in global desertification and climate change all nations will rapidly develop the required new regenerative agriculture. Very little new knowledge, not already available amongst the world’s farmers, fishermen, foresters, wildlife and livestock managers, universities and environmental organizations, is required. We do not lack detailed knowledge, we lack the ability to manage the social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity. That ability we only gained in 1984.

We know most of the organized structures of our modern world can be represented as silo’s, inhabited by true believers (Eric Hoffer author), and authoritarian demagogues. Do you believe that Holistic Management training will become widely acceptable at upper levels of organizations or will occur because of collapsing regional agricultural ecosystems at the level of farming being our next crises?

I don’t know. All we do know, from good research and history, is that when counter-intuitive or paradigm-shifting change is involved, it is impossible for democratic leaders or any organization (institution) to lead. No change is possible until public opinion shifts and demands that change. And this holds no matter how serious, no matter how many million lives are lost or what the economic cost. Institutions, including elected leaders of such, take on a life of their own as complex systems. Institutions reflect the prevailing beliefs of society and lead the way with such thinking. However, when truly new knowledge emerges (which has happened very few times in history – Coppernicus, Galilleo, Semmelwiess are examples) institutions lead the ridicule and rejection until public opinion shifts. I cannot find any case in history of any institution accepting paradigm-shifting change ahead of its public.

Addressing the cause of all that ails us involves two paradigm-shifting concepts – known and developed by thousands of people over sixty years, including thousands employed in institutions but acting independently of their institutions – the Holistic Management framework has been blocked from rapidly gaining public awareness by the world’s institutions that became aware of it – environmental and agricultural organizations, universities, governments and international agencies. Only time will tell if programs such as this interview, social networking and the efforts of many people mainly engaged in developing regenerative agriculture will prevail over institutional aggression and inertia.

How is the lack of validation affecting positive change in local communities to holistic principles?

Firstly, there is really only one holistic principle. Intuitively known by all earlier people who in most cultures recognized humanity’s inseparable tie to our habitat. And the principle was brought into Western thought in 1926 by Jan Smuts who wrote Holism and Evolution. That principle is that nature works in wholes and patterns – not as mechanistic world-view and science believed. Knowing all they did, including Native Americans thinking seven generations ahead before taking any action, did not help them. Wherever humans were we still damaged our environment and least so in regions of perennial humidity. This was brought about by two things. First human decision making has always been to meet our needs, desires or to address problems basically. Reducing the unavoidable web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity to such things as the reason or context for management and policy is “reductionist” in a holistic world. What we finally discovered in 1984 after decades of work, was how to address the cause of past and present failures – by going to where the rubber hits the road.

That point is where actual decisions are made in any policy or management practice. Here, two points become important for the survival of civilization. One- all management and policy needs to be in a holistic context. Second -it is simply not possible, as tool-using animals, for humans to prevent or address global desertification and thus climate change using the only tools institutional scientists who advise world leaders accept or recognize. Those tools available to institutional scientists (and world leaders can only act through institutions) are technology in its many forms, fire, or conservation (resting our environment to recover). Three tools. That is why in a 2013 TED Talk I said “we have no option, but the unthinkable, and that is to use livestock as a tool to address global desertification.”

So, yes, none of this can come about until we have a better-informed public insisting that our governments and large environmental organizations in particular develop policies in a holistic context. It cannot be done until there is public insistence is what we learn from both research and history. So this we need to focus on.

After so many years of educating farmers has a training model emerged that can be web based and integrated into real time data collection to establish the validity of rethinking management in agriculture?

We do have a great deal of training material from simple self-help to more sophisticated coaching and mentoring in collaborating groups of people and organizations that are beginning to change. That can and will keep growing. However, that is the normal process of incremental change against institutional blocking and according to research we can expect to take about 200 years. Just to get the Royal Navy to accept lime juice would end scurvy cost over a million sailors lives and took 200 years – and nothing has changed in institutions since.

If the Greta Thunberg generation are to have any hope I am again going to use my statement “We have no option but the unthinkable. By every means possible we have get enough public demand to force quicker change by insisting institutions develop policies to address problems in a holistic context.”

The downside of public demand for this is Zero – there is absolutely no risk whatsoever and the only blockage is professional and institutional egos. Over now sixty years of development there has never yet been any financial vested interest oppose or ridicule the idea of managing or developing policy holistically. The upside is that we might just address global human habitat destruction in time to save civilization as we know it.

One of your key observations that attracted me years ago to your work was the “herd effect” and grasslands regeneration. Has that observation become an empirically established fact at this time?

When I consider this question, I ponder whether it is an empirically established fact that water flows downhill? Science is fundamentally a process of observation, interpretation, deduction and experimentation to gain knowledge of nature. That enabled us thousands of years ago to accept water flows downhill and later the theory of gravity, and experimentation there gave explanation as to why water flows downhill.

By this “scientific” process over thousands of years before academic scientists people developed all the domestic varieties of plants and animals making civilization possible. Since the recent dominance in management by academic scientists we are losing species, losing languages, losing cultures and accelerating human habitat destruction.

It was a simple observation by me over twenty years of tracking people and animals that where people, or animals, crowded in one another’s body space or were hungry, lost or wounded the effect on the soil and vegetation was different – more soil surface disruption, more course plants trampled more dead plant material laid horizontally on the soil ( slowing water flow, slowing rate of application of water from rainfall to the soil surface, increasing water penetration,..) more seedlings, closer plant spacing holding litter – all of this dramatically affecting the ease or otherwise of tracking. How much easier tracking was where fewer herds, more fire, more bare soil, more erosion and so on. And it was simply observation that any large herbivores (buffalo, bison, elk or whatever) when not apprehensive and defensive against pack-hunting predators spread, walked gently, did not tramp on course plants, did not lay much litter, etc. etc. And from there we simply recognized if we are to use animals as tools we have to do so largely through behaviour and their feet not mouths, and not mere presence. I have frankly not wasted my time worrying about empirically proving any of this that can be observed at any time – just like water flowing downhill. That academics sitting in offices relying entirely on peer-reviewed publications have a problem with this I have no doubt. Thank goodness the pioneers like Leopold, Smuts, Bennet, Howard and others engaged in science mostly in the field as did my own mentors.

Where you aware of the fact that research based on NASA satellite sequential space photos of the Great Plains area in the United State, a major bread basket of the world, is showing a significant destabilization of grass cover? Desertification is a major issue isn’t it.

I was not aware, but am not surprised. The desertification of the United States is terrible and is a major contributor to climate change as well as the increasing droughts, floods, poverty, collapse of the Western Culture (which will eventually be kept alive only by rodeo athletes and cowboy poets). I have always been saddened by the extreme opposition to my work from cattlemen’s organizations and environmental organizations in the US. But again, people are not being bad and are not to be blamed – that is what institutions do -ridicule and oppose any truly new insights.

Could you explain what sustainability means in a holistically managed paradigm, and what that would look like in greening the planet?

Let me try. First I must say it will not be Holistic Management because that is not agriculture but is purely a way to manage complexity in anyone’s life or business. It will be a new agriculture (crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and wildlife management) that regenerates the world’s living soils and biodiversity on the land and in our waters including oceans. Regenerating societies, cultures, towns and economies based, as they need to be, on the photosynthetic process – not paper wealth or wealth based on extractive industry. This new agriculture will be made up largely of many of the practices we see today in organic, sustainable, permaculture, pastoralism, wildlife, fisheries and forestry management. It will include some new practices (like the Holistic Planned Grazing process or holistic policy development) to reverse desertification that only became known and possible with the development of the Holistic Management framework. The practices that will “float to the top” as it were will be those that are socially, environmentally and economically sound both short and long-term all determined by policy developed in a holistic context reflecting what all humans want. Regenerative agriculture is what it will be. Management and policy developed in a global holistic context is how it will come about.

How can farmers best usher in a post industrial ecologically balanced food system?

They can do their best to learn how to manage holistically ensuring those practices that improve their own immediate environment, society and economy as many are doing today. However, this will not succeed because, as the corona pandemic has highlighted, we are a global community. Most of our population lives in cities and the economic and political power has shifted to cities totally disengaged from ecological literacy and ability to connect the dots. Corporate, shareholder, political game playing, celebrity desire for popular appeal, institutional and professional egos will persist in supporting veganism, vilifying meat, investing in manufactured meat, factory production of animals, university/corporate led crop production based on chemistry and marketing of technology (not on biological science) and of course planting billions of trees. All of which is leading to climate change and none of which addresses the cause. And the UN will continue to promote its 17 Sustainable Development Goals that almost all address the symptoms of desertification and not the cause and so are doomed once more to failure.

With such facts the best we can strive for is to use social media to educate the public in cities as well as rural environments to the fact that agriculture has to be regenerative and can really only be brought about in time by demanding policies be developed in a global holistic context – soaring above politics, stock markets, national power aspirations – to what all humans want and need for civilization to survive.

In addressing a world audience what would you say is the most important take away from your many years of astute observations of regeneration of natural systems?

My view is coloured by my years of struggle to first understand, and then find solutions to why humans so consistently destroyed their own environment or habitat. A struggle that led to me from being a government research officer to being an independent scientist, a farmer, rancher, game rancher, international consultant, soldier, member of parliament, president of a political party, exile while throughout collaborating with thousands of concerned individuals in all walks of life. From that broad perspective enjoyed by few if any scientists the two most important thoughts I would love to convey would be:

That we have to work at scale through governments and that all forms of governance -communism, socialism, capitalism, dictatorships, populism – have failed us. Our best hope lies in democracies but only when democracies ban all political parties that make it impossible for democracy to function. In this view I was preceded by George Washington (with some parallels in our lives) some 200 years ago.

Secondly governments need to form all policies in a national holistic context to ensure that all people feel well governed and secure, without which no one is.

If these come about I can see the human spirit fly as never before. If we continue supporting political parties and reductionist management and policy the future will be grim beyond imagination and the greatest suffering will be in cities.

 


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