Systems Thinker

Allan Savory espouses a holistic approach to environmental renewal, tackling problems from the ground up (literally).

ORGANIZATION: Africa Centre for Holistic Management

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Earlier this year, the Buckminster Fuller Institute gave its annual award to the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, an organization dedicated to stopping the spread of deserts worldwide. The group’s cofounder, Allan Savory, a Rhodesian-born game ranger, research biologist, and political activist, has spent the better part of the last half century combating the problem. Savory is clearly the sort of iconoclastic figure Bucky would’ve admired. He served as a member of Parliament in the waning days of Zimbabwe’s civil war, leading the opposition to the ruling party headed by Ian Smith, a racist colonialist relic. His opposition led to his exile in the United States in 1979, where he cofounded the nonprofit Holistic Management International with his collaborator and wife, Jody Butterfield.

In 1992, Savory and Butterfield created the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, donating a 6,500-acre ranch that continues to act as a learning center for people all over the continent. Seven years later, culling everything they learned from years in the field, they wrote Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (Island Press), a book that’s one part land-management guide, one part self-help manual for an ailing planet. Today, Savory and Butterfield divide their time between Zimbabwe and New Mexico. Recently, Metropolis’s executive editor, Martin C. Pedersen, spoke to Savory about holistic management and the need for a “brown” revolution.

Briefly outline the general idea behind holistic management.
The origin of the work came from studying what was happening to desertification and grasslands in Africa. I became quite obsessed with trying to solve it, and in doing so I found, quite accidentally, that I had hit the tip of a much bigger iceberg. I discovered that what was causing the environment to deteriorate—wherever humans set foot, virtually—was the way we made decisions. Then of course, I realized: Oh my goodness, this applies to everything: governments, international agencies, companies, families. We all make decisions the same way, without knowing it, and the underlying core framework is so simplistic.

Can you be specific? How do we make decisions?
The way we make decisions—you and I and every human for the last couple million years—is we make all conscious decisions toward an objective or a goal. Or in more sophisticated managements, a “mission” or “vision.” So it’s build a building, buy a car, purchase toothpaste. Now, that method of decision making is amazingly successful for everything we make: computers, cars, weaponry, buildings. But for the things that we don’t make—oceans, forests, grasslands, agriculture—if we’re honest with ourselves, we must concede we’re running into increasing difficulties worldwide. As we solve one problem, we find we’ve created two or three others.

You conduct workshops on holistic management. Describe the holistic decision-making process.
The first step is working out: Who are the key players? Who actually makes the decisions? What is their resource base? Then we get them to tell us how they want their lives to be, based upon what they value most deeply in life. This is spiritual, material, everything. It’s really deep stuff, defining how you truly want your life to be. Then we ask them, “If you want to live like that, then what are the things that you have to have in place to do it?” We lay all that out. Every statement on how they want their lives to be and what they want to achieve has to be supported by some form of production. If people want prosperity, they have to produce profit. If they want security, they have to think very carefully about what produces security. Once we’ve got all that lined up, we have them think about how it has to be hundreds of years into the future, to sustain this business or land or family and their descendents.

In your speeches you often say, “We don’t need a green revolution; we need a brown revolution.” What do you mean by that?
Anybody can grow more green plants. You can do it with genetic engineering, hydroponics, fertilizers. When you look at the global scene—with desertification, rising levels of carbon, the burning biomass—what it’s all leading to is a massive destruction of soils. I’ve heard estimates of four tons of soil going down the rivers of the world for every human alive today. The demise of past civilizations can all be traced back to soil destruction. Now it’s threatening us globally. Look at the United States. No nation in the history of the world has enjoyed such wealth, and yet I often ask Americans, “What’s your greatest export?” They’ll say “beef” or “grain.” It’s not. It’s eroding soil. It outweighs and outvalues all beef, timber, grain, military hardware, commercial products.

Eroding soil?
Yes. When I visited America, the Soil Conservation Service was estimating that soil loss—just over the croplands of America, which is a minor area—was equal to a trainload of railcars filled with soil, 116 long, leaving the country every day. That was 30-odd years ago.

And where does it go?
It’s going down the rivers. It’s going into the air in dust. This is what we need to deal with, if we’re going to get serious about climate change, about the future of city-based civilization. Most of the world’s population, shortly, will be in cities. If we’re going to sustain them, then we have to have a brown revolution, and start focusing on soil and not plant production.

You talk a lot about the role of animals in reviving land and reversing desertification, calling it the only tool available. Explain.
Historically, when you look at the tools that we’ve used to manage our environment—to sustain humanity—for about a million years we had the tool of technology: sticks and stones, which we developed until they evolved into the technologies of today. Then somewhere in the last half million years, we acquired the tool of fire. And then a few thousand years ago, we developed the idea of resting the environment to let it recover. We know that, for the third of the world’s land that is perennially humid, we’ve got the tools to restore biodiversity and maintain soil health. It can be done with technology and rest. But that’s only about a third of the land. For the other two-thirds nourished by seasonal rainfall, there is no tool—not technology, not rest, not fire—that can restore land and biodiversity and reverse desertification. Every ten years or so we have an Earth Summit in Rio or wherever, and we bemoan the fact that, despite spending billions of dollars, the deserts of the world are still expanding. Of course they are. We’re not using the right tools.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the planet?
I’m more optimistic now than I ever could have been throughout history. We’ve never had the things we needed in place to be able to reverse this process of environmental degradation. If you and I had been talking like this in the Roman times—when the North African coast was turning to desert—there was nothing we could have done about it, because we didn’t know what was causing it. We’ve shown that you can reverse the process. Now the one thing that we’re still missing is something to unite us. If you look at history, you see that we’ve united when we’ve had a common enemy. We will risk our lives for other humans in a time of crisis. But when the moment of crisis passes, we go back to mistrusting each other. We need something that will unite us, as humans, and unite us for a long time. I’m hoping that climate change will do that. I’m highly optimistic, because we’ve never had all the ingredients in place until now.

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