Climate Change – Cause and Remedy

barren land with scattered grass

In today’s doomsday world, I have a profoundly simple message of hope for the youth facing the future.

A change to a simpler form of management can address the cause of global desertification and climate change, by dealing with the full web of complexity that today we are incapable of managing. Let me explain:

That we are destabilized climate is becoming ever more obvious because of increasingly extreme and violent weather. This unnatural and accelerating change in an increasingly destabilized climate, brought about by the actions of humankind, will have consequences for future generations beyond our imagination today. It is simply not possible to measure such consequences in monetary terms or human suffering and lives lost.  While many adults are in denial of the problem, the youth of today facing the inevitable collapse of cities with violence difficult to even imagine, are not.

We cannot address human-induced climate change as individuals.  We can only do so through our institutions such as governments, universities, environmental and international organizations. Facing dangers worse than all wars ever fought, the failure to take action is of such concern that children, fearing for their future, are walking out of schools, rebelling, and demanding action – as did Swedish 15-year-old Greta Thunberg at COP24. Young people are right to demand action on two interconnected fronts: Environmental destruction due to global desertification leading to destabilizing the climate, and the rapid burning of fossil fuels exacerbating climate change.

I once heard a fellow scientist Elisabet Sahtouris state that if we had viewed our Earth from space over the last fifty thousand years we would describe humans as a desert-making species. Many issues society is today attributing to climate change are simply symptoms of global desertification caused by humans as I described in a 2013 TED Talk: Increasing frequency and severity of both drought and flood, poverty, social breakdown, mass emigration to cities and across borders (Europe and Americas), mega-fires, conflict, violence and war, as well as climate change.

Image: NASA

Unfortunately most people, given our mechanistic world-view, fail to understand that desertification, mega-fires, warming oceans and climate change are now feeding on one another in feedback loops.

What action should young people demand as they fear for their future? Unless the youth of today have new ideas, they can only demand more rapid action on the measures proposed by our institutions, billionaires and other celebrities:  Stop using fossil fuels and make electricity from environmentally benign sources of energy, eat less meat, invest in factory production of artificial meat, use technology and energy to geoengineer our climate by making biochar,  planting trees, developing swales to harvest runoff water – then as these fail consider further climate geoengineering by discharging chemicals into the atmosphere.

Let’s come down to Earth and old-fashioned common sense

To solve any problem common sense informs us that it is essential to address the cause of the problem.  If we do not address the cause of desertification and climate change we can guarantee failure.  

Ask almost anyone from Nobel Laureates to gardeners what is causing desertification and climate change and you will be told livestock, coal and oil.  

However, as I said in my TED Talk explaining global desertification blamed on livestock: “We were once equally certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then and we are wrong again”.  And now I would say the same thing about the certainty that livestock, coal and oil are causing climate change..

What is really causing both global desertification and climate change?

Livestock are a resource needed for centuries to come to feed and clothe people. Coal and oil are fossil resources with large carbon molecules needed to produce many products for centuries to come. And no resource can cause a problem.  This bears repeating.  No resource can cause a problem. What causes the problem is our burning of coal and oil and our management of livestock.

It is how we manage livestock, land and wildlife that causes desertification of the world’s seasonally arid regions, with high or low rainfall, that constitute about two-thirds of our planet’s land mass, which is where we began causing desertification thousands of years ago. 

That we call fossil resources “fossil fuels” and burn them at a damaging rate adding greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, accelerating climate change, is a management issue not to be blamed on these resources.

With 100% certainty it is management causing global desertification and climate change and all the many symptoms. When our experts and authorities inform us that climate change is caused by livestock, coal and oil, this is “proof by authority” not by science.

If, as I believe we must, we accept that it is management causing desertification and climate change, then redoubling our efforts on the measures above that address symptoms of desertification/mega-fire/climate destabilization feedback loops, we guarantee suffering beyond imagination for future generations. I believe the logic unarguable that demanding action, which does not address the cause of either desertification or climate change,  can only result in continued destabilizing of our climate, ever more violent weather, rising seas, expanding deserts, social breakdown, violence, religious conflict, emigration across borders all culminating in the global collapse of civilization as we know it.  On the other hand, a demand for our institutions to change management and thus address the cause of desertification and climate change, offers hope. 

Accordingly, it is important that young climate rebels represented by people like Greta Thunberg, or even AOC as she is becoming known in the US Congress, be better informed about the cause of climate change.  There can only be real hope for the future if the action demanded is to change our management and policy development, including international development projects such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What is it about management that results in causing desertification and climate change?

It could be argued that we are in the early stages of the second major paradigm shift in history.  The first major shift in world view was from a flat world with the sun going around us, to a round world orbiting a stationary sun. Now we are shifting gradually from centuries of mechanistic worldview to a holistic worldview.  Forty years ago, helped by many people on four continents, I discovered almost accidentally that management is, and always has been, mechanistic and what we today call reductionist.  It is our reductionist management causing almost all that ails us. With that discovery we also discovered how, with minor changes, we could manage holistically in all walks of life from household to governance and beyond.  Let me explain simply:

What we make is complicated, however, what we manage, such as organizations and nature, are complex and self-organizing 

Everything we do not manage in our material lives is something we “make” andeverything, without exception, that we make – from a toothbrush to space exploration vehicles, or electricity from solar, wind or any other source – stops working if a part breaks, fuel runs out, a battery goes flat. This is because nothing we make is self-organising. In systems science everything we make, such as space exploration vehicles, is defined as complicated but not complex, because it is not self-organizing.  On the other hand, everything that we manage keeps working, albeit in changed form, if people die or some species die because it is self-organizing. Essentially we manage human organizations and nature which all involve great self-organizing complexity. 

This self-organizing complexity ranges from our families to governance, farms, ranches, forests, fisheries, churches, religious organizations to vast international organizations and corporations.  There is an inescapable web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity.  Ultimately, if you think deeply, we manage with the aim of improving our lives that depend entirely on nature’s complexity in that we could not even breath without green plants and living soils. Another feature about managing complexity is that problems which occur can prove extremely difficult to solve. Such problems in Systems Science are called wicked problems.  For example, we don’t yet have a cure for the common cold, and it took over ten thousand years to solve the riddle of seemingly inevitable desertification, no matter what humans did to avoid it. 

Together, nature and organizations, constitute everything humans manage, from our families to governance, with minor exceptions. Management involves complexity, and it is our inability to manage complexity that is the cause of desertification and climate change, and most that ails us.

Rebecca Costa who wrote The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, concluded past civilizations failed because they could not address the complexity of rising population and deteriorating environment. They turned away from seeking knowledge, their equivalent of science, to religion and sacrifice – while shelving the problems for future generations. There are similarities with civilization today in such behaviour except that future generations are rebelling and demanding action rather than allowing adults to indulge in amassing temporary wealth, ridiculous arms races, violence between religious organizations, entertainment, sport and amusement to avoid responsibility for the future of humanity.

Libraries, bookshops and websites are full of management books giving the impression of a great many management options. However, if we ‘peel the onion’ and keep digging into every management option to the deepest level where the actual management actions are determined, we find the same core. All management has, through all cultures and time, been built on the same foundation which is genetically embedded and common to all tool-using animals. This basic reductionist framework – objective, tool to use, how decided – has been used since we first used sticks and stones as tools. Discovered in the 1980s it looks like this:

Billions of people take uncountable actions daily all over the world to achieve a great many objectives. All of these can be lumped under three main headings as the reason, or context, for our actions –to meet a need, meet a desire, or solve a problem.  To take any action beyond thought or theory we have to use a tool (tool-using animal) as we see even if wanting to drink water today. Unless we go to the nearest river and drink with our mouths, we cannot drink water without using technology (pipe, pump, cup, dam, etc.) So we determine an action which involves use of a tool to meet a need, desire or solve a problem. And then we make that decision always on one or more of many factors such as past experience, expert opinion, research results, tradition, beliefs, cost, profitability, expediency, friend’s advice,  peer pressure and so on endlessly. So let’s begin looking at all the tools we have in every profession in the world with which to manage our environment.

We have three tools:

  • Technology in its many forms
  • Fire
  • Resting the environment (conservation)

When society, and my fellow scientists, believe we have a great many tools and thus options, you might wonder at how I arrive at only three. I did this while commissioned by the U.S, government in the 1980s to train 2,000 professional people over two years in the use of the Holistic Management framework.  I had participants list every tool they had ever used, or been taught to use in any university in any profession, in their private or professional lives. That resulted in long lists of things that were all technology in its many forms. Apart from technology the only other tools any profession had ever used was fire or the action of resting the environment, commonly called conservation.

Some listed planting trees as a tool, which like drinking water, we cannot do without the tool of technology.  So this became the only other possibility known – using technology to plant trees to address desertification and now climate change – which has been done for over 2,000 years without success, and is now being advocated widely as though new thinking (even winning a Nobel Prize).

$30 Billion planting trees in UAE with desert sands marching on.

There is no tool in our present management framework (excluding the Holistic Management framework) that can either prevent or ever reverse global desertification as I explained in my TED Talk in 2013. I will return to this after looking at why we cannot manage complexity.

Earlier I mentioned that management in any situation cannot avoid a web of social, economic and environmental complexity. When we reduce this complex reality of life to meeting our needs, desires, or solving problems as the reason, or context, for our management actions that is best described as reductionist.  Think of it like this.  If I say I have decided to light a fire (action) you would have no idea whether I should or not until you asked me why?  What is my context for this action: If to cook our food in a safe fire place, fine; if simply lighting it on the floor to get warm it could burn the place down. 

In the holistic, real world, any action to meet a need, desire or solve a problem is too simplistic for the unavoidable web of complexity.  It is almost like lighting fires with no reason – and leads frequently to unintended consequences.

That we need to manage complexity is not a new idea.  The Santa Fe Institute is an organization of scientists around the world that for years has theorized how to manage complexity.  Governments together with universities have done their best to develop policies to deal with complex issues by integrating expertise from many disciplines as interdisciplinary policy development teams.

Unfortunately, policy development is an aspect of management that is reductionist even where the most sophisticated interdisciplinary teams of scientists develop policy. In such cases where every scientist is aware there will be social, environmental and economic consequences and the disciplines in the team cover all of these fiefdoms, the web of complexity is consistently reduced to the problem addressed, as the context for policy actions. The result, as we see for example with policies of the U.S. on drugs, noxious plants, terror, or immigration is that the problems increase and lead to unintended consequences. The large sample of 2,000 US government, university and World Bank officials training to use the holistic framework analysed hundreds of their own policies. They concluded every policy would fail and lead to unintended consequences. So common is this phenomena that economists refer humorously to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

I return now to our three tools.  Global desertification, and thus destabilization of our climate, was inevitable simply because we lacked any tool to prevent this happening, from the time we acquired fire, spear and language (enabling organized hunting by an omnivorous scavenger – something the world had never seen). As I explained in my 2013 TED Talk, two of our tools – fire and resting the environment (conservation) have lead to varying degrees of desertification over about two thirds of Earth’s land area. The remaining tool – technology – can never even in our imagination replace the essential role of herding ungulates and pack-hunting predators in the biological cycling of annually dying plant material in seasonally dry environments.  This role had been played by large grazing animals that we mostly wiped out and replaced with few domesticated animals progressively during the last 100,000 years or so as global desertification expanded. Scientists to this day in our large environmental organizations insist that fire can replace the role of animals in the world’s grasslands. They do this because it has long been known that the gradual breakdown of perennial grass plants by oxidation weakens or kills the plants and this is prevented by burning. Unfortunately, fire does not replace biological decay and it exposes soil leading to desertification.

Because of the fact that we have to use large ungulates mimicking nature of old as a tool in some manner, and that today in practical terms means livestock, we must add them to our human toolbox.

What does managing holistically that offers all of humanity such hope look like?

Holistic Management is faster, easier, less risky, more harmonious and uses all available scientific knowledge as well as other sources of knowledge.  Most of all, it reverses desertification and begins seriously to address climate change. So how does this happen?

Obviously we will always continue to manage with the underlying intention of improving our lives and so will continue as before to achieve needs, desires and address problems. However, instead of reducing the web of complexity to such simplicity, when managing (or developing policy) holistically we use a pre-determined single over-arching “holistic context” to guide management in any situation.  Additionally, we add livestock as a fourth tool so that we can begin to reverse desertification and develop truly regenerative agriculture based on the biological sciences.

Over the past fifty years having trained thousands of people in all walks of life – from semi-literate herders to university professors – I have never found ignorance blocks learning. What does block learning is our egos or what we already know or believe.  So, thankfully young people not having yet based their self-esteem on their expertise are like sponges absorbing new counter-intuitive or paradigm-shifting knowledge such as learning to manage holistically. 

The first step in Holistic Management is to determine clearly what exactly is being managed and by whom and for whom. This we call establishing the whole under management and we do this both because everything in nature operates in such wholes, and we need to determine who it is that develops the essential holistic context to guide the management or policy.

Because the concept of a single holistic context is new here is a generic example I use when visiting new places, reading research papers, policies, newspapers or simply listening to people talking about their management.  I can use a generic holistic context like this, while forming an opinion as to whether the actions or policies would lead to such lives, because it is how almost all humans wish to live:

We want stable families, living peaceful lives, in prosperity and physical security, while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs.  We want adequate, nutritious food and clean water.  We want good education and health, in balanced lives, with time for family, friends and community and leisure for cultural and other pursuits. All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of ethical and humane behaviour to all life, regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans.

Some situations require what we call a real holistic context – developed by the people involved in the management. Some require a generic holistic context because the millions of people affected cannot together develop the holistic context needed for good governance.  The main role of government is developing policies (from which flow laws and regulations that today are leading to unintended consequences because of public frustration in many nations.) With either a real holistic context or generic one, depending on circumstances, we then go about business pretty much as before – we still have goals to achieve to meet our needs, desires, and solve problems.

To avoid unintended consequence of management by highly, but narrowly, trained people, we now open our minds to all established scientific principles, as well as traditional knowledge, as we manage beyond the narrow fiefdoms of expert advice in an entirely non-discipline specific manner. When deciding on any action to use any tool we still go through all the normal considerations as we have always done – past experience, research, expert opinion, cost and suchlike considerations but now doing our best to ensure our actions are in line with the holistic context. 

Making management decisions in this way becomes easier because most people intuitively know if what they are considering is in line with their holistic context.  However, when there is any doubt we use seven filtering questions that help us ensure that the management of our lives, businesses, policies, etc. are in line with the holistic context, while meeting needs, desires or solving problems. Apart from actually making management decisions in this holistic manner, there is one other essential step I mentioned earlier – that is the necessity of adding one more tool to our small tool box.

The missing tool – livestock. 

The tool that has been missing – as I described in my TED Talk and in great detail in the textbook Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment.  Island Press 2016 – is livestock.

During all my earlier work striving to first understand, then remedy desertification in the 1950s and 60s I was influenced by my education and societal beliefs and thus vilified livestock for causing desertification.  In 1957 I coined the term “game ranching” trying to give wildlife a value so that we could get rid of livestock and reverse the land degradation that I incorrectly believed livestock were causing. It was humiliating to find, from my observations in the field first, that I was wrong and have to back down and swallow all my words in public. It was a turning point in my life to suddenly understand that we scientists had no option but to learn how to manage livestock to mimic herds of old that were essential for the healty functioning of grasslands and savannas. 

Unfortunately, it was not only me as a young scientist trying to save wildlife, who hated livestock. Ancient texts, I am told, blame livestock for causing the deserts of biblical antiquity.  It is important to understand, that it was my conclusion that only livestock properly managed could save civilization as we know it, and not Holistic Management itself, that led to half a century of institutional resistance, ridicule and abuse of my management ideas. Today it is largely institutional vilification of livestock that underlies the media and celebrity vegan, artificial meat drive today.  Tragically, this public perception of livestock as necessarily deleterious, has drowned the very idea of Holistic Management providing a way of managing complexity, something, independent of livestock, no scientist or institution has opposed.

Allan Savory

Allan Savory

Allan is a lifelong ecologist and the creator and co-founder of Savory Institute. He originated Holistic management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources. His Holistic Management textbook, and Holistic Management Handbook have influenced thousands of ranchers and land stewards across the globe.
More from Savory

Leave a Reply


Popular Posts