Allan Savory on Permaculture and Holistic Management (e48)

In this very special episode, I enjoy an in-depth conversation with Allan Savory, originator of Holistic Management, President of the Savory Institute and Director of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. While Allan is best known for his work on holistic planned grazing, I was especially excited to dive into the decision making framework at holistic management’s core and its implications for permaculture.

This is our conversation at a glance.

Dan Palmer & Allan Savory – with thanks to the Savory Institute for creating this image.

Here’s a link to a recent episode on how I’ve been practicing holistic decision making, here’s an article I wrote about it (back in 2014), and below is the full transcript of our conversation (my questions italicised).

How we start the process of managing holistically when commencing new projects

Allan thanks so much for this conversation. I’d love to start with the deep relevance of managing holistically for permaculture designers, and in particular, how we start the process of managing holistically when commencing new projects. Where us permaculture designers regularly encounter clients who, as soon as we ask them what they’d like our help toward, bombard us with a long list of goals or objectives. “We want a pond and ducks and an orchard and a vegetable garden and a campsite and a meditation platform and and and.” Could you please explain what it means to engage clients on a deeper level than the goals they present us with, how we might go about this in practice, and how important this is if we aspire to be managing holistically?   

Sure, let’s see if I can help Dan. You could either start by explaining what the reductionist management of humans is and how essential it is to manage holistically.  That is what is needed if Permaculture (or any agriculture) is to be regenerative. And that is essential if civilization is to survive now facing global desertification and climate change, in which agriculture is playing as large (maybe larger) role than coal and oil.  That gets boring in today’s short attention span and people’s eyes glaze over.

So the best way if there has been no training in how to manage holistically is to simply do it.

Everyone just wants to be told what to do and how to do it – it is almost impossible I find to stop farmers just wanting to know what to do and to help them decide how to make those decisions, that they don’t want to hear about.  Allan just tell me what to do!  I don’t want to hear about reductionist management and how it is the single cause of almost all that ails us, including desertification and climate change!

So the best way if there has been no training in how to manage holistically is to simply do it.  Think trying to explain how to ride a bike vs having a bike and just starting to ride it.  The more you explain how to ride a bike, the more confusing it gets, but a person simply riding a bike gets it in a day. 

So, assume I am advising or helping you Dan the farmer.  I would simply say, Dan let’s not talk about your crops, orchard, ducks, cattle or whatever until we can both understand the context in which you are deciding what to do.  What are you managing here? I gather you Dan are making all decisions. Does anyone else make any management decisions?  No, only you OK that is great.  So, Dan what land are you managing? Answer this 500 ha farm. Ok.  What financial resources do you have? Answer –  none but a small salary in a part time job while I farm. OK so all the money needs to be generated from the land.  Now I have an idea  of the whole situation you are managing in this case and we have very little money to work with.   

Before you can decide to build that dam, how to graze your animals or anything else, there is more I need to know from you.  Dan, we manage always for one main reason, which is to improve our lives. So let me ask you now, very personally and deeply, how do you want your life to be? Answer – something like, I want to be prosperous, independent, get married, raise a family, be healthy, free to pursue my own beliefs in my culture.   Ok that is great. 

Dan, what will your land have to be like 200 years from now if your great great grandchildren want to live a life like you want?

If you want to live a life like that, then let me ignore the state of your farm now, which I see doesn’t look very good, and ask you this.  Dan, what will your land have to be like 200 years from now if your great great grandchildren want to live a life like you want?  Don’t talk about species or any of today’s issues, simply describe how this land will have to BE. 

So that we get away from obsession with weeds, gullies, or anything else, Dan let’s describe your land using four processes:

  1. how water will cycle,
  2. how minerals or nutrients will cycle,
  3. how the biological community dynamics will function, and
  4. how sunlight energy will flow to support your descendants. 

Answer – rainfall will need to be fully effective, nutrient cycling rapid and high, biologically very complex diversified communities with solar energy flow very high indeed. Great OK.

Now one more question if you are managing to improve your life Dan. You told me you are the only person who makes decisions. However, like all farmers and people, you are totally dependent on other people. So, you have many people in your life who you live with or deal with – friends, clients, suppliers, etc etc.  You are going to need their support.  What can you do to make them support you through thick and thin?  Answer – nothing you cannot change other people. So, what can you Dan do?

As Ghandi so wisely said, you can only be the change you expect.   So now please tell me how you yourself are going to have to BE for people who are really a resource base to you to WANT to support you at all times?  I don’t want fancy words, a list of values or any branding, marketing hype – at end of day Dan you are judged by your behaviour not your words. So how must you BE?  And you will describe how you are going to always behave in a few words.

All this is very deep and very personal  and is never to be used or bandied about (as I see people doing trying even to use it in marketing!!!)

At this point by simply doing it and not explaining you have the nucleus of what is needed – a holistic context to guide all management actions as you go forward.  And this in three parts – A quality of life statement – a description of the land as it will have to be to ensure future generations can live such lives – and how you are going to behave to ensure people want to support you and your family.

Now, Dan you might ask me about the dam you want to build for instance, or raising pigs, chickens, growing any crop.  I would say yes, let’s look at that and I would perhaps ask why you want to build it, run pigs or whatever ?  Always, and without exception, because it is how humans all make decisions – you would describe either that you are doing it to meet a need. Or you are doing it to meet a desire. Or you are doing it to address a problem.  That covers countless trillions of decisions humans make daily, and always have done.   I would explain that when we “reduce” the full web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is inescapable in our lives, to meeting needs, desires or addressing problems THAT IS REDUCTIONIST MANAGEMENT.

So now Dan you will still have such needs and desires – there is nothing wrong with them and you will still want such as well as still need to address problems.  BUT and here comes the difference, you will now no longer have those as the sole reason or context for your actions.  You will now have those as needs, desires or problems but in the holistic context of how you want your life to BE.

Now, open your mind to all science, all sources of knowledge, and just as before consider any action as you have done in the past through one or more of many factors – past experience, expert advice, friends advice, cost, research results, compromise, expediency, cash flow, profitability, peer-pressures, risk, intuition etc. etc. etc.  And when about to decide simply make sure it is in line not with the need, problem, etc. but with your own very personal holistic context. 

Most people do this well and almost intuitively as long as they really want that life more than anything else in life.  If they only pay lip service to it they continue with reductionist management and always unintended consequences due to complexity.  And when there is any doubt at all, we have seven context checking filters or questions.  These you can learn later.

Moving from reductionist to holistic management is moving from a reactive to a proactive orientation

Thank you so much for clarifying the transition from reductionist to holistic management. Where we move from merely addressing problems, needs or desires to doing so in a way that aligns with a three-part holistic context we have articulated for ourselves. One aspect of how this lands for me is a sense of moving from:

  • more of a reactive orientation to life, where we’re constantly responding to problems and opportunities the world throws our way, to…
  • more a proactive orientation where we are consciously and holistically deciding toward however we deeply want our life to be.

Does that sit right for you? That an aspect of moving from reductionist to holistic management is moving from a reactive to a proactive orientation?

Dan you have been more astute than most people in that you have realized right away that managing one’s life, farm, or any business holistically becomes proactive. 

This began first with the management of the land as the Holistic Management framework was developing.  If you read my textbook you will see in the framework a feedback loop at the bottom.  What I realized long ago was that nature’s complexity (what we are managing) is beyond human comprehension.  What we have been engaged in for thousands of years was reactive, or adaptive management.  We do our best making a decision to meet a need or desire based on research, expert advice, etc. etc. and then almost always we experience unintended consequences (like organic/sustainable agriculture destroying civilizations in every region of the world). So, through millennia we took an action, saw the results and we reacted or adapted.  So, the oldest management in the world is adaptive management. 

…when we take any new action affecting the environment then, no matter how well supported it is by research, expert opinion or anything else, we should always assume it is wrong.

When I realised this I introduced the idea that when we take any new action affecting the environment then, no matter how well supported it is by research, expert opinion or anything else, we should always assume it is wrong. On that assumption you would now say, OK in this case assuming I am wrong, where will I first detect it?  When you have decided that, you then set up a feeback loop starting with the simplest possible measurement or documentation, so you detect any change as rapidly as possible.  If the change in the ecosystem processes is going the way you intend well and good. If going any other way, you back off immediately and relook at the decision or action.  Proactively managing to bring about the results you intend – not adaptive management reacting to changes.

An example so you get the idea. When I first realized that nothing but changed animal behaviour and greatly increased physical animal impact could reverse desertification, that was new.  Never thought of or tried throughout history and totally condemned by all scientists, environmentalists, ranchers, universities, etc.  So, with the very first ranches where we did this I set up a feedback loop based on the assumption I was wrong as everyone predicted.

Where I had been taught at university that plant spacing in grasslands was a function of climate, I now believed it was rather a function of animal behaviour overriding climate.  So, I decided that the very earliest indication I was wrong would come from the soil surface and plant spacing. And then looking at the soil surface I asked what I could measure that would indicate almost immediately that I was wrong? That was I decided the nature of the top millimetre of soil – did the capping break or not, and from that did plant spacing start to close up or open out?   On every ranch in five countries I was working in at the time the plant spacing began to decrease, litter and soil cover to increase so we knew we were on the right lines.

One way I got early clients to understand this was with brush or wildlife.  A rancher for instance would ask me.  Allan as I start managing holistically like I am doing, what is going to happen to the brush encroachment on my ranch.  Or what is going to happen to the impala or bushbuck?  Those are typical questions associated with what they were accustomed to – reductionist adaptive or reactionary management.  I would simply reply asking them – What do you want to happen to the brush?  Or what do you want to happen to the impala or bushbuck?  Tell me what you want to happen, because that is what your management is going to produce.

Almost all government and large environmental organization policies we find lead to unintended consequences.

Once we got this concept of proactive management operating as we managed holistically, it became easy to extend it to all aspects – financial, social and land or environment – as is described in the textbook.  And most of all to build in the proactive nature of the framework in policy development.  Almost all government and large environmental organization policies we find lead to unintended consequences. 

The policies of all the major environmental organizations and governments, including UN policies here are leading to the worst cases of habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and contribution to desertification and climate change being our 30 odd national parks surrounding my home in Africa. The opposite of what they intend, but their policies remain unchanged year after year. 

The US government soil conservation policy actually increased soil erosion. Their policy on noxious plants costs over a Billion dollars a year and has for over forty years – it has not resulted in killing out a single noxious plant in any State but had poisoned the water, caused health problems and done far more damage. But it continues unchanged.  The worst I have come across was a policy in India over 200 years old but followed by their Forest Service still every day, although everyone just laughed because its purpose ended over a century ago.

The process of defining what important is

Thanks again Allan. I love this idea of making decisions proactively then proactively seeking evidence that the decision might be wrong (or creating an unintended consequence) in order to proactively make the next decision in a process of continuous course-correction. Taking even baby steps in this direction has resulted in a real boost in my own sense of agency and power to contribute toward changes I believe in, while living a meaningful life.

One thing I’d love to ask you about here is my sense that managing holistically in your sense sheds much light on the Eisenhower-Covey matrix of urgency and importance. For the process of articulating an holistic context is the process of defining important for the decision makers in question.

The importance/urgency matrix (Source)

Increasingly we are then able to spend more and more time doing things that are important and not urgent which to me is where most of life’s most quality moments happen.

Once this is in hand, we can consciously decide to spend more time on what is important to us, and less time on what isn’t. Which in turn frees up the mental energy to start then noticing the difference between what is urgent and what isn’t. Then, by making time and space for things that are important and not urgent (such as articulating an holistic context!), we can slowly remove the root causes of much of the important and urgent stuff.

For example routine dental checkups (important not urgent) reduce the emergency toothaches (important and urgent). Or servicing the water pump (important not urgent) reduces the chance of the cows smashing up the trough and suffering dehydration because the pump broke (important and urgent). Increasingly we are then able to spend more and more time doing things that are important and not urgent which to me is where most of life’s most quality moments happen.

After explaining the idea of an holistic context even a little I have had people come up and thank me for having a clear way to define what important is so they could then navigate the importance and urgency matrix much more successfully. Before coming back to the relation of holistic management and permaculture, I’d love to hear how this does or doesn’t resonate with you?

You are, I believe, correct but I had never thought of it in the way you are doing. I am very aware of the excellent concept of using that breakdown – urgent and unimportant that occupies us most, versus not urgent but very important, that gets neglected.  I think the very reason we manage at all is with the intent to improve our lives, but few succeed as they hoped. 

There are, I believe, two main reasons why most of us are less successful in leading the lives we would like. One is best explained I believe by Robert Fritz in his book “Path of Least Resistance” – explaining so well why people make wonderful resolutions each year about being fit, and there is a multi-billion dollar industry in running shoes and exercise machines, but most don’t follow through and the machines lie gathering dust. This more than anything else I believe explains why thousands of farmers and ranchers have undergone training in how to manage holistically, but then reverted back to reductionist management. 

The other reason we don’t achieve what we want for our lives is that all humans unknowingly are managing the complexity of our lives, organizations, businesses, environment and economy in a universally reductionist way. Reducing the web of complexity to the context of meeting needs, desires or addressing problems.  

So, yes I think you are right, that once any person or family really think deeply and agree about the lives they desire and they develop the needed holistic context, it has in effect indicated to them what is absolutely vital (more than important).  Clarity on how they want their lives to BE. Clarity on what the state of their life-supporting environment has to BE generations to come. And clarity on how they must BE or behave is they want people important in their lives to be fully supportive through thick and thin.  

The relationship between holistic management and permaculture

My next question is whether you’d have anything to offer to the question of how we can most usefully think about the relation of holistic management to permaculture for those aspiring to work with both. I have heard people say that holistic management brings decision making and permaculture brings design. I have heard people say that holistic management is a specific decision making and land management approach that can sit within permaculture as a general sort of wardrobe of earth and community healing tools. I have heard people say that holistic management is the broader approach we might at times decide to bring permaculture into (say when we are initially designing our gardens or farms).

Can you help clarify what seems to me to be widespread confusion about the relation?

Let me try to clarify this important difference.  People are confused because we always seem to learn something new by relating it to what we know.  We even learn new words that way, and we learn to remember things easier by relating them to something we are familiar with.  So, for the moment try to think of PC and managing holistically as entirely different.  Don’t try to relate managing holistically to Permaculture.  You are familiar with permaculture and your whole excellent movement – seeking permanent agriculture through sound principles and design concepts. The different zones as you move out from say the home or centre as Zone 1. That essentially is permaculture as it has been repeatedly explained to me by many people including Bill Mollison. And in the many minds and writings of permaculture practitioners you have a vast body of knowledge that permaculture people keep communicating and helping one another understand and apply.  

You will also note that it is difficult to get any of the millions of hectares of vast monoculture cropping areas changed as we have to do through changing agricultural policies, or the immigration, noxious plant, drug or terrorism policies changed with permaculture design and principles.

Now as you think of permaculture and observe you will see some really wonderful results with the inner zones, some excellent design principles extending to outer zones, etc.  And we see increasingly more integration of small stock, poultry, rabbits into the polyculture cropping and food production. And this people are achieving by making their decisions to meet their needs, their desires or solve problems.  However, if we think in terms of agriculture being the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters as it is, I am sure you will see gaps. 

I do not hear of how permaculture principles and design is going to address the major problems with the fisheries or the oceans, or for that matter even the vast teak forests surrounding my home in Africa. These forests are larger than some countries and all these forests are dying gradually because of desertification.  No amount of planting trees, using machines to develop swales or any changed design is going to get the main trees germinating and establishing.

Also it is not clear at all how we could use permaculture design and principles to prevent the 30 odd national parks around my home to not be the worst examples we have here of biodiversity loss contributing to climate change.  You will also note that it is difficult to get any of the millions of hectares of vast monoculture cropping areas changed as we have to do through changing agricultural policies, or the immigration, noxious plant, drug or terrorism policies changed with permaculture design and principles. And to tackle global finance driving environmental destruction is I believe beyond permaculture principles or design.

Addressing complexity with a holistic framework

OK so let’s leave permaculture now.  So what  does it mean to be managing holistically to enable people in any walk of life to address the unavoidable web of social, cultural, economic and environmental complexity?  It means people recognising and clarifying what is being managed – is it a single person in a job in a city? Is it a family who are farming?  Is it a corporation manufacturing widgets?  Is it a nation’s government developing an agricultural policy?  Is it ensuring good governance in a nation? Is it a UN body trying to develop Sustainable Development Goals that will go beyond addressing symptoms of desertification and failing once more?  In every one of these cases we have discovered that we can address the full complexity simultaneously by using the holistic management framework to decide the best actions and to develop policies. 

Remember that almost all scientists are now agreed that humans are causing rapid climate change, and we have known for thousands of years that humans were causing global desertification. That means we are doing so in the only way that is possible – through our management of nature and human organizations. 

When you think of this whole spectrum of management – remember the things we “manage” are our lives, families, communities, organizations and nature.  Everything else we do is making things using technology.  All that we “manage” is described in Systems Science jargon as “complex soft” and “complex natural” systems.

With all that we are managing, clearly holistic management doesn’t have a large body of knowledge (like permaculture does) but using the holistic framework enables people to embrace all known science and other sources of knowledge and begin to manage complexity.  Humanity’s Achilles Heel.  

The only areas in the holistic framework where there is some body of knowledge unique to managing holistically is specified in my textbook. That is mostly the key insights that made the development of holistic management possible, and some new knowledge tied to financial planning, planning of livestock infrastructure as well as the holistic planned grazing process to reverse global desertification.  

There are two basic ways of managing and that is really what we all need to understand. Reductionist management as is all management and as management has always been – all ages, cultures and humans. And the newly developed holistic way of managing that hopefully will keep being perfected and understood. Right now most permaculture practitioners are engaged in applying permaculture principles and design while engaged in the universal reductionist management. A few, but increasing in numbers, have understood and trained with the Savory Institute or are involved in the many locally led and managed holistic management hubs around the world managing holistically applying permaculture principles and design.

I hope this clarifies more than it confuses.

Thanks Allan and yes this is all super helpful. I was excited to see you mention Fritz’s The Path of Least Resistance – I have found the ideas in that book powerfully complementary with holistic management. Especially the idea of consciously clarifying then paying attention to the tension between where our lives are and how we want our lives to be. We can then use this tension to create a path of least resistance our actions then naturally flow down.

Yes, Fritz I believe captured best why so many people start something with every good intent and determination, only to shortly thereafter drop it and revert to their old ways, or simply pick little bits of the new that don’t disturb their old ways too much.  We have experienced this with thousands of people and managing holistically.

While I have you I would love to ask a little more about this topic of managing complexity in a holistic way. I understand from much of what you’ve shared that the key distinction the future of humanity depends on is that between reductionist and holistic management.

The greatest danger to humanity is our inability to manage complexity.

Yesterday I was corresponding with a deep thinker.  I made the statement that I believe the greatest danger to humanity is not fossil fuels, climate change or desertification and the massive environmental destruction being driven by global finance. The greatest danger to humanity is our inability to manage complexity.  I say that because every one of the “things” we are blaming is a direct result of our policies and management of our resources.  And that management has always been reductionist – hence the failure of many civilisations and now global threat. 

Holistic management allows us to manage complexity. 

Yes, the holistic management framework enables us in all walks of life to manage complexity.  Like any breakthrough it is in its infancy – 35 years old roughly from when thousands of us working on it got it to the point we could no longer even cause failure in theory. 

Beyond thinking holistically to managing holistically

Given that before we can manage something, we need to be able to perceive it, I was wondering what guidance you might offer about developing our ability to even see complexity, let alone manage it.  In particular, I am stuck by how we tend to see the world in a mechanistic way, as if it were a giant machine. 

Yes, this is what many recognise as our “mechanistic world view” of modern science.  I once listened to a brilliant scientist giving a talk to a major gathering in Texas. He was explaining that science was beginning to see that everything was connected, etc. all the right wording and then to emphasise and make it very clear he used analogy – and he said we are beginning to see it as though it was a giant machine with billions of interconnecting parts!

Surely managing holistically requires seeing the world not as a dead assemblage of connected parts but as a living dynamic whole – an organism as it were. Do you have any pointers for how we might shift the lens we look through from a mechanistic, reductionism paradigm to something more in tune with living evolving whole systems?

No, I have no magic or way of getting the world to think holistically, but I believe it is coming about and that it is accelerating at present this changing worldview. Right now the covid pandemic is assisting that shift in worldview.  However that is not going to be enough. 

Why I say this is because we would be arrogant to think we are the first people in the history of the world to think holistically.  I believe the mechanistic worldview is relatively recent and developed mostly with western science. There is evidence that most past people and cultures viewed their lives as far more closely tied to their environment. I hear that native American tribes saw their connection closely and tried, in view of that, to think seven generations ahead with major environmental decisions. 

I believe the San (bushmen) in my part of the world saw themselves and their environment and the animals they fed on as inseparable. So deep is their understanding as hunter gatherers that they, and I believe some nomadic people abandoned their old people to die at some point – that to me indicates a very deep understanding, that past breeding and adulthood contributing fully to the group, every person at that point was a liability to the group because it was totally dependent on its life-supporting environment.  

So thinking holistically doesn’t cut it.  Essential as it is to shift society to a holistic worldview, that will not save humanity any more than it saved any past civilization thinking more holistically.  To save civilization and humanity we have actually to change how we make decisions in our day to day management and lives, and particularly where we operate at scale though institutions and policies.  Only by managing holistically and thus managing complexity can we address all that ails us including global desertification and climate change.

The challenge with making holistic management stick

Thanks again Allan I’m so appreciating your perspective on these matters. One thing I’m wondering regards the thousands of people trained in holistic management who you’ve mentioned soon revert back to reductionistic management. Are you noticing the proportion of folk for whom it sticks and doesn’t shift over the years? Have you been finding better ways of introducing it that increase the stick rate? Or maybe those for whom it sticks arrive at the training with a different attitude or perspective? This is obviously a crucially important matter and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how we might increase the odds given we are at the eleventh hour.

There are many factors playing on what you call the stick rate and I really have no answers, but continue to observe and try to learn.  Earlier it all seemed so simple – as I discovered what we call the new insights that made holistic management possible (all outlined in our textbook) the early ranchers mainly who sought my help were open about it. They came because they were going broke doing all the “right” things advocated by range scientists, researchers and agricultural economists. They had nothing to lose and were desperate. 

Then as literally thousands came to me for training the main appeal was that I could, and did, guarantee doubling their stocking rate while improving the land.  However by the time I was operating in North America and not only in Africa and South America, I knew that any focus on just the land or animals led to serious unintended consequences, but ranchers did not want to hear about social and economic considerations. 

I then went through a period of refusing to allow anyone to attend one of my grazing management workshops, unless they first attended a holistic financial planning workshop.  That led to increased successes, and to people thanking me for forcing them to get financial and social factors right first before building fences or increasing cattle. However, despite a published independent study showing early adopters averaged far greater profits (300% greater), the stick rate consistently remained low. 

A major factor in this I learned from Prof. Everett Rogers, who wrote the book “Diffusion of Innovations” and who served on a thinktank with me. Rogers describes how when people learn something new they generally give it a new name and twist of their own (ego at play). As a result, within a few months of me starting to train thousands of ranchers and academics in the US, there were about 13 new “grazing systems” being promoted.  Tragically these many people dropped the entire punchline and reason for success – All management being in a holistic context and using the Holistic Planned Grazing process. 

Even as I write, I am observing exchanges around the world now saying how we have to mimic the natural movement of herds of large animals in the past.  All of this comes from the Holistic Management framework and my TED Talk  – however, such thinking, combined with the reductionist management of those promoting it, will lead to endless unintended consequences because they are making no attempt to manage the complexity or understand the planning process with livestock that enables any practitioner to guarantee good results.

So, in summary, after decades I have no idea how to increase the stick rate or to stop distortion causing confusion and delay in healing our environment, economies, communities and more. 

Incidentally this problem is not unique to the concept of Holistic Management, it is universal.  Andre Voisin’s work I noted being totally distorted by academics and farmers, so much so in the US that my wife and I had his book reprinted so people could return to the original work. Also with the brilliant writing of Aldo Leopold in his “Game Management” and his focus on the importance of habitat to any species, I see professional academic wildlife managers advising policies of governments and the large environmental organization today such that some 30 National Parks around where I live are our most shocking examples of habitat destruction and biodiversity loss – far more dangerous than the poaching taking place. 

The paradigm shifts required to manage complexity

Another question I have is whether you are aware of initiatives to make managing holistically more accessible to everybody. I often come across people that hear your name and start sharing their (typically uninformed) opinions about the grazing side of holistic management. I am passionate about communicating to everyone, be they vegans, anti-livestock activists, or whomever, that the underlying decision making framework is powerfully useful in any context whatsoever and is not inherently tied to holistic grazing. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about this.

Dan, we know the problem.  Partly this is our fault but was unavoidable.  There are two counter-intuitive and major paradigm shifts for all of humanity involved in learning for the first time in history how we might manage complexity. Not only that, but most scientists and society do not even know that the greatest danger to humanity is not fossil fuels, livestock, global finance driving environmental destruction, etc.  It is our inability to manage the social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is the single cause of almost all that ails and threatens us.

First, there was our discovery that it is simply not possible to reverse thousands of years of man-made desertification using all the tools known to humankind and scientists advising world leaders. We are a tool-using species and have always really only had two tools with which to manage our environment – technology in all its ramifications, and fire.  As I explained in the now famous TED Talk, we have no option but to do the unthinkable and use livestock properly managed (meaning with the Holistic Planned Grazing process) to reverse global desertification playing a major role in climate change.

Secondly, there is the paradigm-shifting insight that from our emergence as humans, managing to improve our lives as we do, has always been reductionist using a genetically embedded simple decision-making framework. This human underlying decision-making framework is recognisable in all tool-using species and in us from earliest cave dwellers to the most sophisticated team of interdisciplinary scientists today. 

Increasingly the world is coming to accept that we live in a holistic and not a mechanistic world. And that daily we live in a web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is beyond human comprehension. Stripped to the core, all humans make decisions to meet our needs, desires or address problems. And to manage our environment at large we have only technology and fire, or the idea of resting our environment to allow recovery.  When, in such complexity, the context or reason for our actions becomes meeting our needs, desires or addressing problems it can only be called reductionist.

So, in summary you are correct, it is a pity that because of all the issues involved in society accepting new insights, and the fact that all human endeavours on any scale have to be through organizations/institutions themselves complex soft systems in Systems Science jargon the profound importance of the development of the Holistic Management framework is being clouded and obscured. Some of this I spoke about recently in the U.K. at their Groundswell gathering of farmers.

The individual leadership to inspire and the institutional scale of holistic management we need for meaningful change

Now I understand that for a long time but especially in recent years you have been looking at institutional stupidity and what it would mean to manage holistically when it comes to policy development and national and international governance.

While the youtube presentation you shared above lays out what it would mean for a whole country to have and manage toward a national holistic context, I’d be curious to hear any of your latest insights or reflections on this subject, and whether you are aware of any promising efforts or experiments in managing holistically at this kind of scale?

Let’s see how I can respond with least repetition – perhaps if I use a bulleted summary as I strip this down to the simplest logic and common sense, that we know institutions are incapable of:  

  • We have never doubted we are causing global desertification, and now almost all scientists are agreed – we are causing climate change.
  • This can only mean that our management and policies dictating management are the cause of climate change. There can be no other conclusion.
  • We can no more adapt to climate change than the proverbial slowly boiled frog. So policies change or civilization globally fails with all businesses and human endeavour.
  • If we are to address this grave danger remember it cannot be done by us as individuals.
  • We can only act at large scale though organizations – called institutions when formed for religious or professional purposes.
  • Agriculture is not crop production – it is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters – forestry, fisheries, wildlife food, livestock, wild plants and crop production.
  • Almost all of Earth’s land and oceans are now involved in agriculture – with roughly 6% of the surface growing crops. (20% of the land surface growing crops). Thus about 95% of the Earth’s surface is non-cropland agriculture feeding humans mainly from animal life.
  • Agriculture globally is totally dependent on four processes, through which our ecosystem functions – water cycle, mineral/ nutrient cycle, biological dynamics (life with stability and provided by diversity) and solar energy flow to all life through life.
  • Agriculture is destroying soil, soil life, ocean life, rangelands, savannas, tropical forests – biodiversity, without which civilization cannot continue, is decreasing even in national parks, insect populations falling, continental shelves silting, and all while chemical and electro-magnetic pollution increase and reach every part of the world accumulating in biological food chains and humans.
  • While our mismanagement of coal, oil and gas is extremely dangerous it is theoretically possible to replace fossil resources with benign energy sources using technology.
  • Many minds, including institutional minds, are focussing on alternative energy sources because humanity believes in technology providing solutions.
  • Agriculture is doing even more damage to our life-supporting environment than fossil fuels, ensuring continued desertification and climate change even if fossil fuel use stopped entirely tomorrow.
  • Agriculture is humanity’s Achilles Heel being ignored by institutions – universities, environmental organizations, governments and international agencies including COP – climate gatherings of which 25 have resulted in confusion and inaction.
  • Common sense tells any individual (scientist or lay person) that agriculture should be based on the biological sciences, including ecology, but institutional minds are basing mainstream agriculture on marketing of technology and chemistry.
  • We are tool-using animals – and for all of history have only really had two tools – technology in some form or fire – other than those we have the concept of resting the environment to allow recovery of biodiversity. So, understandably institutions only advocate the use of technology in some form, fire or conservation as the environmental solution to  every problem or policy.  
  • Remember in my TED Talk on desertification I explained why it is simply not possible to address desertification, and thus climate change, using only technology, fire or conservation (allowing biodiversity to recover under protection). Not a single scientist in any field or university has shown where that is wrong in over sixty years.

Those are some of the key reminders and all I believe are factual. They are points I have made many times in many words over half a century almost. And they have never been refuted to my knowledge, only ridiculed, rejected and opposed by academics and institutional scientists on the basis of “ proof by authority” not on basis of science or logic.

Now to your question as to whether there are any examples, or experiments, at managing at scale holistically?  First, you cannot experiment with managing holistically. This is because you are dealing with the unavoidable complexity of human organizations and nature. 

Think of it this way:  WWII was won by Allied leaders with clear goals, good decision-making, superb planning and the most up to date science, while directing research to where most needed. Today, global desertification, mega-fires and climate change feeding on one another are a more profound danger than all wars ever fought. 

Holistic Management is a way for humans to use the holistic framework to make better decisions using a holistic context to guide actions, a simple planning process using livestock to reverse desertification, the most up to date science, and an ability to direct research to where most urgently required (using the holistic framework in the research orientation mode).   While this, like WWII, can never be subjected to experimental protocols or design it does not make it anecdotal (as academics say managing holistically is) and we can  of course monitor results.  And there is a mass of data steadily increasing where people are monitoring results.

No, there is no example of managing at large scale because that is only possible through institutions and no individuals can bring that about. Let me just take your Permaculture concept as an example.

You have a great concept based on the biological sciences and you have many well established principles and designs and practices. Why are you not doing this at scale anywhere in the world after so many years?  Because that can never come about until the public (including Permaculturalists) insists that institutions change and begin developing policy holistically.  

Regenerative, Organic, Biodynamic, Sustainable agriculture are all in the same boat – they have good biologically-based foundations generally, but none of them are, or can be, practiced at scale until institutions are obliged by public demand to develop policies in national and international holistic contexts. And  as almost everyone, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, can now see how even a tiny invisible virus can do more to the global economy in a month than a world war does in years, maybe – just maybe the youth of today will demand policy development become holistic.

Six years ago in London I gave the keynote at the Savory Institute gathering and appealed to all groups in agriculture to not go on for another century arguing the merits and validity of “their solution or practice” but to unite and simply insist on policies being developed holistically.  Not a single scientist in the world can argue for policies to be reductionist, nor can anyone in any political party, branch of agriculture, university, environmental organization or even the global drivers of finance destroying our life-supporting environment.  This is one thing the world could unite about – the need for policy to be holistic in a holistic world needing to address future pandemics if nothing else.   Once the first policy changes in one nation watch the dominoes fall!  

This is one thing the world could unite about – the need for policy to be holistic in a holistic world needing to address future pandemics if nothing else.

You want PC principles at scale – change policy otherwise it will happen a century too late. Want to save elephants or whales in the wild –want to stop mass emigration to Europe – want to stop drug violence in America – want to stop wasting a Billion dollars a year in the US on noxious weed policy – want to minimize future pandemics – want to save civilization by addressing global desertification, mega-fires and climate change at its root cause? 

If any of such concerns mean anything to you and if you have any desire for future generations to enjoy a better and more secure future than the increasingly violent and chaotic world we live in today, then address the management that almost all scientists now agree is the cause of climate change. Something I remind you that only institutions can do, but cannot do until the public insists. There has been not a single case in history of any institution leading when paradigm-shifting insights are involved. That only individuals can lead and keep talking about and spreading the word till it happens.

Holistic management and regenerative agriculture and business

I was also wondering what you make on the rapidly growing currency of the word “regenerative”. Do you see any value in the widespread shift from the language of “sustainable” to the language of “regenerative”? How do you see the relation between the word “regenerative” and the word “holistic”? While I’m sure much of it is about using a different name without necessarily upgrading the underlying thinking, I have been encouraged by the depth of Carol Sanford’s work on what she calls regenerative or living systems thinking. Are you aware of Carol’s work and if so I’d be curious as to what you make of it?

While I cannot be sure, I believe the concept of regenerative agriculture arose through discussions that led Bob Rodale to coin the name. About the same time Bill Mollison was developing Permaculture, Wes Jackson was developing perennial grains, Fukuoka was promoting his work, Bob Rodale was focussed on organic crop production and of course we had the great minds whose shoulders we were standing on – Albert Howard amongst them.

I was on the outside of this being an ecologist passionate about wildlife and deeply concerned with the military and political consequences of the desertification problem.  Roger Brown produced a documentary film of me on the site of the ruins of the Chacoan civilization talking about sustainable civilization that I saw as the bigger issue – because throughout history we had been able to sustain people with agriculture but had to abandon the cities to much violence to do so.

And I had given a keynote talk to a large conventional agriculture group in which I called for an entirely new agriculture – because so many civilizations had failed under organic / grass fed, etc (in fact under everything people were calling sustainable agriculture)– and now we were facing global failure of civilization under mainstream agriculture.  Bob Rodale and I struck a chord and stayed with one another engaging in deep discussion. It was then that I heard the name regenerative from Bob who coined that term. I loved that and have used it since where appropriate.   As Bob so well put it that day, the new agriculture had to be regenerating soils, soil life, families, communities, towns and economies.  It had to go beyond anything we know today if we were to save civilization as we know it.

As Bob so well put it that day, the new agriculture had to be regenerating soils, soil life, families, communities, towns and economies.

Unfortunately I believe we are seeing people dumbing it down and simply changing names in far too many instances. In a White Paper on Regenerative Agriculture, published by Rodale Institute written some time after Bob’s death I see the holistic nature and intention has gone and it talks more of regenerating soil. Wonderful, and needed, as that is I am afraid that is not going to regenerate the ocean life, the national parks dying around me, nor the vast desertifying teak forests around me.

I can only hope as I die shortly, someone will remember that no agriculture can be truly regenerative unless it is an agriculture covering all of our Earth’s surface that is managed holistically – above politics, institutional egos, competing practices so that it is regenerating economies, communities, towns and cities and addressing climate change.

 You ask about Carol Sandford’s regenerative business teachings. I am impressed by her work and particularly her 7 principles of a regenerative business.  Clearly anyone following such practices would have an exceptional team of creative, entrepreneurial, people and the business functioning exceptionally well as she has apparently done for major clients like Dupont, Google and others. Now, rather than me tell you, ask yourself what you think?  Could that truly be regenerative? Remember as you answer this, that without agriculture we cannot have a church, university, town, army, politician, government or ANY business. How regenerative is agriculture answers your question about any of the businesses following those exceptionally good seven principles.  I am afraid, no business is on a solid foundation until institutions through which we manage agriculture at scale are developing policies using the holistic framework (or better when developed). 

Hope for the future

Allan thanks again for the candor and depth of your comments on all these important points – I’m feeling excited to start sharing our interchange with permaculturalists and many others I know will deeply appreciate your insights. 

The final question I have for now is about what, in these harrowing times, gives you most hope, or excites you the most. Where do you see the most potential for positive cultural transformation in the coming decade or so?

I recently read a survey that stated that a higher percentage of young people of today want to live truly meaningful lives than with previous generations. That gives me hope is something like climate change or the present coronavirus pandemic fires them up to look at concepts such as we are talking of, known, but ridiculed and blocked by institutional paradigm paralysis, for over half a century.

This pandemic is yet one more example of reductionist policy development leading to unintended consequences.  Many brilliant medical minds reducing the global cultural, economic and environmental complexity to “how do we control this virus” and developing policy. And the policies doing more economic damage than even major wars.  There are more such pandemics to come, and we are being overwhelmed by desertification and climate change.  In every case policies will be developed by narrowly trained specialists in the context of the problem and as this continues the unintended consequences will be ever escalating desertification, megafires, pandemics, violence and social breakdown. All of this, as we knew forty years ago, so easy to begin addressing sensibly using all available science by simply developing all policies in a holistic context – national in the case of nations, and a global holistic context in other cases.

This though cannot happen unless the youth of today insist on institutional change.


If you’re interested in learning more about holistic management in a farming context, visit the Savory Institute, Holistic Management International, Inside-Outside Management, and Regrarians. For applications of Holistic Management focused more on decision making in general, visit All Points Design or Dan’s own Holistic Decision Making.

Was this article useful? Become a Patron to support the creation of more pieces like this and to access support in applying holistic management and much else to grow your permaculture design capacities.

6 Comments

  1. Isn’t it sad, you can hear the frustration in Allans voice regarding the stick factor. I feel there are so many of us that support the fantastic work he has done but for some reason we like to separate ourselves, give it our own twist and sell it on instead of uniting. We need something to unite us, I feel a yearning for this, but feel frustrated that without funds we as farmers trying to scrape by, are excluded from further education on implementation. I am slowly working my way through the online education through the Savory Institute as I can afford it while scavenging every free or cheap scrap I can find online.

  2. I enjoyed the interview, thank you Dan. This sentence of Allan’s drives to the core: “No, I have no magic or way of getting the world to think holistically, but I believe it is coming about and that it is accelerating at present this changing worldview. Right now the covid pandemic is assisting that shift in worldview. However that is not going to be enough”. I have often wondered what the missing link or “key” to this problem was and after many years discovered it, in the writings of biologist Jeremy Griffith. Jan Smuts, in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution, conceived ‘holism’ as ‘the ultimate organizing, regulative activity in the universe that accounts for all the structural groupings and syntheses in it, from the atom, and the physico-chemical structures, through the cell and organisms, through Mind in animals, to Personality in Man’ (p.341 of 380). The “key” lies in “Personality in Man”: our Human Condition (as biologists refer to our capacity for so-called good and evil) and its understanding from a holistic, inductive scientific biological perspective. This deals with the “stick rate”. If we force institutions to enforce change, without understanding our Selves, holistically, we will repeat history. http://www.jeremygriffith.com

  3. Thanks Dan – great interview – that must have been a huge amount of work – but very worthwhile for us.

  4. What a wonderful interview Dan – thanks for taking the time to conduct this really important piece of work to connect permaculture and holistic management (or, depending on the context, Permaculture and Holistic Management).

    I think that Darren Doherty’s Regrarians platform is really the first to integrate these in a more formal way that helps to scale beyond implementation of practices. Certainly your own work and sharing the VEG Holistic Context was foundational to many permaculturists’ understanding of the intersection between the two.

    I’ve noticed a lot of folks stretching from ‘permaculture’ to an understanding of holistic management (even if just a cursory introduction), and then towards Carol Sanford’s work as a business framework, so was really glad to see you’d asked about that; and the use of the term ‘regenerative’. I didn’t know the backstory of Bob Rodale’s take on it vs. the more recent white paper, and am grateful to Allan for speaking candidly to his experience with it.

    I too grapple with how to take these ideas and practices beyond backyards and farms and into policy, governance and economic structures. It’s a thorny problem that hopefully we can continue to shove into the limelight with COVID-19 through working to continually draw a bigger, more holistic worldview beyond simply ‘controlling the virus’.

    Great job; thanks for the work you’re doing here to strengthen permaculture as a practice and system of design.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *