Thank you, John, for that tour of history. Thank you all for the extreme honor of being invited here to speak today. I truly appreciate it.
I’m not going to talk about the things you’re all familiar with: the need for economies to change—you’re more knowledgeable than I am about that—the need for community farming, local production, and all you are doing that is so good. I want to take us to a global scale because we cannot, any of us, be an island unto ourselves today; no nation can, no farm can, no community can. We’re going to have to look at things globally. We live in a troubled world, but it’s always been a troubled world. Over the centuries more than twenty civilizations have failed in different regions of the world because of their agriculture, and now we’re facing climate change that is culminating in global catastrophe.
As we face this situation, we have many conflicting views and many experts telling us what needs to be done, with great confusion reigning. John Ralston Saul, who wrote Voltaire’s Bastards, a best seller, studied the major blundering in the world prior to Voltaire’s time, when people inherited or bought their positions in leading organizations. The best brains of the time believed the blunders were the result of amateur leadership. As you know, in Voltaire’s time we entered the age of Enlightenment, when this practice would no longer be the case. From then on, organizations would be led by professionally trained people with expertise and skills. Saul studied what happened under professional expertise, and he discovered that major blundering didn’t decrease; it increased on a far greater scale and across all fields, including agriculture. He concluded: “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.”
This situation is going to be extremely difficult to address if we try to solve our problems by changing the entire structure of centuries of mechanistic or reductionist thinking, education, and training. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, addressed a conference that my wife and I attended some years ago in Sweden. She appealed to us scientists present to come up with solutions. She said, “We’re dealing with one problem here, another problem there,” and she named them round the world: droughts, floods, mass immigration, locust outbreak, you name it. She went on: “We’re spending a billion dollars here, millions of dollars there, but it’s all getting worse. Can’t you scientists somehow see the connections and come up with something?” I did a lot of thinking about what she said, and I recognized that when so much has gone wrong for us over so many centuries in spite of so many brilliant minds, and yet we can put a man on the moon, there has to be a simple cause. It’s not a lack of knowledge. There’s a simple systemic something we’re missing. And that’s what I had the good fortune to stumble across in my years of struggling to find solutions—stumble across accidentally, as so often happens in history.
In this talk I intend to make one main point that I think offers great hope for humanity if we can heed it and if I’m right. When we look at climate change, it’s occurring essentially, we believe, because of desertification and four atmospheric pollutants. Throughout society we are placing the blame on fossil fuels and on livestock instead of on management. Although greatly vilified, fossil fuels and livestock cannot by themselves cause problems whereas how we manage them can and does. Many are calling for action to stop fossil fuel pollutants, and that is good. Action will have to be taken to find alternative, benign forms of mass energy.
With regard to livestock there is a growing vegetarian movement of caring, generally highly intelligent people, with many celebrities and moneyed people joining it. These are good, concerned people who want to take action, and they are saying we need to do away with most of the livestock—certainly not increase them—and become vegetarians. Unfortunately, this trend is coming from wealthy countries, among essentially wealthy people who can pick and choose what they eat. That’s not showing empathy for people in the vast area of the world across North Africa through to China and across to India, an area far greater than the size of the United States. And over that vast troubled region of the world about 98% of the land can only feed and support people from animal products. As I speak, thousands of mothers and children are starving and dying in this vast desertifying region because they lack the choice of diet we have. We need to be more empathetic.
Let’s think about agriculture. It is the foundation of civilization, of economies, of everything we have. Without agriculture we wouldn’t have an orchestra, a choir, a church, a government, a university, an army, a library; we wouldn’t be in this room today. It is the entire foundation of civilization as we know it. If we define agriculture, it is not just crop production, as media and most of us think of it. Agriculture is the production of food and fiber from the world’s land and waters. Almost the whole planet is involved in agricultural production today. A few countries acknowledge this by having a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, for example. Fisheries, forestry, wildlife are all a part of agriculture.
In terms of percentages, we find that about 5% of our struggling planet is involved in crop production. If we are vegetarians, our food comes from 5% of the planet; the other 95% is involved in agriculture but not crop production. If we consider the land alone, about 20% is involved in crop production, 80% in non-crop-production agriculture, including in the United States, which comes close to the global average. How are we doing in agriculture, which has to sustain our civilizations? As for the land part of it, our soil scientists tell us that we’re losing more than 75 billion tons of dead, eroding soil every year. These are extremely conservative figures because as far as I can ascertain they come mostly from the 20% of the land producing crops. Now, 75 billion tons is hard for us to picture, so think of it as 10 tons of eroding soil every year for each one of you and each one of the seven billion people alive today. We need about half a ton of food, which means we’re producing 20 times as much dead, eroding soil as food needed for today—and our population is going to rise to 9 or 10 billion people. That, I believe, is the most frightening statistic in the world.
As well as being responsible for all that destruction, agriculture is resulting in billions of acres of biomass burning every year, which is contributing to desertification and climate change. Based on the changes on Earth over the past ten thousand years as seen from space, we would be considered a desert-making species, as I once heard famed evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris say. I think I can safely say that agriculture is without question the most destructive industry we have, more destructive than mining or fossil fuels and more dangerous than fossil fuels, but we’re not treating it that way.
Let’s think for a moment about this soil destruction. Putting an end to it is the key to our future, and a great many good people—including many of you, probably all of you—are proposing that we turn to organic agriculture, to grass-fed animals, the good things we believe in and are talking about. In doing so we are recognizing that the solution needs to be biological, with agriculture that is based on the biological sciences, not on chemistry and smart marketing of technology as most of agriculture is today. But what we’re promoting has destroyed many civilizations. They had nothing but organic agriculture with grass-fed animals, they didn’t have the fossil fuels, they didn’t have the detrimental methods we have today. I cannot stress too much that we have to go deeper. It is no good calling for everything to be organic, sustainable, grass-fed. That was done for more than ten thousand years, yet in all regions of the world agriculture damaged our environment.
Let’s begin to go deeper, then. There are in the world two broadly different types of environment, and we do not adequately distinguish between them. The rainfall in London and in Johannesburg is about the same, yet they have totally different climates, totally different environments. The rainfall in Washington, New York, and here in the Berkshires is totally different from Phoenix, Albuquerque, and San Diego, but the way we think about these different environments and the way we treat them is the same. Very roughly, about one third of the world’s land has an environment like the one you have here, where the humidity throughout the year is relatively even; about two thirds of the world’s land, the greater area by far, is very different in that the humidity is highly erratic through the year, with humid months followed by months of dryness. Everything in both these entirely different environments around the world—the soils, the soil life, the plants, the animals—coevolved together, not one before the other. We didn’t have soil before life; we didn’t have life before soil. Soil is a living thing like the plants and animals it supports, and they in turn support the soil.
Now, in our siloed fiefdom science that I was trained in and began to rebel against when I was twenty because it didn’t make sense, none of us scientists looked at the life cycle throughout the world in enough detail. For all life to occur, there has to be a cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay. Decay is as important to every one of us here as is birth. If decay doesn’t occur, the cycle breaks, yet we’ve never considered the decay part of the cycle carefully enough. For the one-third of the world whose climate is like the one around us here, decay occurs every year; any dead plant, animal, or insect decays biologically and rapidly. If you look at a dying tree, it tends to decay near the base and then fall. These environments are not desertifying; however, on about two-thirds of the world’s land surface it doesn’t happen like that. The decay process if a tree dies is that it stands, and it can stand for a hundred years, breaking down chemically by oxidation from the top and physically weathering. In those environments grass plants are the plants that provide the main stability of the soil over most of the world, and the decay process of the parts of the grass that die annually above ground shifts from biological decay to chemical-physical breakdown in the absence of grazing animals.
And this as scientists we failed to note. When the bulk of the annually dying leaves and stems of grass does not break down biologically but instead oxidizes gradually, it leads to premature death because in the following growing season inadequate sunlight reaches the growing points at ground level that are below the grazing height of most animals. Where rainfall is high, grasslands then shift to woody plants, but where rainfall is low, the shift is to bare soil and desertification.
In the type of environment where the atmosphere and soil were humid through most of the year, the bulk of the herbivores have always been insects; in the other type of environment with erratic humidity we find that there were millions of insects, but the bulk of the herbivores were grazing animals, and the moisture over prolonged dry periods was in the gut of the animals supporting biological breakdown of vegetation. Just to give you an idea of the numbers, I pulled out these two references for a talk I gave a while ago; they struck me because they are relatively recent. The first is from Running the Gauntlet written by George Mossop, a native of Natal, South Africa. Published in 1937, it describes his adventures as a hunter in the velt in 1876:
On the first morning of the hunt they were met with a scene beyond my power to describe. Game, game everywhere, as far as the eye could see—all grazing. The game did not appear to be moving; the impression was that the earth was doing so, carrying the game with it—they were in such vast numbers, moving slowly and steadily, their heads down, nibbling the short grass.
Here came a small herd of about 500 black wildebeest, their white tails switching; they passed 100 yards from the wagons at a gallop. Hundreds of thousands of blesbok, springbok, wildebeest and many others were all around us.
And that was already just a remnant of former numbers. Here’s a passage from The Extermination of the American Bison, published in 1875 by American zoologist William Hornaday, describing the size of one herd of bison (or buffalo):
The great herd along the Arkansas River through which I passed . . . was from my own observation not less than twenty-five miles wide and from the reports of hunters and others it was about five days in passing a given point, or not less than 50 miles deep. From the top of the Pawnee Rock I could see from 6 to 10 miles in almost every direction. This whole vast space was covered with buffalo, looking at a distance like one compact mass, the visual angle not permitting the ground to be seen. I have seen such a sight a great many times but never on so large a scale.
Those buffalo were also a pitiful remnant population, containing the last of the four bison species that once populated the American plains. There are about eleven large-mammal species in North America; there used to be about forty additional large-mammal species. That’s what we’ve got to picture: the soil, soil life, vegetation, and all those animals evolving together in their environments.
If we’re going to put things right—agriculture, regeneration of soil, desertification—how are we going to do so? We are a tool-using animal. If all of you were to drink some water right now, without using technology, how would you do it? You’d have to find the nearest river and drink from your hands; we cannot even drink water without technology today. What tools are we going to use to solve the biological problem relating to soil regeneration and desertification? Scientists, policy makers, environmental organizations, universities, all of us believe we have a great many tools and options, but do we?
What are our options? One is technology, our first tool, and we’ve had that for a million years, starting with sticks and stones, but we weren’t able to influence our environment; then we got a second tool, which was fire, somewhere in the past million years. We could then melt the stones, which enabled us to enter the copper, the bronze, and the iron ages. Look at everything around you today: it was all made possible only by fire. The clothes you’re wearing, these objects around me, the building of this barn. For most of human existence we’ve had two tools: technology and fire. And then we had the idea of resting the environment—oceans, land, et cetera—sometime during the recent period of history of the past ten thousand years. Now we have three tools.
Let’s look at technology that might be used to address the decay part of the life cycle in two-thirds of the world, which is what we essentially have to do for agriculture and soils to be regenerated. You can all see for yourselves that no technology imaginable, even in science fiction, will solve that problem. I think we can take that as a given. Fire cannot because it is rapid oxidation, which exposes soil and pollutes the environment. The idea of resting the environment is the most powerful thing we can do over one third of the Earth’s land, where humidity is well distributed throughout the year—as it is here. If we rest such environments, biodiversity recovers fully and soil recovers fully; we see that in failed civilizations being found today under forest or jungle.
For the greater parts of the earth’s land, where the humidity is seasonal, resting the environment, as I showed in my TED talk, is the most destructive practice we have. That is why I showed a picture in that talk of a National Park in New Mexico with deep, gullied, eroding bare ground devoid of life because it is under protection or rest. If Aldo Leopold were alive today and went into the Aldo Leopold Memorial Forest on the Rio Grande River, he would be horrified at the loss of life and desertification occurring in a riparian area 500 yards from my home in Albuquerque. So you can see that resting the environment can have totally different effects; it is the most powerful thing we have for the oceans, the lakes, the rivers, the humid environment, but its role flips for most of the world. We are left with only one other possibility or tool: small living organisms that we have used traditionally to make cheese and wine and now to manufacture new species, but we’ve never used them to manage our environment at large. We humans have no other tools with which to manage our environment. Only technology, fire, or resting the environment.
Is civilization doomed? Prior to the Savory Institute’s London conference last year I read a report from an international team of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. They were looking at the five greatest threats to human survival, and climate change was not among them. They explained that with climate change, some parts of the planet will still be habitable. If we believe that, it also means billions of people will be dead. Most of our cities will be gone. Billions are threatened by desertification, which is a major component of climate change. Millions are suffering and dying from North Africa to China from the symptoms, not of climate change but of desertification: increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods, poverty, social breakdown, mass emigration to Europe, boatloads of drowning people in the Mediterranean, violence, recruitment to fanatic religious organizations.
Enough of that doomsday situation, but those are the realities as I see them. Having started as a wildlife biologist extremely antagonistic to livestock, more so than any vegan or environmentalist in this country, I was fairly fanatical about saving wildlife. Then in the mid 1960s it hit me that I was wrong. I realized that we had no option but to think seriously about livestock. Only by using grazing animals could we achieve the needed requirements to reverse desertification: the biological breakdown of billions of tons of annually dying grass-plant material during the dry months; the trampling and breaking up of bare, hard-capped soil surfaces and the laying of old material onto the ground to cover soil; the accumulation of dung and urine—all in the same way such soils and life had developed with millions of large grazing animals. Practically speaking, this could be done today, on the scale and with the frequency needed, only by using livestock that can be easily managed.
The problem I then faced was how it was to be done. How are we to use livestock to mimic those animals of the past? What do we have to guide us? We have had ten thousand years of pastoralists, whose whole culture is tied to their animals. That is their life. They are extremely knowledgeable about their environment and their connection to the environment, yet the way they handle their livestock—herding them, moving them, bunching them—had led to the formation of the great man-made deserts of antiquity in the Biblical Lands. They had done it slowly over ten thousand years, and when we look at the pastoralists of today still practicing those methods, like the Masai and Samburu in Kenya, the land is still turning to desert under pastoralism.
Clearly we didn’t have an answer there. Then I looked at the past hundred years of modern range science—experts, fencing, electric fencing, rotational grazing systems, a whole plethora of grazing systems—and that worked when applied in climates like this. I’ve looked at pastures in England where for three hundred years livestock has been handled extremely badly, in spite of which you cannot find a patch of bare ground except by the gate. But in two-thirds of the world, which is what we have to deal with, these range science methods were accelerating desertification. We discovered that first in Africa and then confirmed it in the United States, so it seemed there was just no way that we could run livestock in the seasonally humid and desertifying environments.
Knowing we had to do something about the situation, I concluded that there’s a land-management complexity here we’ve never dealt with. This is greater than anything we ecologists or biologists have ever faced. I needed to look at other professions, at how other people have tried to deal with very complicated situations in management. Harvard business planning was too theoretical, too impractical, didn’t deal with enough of the complexity. I found what I was looking for in military thinking. For over 300 years in Europe, military leaders fighting battles had to manage extremely complicated circumstances that were changing all the time and had to work out how to come up with the best possible plan right away. Why reinvent the wheel? I looked at how they had done it, and it made sense. They had taken very complicated immediate battlefield situations, divided them into little segments that the mind could cope with one at a time, with each step building on previous steps till they did indeed come up with the best possible plan right away. I’m not going to improve on that. Who’s going to improve on that?
I understood how they did it and knew we could do the same with agriculture—crops, livestock, wildlife—but there was a problem. Battles are fought for an hour or for a week; they’re not fought for a year or two years. Farmers and ranchers, foresters, wildlifers have to think long term. They have to plan these complex situations for a whole year or more. How on earth can we do that? Oh, it’s so logical: just put it on a chart. On one piece of paper you can express time in months or years right across the top; you can express areas of land down one side; you can express volume; you can put in problems throughout the year in the body of the chart, laying out many factors like a minefield and then seeing where to move the animals. After that you can plot where to put the animals to get them in the right place at the right time with the right behavior while using them as tools to address desertification. Lo and behold, that simple! I designed it, did it, and it worked. It worked immediately because it had 300 years of experience behind it, and I can say to you with all sincerity that I am not aware of a single failure in now over fifty years if people do it this way. No matter how complicated the farm, the cropping, the orchards, the wildlife are, that’s the way we do it, and we can train people in a day. I have trained Africans who didn’t go beyond high school, one of them in particular in an hour and a half, and he did a perfect job. It is so profoundly simple.
We seemed finally to be onto something. When we now approached land management that way—and I started to do it on over a hundred farms and ranches in five countries—we had wonderful results; over the next few years, however, they became erratic. Clearly something was wrong, because you should get consistent rather than erratic results. I realized the fault was mine. What I had done was use the idea of military planning to solve the problem of how to integrate the crops, the wildlife, the cattle; what I hadn’t included was the social side of it, the cultural side of it, the economic side of it. You cannot in any management ignore social, environmental, economic complexity, and I had not brought them all together. We then went back and addressed those factors so that by 1984 I had corrected my mistake and learned how to do what was required to succeed.
How to address the full social, environmental, and economic complexity was resolved by recognizing that management actions need a reason, a context, and that we always have one. Invariably, it is a simple context like meeting a need or desire, making a profit, or having a problem to deal with. Reducing the complexity to such simplicity for our actions leads to disappointing results and unintended consequences, which I now realize is universal. What was needed was a new concept of a holistic context that tied our lives to our life-supporting environment. By using a holistic framework with an overarching context to guide management and by using livestock as tool, results became consistent and have been ever since.
At that point the word “holistic” emerged: holistic planned grazing and holistic management. Since then we’ve had consistently replicable results as long as people use this holistic framework reasonably well. We can now address the full complexity on any farm, ranch, or pastoral situation. Unexpectedly however, we discovered that the holistic framework could also be used with all policies and development projects that deal with social, cultural, environmental, and economic complexity. That is something we discovered accidentally; it wasn’t what I was originally trying to accomplish.
Let’s look at some results for a moment. On the land, we now have ordinary people on six continents practicing Holistic Planned Grazing at various levels—no one can be expected to do it perfectly—on over 40 million acres. The Savory Institute has about 30 locally led, locally managed learning and training hubs where farmers, ranchers, pastoralists, people from universities, government agencies, and environmental organizations are beginning to pull together as human beings, collaborate, and manage holistically to solve the problems of agricultural complexity and soil regeneration. By next year there will be over 40 such hubs. I’m pleased to say that the first university is developing one of these hubs, and that is Michigan State.
If we are to solve our problems in agriculture and thus save civilization as we know it, I’m sure it’s clear to you that we have to proceed on two levels. One is what we’re doing holistically on our farms, forests, and ranches; the other is the policy level. It’s no good having all of us at the ground level doing the right thing when policies are forcing us to do the wrong thing. And that is what’s happening today in every country in the world I work in.
What have the results in policy been? In the early 1980s very farsighted individuals in the USDA realized the importance of what I was doing. They engaged me over a two-year period to train two-thousand people from all the agencies: Soil Conservation Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, World Bank, USAID, and even faculty members from agricultural land-grant colleges. For the most part scientists and economists, they went through a week of training with me. I encouraged all of them to bring their own policies for analysis so that we could work on them together using the holistic framework, and they did so. These policies covered everything you can imagine having to do with agricultural problems: droughts, floods, silting, dams, noxious plants, you name it. They could not find a single policy among those presented that would work and that would not lead to unintended and undesirable consequences. This was because by reducing the context for policy actions to the problem, they failed to deal with the unavoidable social, environmental, and economic complexity. One group in training had a heated discussion culminating in a statement that they all agreed on and that I published verbatim in our textbook: “We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the United States.” I find it highly significant that people with just one week of training would reach that conclusion about their own work.
Now let me return to climate change. As I said earlier, we believe that, in addition to desertification, climate change is essentially a result of four atmospheric pollutants: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and black carbon. These four pollutants are coming from fossil fuels and from agriculture. The figures are erratic; there are many figures, so let us assume that roughly 50% of the pollutants are coming from fossil fuels and roughly 50% from agriculture. What can we prevent from going into the atmosphere using the three tools we have: technology, fire, and resting the environment? It’s absolutely clear that the only thing we can do is use technology to prevent the 50% coming from fossil fuels. That means we are guaranteed continuation of climate change. Guaranteed.
Now, what can we remove and store somewhere, using the three tools we have as scientists? If we could remove the carbon, where could we store it? Could we store it in the oceans? No, they’re already acidifying. Could we store it in trees? Everybody believes in that, but the answer is no because trees are part of the ambient carbon cycle of all life, and they release that carbon when they die. Only a small percentage goes to the soil through trees, and that is why the great grain-growing regions of the world with their deep carbon-rich soils are former grasslands, not former forests. So we are left with soil as the key to that problem. What can we safely remove and store in the soil using technology, fire, and rest? The answer is nothing. Even if we found a technological way, it would be like playing Russian roulette with all six chambers of a revolver loaded. No, make that Russian roulette with all six chambers of two revolvers loaded. We have never yet solved a biological problem of this magnitude with technology.
Does this mean we are doomed? What’s the future of civilization? Do you see now why I said in the TED talk that we have only one option? Start to vilify land management and not livestock. Management is the problem; livestock, the innocent animals, were never the problem. We’ve got to change our attitude toward livestock but also our view of management, today’s essentially reductionist management. If we do that and then add livestock to the equation, I now ask the question, Which of the four pollutants can we safely stop from getting into the atmosphere if we use technology, fire, rest, and livestock? The answer is that we now have the real possibility of stopping all of them. And it is possible to reverse global man-made desertification contributing to climate change. What makes it possible is adding livestock in as a tool. I’m not saying it will be easy; I’m saying it’s possible. Without livestock, it is not possible, and I like to go with what’s possible—to give us a fighting chance for a future for coming generations.
I believe the situation we are facing—and I’m not exaggerating—is greater and more dangerous than all the wars humanity has ever fought. The right policies are going to be essential as are practices on the ground if we are to have a chance of saving civilization. Our policies are controlled by institutions, by organizations. Individuals don’t form policies. We form our institutions for good reason, and we need institutions because they are efficient; nevertheless, they are complex soft systems in systems-science terminology. As such, they have what are called emergent unpredictable properties that can constitute “wicked problems,” which are extremely difficult to solve.
Our organizations, being efficient, are always leading the way in what they reflect, and that is the prevailing view of society. Society believes in technology, for example; thus, a farming organization or a university or an environmental organization will have the latest software, the latest computers, the latest cell phones, the latest technology. When our organizations function like that, it’s absolutely understandable that they lead and we do not question because we all believe in technology bettering our lives and solving problems. When our institutions told us that they could reverse desertification by using big machines, everybody believed it. The message came from prestigious universities, from acknowledged experts, which is why nobody questioned it, with the result that America and many other countries spent millions of dollars on large machines that now lie rusting. Machines couldn’t do it, but the point is that we never questioned it because society believes in technology.
A colleague and I were in the United Arab Emirates not long ago. We were flown around in a helicopter so we could see the results of over thirty billion dollars spent by the government to stop desertification by planting trees using drip irrigation and desalinated water because their institutions, like the public, believe in planting trees and technology. But everywhere we saw signs of failure, with desert sands moving through. Because of the belief in technology, the Israeli government is spending more than ten thousand Euros per hectare harvesting rainwater running off the desert to plant trees, while removing the Bedouins’ sheep and paying the men an allowance based on how many children they have. There has been no reversal in the serious desertification, and what do you think the men are doing? Breeding. I had dinner with the mayor of a town constructed to settle the Bedouin pastoralists, and he asked me what I thought the average age of his citizens was. I said, “I don’t know; you’ll have to tell me.” His response: “Twelve years old.” So you see, no one ever questions the actions of our institutions that believe, like the public, in reducing livestock, planting trees in former grasslands, or using technology to stop desertification.
We’ve known for over fifty years how to reverse desertification with livestock and Holistic Planned Grazing. Many scientists in institutions helped me develop this approach, but our institutions themselves can not change because society doesn’t yet believe in it. What we have to do is change society’s view so that our institutions can change. I haven’t found a single case in history when any organization has been able to change ahead of a significant change in that society’s views. This is why my TED talk going to over three million people, and making sense to most, did more in twenty minutes than fifty years of struggle to bring about institutional change.
There are three issues that are bedeviling us at the moment: one is the move to be vegetarian that I mentioned earlier; another is the constant reference to the amount of methane that cattle put out; and the third is the endless bickering and arguing and discussing about how much carbon the soil can absorb, especially grassland soils of the world. These are distracting issues. Let me explain why they are endangering humanity. Assume for a moment that all of the world’s people became vegetarian, ate no more animal products, and didn’t kill animals; assume also that over the next twenty years we spent billions of dollars on an enormous amount of research and proved that cattle put out ten times the methane they actually do. Not true, but assume it, and assume further that those same twenty years and billions of dollars proved that the soil could absorb no carbon. Also untrue. My question to you is, what would you do, then, about desertification causing increasing droughts and floods, poverty, social breakdown, environmental refugees, violence, all the things I’ve mentioned as well as climate change? You’re still going to have to use livestock and Holistic Planned Grazing or a better process if developed. You’re going to have to deal with the complexity and use livestock. These are distracting issues that are seriously delaying, I sincerely believe, doing something about desertification and climate change.
If we look at the latest UN Global Sustainable Development goals, none of them deals with complexity. They deal mostly with symptoms of desertification, and in all cases the complexity is reduced to the symptom being addressed. They’re going to be as little realized as the failed millennium goals were. It is urgent that we begin to change public opinion to recognize that management’s failure to be holistic is the problem, not livestock. If we do not change our attitude toward livestock, I believe we are doomed because of desertification continuing to expand over approximately two-thirds of the world’s land. This means there are two things we have to do together to offer future generations any hope: change the public attitude to management and to livestock.
The sands of time are running out, I believe, for institutional change, and I see only two options ahead of us. If any of you can see another option, I’m all ears. The first option is that we continue to make incremental change, as I call it. Lord Eric Ashby’s research on how truly new counter-intuitive ideas become accepted in democratic societies, using Britain and America over the past two hundred years as his case study, shows that it takes from one hundred to two hundred years. So far, it has taken fifty years just to get the present slight shift to public acceptance of the fact that livestock are important. Even more than fifty because before I was born Albert Howard was writing about livestock as essential in agriculture, and he was looking at the crop side of it.
We can continue with incremental change—and we’re making remarkable progress, but I believe it is too slow—or we can look for some way to bring about more rapid change in public opinion. More of our caring, influential, moneyed people need to begin helping us speed the information change by providing the wherewithal to get out more documentary films and much more investigative reporting—articles, books, social networking, et cetera. Social networking can accomplish a great deal when it’s good. I keep hoping there is some way that influential people will bring about meaningful inquiry. I don’t know what’s best, whether it should be Congressional inquiry or another kind of public inquiry that seriously looks at the science and at resource management in the United States. I and many of you in this room, all of you probably, and a great many others are doing the best we can with what we have. Somehow or other we simply have to speed up a change in perception so that it becomes commonsense to enough people that land management needs to be holistic and that we have to stop blaming livestock, which are essential to reversing desertification and addressing climate change. What are you going to do?
Thank you for inviting me to join you today.
Question & Answer Period
Q: You mentioned a need to rethink economic concepts because of damage resulting from agriculture. Could you say more about that?
A: There are two trends in agriculture today brought about by flawed economic thinking. Crop-growing farms are tending to get larger, with more monocultures, whereas areas with ancient pastoral cultures are getting smaller and more constricted. Those two trends are completely wrong. At the end of the day, agriculture has to be biologically based as well as ecologically sound. Crop-growing field farms need to be getting smaller to be ecologically viable, and grazing areas need to be getting larger because animals need more freedom to roam. So economics is driving two trains in the wrong direction, which can be corrected without major upheaval as long as one does not confuse or link ownership and management.
When I got back to Africa after four years of exile, I had only one ranch left. I’d lost everything else. That one ranch remained because the government didn’t know I owned it. Making decisions in a holistic context for my life, as I do, I gave the ranch away. Friends and family said: “How can you do that? That’s so stupid. The land has escalated so much in value; how can you give it away?” I responded: “Well, it’s my life. I know what I value.” What I valued was working with wildlife and poor people and having a life that was meaningful for me. I didn’t value ownership, and I realized that even if I had attempted to retain ownership, I would have lost it anyway on political grounds for having the wrong skin color in Zimbabwe. So I’m still sitting on the land, now living with the game and serving community, serving people. You see, I didn’t confuse ownership and management.
Think of us as owners of a company owning an enormous amount of land that we’re cropping on. If we were to make decisions holistically, we would realize that we don’t have to relinquish our ownership, but in order to make this huge piece of land manageable and viable ecologically it needs to be broken into many smaller units under separate management, with many people on the land managing each unit. That doesn’t mean we have relinquished ownership.
As often happens, we could have had a big family ranch a century ago, but through inheritance and one thing or another it’s now broken up, and there are ten people owning this land, which has now become unmanageable ecologically. If we don’t confuse our ownership, we could each own our block, but it would be managed as one entity.
Q: Just by farming smaller you don’t necessarily get to an ecologically better place.
A: You get to an ecologically better place if you mange holistically—in other words, if we give up the reductionist way of thinking, all management today being essentially reductionist. Let me explain that. If we were a highly sophisticated team of integrated scientists and we were devising an agriculture policy in America, we could—because we’re extremely knowledgeable—be fully conscious that this policy has social implications and economic implications. But the way we do things today is in a genetically embedded way with the result that this policy of ours will include certain actions we’re sure to take. Now, any action has a reason or a context. If I say I’m going to light a fire, you have no idea whether that’s wise or not until you know the context, the reason. It could be dangerous or it could be the right thing to do. In all that we do as humans, we reduce the context for our actions in management when social, cultural, environmental, and economic complexity cannot be avoided. We reduce it to the problem as the context for our actions. From the simple household to international policies today, you’ll find that the context or reason for our actions is reduced to need, desire, or profit, and all policies are without exception reduced to a problem. There’s only one reason to form policies at the household or government level, and that is to address a problem. When we reduce the complexity to the problem, we may be the most sophisticated team, but the management is still reductionist.
If you look at policies, you’ll find that they consistently disappoint us at some point and lead to unanticipated results. The drug policy in the United States is an example, with the unintended consequences that more people are in jail than there were under the Soviet regime and violence is spreading across borders. Our terrorism policy is another example, and so is any policy in any state meant to deal with so-called noxious weeds. We spend a billion dollars a year and haven’t killed a single weed in a single state. We’ve poisoned the environment and bankrupted families, but we keep on doing it. I’m afraid we all are guilty of this. Unknowingly, we’re managing in a reductionist manner.
Nobody has more knowledge about an area than the people who live there. They know their own culture, and they will solve their own problems, which do not stem from a lack of knowledge. They are systemic problems, and as soon as the people in any area—whether on the farm, in the family, or in the community—understand how to manage holistically with a holistic context to guide their actions, please believe me: they begin to solve their own problems. Quick, slick answers never serve.
Q: How are the introduction and development of genetically modified crops complicating your efforts to help farmers and societies move towards a more holistic approach?
A: You used the right word: it is complicating our efforts. We don’t need genetically modified crops. As I said about the problems of local people, they don’t come from a lack of knowledge but rather are systemic. There are things being done by good people who are struggling to provide answers, such as introducing genetically modified organisms that we don’t need and that carry dangers with them.
When we’re managing holistically, we develop the holistic context according to what we value most deeply and how we want our lives to be, then tie that to our life-supporting environment that will sustain us and also tie it to our behavior. How we behave with one another affects our relationships and our lives.
All of us have clients, suppliers, and other people whom we’re dependent on and our businesses are dependent on, but they don’t actually make our decisions. How do we keep them loyal to us, trusting us? I think we do it through our behavior as expressed in our holistic context. The point I’m making is that everything done in management needs a holistic context for our actions so that we can deal with social and environmental complexity. Nothing should be included in any holistic context that is a prejudice against any future action. We would not say, for example, organic. Why? Because that’s a prejudice against chemicals, and that prejudice should be kept out of the context. It will be worked out later.
I try to use a simple example in my textbook: If I were an autocratic father, I might say, “Any kid of mine who uses drugs will be out of the family, blah blah blah,” and feed the prejudice against drugs. A week later I might be having root-canal treatment and ask for Novocain. Let’s not be hypocritical. We may need some of these things we disapprove of. We don’t know.
Much is being done that is discouraging, such as people spending millions of dollars on making artificial meat. We don’t need artificial meat. But there are also hopeful steps being taken, and we’ve got to get rolling to encourage them. As for diet, people struggling to understand the diet we need have only to look at their teeth. We have omnivores’ teeth. If we were herbivores, we’d have herbivores’ teeth; if we were carnivores, we’d have carnivores’ teeth. This evolved over millions of years, and nature seemed to know what it was doing. You can tell just by looking at our teeth that we need to be omnivores.
Q: You mentioned having done some work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1980s, introducing holistic management. USDA is an agency that’s operating under many pressures, including corporate pressure, and it certainly is struggling with reductionist management. Has any progress been made by those two thousand people you worked with in the ‘80s to move more toward holistic range management?
A: Don Sylvester, Ray Margo, and a few others got that work started, and it was wildly exciting. I can tell you what happened. We were training about thirty at a time from all walks of life and fields of science, and in each group there was exactly the same pattern. At one end were roughly a third who would respond with excitement and enthusiasm, some of whom are still involved in working with us. The discussion would go over the heads of the group in the middle, who were looking at their watches to see how soon the meeting would end. “Is it four o’clock yet?” They were strictly civil servants. Then there was a group at the other end who reacted with extreme anger—threatened by new knowledge, terribly abusive, attacking my character and my motives. You would think I was the most horrible person in the world. That pattern was consistent with each group.
I could usually identify the members of the group with the angry people as they introduced themselves at the beginning of the training. Someone would not be Jack Smith but Doctor Smith. I could sense that their self-esteem was pinned to their qualifications. Those at the other end might have two PhDs, but when they introduced themselves, it would be as Joe Willis or Jane Simmons. During the second Reagan Administration the vocal group, with the aid of powerful universities and the International Range Society, succeeded in having all training banned, which set us back thirty-odd years. The far-sighted people in the USDA were as shocked as I was. None of us was familiar with wicked problems like this in organizations, but that was the norm; it had to happen, and we didn’t know that.
The public wasn’t ready yet, and we were ahead of the public. There has never been a case in history when any organization has ever accepted new, counterintuitive, scientific insights ahead of a certain level of public understanding. It was the far-sighted group who persuaded me, even though I wasn’t an American, that I needed to stay in this country and establish a nonprofit organization because they believed the continued development of holistic management was vital to the future of the United States. I agreed to do so, giving up my own practices, and I have been working toward that end ever since.
Q: We have a small raw-milk dairy in Vermont, and we’re struggling with the state’s raw-milk policies. The inspectors require us to rinse everything, then add bleach and an acid to the tanks. Every state is different. In Connecticut you can buy raw milk and yogurt in the supermarket; if we were to sell yogurt, we would be jailed. Do you have any suggestions for how we might get together and move our litigation against the state forward any faster? We can’t afford to stay in business as a small producer.
A: I could be in Africa, England, Germany, or Australia and hear exactly the same story. I was at a conference of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements in Germany, and an amazing amount of knowledge was represented there. There were people from all over the world involved in organic, sustainable agriculture. When we went out in the field, we saw appalling practices. I asked people: “Why are you doing this? You have the knowledge to do better.” Everywhere the answer was “Laws and regulations prevent it.” In America it’s happening with people trying to deal with noxious weeds; we don’t need one dollar to deal with the problem, but policies are forcing people to do the wrong thing. In Australia it’s the same situation with milk. I’ve drunk excellent milk there, but it has to be sold as bath milk to bathe in. It’s not allowed to be sold as food. I’ve experienced something similar in India and in Lesotho; it doesn’t matter which country I go to. Policies coming from above are unsound in every country.
That’s why I said we’re going to have to do two things: one is to improve the public’s perception of livestock, but that alone is not enough; we also have to change the false perception that livestock is the problem when it really is management, including policy development.
The only way we can get institutions to change is to change public opinion, but hitting them head on, fighting them, arguing with them is not going to accomplish anything. What we need to do is speed up public recognition that management is at fault, not animals, and then there might be some hope. Everything is run by institutions. The policies that need to be changed are coming from institutions, from universities, from environmental organizations.
With everything we manage, from global finance to agriculture to oceans to climate change, we’re running into difficulties. All of our policies are formed by these institutions. Now, the three wicked problems that our institutions have are: first, even if they want to, they cannot change ahead of the public. Therefore, we need to concentrate on the public. The second one is that once we form our organizations they assume a life of their own. If they are criticized, they will circle the wagons and defend the organization, even if it goes against their mission. An example of that is the Catholic Church. For two hundred years it has known about pedophile priests. What did it do? Circled the wagons and protected the priests, not the children. Now that’s it’s becoming more public knowledge, the Church is just beginning to take action—but not until there was more public awareness. It’s not that Church officials are bad people; they’re wonderful people. It’s simply how organizations act.
The third wicked problem is that if you put all of us good people in this room into an organization, because of the complexity and the way we react and communicate—or don’t communicate out of fear of offending the person who has control over our salary or our promotion and things like that—what commonly emerges has two characteristics: a lack of common sense and a lack of humanity. Once you know this you see it in many policies. If you want an example, just ask any normal person, “Does it make sense for America to produce oil to grow corn to produce fuel?” No, it’s stupid, yet how many thousands of scientists signed off on that because they all work for institutions? There are almost no independent scientists, and they are the few who speak up. So it’s no good blaming. We need to understand how complexity works in our organizations. What it comes back to time and time again is that there isn’t any point in blaming or criticizing or arguing. Just change public perception, and as soon as the public insists that policies be developed holistically, the problem will be gone because we will be addressing the cause, which is reductionist policy development. That’s what we need to focus on because there are no short cuts.
Q: Would you please explain your thinking about the relationship among cultural, social, and environmental economies? We usually speak in cultural terms about dancing and opera and theater and movies. You say a lot is influenced by technology, but technology is without culture.
A: We’re all learning. Some years ago I learned, for example, that land is not manageable. We’ve been trying to manage land for thousands of years, without success. Land is not manageable because it is so tied to the culture of the people that they’re inseparable. It’s like me having a glass of water here and saying to one of you, “I want you to manage the hydrogen in this water.” It’s laughable. Managing land is laughable because it is so tied to our culture. When you look at the concern many of you have—as Schumacher had and John Fullerton has—about our economies, the same holds true. The only economy that will sustain us, and Bren made this point so well earlier today, is based on the photosynthetic process and life. On the land, that essentially means growing green plants on regenerating soil. Nothing else will sustain us in the long run. What I’m saying is that if we’re trying to manage a farm, we cannot manage it successfully unless we bring economy, culture, and land together. That’s what we’re attempting to do, and with the holistic framework and with a holistic context for our actions and decisions we seem to be succeeding. What goes with the use of a holistic context is the use of seven filtering questions to ensure that our actions are in context. These context-checking questions help us make certain that our actions or policies are socially, economically, and environmentally sound in our specific holistic context in any managed situation. If we don’t do this and we try to maintain what we value in our culture, we’ll find it’s being destroyed every time.
Some years ago I was working with a group of tribal leaders in the Northwest who were trying to save their language as essential to their culture. In talking with the tribal council I asked: “What measures are you taking? What policies are you pursuing to save your language?” When they told me what they were doing, I said, “I guarantee you’re going to destroy your culture with the very measures you’re taking. Why? Because the context is ‘our language is dying.’ It’s too narrow a context, and you’ll end up destroying your culture.”
I worked with a group of Navajos many years ago, a lot of them young, and they told me that they would not accept holistic management because they are conservative and concerned with their culture. I replied to them with two words: “Bull shit.” They were staggered and asked, “What do you mean?” “Look,” I answered, “your culture is centuries old. Where did you get your sheep, which changed your culture dramatically? You got them from the Spanish. Where did you get your horses? Where did you get your rifles? You became a hunting people killing our buffalo. That changed your whole culture. Where did you get these big cowboy silver buckles you’re wearing, the cowboy hats you’re wearing, the boots you’re wearing, the pickups you rode up in? It’s all destroying your culture.” I said, “Like every culture in the world, yours has adopted any technology, any new idea that suits you in the short term without regard to what you’re trying to preserve in your culture.” We’re all doing it. Look at our young people texting each other. What are we doing to our culture? We’re not calling into question what is happening, and this makes all of us guilty. Every time you point a finger at somebody, there will be three pointing back at you. We’re all caught in this.
I’m always learning, and much of what I learned today came from you, Bren, for which I thank you. I really appreciate what you’re doing with new thinking about the oceans, and I congratulate you on getting the Buckminster Fuller Award.
There’s a story about when I applied for that Award. I had to do it personally because everybody involved around me said, “It’s hopeless, so don’t waste your time,” but I put in for our organization, Operation Hope, and we won it in 2010. I think I’m correct in saying that nearly every winner till then had been technologically oriented. The following year I was a judge, and Blue Ventures, an ocean organization, won. I believe that was because of my influence. Of the applicants that year, it was all tech stuff. There was one involved in planting trees that was pretty much expected to win because that’s what everybody believes in. I developed a matrix of the main global problems and global threats and a scoring basis for the projects of applicants to help me see how Buckminister could serve this bigger global picture. I kept saying, “You’ve got to focus on the oceans,” and Blue Ventures won.
As I said this morning, agriculture is the production of food and fiber from the world’s land and waters, and almost the whole planet is now involved in agricultural production of food and fiber, yet the cropland is only five percent of our planet; 95% comes from the remaining land and the oceans, and of that most of it is oceans. They are the key to our future just as much as dealing with desertification is, and so it was wonderful for me to hear Bren tell about his exciting work in making oceans productive in an ecologically and economically sound way, and in every other way as far as I can see. That is highly encouraging. But even if we do all that Bren described around the seashores—and what he was saying is extremely sound—there is still a huge area greater than the size of America that is desertifying. It is changing climate, and it is going to change oceans.
I probably don’t have answers at the moment any more than you do. I can only appeal to all of us to please focus our minds on how to get beyond preaching to the choir. It’s unlikely that what’s been said here today shocked anyone or provided any totally new enlightenment because we are all of a similar mind, while most of the world out there isn’t.
The planet will go on. The planet doesn’t need saving, whereas we humans are struggling to survive, to save civilization as we know it, and it is a major step forward to recognize that we cannot save it without livestock. We know that agriculture is the key to our survival as civilizations; we know that it needs to be based on the biological sciences, but we’re only about 5%, if that, of the people who think that way. All those who are driving around in our cities—and all the economic power as well as political power has gone to the cities—have control of our institutions, our main funding, and our foundations. We’re not getting through to them. With few exceptions, they are basically supporting the mainline chemical-industrial-model thinking and policies.
By continuing to preach only to the choir and incrementally expanding the choir, I’m afraid time will run out. If we’re truly serious, and I know we are, about what we believe and what has been said today, every one of us will go home and ask, “What can I do to start rapidly changing that public perception about management and livestock?”—mainly in our cities. I leave that question with you for you to answer and for you to act on; if you don’t answer it, if you don’t act, nobody else will. So it’s up to you.