create better, together

Solving our problems with Holistic Management

As the Savory Institute has reminded us, “This viral pandemic was not some random occurrence in a properly-functioning system. It is the by-product of a long-broken system, the reductionist management of natural resources, the destruction of landscapes and driving of species together, the accidental creation of a perfect breeding ground for infectious disease.”

And Rebecca Costa has warned us, “It’s disturbing to think that entire civilisations collapse and begin anew because they reach the limits of their inherited biological capabilities. Early civilisations 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.”

Conservation buys us time, but it also delays the inevitable as root causes worsen. Regrettably, the more time we buy, the more deluded we become that we have actually solved the problem. Successful mitigation is dangerous because it can easily be confused with a permanent cure as soon as short-term symptoms ameliorate.”

~The Watchman’s Rattle

All life depends on the plant’s ability, through photosynthesis, to convert sunlight energy into edible forms, so does every economy, every nation and every civilisation.”

Never has human civilisation faced a graver danger than it does right now and that is because of global finance and ecological illiteracy of all our institutions driving massive environmental degradation, destroying our only habitat. No species, including humans, can survive without suitable habitat.

Agriculture is the biggest threat to our survival. Agriculture is not just crop production as most people think: it is the production of all food and fibre from the world’s land and waters. Most of the planet is involved in agriculture. All forms of agriculture (crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and wildlife) and the different practices within them have resulted in the destruction of many civilisations in all regions of the world in the past. Without agriculture there can be no city, church, university, army, business or government – no civilisation. This time, it is not one or two civilisations that are under threat, it is all civilisation. We have to do something new and we have to do something different if we are to avoid the same fate on a global scale. In doing that, we have to address the full social, cultural, economic and environmental complexity across all of society. In other words, we must have a new agriculture that can ensure the regeneration of economies, towns, communities, cities and nations. 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 civilisation will fail. Few things have taught society more clearly how interlinked our survival is than the present coronavirus pandemic. Armies change civilisations. Farmers, foresters, fishermen and pastoralists destroy civilisations.

Right now, we face the situation in which mainstream institutional, industrial agriculture is being led by our universities, governments and corporations, supported by global finance, is the most destructive and extractive industry ever in our history. And all forms of organic, sustainable, permaculture, grass production of livestock, etc are practices that led to the failure of many civilisations in all regions of the world 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 by looking at history, we will fail because it is has not been the practices themselves that are causing the problem. What world leaders need to do is to address agriculture at the policy level by focusing on the root cause of agriculture being so environmentally, socially and economically destructive throughout history.

As soon as governments and all large institutions address the cause of the ever-growing environmental destruction (which is reflected in global desertification and climate change ) at policy level, all nations will rapidly develop the new regenerative agriculture required to secure our future. There is very little new knowledge that isn’t already available amongst the world’s farmers, fishermen, foresters, wildlife and livestock managers, universities and environmental organisations – we do not lack detailed knowledge, we lack the ability to manage the social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity which enables us to know when the knowledge/practice should be applied. We have had the ability to do that since 1984.

This is what Zimbabwe needs. This is what the world needs. Our governments should be developing policies that will ensure agriculture goes back to the biological sciences instead of what it is ludicrously based on now, which is chemistry and the corporate marketing of oil and technology. This new agriculture can only be achieved by taking the best practices (based on the biological sciences) of mainstream industrial agriculture, and all the many forms of organic, sustainable, no till, permaculture, etc agriculture, while simultaneously addressing the root cause of why all our past practices have lead to global desertification and the failure of many civilisations and climate change. We have had thousands of good practices over thousands of years, but what we never had was a decision making framework to help us to know when and where any of those practices would be appropriate given the unique complexity being managed.

The last couple of months have shown all of us how intimately connected we are and we’ve seen how our collective health and future depends entirely on the health of our natural world (agriculture) regardless of how much money we have, what our race, religion, political view, culture, status, or general opinion. We have to bring ourselves back into balance with the natural world.

Right now, nature is giving us all the warning signs – droughts, floods, mega-fires, health pandemics, poverty, poaching, social breakdown, mass emigration to cities, violence and climate change.

She is busy building the perfect storm.

And we are just getting ourselves into increasing conflict: experts arguing about what to do, each championing different solutions in their different and ever-narrowing areas of expertise – we are trying to deal with and mitigate each of our problems in isolation of each other, as if they aren’t connected in any way. And that’s what we’ve all been missing – that one vital fact ALL our problems are connected. Intricately.

Now is the time for a change. But what change? How are all our problems connected? How do we join the dots? The answer lies in how every one of us instinctively make decisions, and connecting that to how the universe functions.

The good news is that we do not have thousands of problems to solve. We have thousands of symptoms of ONE problem. Our inability to make sound decisions for complex systems which can only function as wholes.

Holism is the science of recognising that the parts of any whole, or system (from man-made organisations to natural systems) are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole.”

When our technology advanced, it resulted in a gradual change in our natural social and cultural behaviour within our ecosystems and that resulted in our genetically embedded decision making process becoming far too simple for the complex world we were creating for ourselves. We began to have an increasingly mechanistic world view – everything we manufactured rapidly improved and our technological successes have been incredible (as long as we have ignored their effect on our environment.) With all our focus on technology, our social behaviour changed drastically – we fell out of balance and began to see the natural world as something for us to manipulate and control and we started to manage the complex man made systems we created, and our complex natural systems the same way we were managing the things we manufactured, which was in complete opposition to the strict laws of nature: We separated. We isolated. We zoomed in. We were making decisions for individual species. Individual animals. Individual plants. Individual people. Individual economies. Individual ministries. Individual departments. Individual problems. Individual needs. Individual desires.

We threw ourselves more and more out of balance socially and culturally as we separated every aspect of our lives into “manageable” compartments for ourselves: we formed Governments and Organisations, then separated those into isolated departments and ministries, each designed to manage a small part of far more complex wholes. We zoomed further and further in, separating and isolating, ignoring the importance of wholes and patterns: not realising that every decision being made for any one thing in isolation of the whole was very soon knocking-on to effect something else, somewhere else, causing a brand new set of problems, and then we started trying to deal with those. We blame everything except ourselves. We blame livestock. We blame fossil fuels. We blame elephants. We blame Governments. But none of those things could cause any problems on their own – the ONLY thing we can blame is how we manage those things.

Our complex systems don’t behave like the things we make (technology) – the things we make do exactly what they are designed to do. A watch tells us the time. A computer computes. An aeroplane flies. Nothing we make ever does anything unplanned and won’t cause unexpected consequences. They are complicated but they are not complex. But our natural and man-made systems are complex and made up of many different parts – smaller wholes within bigger wholes – they are self-organising and can adjust and continue if a species dies out or someone leaves an organisation. As soon as we form man-made organisations they take on a life of their own and because of the way we manage the parts of them in isolation of the whole, the decisions that come out of organisations are seldom decisions that any sane individual would make – their policies completely lack common sense and are often inhumane and they end up going against the very things they were set up to do, but that doesn’t matter because they cannot be held accountable for their actions. No how many lives are lost, or how much money it costs, we cannot change organisations from within once they are formed – we literally create monsters which we have no control over. The only way we can change them is when enough of the public are putting pressure on them to change.

Right now, humanity is at a crossroads and we have 2 choices…we can carry on isolating ourselves from each other (pun intended) and from our natural world, reducing complex systems into parts and making decisions for smaller and smaller pieces of far bigger wholes: from our families to our governments, which looks like this:

Reductionist: we reduce our lives and our decisions into many “manageable compartments” always making decisions, or developing policies, for small parts of the whole, meeting our immediate needs and desires or addressing problems, all of us making decisions the same way – basing every action on things like past experience, research results, expert advice, profitability, peer pressure, friend’s advice, cash flow, compromise, expediency, laws or regulations, fear, etc, making our decisions with no further consideration, which usually enables us to reach our short-term objectives, but means that almost every single decision has been at the expense of our environment, societies, cultures and economy somewhere further down the line.

Or, we can change one thing, which will connect everything. HOW we make decisions.

Right now, securing our future lies in our ability to change our thinking, or get out of our “comfort zones” and that is something none of us do easily as individuals, let alone our organisations, even if it’s a simple change, but when we take our cue from nature, we can see clearly where we have been getting it so wrong: the “secret” to our future lies in looking at how complex systems (man-made and natural) function in wholes and then we need to apply those principles to our daily decision and policy making framework.

This is not a holistic or systems approach – many people have thought holistically throughout history and many have looked at the bigger picture. There is a whole world of difference between our thoughts and our actions – our genetic decision making process is so instinctive that no matter what approach we use, where the rubber hits the road we always reduce the web of social, economic and environmental complexity and narrow our decisions back down to the problem/need/desire. In order to change that, it will take a very conscious effort in the beginning – think of it like needing a software update to fix an outdated glitch in our brain’s decision-making process…it will take a while to get used to the new software.

Holistic Management: we add a couple of new steps to our current decision making process in order to apply the laws of nature, acknowledging the fact that nothing can exist in isolation of the whole, therefore, no decision can be made in isolation of the whole without later impacting something else. And anything that negatively impacts our environment will inevitably end up negatively impacting our societies and economies.

The Holistic Management Framework enables any one of us to successfully do that – we can make sure we are consistently choosing the right actions for whatever unique social, economic and environmental complexity we are dealing with at any given time. We do that by first defining what ‘whole’ we are making decisions for (from an individual to a country) and then we develop a Holistic Context (a profound statement describing what kind of life we want to have – good health, education, clean water, healthy food, prosperity, etc, which we then tie to a description of what the health of our life-supporting environment must be like in order for us and future generations to be able to have that life) and then we use that Holistic Context to guide all our future goals and decisions and we test each suggested action, policy, or practice for ourselves to check what potential effect it might have across the whole being managed – socially, economically and environmentally (in both the short and long-term) before making any decision, always making sure that our actions will be leading us towards our own entirely unique Holistic Contexts and always putting the health of our life support system first – green plants growing on regenerating soils.

Have a look at what I’ve been talking about from the perspective of the the UN’s latest sustainability goals –

  • Poverty
  • Hunger
  • Health
  • Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Clean Energy
  • Industry Innovation and Infrastructure
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life On Land
  • Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  • Partnerships for the Goals

These UN goals are looked at every 10 years or so and never get reached, not because the goals themselves are wrong, but because almost every one is a symptom of desertifying land…each goal is being separated and managed as a problem in isolation of the others when they are all intricately connected – each one is just a small piece of a far bigger whole. Working on and making decisions for each goal in isolation of the others can only cause more damaging knock-on consequences across the whole in the long run. But, if the UN connected the dots and treated and made decisions for the goals as one whole: by developing an over-arching Holistic Context to guide and test the policies suggested for the goals, then they would find out what actions would be most appropriate and simultaneously socially/culturally sound, economically viable and environmentally regenerative in both the short and long-term, and the goals will be achieved.

Holistic Management gives us foresight. It gives us the ability to pre-empt unwanted consequences and when it is put into practice on a big scale by governments and organisations, it will bring about the reverse knock-on effect of what we are experiencing around the world right now: we would all be united within a Global Holistic Context and would soon see our cultures, societies, economies and natural world begin to thrive.”

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