John Thackara | Essays

Whole, Whole on the Range

Photo: The Buckminster Fuller Challenge

The author has been serving on the jury of this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge. As a jury, we were instructed to look for a “bold, visionary, but tangible initiative that addresses a well-defined need of critical importance.” Its high quality entries range from the use of social media to organize urban food systems, and transforming Chicago into a giant water treatment machine; to helping Indian women solar electrify their own villages, and the use of cattle to reverse the spread of deserts around the world. Our winner will be announced on 2 June at the National Press Club in Washington DC and given a $100,000 prize to support the development and implementation of their work.


A quarter of the land area of Earth is turning into desert. Three quarters of the planet’s savannas and grasslands are degrading. And because the main activity on rangelands is grazing livestock, on which 70% of the world’s poorest people depend, their deterioration therefore causes widespread poverty.

All this impacts on climate change, too. According to Richard Douthwaite, who leads the Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network. http://carboncyclesandsinks.org/network/ Agriculture and land-use emissions are 27% of global total of harmful emissions.

Douthwaite’s network is developing policies which will enable the Irish land mass to become a carbon sink rather than a source of greenhouse emissions. His organization, Feasta, was instrumental in the invitation to Alln Savory to give lecture at Trinity College, Dublin which may bee seen online.

Grassland degradation is not a new problem. Decay started when the first hominids discovered the tool of fire and, by burning grasses, destroyed nutrients that would otherwise have enriched the soil. But the rate of degredation has accelerated with the expansion of the human population.

Enormous research efforts have been made to understand reverse desertification but, until recently, to no avail. The exception, Operation Hope, has transformed 6500 acres of of parched and degraded grasslands in Zimbabwe into lush pastures replete with ponds and flowing streams - even during periods of drought.

Surprisingly, this was accomplished through a dramatic increase in the number of herd animals on the land. Behind Operation Hope is an approach called holistic rangeland management . It has been developed over fifty years by Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist, farmer, and politician.It takes pretty much the exact opposite approach to the dominant theory that desertification is caused by overgrazing.

Savory's approach is based on a singular insight: grasses can't graze themselves. Before man came along, herbivores co-evolved with perennial grasses. “When a large herd moved around freely — accompanied, that is, only by pack-hunting predators — they dunged and urinated with very high concentration on the grass. No animals like to feed on their own feces, so they had to move off of their own feces within 1-3 days and they could not return until the dung had weathered and was clean again”.

Moving across the land in large herds, the herbivores trample and compact soils in much the way that a gardener does to encourage plant growth, while also fertilizing the soil with concentrated levels of nutrient-rich animal wastes. This approach aligns itself with nature a comprehensive way — increasing plant growth while regaining livelihoods through additional livestock, and increasing wildlife populations through holistic management.

Grasses depended on herbivores to help them with their decay process. When large herbivores such as Kudu and Cape Buffallo, disappear, grasses begin to decay far more slowly through oxidation. When millions of tons of vegetation are left standing, dying upright, the result is to block light from reaching growth buds; the next year, the entire plant dies. The death of grass leads to bare ground, and the desert spreads.

Hooves, Not Tractors

Savory does not pretend to have discovered the importance of compacting on the health of vegetation. In the early 1970s, land grant universities in Texas and Arizona designed machines to simulate the physical effects of once prevalent vast herbivore herds – such as the millions of bison that roamed North America. These machines, such as the Dixon Imprinter, were put into operation over thousands of acres of the western U.S to break soil crusts and cause indentations and irregularities while laying down plant material as soil-covering litter vital to soil health.

But his observation of large wildlife herds over more than fifty years has persuaded Savory that animal hooves, mouths and digestive systems do this same task more effectively, with annual repeating, and at no cost - while not consuming fossil fuels.

Large herbivores do three important things.

1. Break soil crusts. Trackers have observed this for thousands of years. The effect is more pronounced when animals are concentrated in large herds as they do when under threat of predation from pack hunters. The broken crust allows soil to absorb water and to breathe, and enables more plants to germinate and establish.

2. Compact the soil under their hooves. “Anyone who has had a horse stand on their boot understands this” jests Savory. Compaction is required for good seed to soil contact to increase germination. This is why gardeners tamp down the soil around seedlings or seeds or some farmers put a heavy roller over certain crops after planting.

3. Return standing grass plant material (dead or alive) to the soil surface earlier than the plant material would have returned to the soil had the animals not been there. One has only to watch a cow or buffalo trample or dung to know this.

In short, the conversion of plant material to litter or dung is essential to maintain biological decay – something that machines designed to imitate animals cannot do.

Time, Not Numbers

Seasonal rainfall grasslands require periodic disturbance for overall health. Savory discovered that overgrazing was a function of time - not of animal numbers. For example trampling for too long powders soil, increasing erosion by wind and water. Trampling for too long also causes compaction in deeper layers that is adverse to plant growth. And dung and urine, like most things in excess, become pollutants as feedlot animal producers soon learn. “Whether there is one cow or a thousand does not alter the fact of overgrazing; it merely changes the number of plants overgrazed if the animal(s) remain too long in the same place or returns to it too soon following grazing”.

The holistic planned grazing in Operation Hope is therefore based the application of high physical impact — trampling, dunging and urinating — in short periods, interspersed with much longer periods for plant and soil life recovery. The aim is to minimize overgrazing through maintaining a high graze/trample:recovery ratio on the land at all times — generally no more than three days grazing always followed by three to nine months of recovery.

When managing holistically, Operation Hope team herders continually use a concentrated management herd of livestock over brief time periods either to break soil surfaces, compact soil to ensure seed germination or cycle annually dying plant material biologically and rapidly.

Savory’s use of increased livestock to reverse desertification runs against ten thousand years of agricultural development. “More than twenty civilizations have failed due to environmental degradation”, savory reminds us, “and they had nothing but what people today call sustainable, or organic agriculture!”

Predator Friendly, Too

Operation Hope runs livestock in a ‘predator-friendly manner’. The livestock are held every night in portable lion-proof corrals (known as kraals here in southern Africa). The kraals are portable to prevent excess dung and urine becoming pollutants. “We do not kill the lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs or cheetah that are present because they are crucial to keeping wildlife moving and thus the land healthy”.

From Green Revolution to Brown

The Green Revolution was based on high input, industrial agriculture. It involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. It increased global food production tremendously - but it has also tended severely to degrade its ecological and socio-cultural capital base in the process.

“The Green Revolution has not been characterized by ecological or social integrity — quite the contrary”. Charges Savory. “Horrific soil erosion, dead zones at the mouths of rivers, severely depleted levels of biodiversity, impoverished rural communities, soil fertility loss, and oxidation of soil organic matter have been exacerbated by the Green Revolution”. The good news is that this can all be reversed, and this is the task in which Holistic Management practitioners have been engaged for the past 40 years. “We posit the necessity of a new ‘Brown Revolution’, based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.

Viewed holistically biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change, are not three issues, they are one, he explains. “Without reversing desertification, climate change cannot be adequately addressed.

“The more humid and biologically productive regions of the world will have to develop agricultural models based on small, biodiverse farms, imitating the natural, multi-tiered vegetation structures of these environments. This is where most of the grain, fruits, nuts, and vegetables will be produced, as well as most of the dairy products, and some of the meat.

Wholes, Not Parts

Although Savory describes some of his insights as common sense, he has spent fifty years battling to make the scientific case for his approach, too. For most of this half-century, Holistic Range Management has had to contend with intense opposition from maintream range science researchers “proving” it does not work.

Now, after fifty years of total rejection of the very idea of using increased livestock to reverse desertification, a growing number scientists now accept that the results claimed by Savory are supported by rigorous data and therefore deserve to drive land use, agriculture, and development policy.

Savory’s acceptance by the mainstream is part of a profound shift in scientific thinking. He is no longer alone in realizing that transfers of energy and nutrients are innate to ecological systems. Ecosystem ecology, which has emerged from biological studies of plants, animals, terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems.

This new approach to science is called holism or emergentism. Holism is the idea that things can have properties as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of the parts that reductionist science, ai its crudest, studies in isolation.

The principle of holism was concisely summarized by Aristotle in the Metaphysics: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts".

Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, a writer turning permaculture designer, explains why Savory’s approach has resisted so long by the scientific mainstream. “Mainstream natural resource management systems were in essence designed to avoid or bypass complexity. They coined the term "best management practice" – but this was a a misnomer. What may be the right thing to do on a farm this year may not be next year, let alone on a different farm”.

Although their motive was good, complexity—social, environmental and economic—is the implacable reality for management and thus cannot be bypassed or avoided. It has to be embraced through holistic planning processes”.

Land is Not Linear

Savory realized that humans make conscious decisions — planning and design for example - in a linear way. As individuals, we humans tend to be motivated a clear objective or goal. We have created complex global organizations programmed according to the same kinds of linear thinking. We manage these organizations by designing missions, or visions, that give the collective entity something to aim for in its linear journey forwards.

“We have been successful with developments of technology — but have failed over and over again to deal with complexity in nature and human society” says Savory. The trouble stems from our attempts to control a world that holistic and fundamentally non-linear in its makeup. This rational, control-seeking approach makes it almost impossible to deal with such issues as biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.

The limits of linear management are especially true of land. Savory: “The US enjoys the greatest concentration of scientists and wealth ever known in one nation — but she exports more eroding soil annually than all other exports combined”. The only wealth that can sustain any community or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process, he says. “That means from healthy soil ultimately – but ever-larger farms are said to be ‘economic’ when this is simply not true. The US claims to be feeding the world when the true position is that the US farmers are bleeding the world with their topsoil losses”.

Land — whether rangeland or cropland — cannot be managed like the production line in a car factory. “Land alone is no more manageable than is the hydrogen or oxygen alone in water” says Savory.

Conversations, Not Plans

It follows from working in whole situations — when our actions are guided by complex realities, rather than by rational and abstract concepts — that what Savory terms the the “holistic goal” must change continuously.

The consequence of this is that conversations are more important than plans.in a healthy community, discussion of its holistic goals never ends. A healthy community does not aspire to create the perfect plan and then implement it; rather, the idea is to grow and develop holistic goals over time.

Each and every managed whole — people, land, money — is unique; and each whole is also unique every year. Therefore, just as one cannot step into the same river twice because it is flowing, Holistic Management does not permit replication.

Savory traces many of his ideas to 1924 when Jan Christian Smuts wrote ‘Holism and Evolution’. “Smuts believed scientists would never understand nature until we understood that nature functioned in wholes and patterns of great complexity” recalls Savory; “unlike the mechanistic world view in which nature is viewed as a complicated machine with interconnecting parts.

Savory is confident today that Buckminster Fuller’s thinking would have resonated with that of Smuts. It also resonates with a debate in the Transition Towns movement where Brian Davey, from Transiton Nottigham also asked, “what constitutes a ‘plan’?”.

“A plan is a way of attempting to shape the future” wrote Davey, “ yet there is also an explicit ethos in the Transition Movement of “letting things go where they will”. “Letting things go where they will” implies accepting that things will unfold in unexpected ways and being flexible to that, taking up unforseen opportunities as they arise and being prepared to abandon unrealistic aspirations along the route. Instead of shaping the future this is about being prepared to be shaped by the future”.

For Allan Savory, too, holistic management is all about the means rather than the ends. The ends - the goals - are almost incidental. “You might even say that the means are the ends”, he reflects; “whatever you think your goal is, the true goal is to have a process for making decisions on an ongoing basis. After all, life is an endless, ongoing process. Any so-called goal is merely one step along an infinite path”.

This essay was originally published on Doors of Perception, May 31, 2010.

Posted in: Ecology, Environment, Food, Planning, Sustainability

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