Allan Savory joins me to talk about the fate of civilisations. The concept of holism, how every action we take is to ultimately try and improve our lives and the importance of management for climate change and desertification. Allan Savory is an absolute hero of mine and empowers us all to make the change because as Allan says organisations are slow to change and often lack common sense and humanity.
Selected Links from the Episode
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Hello, and welcome to Unstress, my name is Dr. Ron Ehrlich. Now today’s subject is a big one, but in all honesty, I don’t believe I’m overstating the case. The fate of civilization, and even more specifically, the fate of our own individual health. It all depends on a word we all need to become a lot more familiar with, it’s largely what this program is all about, it certainly what my book is about. It’s the way our bodies work, it’s the way the world works, and you already know the two are inseparable. That word is holistic.
Now my guest today is Allan Savory. Allan is an ecologist, a livestock farmer, an environmentalist. He’s president and confounder of the Savory Institute, which facilitates education programs and supports the realization that we all depend on the enduring returns from the land; from the very soil we grow our food in, and on. Hence, the title of this podcast; the fate of civilizations, because you and I and all the generations that follow us, will depend on those enduring returns of the land. That is, the nutrient dense food we need to be healthy. Allan has developed and championed holistic management, with a particular focus on agriculture.
His is a way of thinking when managing resources, and as he points out, it’s not a resource like animals or fossil fuels that of themselves cause the problem, it’s the way resources are managed. That is the real problem. The thing I have found so interesting in the ten or twelve years I’ve been aware of Allan Savory’s message, is the similarity and the relevance of what he talks about; a holistic way to manage resources, to the issues facing us as individuals as we try to manage our own health, arguably our biggest resource. Also, the difference between the holistic, or a holistic view of the world, and health, and a reductionist view.
Allan refers to the importance of holistic context, the importance of a mission statement, and I want to share an example of one of those mission statements with you at the end of the interview. Also, listen out for the shocking statistic, in what is actually the biggest exploit. Not just in the USA, but globally, and it’s a resource that isn’t even factored into any management system. Yet, it’s the very resource we, and future generations, need to survive. The topic of what goes on, on the land, is a recurring theme on this podcast series.
In the first season, in our second episode, I spoke to the worlds most famous regenerative farmer Joel Salatin, in an episode called, This Ain’t Normal But It Could Be, or rather it should be. In episode eight with Charles Massey, inviting you to join the revolution, the issue of managing our land, a regenerative agriculture, it’s inseparable from the other topics we cover. As we explore health, wellness, and disease from a nutritional and environmental perspective, and importantly looking at food from soil to plate. At the risk of stating the obvious, we need healthy soils for healthy food. Look, there’s so much in this episode. Allan is certainly a hero of mine, and an inspiration, and I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Allan Savory.
Welcome to the show Allan.
Allan Savory: Well thank you, Ron.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Allan, you I know have written a book called Holistic Management, and the word holistic conjures up all sorts of ideas for people, surprisingly. I wonder whether you might share with our listener what you define as holistic.
Allan Savory: Okay, I go back to Smuts who coined the word. Had to go back to Greek, because there was nothing in English, and he explains that in his book in 1926 when he wrote the book, Holism and Evolution. I never met Smuts, I saw him, but I understand that Einstein said there were two constructs that he believed would have a major impact on the future of humanity. One was obviously his own theory of relativity, but the other was Smuts’s concept of Holism. I just go back and credit Smuts, I don’t have any theory or anything early as his. In essence, what Smuts said was that this cliché isn’t right, the sum of the parts or the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
There are no parts in nature, you have no parts in your body, you are a health professional, and you don’t have a single part in your body. That’s the mechanical concept, your whole body is made up of cells; blood cells, it’s in your bones, et cetera. Whole cells, whole atoms, whole molecules, whole cells, whole organs, ultimately a whole human, and you function as a whole. Every step up that way, and you can go right into the universe beyond a human. Everything in nature functions in whole, with no boundaries, and no parts; those mechanical concepts. For example, you know it, if you feel emotionally upset, you don’t feel it in your brain, you feel it in your gut. Right through your body, you just feel emotionally drained, and you’re not feeling it in your brain.
Now if I was to say to any of your listeners, “Alright, you are a human being, you’re made up of all these patterns, molecules, whole cells, et cetera. Functioning on electrical currents, and more that we don’t understand. Now what is the next whole in nature beyond you and me Ron, or any other human?” People automatically say, “Well, my children or my family.” It’s not, surprisingly it’s not. We can’t even talk to each other now, you can’t even listen to me and process it in your brain without your connection to plants. The energy that you’re getting from sunlight through plants or animals who’ve eaten those plants. You’re eating animals that have eaten plants, or you’re eating plants, and your connection is closer to them than to your family.
Then if you look at a tree, you’d have the same story. The tree is made up of atoms, molecules, cells, phloem cells, wood cells, bark cells, et cetera. The next holy nature outside of that tree is not the seedlings of the other trees and the forest, it’s its connection to the soil and all the microorganisms and life in the soil, and so on. This is how nature is, we don’t have competition in nature, that’s another human construct we’ve brought into it. What we have is rather, a massive amount of synergy. Even when you’re looking at a population of creatures, whatever they are; plants or animals, or anything. That population is never in isolation, it’s part of a community and that community as a whole. There’s greater synergy in that community than there is competition. I think you get the idea.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, it’s interesting, I read a book about evolution and I’d never considered evolution theory to be a political construct either, but the idea of the survival of the fittest, is one that fits very well into our Western approach to things. I know in Russia for example, synergy is a really important concept in the evolutionary process. This idea of synergy versus … Well, what’s the alternative to Holism? I mean, I know you’ve used the term, what’s the alternative view? How are most of us thinking about things?
Allan Savory: Well many people do think fairly holistically, and I think we would be arrogant if we said we were the first in history to see our connection to nature, the soil, and everything. There are stories in North America of Native Americans trying to think seven generations ahead because they see this connection. How we think varies with different cultures, certainly in cities now, and in Silicone Valley, et cetera. We have massively disconnected from it all, but the more you get into rural communities, farmers, et cetera, they’re pretty connected and they think that way.
At the end of the day it doesn’t help us, because what matters is that humans are, whether they think they are or not, every day they’re managing. They’re managing their lives, their families, their businesses, and management really mean you’re taking actions to improve your life. Almost every action we take is ultimately to try to improve our lives, and it’s in that management that we are reductionists. All cultures, as far as I can ascertain, have always managed in a reductionist manner. That needs explaining. If I was to say to you, “Ron, I’m going to light a fire.” You would have no idea whether I should or I shouldn’t because I could burn the place down. You would have to ask me what is my reason, what is the context of my wanting to light a fire as a management action.
When you knew the context, you could decide if it was wise or not. Now, humans have a context or a reason for every action we take, and if you think about it, it is always to meet a need. We’re buying clothing, or a car, or anything, just to meet a need, a desire, or it’s to solve a problem. To make a profit, run your business, buy a car, get an education, it doesn’t matter what you look at, your management actions are meeting a need or a desire in some way, or you’re solving a problem.
Then when you look at governments, they are almost entirely are forming policies to solve problems or prevent problems. Now, if you think about society and our families, and all that we deal with, it involves a web of social, cultural, economic, and environmental complexity, that we just cannot avoid. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s the nature of how the world functions in wholes and patterns, as Smuts outlined. When you take a management action, you are dealing with a web of complexity; social, economic, et cetera.
Now, what happens to us, and is happened to all humans, all tool using animals in fact, is when we take a management action, that reason; desire, whatever. We have taken that web of complexity; social, cultural, economic complexity, environmental complexity. We’ve reduced it to a need, a desire we want to meet, or a problem we’re trying to solve. That’s why the only name that fits the universal management by humans, is reductionist management, so I use the term reductionist.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, I know your area of interest, well your area of interest is leadership and management really, but you’re focused very much on the environmental issues, and mine is health, and yet there is so much overlap. I mean the terminology, the way you’re describing this, has so much relevance. As you say, it’s a very holistic way of looking at things.
Allan Savory: Yeah, the connection between what you’re doing with health, and what I’m talking about as you said, it’s total. The health of any human being and I’m not a medical person at all, but just using my common sense and my own experience in life, I don’t fare well when I’m stressed. If I’m emotionally, or physically stressed, that brings on problems. Diet is critical, I am what I eat virtually, then, of course, the air you breathe, and everything.
Also, these are critical, and when you look at that diet, we coevolved with micro organisms, and plants, and animals, over millions of year. From slime originally, going back a billion or so years. Our whole system, increasingly, we’re learning that even the bacteria in our gut can control our moods and all sorts of things. As technology advances, and we gain more knowledge, I think we’re finding that we’re totally tied to the soil.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, now having defined Holism, and I love that, I’m going to go back and read this Smuts book, Holism Evolution. Having defined that and reductionist, what in your assessment are some of the challenges we face in our world because of this reductionist approach? You mentioned environmentally, social, political, cultural, what are some of the challenges you’re seeing?
Allan Savory: Well the biggest one is culminating in global desertification and climate change. There are many, many problems, but ultimately that’s where they’re ending. You have the massive desertification of Australia, that began 50 thousand years ago, when Aboriginals arrived and started replacing animals with fire, and that’s a global problem. That’s what we’ve got to solve, otherwise, we’re not going to survive as a species. The world will go on but without us. Why I concentrate so much on management, is because that’s what is causing the problem. If we look at all the issues facing us, it doesn’t matter if you look at conflicts, the mass immigration to Europe that’s changing the political face of Europe, whatever you look at. These things that are happening, as I say, are culminating in global desertification, and climate change.
Now if you take our best minds in the world, top scientists, et cetera, and look at what they blame, the two things that are blamed most for what is happening is livestock. They are blamed for global desertification, methane, et cetera, et cetera, and all the conflicts, and floods, and droughts that leads to. Then the other thing that is blamed is coal and oil. Now Ron, if we sit and say, “Oh, we’re not brilliant scientists, we’re not Nobel Laureates, we’re just ordinary people, let’s just use our common sense.” You would realize that livestock are a resource, and we’ll need them for another ten thousand years, for wool, hair, leather, meat, milk, cheese, whatever. When you think of coal and oil, these are just fossil resources that we’ll need to make aspirin, or furniture, or whatever for thousands of years. Our common sense tells us that no resource can cause a problem. How can resource cause a problem?
When we look at that, and say, “Well, what is causing all the ill health in the world that we are experiencing, the violence, the floods, and all these things, what is causing it?” You just come to management, it is management that chooses to run livestock as we have with various grazing systems and pastoralist, herding them, mud raising as some people call it, for thousands of years that created the great deserts of antiquity. Then we look at the coal and oil, fossil resources, it’s management that causes them fossil fuels, and burns them at a rapid rate, contributing to climate changing. Clearly, and I believe unarguably, management is what we need to be looking at.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, now I do want to get into management because this is such an important message that I know that you’re very passionate and such an important message to share. I just wanted to come back to desertification, because I know you mentioned this term, and I know it rolls off the tongue very easily, but a lot of people may not be familiar with the extent of the problem and the impact that this kind of approach is having on something as precious as our soils for example. Just to explain, or expand for our listener, a little bit about the extent of this problem.
Allan Savory: Okay, desertification, it’s as you as you said, it’s just a dead word; an unfortunate word. Really it’s just describing the extreme form of land degradation, when land eventually becomes desert, with sand dunes, et cetera, as you have in the parts of the world. Now you have natural deserts, where there’s no rain, like the Namib, and there are a couple of natural deserts like that. Most of the deserts that we’re seeing in America, Australia, all over the world, are man-made. Now, what is happening there, is this is only occurring in about two-thirds of the worlds land. About one-third of the worlds land, no matter what you do, no matter how badly you manage, it does not turn into desert.
Now that one-third of the world that’s like that is a lot of England, Europe, East and West coast of America, Coastal areas of Australia, et cetera, tropical forests. These are the areas where it’s humid almost every day of the year, there aren’t long periods of extreme dryness, because of the precipitation or the altitude, or proximity to oceans. That’s about a third of the world, and that’s why England never turns to desert no matter how badly they manage it, or New Zealand for that matter. Alright, now two-thirds of the world, which is most of Australia, most of Africa, right across to North Africa, I’ve been to China, et cetera.
That is seasonal rainfall, so the rain can be high, it can be a thousand millimeters of rain, but it all falls in four or five months. Then there’s six, seven, eight months of no rain, or it could be low rainfall. It could be 15, 25 millimeters of rain, but again it falls for one or two months, and then you get 10 months of no rain. These areas of seasonal rainfall, or humidity, those are the areas that cover most of the worlds land, and they are turning into desert no matter what humans do. I listen to one speaker once, a woman gave a very nice talk in California, and she showed picture of the earth from space, and she just said, “If you had looked at earth from space over the last 10, 15 thousand years, you would describe humans as a desert making species.”
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, but they live mainly in those humid areas, and that’s apart of the problem isn’t it? Easy problem to ignore.
Allan Savory: It is easy, because of most of our Universities, and big Capitals, whether you look at Brussels, or Paris, or Moscow, or London, or Washington. They’re in the humid areas, and people just do not get it, that the seasonal areas are turning to desert.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, and at the risk of stating the obvious Allan, why does that matter?
Allan Savory: Well it matters because of all the symptoms. When land begins to degrade like that, then we experience poverty, violence, social breakdown, usually abuse of women and children, blaming of minorities, these are all common symptoms. Droughts and floods increase dramatically, and the genuine dry years, and genuine high rainfall years become catastrophic floods and droughts. It leads to war, violence as I mentioned, the mass immigration to cities, as we’ve experienced in America, and Europe is now experiencing with this flood of refugees from North Africa. Basically, they’re fleeing from desertification, and it leads to war, and it leads to climate change.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, now I did hear you in a recent talk, and I’m going to have links to this talk because I really think people should hear this in more detail, but I heard you talk about the USA. Put this into perspective that people get a feeling for, because you mentioned we’re connected with the soil, we need the plants, we need the animals, we need the food to keep us going. You mentioned in one of your talks that the biggest export in America at the moment was represented … Go on, share with our listener, I think you used an analogy of a train. This shocked me, and I know about it.
Allan Savory: When I got the figures, I was quoting figures I got from the Soil Conservation Service when I came to America about 35, 40 years ago. I often ask Americans, what is the biggest export of America? People will name various things, and I say, “No, no, no.” Then they say, “What is it?” I say, “It’s just dead eroding soil.” The figures I got from the Soil Conservation Service of USA was years ago, was that it was the equivalent of a trainload of rail cars filled with soil 116 miles long, leaving the country every day.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Wow, I mean that just blew me away when I heard it. 116 miles long worth of soil every day, and that was 30 or so years ago?
Allan Savory: Yes, but the global figure is even worse, that’s the American one which is pretty average. If you look at globally, it’s over 75, I recorded it in my book, and I’m relying on memory here, I think it’s 75 billion tons of soil erosion. That’s mostly from the croplands, it’s ignoring the desertifying land, which is greater. If we look at the published figures of soil erosion global figures, to try to get humans to grasp it, I brought it down to food; equating it to food. The amount of soil, dead eroding soil, is actually 20 times as high as the amount of food we need for every human alive today, every year.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Wow, it’s just, well it is repeating over and over again. The other thing that I heard you say and people do also think that farming, organic farming, being nurturing of the soil as some kind of a new concept. That’s not really a new age philosophy, is it? Has it been going on for awhile?
Allan Savory: Well, it’s been going on for over 10,000 years, so if people today are rightly wanting to move to organics, sustainable, permaculture, various types of agriculture that are all better practices because they’re based on the biological sciences, and they’re talking as that as the ideal, and as sustainable. I always remind them, and I say, “Well look, I agree 100% that we’ve got to go to organic, sustainable, regenerative agriculture, grass-fed animals, not factory fed.
Everything that we talk about and watch, but that is exactly what we had for 10,000 years. Farming was organic, we hadn’t yet discovered coal and oil, or exploited them for all the chemicals and machinery of today. All livestock was grass fed until really recently after Second World War, and yet that organic, so-called sustainable agriculture, led to more than 20 civilizations failing.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yes, that’s intriguing, and that was because of-
Allan Savory: The management.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Management.
Allan Savory: The management was reductionist.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, historically while we have been following organic farming, historically with bad management even with organic farming, we can fail, and history has shown that.
Allan Savory: Well yes, 10,000 years of history and many civilizations.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Now, one thing that you mentioned also, was that in Australia for example, the indigenous people replaced animals with fire. This is something that a lot of people, that is counterintuitive about your argument, only counterintuitive because we’ve been indoctrinated to it, but livestock rather than being part of the problem are actually part of the solution. Can you explain that to our listener?
Allan Savory: Yeah, they’re not part of the solution, the solution is impossible without them. It goes deeper than what you’re saying. You see, look at it this way, humans have to use a tool. You and I Ron, can’t even drink water now without using technology. If I wanted you to drink water, how would you do it, if I said, “You can’t use technology?” You would have to go to the nearest river, or spring, and drink with your hands and your mouth. Even to drink water, you’re using a cup, tap, pipe, well hole, dam, something. We cannot make furniture, we cannot do anything, with all the creativity in the world, with all the labor in the world, with all the money in the world, you cannot do a single thing until you pick up a tool, alright?
We’re a tool using animal. Our first tool was technology, that was simple sticks and stones. We could chip the stones, and sharpen the sticks, and we could not change our environment. We had that for nearly a million years, and like any other tool-using animal, we could not change our environment. Then, we got a second tool, and we learned how to use, and make fire. Then we could melt the stones, and go into the copper, the bronze, the iron age, and make all the technology we have today, but you and I could be speaking around the world on a computer. All the clothes you’re wearing right now, even though I can’t see you, I can tell you, you could not have made without fire.
Almost everything we do, became possible because of fire and our technology advancing to the computers, and rocketry, and space exploration, and everything we have today. We’ve had two tools. Now, you’ll then understand why people keep promoting fire. In Australia, it’s very common, it’s written by so many people, that the Aborigines were wonderful experts in the use of fire to mold their landscape and everything. That’s absolutely correct, but it was a deteriorating landscape because you have the work of Tim Flannery in Australia. When he wrote that excellent book of his, The Future Eaters, in that book of his, he describes how the mangroves increased enormously around the coast of Australia after humans started killing all the animals and replacing them with fire.
That’s when the desertification of Australia began when you killed off … I don’t know the exact thing, but it’s between 80 and 90% of the genera of animals; of some species, replaced them with fire. From 99% of human existence, we only had two tools; technology and fire. That’s why people keep defending fire. Now, the only other tools we’ve ever had was to rest the land, use it positively as a tool and rest the land. We began doing that, as far as I can make out, somewhere in the last 10,000 years. Probably began with crop farmers, rotating their crops to rest the soil, or it may have begun with pastoralists moving their animals to rest the land, so we had a third tool.
A part from that, all we’ve had is the use of small organisms to make cheese and wine, et cetera, increasingly to years for medical products, et cetera. Now, the world is turning increasingly to using technology to plant trees, shrubs, or grasses, to try to deal with desertification and climate change. Again, it’s using technology to plant the plants, which should be growing on their own, they shouldn’t need planting. With that limited toolbox, you can see, that it is simply impossible to stop Australia turning to desert increasingly, and continuing to do so, or the bulk of the world.
Technology cannot reverse desertification, no matter what you do. There’s no technology even imaginable in science fiction, could do what is required. Fire causes desertification, it’s rapid oxidation, and burning up vegetation which exposes soil. Resting the land from disturbance of large animals, et cetera leads to desertification. It was the killing off of the animals, the many, many genera of animals in Australia, that lead to Australia beginning to desertify. Again, Tim Flannery has good evidence on that with the pollen record. As he points out, the pollen record of Australia indicates that most of the country of the continent was a fire phobic vegetation, and now as we know, most of Australia is a fire-dependent vegetation.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, I think within two or three thousand years of human habitation, the megafauna; that is animals over 50 kilograms, was basically eliminated.
Allan Savory: Yeah, and you have killed 85% or more of the genera, in Australia, I forget the exact figure.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: We have this limited toolbox.
Allan Savory: That’s why I keep saying, “We’ve got to stop vilifying livestock and start vilifying management.” If we want to survive, and if you want healthy humans.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, well it’s a recurring theme, but go on, explain to our listener how, and why they are the key to this management process? Because we hear so much of the opposite don’t we? I mean, we are bombarded by these other messages, but this is lessons from the past, let’s learn.
Allan Savory: Yeah, you’re bombarded. Today, literally hundreds of celebrities are putting their celebrity status and their money behind the vegetarian, vegan movement. They’re doing great harm to humanity, because without livestock for practical purposes; cattle, sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, horses, water buffalo et cetera. Without livestock, you cannot stop desertification. Let me explain that, the reason these seasonal rainfall areas desertify, is because, in those, the grass plants provide the main soil cover. In the bulk of the world, with seasonal rainfall, grass plants provide most of the soils stability and cover.
Even though there’ll be trees there, it could be a deciduous forest, could be a Savannah, whatever. Now, grasses coevolved with animals removing the top. If you look at trees, they’re either evergreen or they shed their leaves, they shed their leaves. They drop their own leaves onto the ground at the end of the season to decay and cycle again. Now, if you look at grasses, grasses grow green during the growing period, and then they change color like the leaves of trees, and they go brown and then go darker and darker, and no grass plant can shed its leaves. They coevolved with animals that grazed the leaves
If you take the animals away and the grass plant can’t shed its leaf, what happens is that in sunlight those leaves start to go gray, and more, and more dark gray, until almost black, and it kills the plant. I live in a thatched roofed home in Africa, and we put this dead grass on the roof to make the roof out of thatch. If you look at the outside of the roof after one year, it is gray. After 10, 15 years, it’s dark, dark gray, almost black. If you come inside where it’s not in sunlight, it’s still exactly the same color it was when we cut it, it’s still a yellow color.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, now one of the things that I think people … Again, it’s worth repeating, because I think the key here as I understand it, in the persevering soil, is to maintain coverage.
Allan Savory: Absolutely.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: For example, if you planted wheat in a square meter of land, the stalks cover the ground, but there’s an awful lot of uncovered ground around those stalks isn’t there? I mean, what would you say? 70% at least over that one meter.
Allan Savory: Yeah, it’s usually it’s more. Wheat is a grass, all our grain crops are grasses, and when you look at grass plants, whether they’re crops or wild grasses, the basal area of the stalk or the bunch, the amount of ground that covers is relatively small. Even in very healthy, good grassland, the basal cover of the plants, I find, is usually about 4, or 5% of the ground. That’s all. Sometimes it’ll be higher to 9%, maybe 10 if it’s exceptional. If it’s Ravenna grass, then it’ll be higher, but the bunched or erect grass, it’s usually well under 10%.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Is that why we need diversity?
Allan Savory: Well, no that’s why you need animals.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Oh okay, do they come in and they shave the top off?
Allan Savory: If you can picture the plants with their basal area covering, say 10% of the ground, you’ve got 90% of the ground uncovered. What covers that? The answer is dead plant material that the animals trample to the ground.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: And their own excrement.
Allan Savory: Yeah, but mostly the litter. The animals are trampling the litter down, they’re freeing the plant to grow fresh again, and not to oxidize and kill the plant, and they’re providing soil cover. They also lead to a tighter basal cover. The spacing between the plants … When I was at university, we were taught that the spacing between them was wide because they were competing with each other for water and nutrients, and they couldn’t grow close. Well, that’s what we were taught, but nothing competes in nature, it’s synergy.
As I started to study it for myself, and not just go with what I was taught, I began to find that the spacing between the plants was a function of animal behavior. That if we had no animals on the ground, the spacing became wider and wider. If we had some animals on the ground, by what I call partial rest; they’re just wondering around closely, the spacing would remain wide. If we brought animals onto the land, bunched and herding, the plants spacing would become very close.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: You are from Zimbabwe, that’s where you lived all your life, and the lessons you’ve learned are actually lessons again from the past. The modeling is there in nature, can you please share that with our listener, what that actually was?
Allan Savory: Yeah, you’re right, it was all staring us in the face. I often feel stupid Ron, with how long it took me to learn, but you’re really having to unlearn, and then learn. I was like everybody, blocked by what I was taught. When I was in the field, tracking game, tracking people, for a long period in an unfortunate Civil War day after day, tracking on different types of country. I was observing a tremendous lot, and then having long nights lying in the bush, thinking about it, “Why was the tracking easy today? Why was it difficult yesterday? We were on the same type of soil.”
Well, but the management was different. “Yesterday we were in a National Park, tracking on Kalahari soils. Today we were tracking people through farms on a Kalahari soil, but with herding cattle, and the day before that the tracking was terribly difficult. We were in a communal area with tribal people with cattle all over the place.” I began to see there were enormous differences in the ability to track animals on the same type of soil, in the same climate depending on the management of that land. Still, I feel like a dumb idiot that it took me so long to put it together until finally, I could understand it.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: What was the revelation? I mean, what was the lesson you learned from all these different, of what you unlearned, but then you learned? What was the lesson you learned?
Allan Savory: The lesson I learned, was that the health of the land was totally dependent on the behavior of the animals. That where the animals were bunched, and herding, and moving, we had closer plants basing, more soil cover, stable soil, a wider variety of species, et cetera. Where animals were spread wide, as in Australia with fencing, and water points, and paddocks, and spread, you start to get plants spreading. Wider space between plants, more bare ground, fewer species of plants, species start to die out, all of the problems of desertification. I began to see literally, that the behavior of herding large grazing animals, controlled the health of the whole environment in seasonal rainfall.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, what an aha moment. Having seen these huge herds, that must’ve crossed the Serengeti, and the plains of Africa, that we see on the David Attenborough shows. This actually informs how we should be managing livestock.
Allan Savory: Absolutely, that bunching is the key to it. That was again, one of my earliest observations, was where we had the most elephants, the most buffalo, herds of African buffalo, literally I couldn’t count them. I would just say, “I think there’s four thousand.” Just looking all around me, from horizon to horizon, was just solid black buffalo. How the hell do you count them when you’re on foot in the bush? My goodness, the land was healthy, and those buffalo were on the move all the time.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Taking a step back now, because we talked about the key to the problem being management, not animals. If management is the cause of the problem, what is it about management that needs to change?
Allan Savory: The management needs to change from reductionist to holistic, alright? All that means is two things. It means instead of making all our actions to meet a need, a desire, or to solve a problem, with the context being the need, the desire, or the problem. What we need to do is to have the people who are doing the management in any situation, from family to a nation, and governments, develop a holistic context. A new concept entirely, which just describes, because management is about improving our lives, so let’s describe how do we want our lives to be based on our culture, our values, et cetera. The people who are managing, really spell out deeply how they want their lives to be, and then we tie that to our life-supporting environment.
Whatever the land is, whatever the environment is, even if you’re not managing the environment, everything you eat is coming from it, everything you throw out is going back to it. We describe the environment, not as it is today; deteriorating, et cetera, but in the healthy state, it will have to be two or three hundred years from now for our descendants to be living a life like we want. That becomes a context, and we do not compromise. When we’re doing that, there is no compromise, we just keep talking until we have total agreement on how we want our lives to be, and what will sustain those lives.
Now, with that as the reason, or context, or our actions, we proceed to manage, just as we do today, but in that context. Now when we use making our management decisions; we’re using all of the science we have, the expert opinion, the laws, regulations, compromise, our expediency, friends advice, everything as you do today. When we’re close to that decision, a management decision, we just check that it is in context. It’s in align with that reason that we have, and we have seven little questions that people are going to use to just quickly check that it’s in context. That’s really all there is to it there, and that sounds difficult, but it’s quicker and easier than normal decision making. You can make decisions far quicker, less conflict, far more agreement.
The only other thing is I mentioned the tools earlier; we’ve got technology, we got fire, we got resting the environment, and then we got technology plus planting trees. None of those is going to address climate change on its own, so we add to the tools, livestock, and two ways just looking at what they do with their mouths, and what they do with their behavior. We add a tool to the toolbox.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, I love just the simplicity of it. Then we go on to make decisions about our needs, desires and wants, but always in that holistic context.
Allan Savory: Absolutely.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, brilliant. I just love that, because it actually is … And I heard you say that it’s simple, but it’s absolutely so profound. Allan, there was another thing, I remember when we spoke years ago, there was another thing you said that just has stuck with me since. That is, “That there’s a problem with big organizations.” Can you share that with our listener?
Allan Savory: If we’re going to manage to save our cities, our lives, and everything, we do it at two levels. One is, in the family, on the farm, every one of your listeners is managing their own life, but then we’re also managing through organizations. Policies are very seldom, other than in the home, policies are not formed by individuals, so formed by organizations or institutions; governments, et cetera, big environmental organizations. We have to have organizations, we need them, and they do what they’re designed to do, generally efficiently. That’s why we have organizations. Now, if you study systems science, there are what they call, wicked problems with complex systems. Human organizations are complex systems; self-renewing, et cetera, and they have wicked problems.
Now there are three wicked problems, and wicked doesn’t mean immoral, it just means extremely difficult, almost impossible to solve. There are three wicked problems of human organizations, that if we don’t attend to them, will be our downfall I believe. Now, those wicked problems, the first is, that when we form organizations, they reflect the prevailing views of the society in which they formed. If you go into any university, government agency, whatever, big environmental organization, society believes in technology. You will find organizations have the latest software, the latest computers, the latest cell phones, the latest you know name it, they’ve got it. They lead the way.
Now, when it comes to something that is outside of societies view, counterintuitive, paradigm-shifting as they call it, like Galileo or like Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered bacteria before we knew they existed. When something new, truly new or holistic management comes up, then organizations do the reverse. They lead the ridicule and rejection, and they literally do not change until public opinion changes. It doesn’t matter how many trillions of dollars are wasted, it doesn’t matter how much evidence is produced, how much data is produced, it doesn’t matter how many lives are lost, organizations cannot change until the public shifts significantly. That’s never changed since Galileo. You saw how he got persecuted if you look, Ignaz Semmelweis, whom you would know about as a health person.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, he had the ridiculous concept that you should wash your hands, and he ended up in a mental institution, because for ten years he was being ridiculed by the authorities, but do go on.
Allan Savory: And I’ve had 50 years of ridicule by everybody you can name; universities, governments, organizations, ridicule opposition, and thank god I was insane at the beginning, so I’ve never ended in a mental home. I was safe.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: That’s good.
Allan Savory: That’s a wicked problem, that we cannot overcome, other than through what you’re doing. Podcasts, interviews, and getting information out til the public changes, and that’s why the Ted Talk I gave that went to, now approaching five million people, did more than 50 years of fighting authorities, to get common sense into society. That’s one wicked problem, the second one is if an organizations do something wrong, and they’re criticized, or feel criticized, it’s very, very rare for an organization to say, “We screwed up, we’re wrong, we’re sorry.” It just almost doesn’t happen.
What happens is, they circle the wagons, and they protect the organization, even if it means going against their mission in life. If you look at the Catholic Church, there’s a wonderful organization, a very old organization, full of brilliant and good people. They have known about pedophile priests for hundreds of years, and they have not protected the children, not protected the innocents, they protected the priests and the church. Only with modern times, information getting out enough, are they now beginning to smack the priests on the wrist.
All organizations are like that, and that’s why I don’t criticize them because they can’t change until the public does. If you criticize them, they just circle the wagons. Then the third wicked problem, which we’re going to have to address at some time if we’re going to have healthy humans, and cities, and everything else, is that no matter how sensible the people, you can put the best people in the world in an organization. The way we can communicate with each other, and whether we speak up, whether we have the moral courage to speak up or not, whether we’re fearful of losing our position or offending somebody.
We communicate as humans, and what comes out of an organization very, very commonly lacks common sense and humanity. If you want an example of that, it would be, ask anybody for instance in America, anybody; a child, a gardener, fisherman. “Does it make sense for America to produce fossil fuels to grow corn to produce fuel?” Everybody would laugh and just say, “That’s stupid, and that’s inhumane.” Well, America’s doing it, and thousands of highly intelligent scientists are going along with it. Almost nobody is protesting.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, look I know, and that’s exactly when I heard you say that years ago, I just thought, “Wow, there it is, the change has to come from the ground up.” Literally from the ground up, but also metaphorically from you and me, and all the people listening to this. I just wanted to finish Allan, and just ask you this question. Taking a step back, and you actually have identified some of these things, but what do you think the biggest challenge that people face on their health journey through life and our modern world today? What do you think that biggest challenge might be?
Allan Savory: You’re talking about individuals?
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, the listener.
Allan Savory: I think that goes for me as well, it’s just having the determination or the self-discipline to keep yourself healthy. To keep watching your diet, and being conscious of what you eat, being conscious of the need for good sleep. We get out of balance, and I do at times, and I have to pull myself together and say, “No, get back and get in control of your life.” Maybe it’s just self-discipline, I don’t know, I really don’t know Ron.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: No, I think that’s a great answer because I think everybody, everybody, and that even includes me, can relate to that. Allan, thank you so much. I just love everything that you have to say, and I have for many years, and I wanted to share that with our listener. Thank you for joining us today.
Allan Savory: Well, thank you, Ron, for what you’re doing.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: I just love that response of Allan’s, “The biggest challenge for us on our health journey through life, is the determination or self-discipline to keep yourself healthy.” I also really loved his quoting Einstein’s observation, that the two major things in our world were, his own discovery of relatively. That was every atom in the universe is both energy and matter, and we’ve talked about that in our electromagnetic radiation episodes earlier on in the season with Lynn McLean. We’ll cover that in more detail in future episodes, but the second key was to think holistically. I also love the simplicity of his holistic management message, and yet how profound it is. What is the holistic context for making decisions in managing resources? What’s the mission statement?
Over 20 years ago in our dental practice, my partners; my brother Dr. Josh Ehrlich and Dr. Craig Wilson, attended a workshop where we spent the first day writing a mission statement. Now, we initially felt dismissive of the exercise, thinking, “Do we really need to be doing this sort of thing? Is it really that important?” In the end, we produced a half page mission statement. Just four or five sentences, which we all agreed to this day, is the most important document we have in our practice.
It’s our holistic context, which to this very day, guides us and informs every decision we make and every person who works with us in our practice. The other thing I found amazing, soil erosion. 116-mile long train of soil, in the USA, is lost every day. 30 years ago that was, or a more recent and global estimate is that 36 billion tons of soil a year is lost. The equivalent and this was an interesting analogy, of 20 times the tonnage of food produced per year to feed the soil. Not a great return on investment, and particularly when it’s difficult to renew this resource.
The observation also about big organizations and wicked problems was a huge aha moment for me when I first heard that years ago. That change has to come from the ground up. Big organizations are just slow to take on new concepts, lack common sense, and humanity. Let me share with you a generic, holistic context that Allan has used introducing people to his idea of what holistic means. I quote, “We want stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security, while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs. Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health in balanced lives with time for family, friends and community and leisure for culture and other pursuits. All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes, and oceans.”
Now, imagine if every government policy, or commercial decision, was made with that kind of a mission statement; the guiding, overriding principle. Now, wouldn’t you feel excited about the future of our civilisation? What’s your holistic management plan? What’s your mission statement for the decisions you make? Remember, we’re all connected, so we’re all affected. Now, if you’ve just joined this podcast, go back and listen to our first episode; the mission statement. It outlines what it is all about, and some of the other subjects that we cover. With that in mind, until next time, this is Dr. Ron Ehrlich, be well.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.