A Response To Chris Clarke’s Misinformed KCET Article

As techniques for greening deserts, like Planned Grazing and Permaculture, are becoming widely known there are a few people who are raising their voices in protest. Chris Clarke’s article, “TED Talk Teaches Us To Disparage The Desert”, is one of the more prominent articles opposing the greening of deserts.

After Chris Clarke refered to Allan Savory’s supporters as an “ecocidal cult” I decided to write a point by point response to his article, once again...

*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.


A Point By Point Response To Chris Clarke

You can read Chris’s full article here.

Chris doesn’t take long to get into his attack:

Part 1:

“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….

Part 2:

“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.”

-Allan Savory

Chris Clarke’s next argument is similarly misleading…

Part 3:

” 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).

allan picture
Desertification in New Mexico happening without livestock, plowing, mining, etc….


Part 4:

“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.”

-Allan Savory

Bunched Bison

Part 5: 

“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”. 

Lets ignore the fact that Allan’s Techniques have been proven to be very effective in Australia and the Americas….

Chris provides exactly no evidence to support his claim about prehistoric mega-fauna population levels. But consider that there were an estimated 50 million bison in North America when Europeans arrived, which was after the megafauna of North America had been subjected to devastating losses for over 10,000 years.… compare that to the 1.3 million wildebeest which currently roam the Serengeti (there are other animals present, but their numbers are generally under 1 million). Chris Clarke’s statement is in direct opposition to the evidence. Australia and the Americas probably did have herds on the scale of Africa’s Serengeti. 

All of these giant animals roamed North America not very long ago.
All of these giant animals roamed North America not very long ago.


Part 6:

“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.

Grassland or "cryptobiotic crust"?
Grassland or “cryptobiotic crust”?


Part 8:

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:

  • increased rates of carbon sequestration (reference1, reference 2, reference 4)
  • 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:

Dear Sheldon,

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.

allan picture

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.”

-Jesse Sherer

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