I have created a simplified version of Holistic Decision Making and Holistic Financial Planning which can be used when there is not enough time to complete the full process or when the people involved are resistant to completing the full process.
Undergoing the whole process of Holistic Decision Making and Holistic Financial Planning with a group can take months. Sometimes we just don’t have the time. This year, for example, I am going to be working with a farm but I will have only one day to meet with the farmers before the growing season starts. On top of that, the farmers are completely unfamiliar with Holistic Management and probably will not be interested in putting in the many hours necessary to craft a complete financial plan. My solution to this problem is to use this simplified version of Holistic Management this season, with the goal of completing the full process next winter when we will have more time and when the farmers will have some idea of the benefits of Holistic Management.
Using this simplified version of Holistic Management is much better than not doing anything at all, but it should only be used when it is not feasible to go through the whole process. Going through the full process will give you better results. The larger your operation, the more people and money involved, the more essential it is to complete the full process.
You can find the complete process of Holistic Decision Making and Holistic Financial Planning in the excellent books: “Holistic Management” and the “Holistic Management Handbook.” I have borrowed heavily from these books to create this simplified version of Holistic Management.
Make sure all decision makers are included in this process.
Have each person write a paragraph about their ideal quality of life. Include a sentence or two about economic wellbeing, social wellbeing, relationships, personal growth, and contribution to others. What do you value most?
Now combine these individual statements into a group statement which represents the shared values of everyone involved, reach a consensus.
For each item in the group statement, figure out what must be produced to make that thing a reality. Try to avoid descriptions of how to produce something. For example, if extra income must be produced in order to meet a quality of life goal, do not start describing methods for producing that extra income. The specific methods will be determined later.
Now collectively describe what the group’s resource base must be like far into the future in order to sustain the desired quality of life. If the group relies on any area of land (most do) you should include a description of what the land must look like to sustain the group, and you should also describe any services provided by the external community that will need to be available far into the future.
Combine 3, 4 and 5 into a single document. This is your Holistic Context. Keep it handy, put it in a visible location, and use it constantly to guide your decisions.
Tips For Making Decisions Holistically
Have regular brainstorming sessions. If possible, get outsiders involved, as they can often think of things you would not. Try to keep your brainstorming sessions fun and relaxed. Encourage irreverence and radical ideas.
Always make choices which will move you towards your Holistic Context, not away from it. Take the action which gives you the biggest return, in terms of your Holistic Context, for the least investment.
When trying to solve a problem, ensure that the solution you choose addresses the root cause of the problem. Take some time to determine what the real cause of the problem is, because it is not always obvious.
If you are trying to either decrease or increase a living organism, make sure that the action you take addresses the weakest point in that organism’s life cycle.
Be aware of where the energy and money you use are coming from. Is the source of energy or money in line with your Holistic Context? Favor energy from sources which are abundant and sustainable. And favor actions which do not require getting money from outside sources.
Is the way in which energy or money to be used going to lead towards your Holistic Context? Avoid uses of energy/money which have no lasting positive effect, are addictive, or which, once initiated, will require repeated reinvestment of energy or money. And make sure that your uses of money and energy are supporting the people or community services you rely on.
Most land managers or farmers should make soil health a primary area of investment. A healthy soil, combined with sunlight, produces plants for free. Without healthy soil biology you will need to apply expensive and unsustainable inputs constantly in order to harvest your sunlight.
When making any decision which involves spending money, always do a “gross-profit analysis” (see below) to make sure that it makes financial sense compared to the alternatives.
Always make decisions as a group. Allow everyone to participate. Strive to achieve a consensus on every decision.
When you decide to take an action or implement a plan make sure you monitor the results. Make this a habit. Even the best laid plans rarely go as expected. Figure out what exactly you need to monitor to see if you are succeeding or not. As soon as you detect something going wrong take action to fix it. This may require going back to the drawing board and coming up with an entirely new plan.
Gross Profit Analysis
When choosing between different enterprises, or making any decision which involves spending money, you should do a gross profit analysis. Gross profit analysis separates fixed costs from the costs directly incurred from production. When analyzing an enterprise using a gross profit analysis, exclude any costs which you would incur anyways, regardless of whether you engage in that enterprise or not (land payments, salaries, debt payments, living expenses, etc). These are commonly called “overhead” costs.
To do a gross profit analysis:
List all of the revenue which will be generated as a result of the enterprise/action.
List all of the costs which will be incurred solely due to the specific enterprise/action and which would be avoided if you stopped the enterprise or did not take the action.
Subtract the costs from the revenue. The result is your “gross profit.”
Create Your Business Strategy
Throughout this process keep your Holistic Context in mind. And make sure all of the decision makers in your group are involved in this process.
Determine if there is a “logjam” blocking your progress towards your Holistic Context. Overcoming this logjam is the most important thing to invest your money in.
Are there any other things, besides your logjam, which are adversely affecting your operation as a whole? Things like a lack of training, lack of expertise, lack of leisure time, lack of communication, etc?
Decide on the enterprises which you will engage in over the next year:
First, brainstorm 20-50 new sources of income. Narrow down the list. Discard any ideas which don’t move you towards your holistic context. Discard any ideas which conflict with the decision making tips given above. Discard any ideas which fail the gross profit analysis. You might discard all of the ideas you came up with, that is okay.
Now look at your current enterprises. Do a gross profit analysis for each. Are they each profitable? Are you relying too much on a single enterprise to produce your income? Do they all align with your Holistic Context?
Choose which of your current enterprises you will continue, and which you will drop. And decide if you will start any new enterprises in the next year, and what they will be. Use the gross profit analysis to double check that they are all profitable.
For each enterprise, determine the weak link in the chain of production. The chain of production has three links; Resource Conversion, Product Conversion, and Marketing. For each enterprise, which of the three links is the weakest?
Resource Conversion is your ability to turn your raw material (sunlight, if you are a farming operation) into some product (like a tomato plant, for example).
Product Conversion is your ability to take the product produced and turn it into a marketable form. (tomatoes must be harvested, cleaned, stored, processed, transported, etc).
Marketing is your ability to turn your finished product into dollars (your tomatoes need customers who will pay money for them).
When investing in any of your enterprises always prioritize investments which directly address the weak link for that enterprise. Be aware that the weak link for each enterprise will be constantly changing. Make sure that you are aware of when the weak link has changed and make sure your actions always address the current weak link.
Craft Your Annual Financial Plan
Calculate your total gross income for the coming year. Include all of the enterprises you plan to engage in this year.
Make a plan to address any logjam in your operation. A logjam is, by definition, blocking your progress so it must be addressed first. Allocate whatever funds are necessary to solve the logjam and subtract them from the total income you just calculated.
Now set aside a percentage of the remaining income as planned profit. 50% is a good starting point for many operations. The higher the portion of your planned income that you set aside as profit, the more you will be challenged to creatively cut your expenses. Planning your profit first forces you to stringently cut back on your expenses while still maintaining production. It helps you avoid the common trap of allowing production costs to always rise to your match your anticipated income.
Now you must plan your expenses. This stage takes persistence and creativity. Do your best to keep your expenses low enough to provide the profit you planned above. In the rare occasion where the planned profit turns out to be totally impossible, you should simply start over with a slightly lower planned profit percentage. Be very detailed when accounting for your expenses; don’t leave anything out. Put all of your expenses into one of these three categories:
Inescapable Expenses are fixed, non-negotiable expenses which you are legally or morally required to meet. This category will be small, but you should allocate funds for these expenses at the very beginning of the expense-planning process.
Wealth Generating Expenses are expenses which will either increase your income or your social and biological capital. Expenses used to solve a logjam are wealth generating expenses. Any money used to strengthen the weak link of an enterprise is also wealth generating.
Maintaining Expenses are expenses essential to running your business but which will not increase your wealth or income. Most expenses fall into this category. This category would include living expenses, wages, fuel, insurance, etc. This is the area in which you should strive to make cuts.
Now put it all together, and make sure that all of the numbers check out. Are your expenses going to be covered by your income throughout the whole year (cash-flow)? Are you going to make the profit you have planned. Keep reworking your plan as necessary.
Determine where to invest your profit, after living expenses are accounted for. Some good ways to invest your profit are:
address a logjam
address a weak link
grow your business
create a depreciation fund to avoid going into debt when assets must be replaced
invest outside your business to maintain liquidity or spread your risk
Monitor your finances on a monthly basis to ensure that you are following the plan. If there are any extra expenses which were unaccounted for in your plan immediately find a way to cut expenses in the coming months to bring your finances back on track. Monitoring will require that all income, expenses and inventory consumption is recorded and kept well organized. You should probably assign the task of financial monitoring to a specific person to ensure it actually happens.
The health of any soil food web is determined by the diversity and size of the beneficial microorganism populations which are a part of it (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, etc). And the size and diversity of the microorganism populations are determined by the following factors:
The biodiversity in the ecosystem. How many different species of soil organisms, plants, and animals are present? Each plant will support a different set of organisms (although they are not mutually exclusive) so having a diversity of plant species will also increase the diversity of soil organisms.
Beneficial microorganisms require oxygen. Oxygen enters soil when the soil is loose. A healthy soil food web creates soil that is naturally loose (no mechanical tilling required).
Soil organisms also require water. Water is held in soil either by tiny particles of organic matter or by particles of clay. The more organic matter in a soil the more water it can hold (the clay content of a soil cannot be easily changed).13 Looser soil (see #2) allows more rainwater to infiltrate the soil where it can be stored.
Soil organisms require energy. They get their energy from living plant roots. Plants will put a large portion of the energy they produce back into the soil as exudates. In the absence of living plant roots some microorganisms can live off of the organic matter in the soil and on the soil surface, but many cannot. Even a short period of time without living plant roots will quickly degenerate the soil food web. This is why perennial plants provide more benefit to the soil than annual plants.
The soil food web requires mineral nutrients. These are provided by bacteria and fungi. The bacteria and fungi get their nutrients either from inorganic rock particles, or from organic matter. It is far easier and faster for them to obtain the nutrients they need from organic matter than from rock particles. Therefore the more organic matter in the soil the less energy plants need to use in order to acquire their nutrients.
The 5 factors influencing soil food web health:
Factor #1: Time passed without disturbance (increased aeration and oxygen)
Factor #2: Organic matter content of the soil (for water and nutrients)
Factor #3: The rate and total amount of energy released by plant roots (exudates)
Factor #4: The diversity of species in the soil and over the soil
Factor #5: The availability and even distribution of water It is by controlling those five factors that we are able to regenerate soil health.
The debate about animal agriculture will never be the same again. Sorting out whether livestock and meat are good or bad, among the thousands of contradictory opinions, can be an overwhelming task. This book makes it easy.
“Letter To A Vegetarian Nation” is a meticulously researched and thoroughly logical analysis of why livestock are actually essential for sustainable food production and environmental restoration. No matter how much we might like to live in a world without livestock and meat eating, this book proves that it is simply not possible.
“Despite eating a meatless/dairyless diet myself, this book is extremely difficult to refute. I highly suggest that anyone interested in environmental issues – veg or not – give it a read and learn about regenerative agriculture.” – Ryan Brownrigg
“Sensible solutions for sequestering carbon and restoring equilibrium to our ailing ecosystems. It is well researched and presented without the usual hyperbole and drama often found in the “latest answer” to the challenges we face. Provides excellent, rational arguments refuting the prevailing dogma from the vegetarian/vegan proponents with numerous historical and current examples. Quite accessible writing style, short illustrated chapters backed up with reference links, tables and photographs… As a practicing student of permaculture, retired small holding farmer I believe with this knowledge we can recreate manageable harmony with Gaia’s ecosystems by following this pattern. Recommended for anyone working the land, growing food and concerned about the future.” – Clive Michael
“This profound two hour read builds a soil-up basis for regenerative agriculture, while also immobilizing seemingly all vegan/vegetarian arguments. The tone brings complex environmental science to simple, precise language in a way that makes it compelling to read. The chapters are organized in a storytelling manner and lead to an irrefutable (and astonishingly hopeful) conclusion! Finally we have something to reference in our meat/no-meat conversations that is inclusive, non-combative and realistic! I am convinced that we can make positive environmental change with the clear reasoning Sheldon presents.” –Sarah Nicholson
Read a preview of the book by clicking on this picture:
This book provides:
Over 120 peer reviewed references to give you confidence in the book and also to help you when you are debating others.
Over 100 links to awesome resources on Regenerative Agriculture. These resources will be invaluable if you want to become more informed about the revolution that is currently sweeping agriculture, or if you actually want to practice Regenerative Agriculture yourself.
A thorough glossary, which explains every uncommon term used in the book, so you don’t have to get a degree in soil science or agriculture to understand this book.
After reading this book you will have a more in-depth and clear understanding of soil science, regenerative agriculture, and livestock management than the vast majority of humanity. You will also learn to reduce your carbon footprint by buying meat!
You can see the full table of contents for “Letter To A Vegetarian Nation” by clicking here: Table Of Contents.
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Permaculture Design: A system for designing sustainable landscapes and communities. Mostly based on the book “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. Permaculture Design is a combination of specific suggestions and general principles.
Permaculture Techniques: A large collection of ideas and techniques related loosely to sustainability and agriculture. These techniques come from a wide variety of sources, many of them are borrowed from other disciplines such as civil engineering, alternative energy, natural building, ecology, etc. There is no central authority to determine what is, or is not, a “Permaculture” technique. This lack of regulation has allowed the best techniques to flourish, spread and be improved upon by anyone.
Permaculture Movement: A large, and growing, movement of people who are generally interested in sustainability. Most of them are practitioners of Permaculture Design and/or Permaculture Techniques. There is no central leadership or central organization controlling the movement. Most people in the Permaculture Movement aim to spread the principals and techniques of Permaculture over the entire Earth. Obviously they still have a long way to go.
What is a “PDC”?
PDC simply stands for “Permaculture Design Course”. PDC are one of the primary ways new people learn about Permaculture. Anyone at all can teach, and charge money for, a PDC; there is no central certification authority. Because of this, the quality, duration, and prices of PDCs vary dramatically. Careful research is required before signing up for a PDC to ensure that the teacher is worth the entry fee.
Most PDCs have the following characteristics:
a curriculum based on the chapters of “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”
a duration of several days of full time study
a price between $500-$1500
PDCs are the only form of certification within the Permaculture Movement. However, because of the varying quality of teachers, PDC completion is not a reliable indication of a person’s Permaculture knowledge or abilities.
A Brief History Of Permaculture
Permaculture started in the 1980s. The word “Permaculture” was coined by the founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The Permaculture Movement started out very small, essentially it was just the students who attended Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s lectures and PDCs. In the early stages most of Permaculture Technique was based on the textbook “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. All three forms of Permaculture (Permaculture Design, Techniques, and the Movement) primarily owe their existence to this book. It is a very large and very thick book, and yet it is also incredibly information dense. I highly recommend that you read it, or at least flip through it to look at the illustrations (which are fabulous).
From its humble beginnings in the 80s, Permaculture has come quite a long way. Permaculture Design is still mostly based on the original textbook. Permaculture Techniques and the Permaculture Movement, however, have grown exponentially. Permaculture Techniques now number in the thousands. They have been created by hundreds of different people all over the world. Every year new techniques are added and old techniques are improved upon. The Permaculture Movement now has followers in almost every country on earth and it is growing rapidly. Permaculture has become especially popular among younger people in urban areas of North America, Australia, and Europe.
The Value Of Permaculture
Permaculture is full of good ideas. I will list a few here, just to peak your interest. But to list them all would require several books. In fact, there are many books written about Permaculture. If you would like to learn more about the ideas I list here, or if you want to hear more ideas, please check out the resources I list at the end of this article in the “Permaculture Resources” section.
Four Permaculture Design Principles:
1. “Stacking Functions”
The good designer should strive to include elements which perform more than one function. Look at the waste products, and the input needs, of an element; is there something that can utilize those waste products while also producing the input needs?
For example: If the design includes chickens it would be beneficial to also include an orchard. The chickens produce manure to fertilize the trees, they also eat bugs which would otherwise be pests in the orchard. The excess fruit produced by the trees in the orchard can be allowed to fall to the ground where it will feed the chickens. The trees also provide a safe roost for the chickens as well as shelter from the elements. If the orchard happens to be a U-Pick orchard then the chickens will also provide a marketing advantage: customers will enjoy interacting with the chickens while they pick fruit. This is a simple example of the “Stacking Functions” principle at work.
2. “The Problem Is The Solution”
Every problem is also an opportunity. The good designer will train themselves to recognize these opportunities and work them into their designs.
Example 1: If the land is covered in an invasive species the designer should research the species to find out what uses it has and then incorporate these into the design. If Kudzu covers the property: get goats. If a weedy tree dominates: find a use for its wood. Etc.
Example 2: If the property has very poor clay soil, find out what opportunities clay soil provides: Can it be used to make pottery? Can it be used as a cheap building material? Does it make water-harvesting earthworks more effective? Are there valuable plants which require poor, clay soil to thrive? Does it offer an opportunity to experiment with soil-regeneration techniques? Etc.
3. “Zones Of Production”
The good designer will position elements on the property based on the amount of time that will be spent in them. Elements which require daily attention should be close to the living area. Elements which only require one or two visits per year should be as far from the living area as possible.
Zones 1 and 2: High-Use elements (herb garden, kitchen garden, milking parlor, tool shed, etc.) should be placed as close to the living area as possible.
Zones 4 and 5: Low-Use elements (wood lot, wilderness area, etc) should be as far from the living quarters as possible.
Zone 3: Medium-Use elements (crop fields, livestock pastures, orchards, etc) should be between the High-Use and Low-Use areas.
4. “Edge Effect”
Edges are the most productive areas of landscapes. The good designer will maximize the amount of edge in the landscape.
Examples of productive edges: Where water meets land, where forest meets field, where slope meets flat land, where roots meet soil, where soil meets rocks, where leaf meets the air, where roads meet vegetation, where “crop a” meets “crop b”, where “herd a” meets “herd b”, etc.
To maximize edges avoid straight lines. Patterns such as zig zags, waves, or spirals have the maximum amount of edge in the smallest area. Create textured landscapes with gullies and terraces. Create winding, long waterways instead of straight ditches. Create forest edges that wind inwards and outwards, not straight lines. Create polycultures, not monocultures. Create small fields with winding hedgerows, not large, featureless fields.
Six Specific Permaculture Techniques:
*I do not have space to provide references to validate these techniques, however they all work. Many of them I have personal experience with. All of them are in use on real farms, in the real world. These techniques are in no particular order.
Basically a huge raised garden bed with wood at the core
create a pile, or a long row, of wood (can be large logs or small branches)
Rotting wood will produce better results in the first few years than fresh wood
cover the pile/row of wood with about 1 foot of soil
during the process of creating the pile water everything very thoroughly
after the soil is put on you should plant the pile very densely with a fast growing crop (clover works well) and then cover the soil with mulch
the ideal size is 3-6 ft tall and 6-8 ft wide, if it is a row make it as long as you want
if you are creating a row on a slope it should be oriented across the slope so that it catches water, if frost is an issue than the row should allow the frost to flow downhill and away from the row, if you would like to create a heat-trap on one side and a cool area on the other side you can orient the rows east/west, if you want both sides to grow equally you can orient the rows north/south
never plant shrubs or trees on the pile because the pile will sink over time, exposing their roots
The wood inside the pile will slowly rot over many years, releasing nutrients to the plants growing on top
The rotting wood will provide food for the soil, increasing the organic matter content, biodiversity, aeration, worms, and beneficial fungi
The rotting wood acts as a sponge for water, soaking up the water when it rains, and then releasing the water to the plants slowly over several days
The air pockets and little spaces inside the pile will provide habitat for all sorts of beneficial bugs, bees, rodents, snakes, etc.
The raised bed is easier to access for gardeners who can no longer bend very well
The south side of a large “Hugelculture” row can really build up a lot of heat, which can extend the growing season in cooler climates
The rotting wood itself will also generate heat, extending your growing season and increasing your root growth
This technique has been used to grow veggies with zero irrigation all summer long
*Titles in bold are the ones I have read. I am working on reading all of these, but I only have so much time…. Everything I have included which I have not personally read has come highly recommended from people I trust.
**Almost all of the links on this page are “associate links” which means that if you buy something on Amazon after clicking one of my links I will get a percentage of the value of what you bought, with no extra cost for you. This is a way you can support the work I do. I would love to be able to spend all of my time teaching people about Regenerative Agriculture, but I need to make money doing it or I will not be able to continue doing it for much longer. Thanks for your support!
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I have been writing about how to regenerate the environment using agriculture for quite a while now… but I have never actually written about why it is a good idea to regenerate the environment in the first place! I will remedy that oversight here…
Why should we regenerate the environment?
Oxygen for us to breathe.
Living, photosynthesizing plants produce oxygen. We need oxygen in order to live. Therefore, the less total plant growth on the planet the less oxygen available for us to breath. (reference)
Regenerating landscapes almost always increases the plant growth on those landscapes. Turning a wild landscape into cropland almost always reduces total plant growth on that landscape (reducing the oxygen produced). Therefore, when landscapes degenerate and lose plant growth, we are putting our oxygen supply at risk.
Sustainable food production
Chemical fertilizers will not last forever. Eventually we will have to learn to grow food without petroleum-based chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides).
Farmers have already discovered how to produce food on an industrial scale without these chemicals (read “The Future Of Agriculture Is Regenerative”). It requires healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem. Most agricultural soils are currently in a degraded state, which would make them unsuitable for growing crops without fertilizer and pesticide inputs. In order to develop sustainable global food production it is necessary to regenerate these farmland soils and ecosystems.
Crops produced in a biologically healthy soil are healthier for humans to eat. They contain all of the nutrients we need. Crops produced in degraded soils do not provide all of the nutrients humans need… leading to many health problems in our populations. (reference)
Regenerating landscapes will, therefore, produce healthier food for humans.
Reduced poverty, starvation, and disease in developing countries
Reversing desertification and regenerating landscapes in the dry areas of Africa and the Middle East will greatly reduce human suffering.
Healthy landscapes are able to hold more water in their soils, mitigating the effects of drought. (reference1, reference2) Bio-diverse ecosystems are also able to cope with droughts better. (reference) This puts water back into the aquifers and also provides surface water even when there has been no rain. (reference)
Reduced landslides, flash floods, etc.
A healthy landscape will absorb most of the water that falls onto it into the soil, instead of allowing it to run over the surface. This reduces, or eliminates, all floods (including flash floods). (reference) Landslides are primarily caused by removal of vegetation from steep slopes. Regenerating landscapes almost always requires a re-vegetation of steep slopes with trees or shrubs who’s roots will hold the soil in place, preventing landslides.
Reduced environmental toxins
Regenerating landscapes means we can produce food without using toxic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. (reference) Healthy soils also act as filters, removing pollution from water that passes through them. (reference) The microorganisms which exist in healthy landscapes are also able to break down many toxins. (reference)
*I was fortunate enough to get Allan Savory’s direct comments on this article. I will be including his comments throughout, but his full response can be found at the end of the article…
People are dying right now due to the effects of desertification. If Allan’s methods work (they do), then the only reasonable and ethical response we can have is to first express our wholehearted support for these methods being used where they are needed desperately, and only then debate their merit in locales where human lives are not in immediate peril from desertification. Chris Clarke has failed to do so, and that, in my opinion, is the biggest flaw in his article.
“Allan Savory takes it further than that: He wants to eradicate deserts just because they exist.”
Actually, as he states very clearly in his TED Talk, Allan Savory wants to “reverse desertification” in order to feed dying people in Africa, reduce conflict over food and water, save traditional dry-land cultures from extinction, and to reverse global warming. Lets move on….
“Savory, who has been riling up land management scientists for decades with his theories about grazing management, gave a talk in February 2013 at TED Long Beach that’s available on YouTube. In that talk, he claims that the world’s deserts are all human-caused, that they all were once grasslands, that they can and should be converted back to grasslands by the application of very large numbers of grazing livestock, and that his plan is the only way we as a global species could combat the effects of global warming caused by desertification.”
Savory has been riling up land management scientists for decades, but this is not because his techniques don’t work (they do) it is because they are a dramatic departure from previous land management paradigms. It is hard for people to accept new knowledge.
Second, no where in the TED Talk does Allan ever claim that “the world’s deserts are all human-caused”. Nor does he ever say that all deserts “were once grasslands” and nor does he ever say that “they [all] can and should be converted back to grasslands”.
Allan could not fully explain his exact views on deserts in the TED Talk because of the time restrictions. However he has said many times in other talks and public comments:
“At no time ever in my life, nor in the TED talk, have I ever stated or believed that we should do anything about the few natural deserts in the world, like the Gobi or Namib deserts that get either no rain or only occasional rain. They are wonderful but thankfully limited. TED people put that title “greening the deserts’ and not me.”
Chris Clarke’s next argument is similarly misleading…
” Savory claims that desertification is always caused by overgrazing, but in many places other factors play as large a role: plowing, groundwater mining, habitat fragmentation, and a range of other issues.”
No where, in this TED Talk or elsewhere, does Allan Savory ever claim that “desertification is always caused by overgrazing”(emphasis added).
“But Savory seems to take the conflation completely to heart: his TED Talk is entitled “How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change.” Not “how to repair our damage to the planet.” Not “how to revegetate desertified grasslands.” Savory wants to “green the deserts.””
Let me refer you once again to Allan’s comments:
“At no time ever in my life, nor in the TED talk, have I ever stated or believed that we should do anything about the few natural deserts in the world, like the Gobi or Namib deserts that get either no rain or only occasional rain. They are wonderful but thankfully limited. TED people put that title “greening the deserts’ and not me.”
“Savory has spent most of his life in Southern Africa, where that paleoecological description has some small validity — and where, for that matter, the line between actual old-growth deserts and human-trashed wastelands is somewhat less distinct. His science there has been challenged rather harshly over the decades, but at least it’s plausible in an African context. But Savory doesn’t limit his recommendations to Africa. He’s pushing them in deserts in Australia and the Americas, where the local arid landscapes did indeed have grazers, and sometimes destructive ones — but by no means on the scale of the Serengeti’s massive herds.”
So, to summarize, Chris Clarke is basically saying that intensive grazing (properly managed) should not be applied to Australia or the Americas because past populations of “grazers” in these areas were “by no means on the scale of the Serengeti’s massive herds”.
“I’ve written here, for instance, about the blackbrush vegetative community that’s common at upper elevations in the California deserts. Blackbrush is quite fragile: if a massive herd of grazing animals wanders through it, it gets trampled and broken. Solid covers of blackbrush can take 10,000, even 15,000 years to develop. Solid covers of blackbrush are reasonably easy to find without much searching across the American West. Which means that across the American West, it’s not hard to find vegetative communities that have not been affected by massive herds of grazers for millennia.”
Conveniently 10,000-15,000 years ago is exactly when megafauna populations in North America were devastated… Leading to an alternate explanation:
10,000-15,000 years ago when the natural herds of large herbivores roaming North America were put out of commission, the desertification process began, exactly as Allan describes it. The loss of animal impact lead to a dramatic increase in bare ground along with a shift in vegetation from grasses to woody plants like blackbrush. The types of ecosystems and vegetation found in most of America’s west are most likely nature’s response to the loss of mega-fauna.
Chris Clark finishes with comments about bare soil being a good thing, stands of dying grass being a good thing, and “cryptobiotic crusts” being a good thing. (read his comments here)
I think Allan Savory’s response, below, is excellent. But I will offer my own opinion as well:
The biodiversity present in true desert ecosystems should definitely be preserved. But this leaves a whole lot of room for grassland restoration projects.
Regenerating desertified land into healthy grassland has the following benefits:
sustainable production of human food as a side effect
increased wildlife populations due to increased forage availability
decreased water runoff over the surface of the soil, which reduces flooding (especially flash floods), soil erosion, and silting of waterways(reference)
increased biodiversity in the area, which leads to increased ecosystem resilience against short and long term changes in environment (reference 1, reference 2)
increased plant biomass, which means more carbon is stored in the living biomass, and more oxygen is being created(reference)
soil organic matter is increased, improving water filtration abilities of the soil (reference)
air temperatures at the surface of the soil are moderated because bare (or capped) soil is covered by either vegetation or litter, on a large enough scale this leads to more moderate regional temperatures(reference)
greatly reduced wind erosion and nutrient loss (reduced dust in the air) (reference)
improved nutrient distribution over the landscape (the livestock which are necessary in grasslands are far more capable of transporting nutrients to high ground than small animals like lizards and desert hares) (reference)
reduced poverty in dry regions due to increased availability of food and water in the local area
reduced national poverty in dry regions, due to increased national food production and reduced droughts
Allan Savory’s Response:
By all means post my response to your question and some comments I make on the claim by Chris Clarke that my TED talk disparaged deserts. While I can understand the confusion, tragically beliefs about the role of cryptogrammic crusts (in brittle environments quite different from their role in nonbrittle environments) is causing untold loss of biodiversity, increasing man-made desertification, violence, suffering and dying as we write. Anything we can do to increase public understanding is good.
Clarke states “Allan Savory takes it further than that: He wants to eradicate deserts just because they exist”. That statement reflects the tone and assumptions throughout his article. At no time ever in my life, nor in the TED talk, have I ever stated or believed that we should do anything about the few natural deserts in the world, like the Gobi or Namib deserts that get either no rain or only occasional rain. They are wonderful but thankfully limited. TED people put that title “greening the deserts’ and not me. If anyone watches my TED talk about the unfortunate word desertification to describe environmental degradation brought about by humans they should understand. As Elisabe Sahtouris said, viewed from space over the past centuries we would be described as a “desert-making species” because these expanding deserts are the greatest changes on Earth seen from space as we now can do.
While we know for certain those natural deserts and a few others perhaps, much of what is being called desert today, and assumed to be natural is not. An example would be the Tihama desert in Yemen that is ancient and I showed in TED talk. That has been called a desert for centuries but is in fact a man-made desert. The Arizona desert where caring concerned people fiercely defend soil crusting is probably a man-made desert but those people would oppose such thinking to their death. Why do I think this might be the case? The main reasons. First N.America now has about 11 large mammals where it used to have about 40 more large mammal species before humans within recent time (about 9,000 years) with language and organization, spear and fire wiped out most large animals and replaced their role mainly with fire. Australia the same thing but over 50,000 years creating their great man-made deserts. Such “deserts” – with low and erratic rainfall environments high on the brittleness scale simply did not evolve with total rest or protection and the very nature of many of the present “desert” plants having evolved with protective structures to minimize over-browsing show this. Second reason, the desert tortoises that are endangered because of habitat change, and not predation and accident as believed – predation and accident, as well as disease, are decimating factors not welfare factors. Other than with slow breeding animals as far as we know if decimating factors are wiping out a population it is because something is wrong with the welfare factors (Leopold). Something the crust protectors do not consider. If that habitat is what the tortoises evolved in over millennia and was not changing they would not be endangered. This is not a casual view – I have spent many hours in that “desert” with researchers, officials and others analyzing the problem using the holistic framework that enables us to do such analysis in a way that is simply not possible with conventional management/research. The same analysis of many management practices and policies that enabled many scientists undergoing training in the use of the holistic framework to state “We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the United States”.
You ask “What type of deserts should be turned over to grasslands?” None of the true deserts because you cannot do so practically with any tool available to mankind and science. Nor is it either desirable or necessary. Now of the remaining – land that is desertifying, has long ago become what we believe today is a true desert – all of which amounts to about two thirds of the world’s land area it would be a case by case situation. And in no situation would the goal be to turn that land into grassland. That is reductionist management that has led to the problems humanity faces.
The social, cultural, economic and environmental complexity involved, no matter how many scientists, experts and people are involved in the management simply cannot be reduced to a simplistic context for management actions and policies. To make this concrete for you and your readers let me assume that we were looking at the Arizona “desert” and concerned people were doing the best they can to preserve cryptogrammic crusting of the soil, desert tortoises and all the other plant, insect, reptile, bird and animal life. This is what government agencies, environmental organizations and others have been doing for many years. However, as we observe floods and droughts are increasing in frequency and severity I believe and some species are disappearing or in danger of doing so. Clearly something is wrong. So assume we decided to simply manage holistically what would that entail? It absolutely would not entail anyone even suggesting putting cattle on the land, bringing back wolves or any other measure. Why? Because we would have immediate conflict and one of the first things Holistic Management does is to prevent conflict and get everyone collaborating in their own self-interest.
In my TED talk I showed a picture of land on which there has been protection of cryptogrammic crusts for a very long time strongly reinforced by US National Parks Service. It was simply desertifying seriously and historically used to be the centre of an irrigation-based civilization.
Here is a picture of similar land here in NM with the result plain to see after many years of the very best of current management known in the Western World.
So if we were to look at the possibility of managing say Arizona “desert” land we would begin by simply looking at what land is to now be managed holistically as indivisible from society or economy. With that in mind we would bring key people to a solutions retreat – from the large environmental organizations, government agencies, ranchers, farmers, captains of industry, church groups, etc. being as inclusive as we can be. These people, with facilitation in the process of Holistic Management, would develop a holistic context. An over-arching context for management and policy that everyone agrees upon and that represents what all deeply desire. No action, no prejudice can be part of the context which is 100% what people desire 0% how to do that. In my recent Schumacher Lecture I used a generic holistic context that I personally use to guide me in all countries and amongst all cultures I work with globally – people in Arizona would come up with their own holistic context but being human it would not differ greatly https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrBauQO2sI4
Once we had a context for management that does cater for social, environmental and economic complexity we would then move forward with management having of course determined who will lead the management on the ground. At this point we would recognize we have some problems – tortoises as mentioned and perhaps other species declining, fear of development encroaching, need to protect cryptogrammic crusts to preserve those species for thousands of years and so on. We would also recognize we have other problems perhaps – rising taxation, small towns and communities dying, a dying Western culture and more.
We would clearly have a number of goals associated with each such problem and would seek ideas and suggestions as to actions that could possibly deal with every one of these problems. Each and every idea would be welcomed as a constructive possible solution. With each suggested action we would first do all the normal stuff we have done for centuries and consider many factors – past experience, research results, expert opinion, cost, etc. etc. And then if a suggested action looked promising to solve any of those issues we would pass it through seven holistic context checking questions. This is to ensure the action would be socially, culturally, environmentally and economically sound short and long-term and in line with the holistic context that all own.
If any action is found to be in line with the people’s holistic context and going to solve a specific problem, and it is a new action affecting the environment never before taken, then we would automatically assume it was wrong – no matter how much it might be supported by research or expert opinion. And on that assumption we would institute a feedback loop based upon the earliest possible change so that management ceases to be adaptive (as it has been for centuries) and becomes proactive.
While this may sound an awful lot of work it is only because I am writing about it. Just as if I was writing trying to tell you and your readers how to ride a bicycle would sound awfully confusing. I have found that people with little education learn the process within days as long as we simply do it. The commonest reaction is “this is such commonsense”. People experiencing most difficulty are usually those who defend a certain limited point of view fiercely. And this John Ralston Saul summed up best perhaps when studying mounting management issues since the Age of Enlightenment. He states “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.”
Sheldon the article you provided by Chris Clarke is simply a mass of assumptions and rejection with no idea about Holistic Management and what that entails. I am going to ignore it.
For your interest, I am involved in watching Holistic Management in action on land I live on half of each year. They began with the usual conflicts, land desertifying, species dying out and thousands of acres on which as I said in my TED talk we had cryptogrammic crusting between plants and over larger bare areas of soil. They have lost no cryptogram species and today have wildlife returning, and open water, water lilies and fish, with geese breeding where never known before. The productivity of that land is now so great, even after 8 years of average but generally poorer rainfall, that they are battling to keep up with it. As Dr M. Sanjayan a Senior Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, who hosted a recent National Geographic/PBS documentary partly filmed on that land had to say The message is an extraordinarily powerful one, and it could be the best thing, the absolute best thing that conservation has ever discovered.”
I hope this helps increase understanding.
I would also like to include some comments a friend had about this article, which I thought were quite relevant:
“A few of my quick thoughts, mainly having to do with, how do you say, “now-centrism” – the idea that the state of the system as we found it is how that system is ideally, irrespective of its relatively recent history and functioning. The saguaro reference is particularly useful, because the environment which we typically imagine them to be living in has been radically modified anthropogenically over thousands of years, but especially beginning in the 19th century with the introduction of the railroads and intense grazing, but to other extents by indigenous groups over millennia. The whole of the Sonoran desert, the native range of the saguaros, was a rich grassland-savanna. The name ‘Sonora’ refers to the sounds of water flowing through the riparian zones which were forested bosques of cottonwoods, sycamores, plentiful beaver and what have you – not what you think of when you’re in Tuscon today. The saguaros evolved in a system very different to what we’re used to seeing, and in fact without the cover of trees (nurse plants) there will be no further saguaros – a reason why you see a strong age-dependence in their populations-very few young cacti. Obviously this environment isn’t recovering on its own, the grassland needs livestock in order to recover. At a point before human use began under the Uto-Aztecan peoples of the region, the hills were forested with quintessential Sonoran dryland trees – palo verde, ironwood, mesquite – which extended down into the lowland grasslands. Go back to the end of the ice age and beyond and you have throngs of bison, mammoth, rhinoceros, camels, horses and the whole megafaunal cohort. This region was still a dryland then, even if a little moister, and the saguaro existed in it just fine for the whole of its evolution, jackrabbits, insects, the whole Holocene gang and all.
This sort of “now-ism” colors a lot of “conservation” thinking. Conservation of what? A degraded, barely functioning landscape? The arguments of the long-lived desert plants are equally telling. If you go to Mesa Verde in Colorado, up on the mesas there are plentiful juniper trees, the oldest cohort of which are all 900 years old, nothing older. These trees demark a radical change in the landscape – the collapse of the Anasazi civilization around 1100. Similarly, all these clonal creosotes, yucca, oak and what have you, all dating to the end of the ice age demark the collapse of a vast ecosystem, and the entering of a new steady state. If what Allan Savory says about rebuilding desert grasslands is true, and we all have reason to believe it’s on to something, the loss of the megafauna is what caused this descent into the steady state we’re familiar with, dominated by creosote bushes and everything else. All of these systems evolved with throngs of megamammals orchestrating the nutrient cycling and ecosystem functions, without which the systems have collapsed. Cows are a mimic of these historical conditions orchestrated not by packs of megapredators, but by people. Really, many of these systems have probably been waiting for the return to historic conditions, and their megafaunal partners.
The cryptogramic soils are another example of this thinking, as we’ve been studying a disturbed system while assuming that it’s “normal” and what’s supposed to be there. The cryptobiotic crusts are actually the highest order succession in these systems without disturbance, and to say that they’re supposed to dominate the deserts of the world would be like saying of a disturbed ocean that the “rise of slime” was the highest trophic level the system was meant to progress to, and therefore that fish are bad for eating all the slime.”