Greener Pastures

Innovation / by John Thackara /

Dominant theory says that desertification is caused by overgrazing. Operation Hope, winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, has upended this idea—restoring degraded African grasslands into lush, green pasture.

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Wholes, not parts
Although Savory describes some of his insights as common sense, he has spent 50 years battling to make the scientific case for his approach. For most of this half-century, he has had to contend with intense opposition from mainstream range science researchers “proving” it does not work.

But after decades of rejecting the idea that increased livestock could reverse desertification, a growing number scientists now accept that the results claimed by Savory are supported by rigorous data, and that they 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 the growing understanding of ecosystem ecology, that has emerged from biological studies of plants, animals, terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems.

This new approach to science has been 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, at 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,” Teller-Elsberg told me. “It has to be embraced through holistic planning processes.”

Land is not linear
One of the obstacles Savory has encountered is the tendency of modern humans to 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. In groups, we have created complex global organizations that are programmed according to the same 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 is holistic, and fundamentally non-linear, in its makeup.

This rational, control-seeking approach makes it almost impossible to deal with such wicked problems as biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.
The limits of linear management are especially true of land. Says 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 “holistic goal” must change…continuously. 

Otherwise stated: 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. 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 back 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.

The issues raised by Operation Hope also resonate with a debate in the Transition Towns movement where Brian Davey, from Transition Nottigham recently asked, “what constitutes a ‘plan’?”

“A plan is a way of attempting to shape the future” writes 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 unforeseen 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.”

About the Author
John Thackara is Director of Doors of Perception, a company that organizes festivals and projects around the world in which grassroots innovators work with designers to imagine sustainable futures - and take practical steps to realize them. In addition to event production, John Thackara also helps cities and regions build next-generation institutions. A former London bus driver, and later a book and magazine editor, John was the first Director of the Netherlands Design Institute and later served as program director of Designs of the Time,  a new biennial in England. In 2008 he was commissioner of City Eco Lab at Cite du Design in St Etienne, the main French design biennial. John is a an Associate of The Young Foundation, UK; senior advisor on sustainability to the UK Design Council; and an advisor on sustainability indicators to Agence France Presse. John’s blog Doors of Perception and monthly newsletter are widely read in 60 countries. His most recent book is In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World.

Originally published June 3, 2010

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