Allan Savory | Sept. 2020 | Tony Coote AM Memorial Lecture


In this talk, delivered September 2020 for the Mulloon Institute’s Tony Coote AM Memorial Lecture, Allan Savory examines some of the key challenges of our time – desertification, mega fires and climate change – and how changing land management practices can help address some of these using a more holistic decision making process.

A recording and transcript of the lecture are below.

Lecture Transcript:

I wish to thank the Mulloon Institute for inviting me to present this year’s Tony Coote AM Memorial Lecture as a tribute to Tony, following last year’s oration by your former Governor-General. Major General Michael Jeffrey.

I intend to talk about regenerative agriculture at a depth society could not relate to before the pandemic but might now.

Australians and all nations now face grave dangers from desertification, mega-fires and climate change that are fueling one another.

The fate of your grandchildren, like frogs in slowly boiled water, lies in the hands of your generation running the country now more than any time in history.

So serious is the situation that young people are pleading and demanding action from politicians – who are the world leaders. Behaviour unheard of in previous generations.

But what action should your Prime Minister take? What action should the leaders of all nations take because these dangers are global?

This is the subject of my lecture today because I feel it is fitting to Tony’s memory, and it is frankly the most profoundly important subject in the world that we should all be talking about.

Whether they are political or religious, world leaders- depend on scientific advisors. So, what sort of advice is being offered to political leaders?

Scientific experts have been gathering in thousands of meetings and conferences. These include 25 global climate conferences – known as COP 1 to 25. These conferences, vital to the future of humanity, have resulted in conflict, chaos and confusion mostly around greenhouse gases from fossil fuels. Despite the gravity, there has been little if any discussion about desertification, or even about agriculture playing a greater, and more lasting, role in mega-fires and climate change than fossil fuels.

Frankly I don’t believe your Prime Minister, or any politician anywhere, is getting any sound advice about what to do in response to the demands for action. They are in the same position that I was in fifty years ago, when I was President of a political party in Parliament.

Having grappled with the issue of environmental degradation for so long, I intend in this lecture to talk about what I learned. I need to tell some of my personal story because it is unique as you will learn, and it has great bearing on the dangers we face.

As a starting point, I am going to take it as an unarguable truth that if we do not address the cause of a problem, we cannot solve it.

So, what is the cause of climate change? With that in mind if we look at the many climate conferences, we see that the same scientists, wallowing in confusion, have acknowledged the cause of climate change. However, we also see that they failed to recognize that they have done so.

Because to succeed politicians have to address the cause, I intend to focus on that alone and how it could be addressed.

For thousands of years we knew that we were causing desertification because of the way we managed livestock. But with climate change we have been through years of denial and reluctance to accept that we humans could be causing it. However, recently the vast majority of scientists have agreed that we are causing it.

The acknowledgement that we are causing climate change means the cause is management. There is no other possible explanation.

Despite now knowing that management is the cause of climate change, most of society, media and our institutions continues to blame livestock, coal and oil per se. Livestock, coal and oil are resources. While, like all resources, they are involved, it is only the management of such resources that results in desertification and climate change.

There is a vast difference between our many management actions that we debate and argue over endlessly at climate conferences – and how, when managing, we decide those many actions. About management there is no debate at all in any conferences.

When over sixty years ago I recognized that our management of the land was causing great damage even in wild parts of Africa– we did not have today’s short sound bite world, and no one talked of desertification or climate change. And science, at least for me in the remote African bush, was largely pencil, notebook, observation, deduction, interpretation and hours of thought and discussion around campfires. Science was not only academia and peer-reviewed publications.

As far as I know, I was the first young biologist recruited into any Game Department in Africa. At 16 I was ready to leave school and become a Game Ranger, but the minimum joining age was 25 because of the dangers. An old ranger who knew me advised me to go to university to get older, and I did. Then the British Colonial Office made an exception and I joined at 20 with a very lowly degree.

A year later I was thrown into deep water when promoted to a senior position, responsible for 200 staff and managing wildlife over an area about the size of the United Kingdom.

My university training as an ecologist had taught me that burning grasslands was essential. Every year we burnt millions of hectares to provide a green flush for the animals and to keep the African savannas healthy. In fact, we managed the landscape with fire – much as Aborigines did for thousands of years.

Almost everywhere I found that the environment was deteriorating, and it was affecting the elephant’s diets and movements and causing conflict with the people. I simply could not connect what I was observing with soils, weather or anything but our management.

Frankly I felt very inadequate and responsible as a kid with a bachelor’s degree with everyone expecting me to know what to do about the degradation – and especially in areas that we intended as future national parks.

In about 1956 the famous ecologist Frank Fraser-Darling was sent out by the British Government to report on the situation in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. Because I was in charge of management as I said over an area about the size of the UK Fraser-Darling spent six weeks in the field with me conducting him around.

Every night at our campfire, sometimes alone, sometimes with others we discussed the inexplicable soil erosion and habitat deterioration I was showing him.

Both of us knew that habitat destruction was far more dangerous to wildlife than poaching.

Frequently, I expressed my view that people like myself as professional managers were a major part of the problem because we did not know what we were doing.

When we parted, still as friends, after six wonderful weeks Fraser Darling said to me — Allan you have only two choices ahead of you. You will either go back to university publish papers and not worry about what happens, or you will go into politics. I swore blind I would do neither.

Twenty years later, in Scotland, I visited Sir Frank who had by then been knighted and I reminded him of our last discussion, and sheepishly told him he proved right. I was now President of a political party leading the opposition in Parliament!

By force of circumstances I had not only became a political leader trying put a stop to land degradation, but also as an army officer trying to end a bitter civil war. A war in which I fought for twenty years and commanded a tracker combat unit – and so I spent literally thousands of hours tracking down my fellow countrymen. What was a tragedy in many ways turned out a blessing.

Later a South African – Lieberman – was to write a book “Tracking the Origin of Science”. I believe he is correct and science, as we now know it, began thousands of years ago. It began with the incredible powers of observation, deduction and getting into the mind of the animal or human you are tracking, when your life depends on it, requires.

Today I know that my view is coloured by years of deep concern with first trying to understand, and then to solve why management by humans led to environmental degradation. Degradation that we now recognize is playing a major role in mega-fires and climate change.

I lecture today from a position of no expertise in climate change. The solution I present could not have been discovered in any university or institute. Nor in any one country – nor in any profession or by any one person. It required a peculiar set of circumstances that I was thrown into – beginning as a government biologist but becoming an independent scholar supporting my work and family in every way I could – as a farmer, soldier, rancher, game rancher, politician and then international consultant. And then as a political exile commissioned to train literally thousands of scientists and managers from American government agencies, universities and the World Bank in the early 1980s.

I do not give doomsday talks or lectures so let’s now look at what I think could be done, based upon what many of us have learned over the past sixty years.

For simplicity I will talk climate change rather than keep repeating desertification and mega-fires because they are one issue being caused by the same management and policies.

Climate Change is the problem politicians have to address. And the cause is management.

Management occurs at two fundamental levels – as individuals you or I can choose to change light bulbs or ride a bicycle to work. As individuals and families, we can, and do, develop policies to prevent or deal with problems in our homes, or in small communities.

However, management on a large scale we can only do through institutions and the policies they develop. And developing policies, as I learned when President of a political party is the main role of government. Governments rule through policies that become laws and regulations.

Faced as your government is with environmental degradation culminating in climate change, logically all that your Prime Minister can do is to mobilize Australia to address the crisis with the nation solidly behind him.

With the situation more profoundly dangerous than all wars ever fought, do we have any precedent? Yes, we do.

Allied political leaders managed and won WWII by superb leadership, mobilizing and directing – their armed services, corporations, universities and scientific researchers – under the best leaders they could engage to head every institution. Personal and institutional egos were largely swept aside, as were ineffective leaders of armies, corporations, research establishments, or any of the other institutions involved. Politicians even had to replace peace time generals with others of a different mindset.

While science played an enormous role, scientists did not manage the war cabinets of Prime Ministers, Dictators or Presidents – world leaders did. And in just the same manner your Prime Minister sooner or later is going to have to lead you Australians.

Now, if your Prime Minister, or any world leader, is to mobilize to manage the crisis more serious than any war how might he or she do so?

First, we need to look at what is wrong in our management that is causing climate change.

To help you understand this I need to explain the distinction between what we manage, and what we make or produce and to do so by looking at a very big picture.

There are three things we manage:

  • We manage humans (our lives, families, communities and our institutions).
  • We manage nature.
  • We manage economies.

We do not make or produce organizations, nature or economies – all of these we manage.

Everything else we do we make or produce — from a toothbrush to space exploration vehicles. We produce food and fibre from nature. We make electricity & useable energy from nature – coal, oil, nuclear, geothermal, moving water, wind and solar. And of course, we produce wonderful structures, cities, works of art and music.

Now that we know that management is the cause of climate change we need to look at any difference that could be significant between the things we make and those we manage.

Everything we make, without exception, requires technology in some form. Everything we make or produce ends, or stops working, if we stop making it or a part is missing or breaks, if fuel runs out or battery dies. Nothing that we make is self-organizing and in Systems Science everything we make is defined as a complicated system.

The three things that we manage are very different. They are self-organizing. Although they change, they keep functioning if people die, or even if hundreds of species become extinct. And as I have learned, even when an entire economy and currency collapses as it did in my country, the people and black market kept the country running. In Systems Science everything that we manage is defined as a “complex system.”

Self-organizing defines complexity.

With the things we make, at least in the short-term, all appears well. Massive industrial production of food, ever more powerful weapons, mass entertainment, more comforts, better communications and transport. There seems no limit to what we make or produce.

I can understand why physicist Stephen Hawking could believe the future of humanity lies in colonizing Space. And why some scientists believe we can use technology to make our climate by geo-engineering.

When we look at things we manage we see a very different picture. One of escalating problems and catastrophes like one tsunami after another. We can explore outer space — fly faster than sound — destroy a city in a flash. But we cannot put the simplest things right in our one and only home – our human habitat.

If I take the simplest example – managing national parks to preserve nature’s beauty and biodiversity. Around where I live are large national parks that are shocking examples of environmental destruction, biodiversity loss & desertification contributing to climate change. Managed by governments & the world’s large environmental organizations no one can blame coal, oil, livestock, greed, corruption or anything but management by the best of our scientists.

If ever there was a greater case of dead canaries warning us that we are destroying our human habitat I cannot imagine it.

Whatever is wrong with management has to do with managing complexity as defined in systems science.

Earlier I said that we can manage on a large scale only through institutions that are themselves complex with wicked problems – almost impossible to solve. Problems that don’t exist with the things we make, where problems are capable of relatively easy solution.

One such institutional wicked problem has not been solved since the days of Galileo and it is now endangering humanity.

No matter how caring, intelligent or brilliant the people are in institutions, the institutions simply do not accept truly new knowledge that is opposed to human beliefs until the views of society begin to change.

Until society sees commonsense in new thinking, institutions oppose and ridicule truly paradigm-shifting new knowledge.

So far I have told you nothing new. Nothing I did not learn from history, social science, research, reading, and thousands of discussions with concerned people around dinner tables and camp fires over more than half a century.

At this point I have to talk about new discoveries — insights that go against thousands of years of human belief.

I need to talk about two totally new management insights that do not involve any new technological discovery. They are mundane and simple although they do conflict with thousands of years of human belief.

What are our beliefs about management?

We believe that there are a great many ways of managing. University libraries and bookstores are full of authoritative books, and prestigious universities churn out thousands of management experts in many fields. I too once believed there were many ways of managing.

In the mid 1960s faced with trying to learn how to use livestock to reverse desertification, I had concluded that some planning process was essential because every way humans had ever managed livestock led to desertification.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I solved the problem by using 300 years of European military experience of planning in immediate battlefield situations. What they had worked out for complicated fast changing situations, I simply adapted and developed as a grazing planning process.

That worked immediately, including in a successful international trial and it spread to about fifty ranching properties over five countries I was consulting in. We were all excited. Then I became a political exile unable to live in southern Africa. And all properties began regressing in 1980. Something was missing.

Analyzing every case I could, I realized the problem was me. I had solved how to address very complicated situations with animals and land, but not the social/cultural/institutional – or human and economic complexity. And so once more in 1980 I began looking at management even more deeply seeking clues or answers.

In doing this, I realized that every way of managing, without any exception, had to culminate in decision-making at some point. This was where things were going wrong – not with the planning of the animals and grazing – but with the family or company decision-making affecting the business as a whole.

And so, I began to “peel the onion” as I call it – peeling off layer after layer until that point at which actual decisions are made. In every way that there is of managing, at some point decisions have to be made. After all, all management is really decision-making.

At that point – the core – where every human decision is made, I found that all management is identical. Regardless of what is being managed, how, when, or by whom – the actual decisions are always made in the same manner.

The core in human decision-making looks like this:

  • We make decisions to achieve various objectives to meet some “need”, “desire” or to “address a problem”
  • We use some tool.
  • And we make every decision on one or more of many factors.

That is the core at the centre of all management by humans. It is almost childishly simple and obvious once we recognize it.

The actual one or more factors on which we make our decision are endless – things such as past experience, expert advice, research results, intuition, cost, profitability, cultural norms, emotion, fear, compromise, expediency, beliefs, political ideology, taboos, laws, regulations and so on.

Once we recognize this simple core we see it everywhere from managing our lives to the most sophisticated interdisciplinary scientific team exploring space, or developing any policy. And we recognize it is how our ancestors made decisions from before they learned to light fire. It is genetically embedded.

At this point, we see that our universal belief that there are a great many of ways of managing becomes questionable when they all have the same core where the decisions are made.

So, let us now look and see if there is some flaw in this core that explains why we have such difficulty managing complexity. I will begin with nature.

The present pandemic has created global awareness that a tiny virus can do more economic damage in a couple of months than was done during the second world war in which I grew up.

Fifty years ago, when I was struggling to understand, I drew heavily on the theory of General Jan Smuts Prime Minister of South Africa who in 1926 wrote “Holism and Evolution.”

Einstein, who knew and understood Smuts, is alleged to have said he believed two constructs would have great impact on the world. One of course being his own Theory of Relativity, and the other Smuts’ concept of holism.

Smuts pointed out functions in wholes and patterns from atoms (in his day) to the universe. Smuts theorized how from matter, eventually consciousness and mind evolved. There are no parts or connections in nature, only wholes and patterns. Somehow, I gathered complexity involved indivisible wholes and patterns. That is too theoretical for most of us, including me.

So, I brought Smut’s thinking down to practical, simple reality by recognizing that in management at any level, we were always dealing with an indivisible web of complexity.

Most economists do not recognize the fact that the only economy that can sustain us is one built on a foundation of photosynthesis. Reading the biography of a Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank I noted he only mentioned agriculture once.

I worked for 4 years with two American professors who were Fulbright Scholars, and other Americans were observing my work in the 1960s and 70s. And in the early 1980s as a political exile I was commissioned by far-sighted officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put some 2,000 scientists in American land management agencies, as well as from USAID, World Bank and major universities through a week of training over two years.

I was training this large sample of professional people in the use of a new management framework I was developing. Given the opportunity of two years of intense participation, enthusiastic contributions and harsh academic criticism by probably the largest sample of professional people ever to concentrate on managing complexity, enabled me to realize where the main problem lay.

We manage to improve our lives and are always dealing with a web of human, environmental and economic complexity. However, with our hardwired decision-making core we do not recognize that fact.

Even when politicians have a problem to address knowing it will have social, economic, political consequences and they pull together a sophisticated interdisciplinary team of all the necessary scientists what happens? The team develops policy based on all of their points of view in the context of that problem – be it drugs, terror, immigration or noxious plants.

Think of your own lives – personal or business -and I doubt you will find many decisions that you did not make to meet some need, desire or deal with a problem. Any rare decision not for those reasons is still made in the same manner.

To improve our lives is an ideal context for our decisions. However, our lives are indivisible from nature and economy and we ignore this web of complexity at our peril.

Through the two years of intense discussions seeking flaws in the logic or science with the harshest of academic critics, it became apparent that we needed some concept to guide all management that tied our lives, environment and economy together. A holistic context within which all management decisions could be made.

It was then that I, and the American Inter Agency Committee, with which I was working realized that reductionist management and policy development was universal. And I brought the word “holistic” into the decision-making management framework we were developing.

The holistic context is a statement by the people responsible for management on how they want their lives to be tied to their behaviour and life-supporting environment not as it is now, but as it will have to be to sustaining future generations living similar lives. There is no concept like this in any branch of science, religion or philosophy and that made if difficult indeed to learn what was missing.

There are guidelines or rules to developing the necessary holistic context in any situation from the individual to a national level. Things such as absolutely no discussion about any present problem, or poor state of the environment. No reference to any practices, or what should be done. There can be no prejudice against any future action. No political ideology and no tie at all to marketing, branding, mission statements or goals. In particular, there has to be total agreement without any compromise – especially in situations of great conflict.

Once the appropriate people in any management situation have developed their own holistic context, management proceeds as before.

Essentially and without disruption we do what we have always done and go about meeting our needs, desires or addressing problems. We open our minds to all science and other sources of knowledge, and we still make decisions based on one or more of many factors.

However, where our needs, desires and problems were both the reason and context within which we made decisions, they are no longer. While they remain the reason why we are making any management decisions we now do so in a holistic context. And we also now ensure that even our objectives, goals, missions or visions are in that holistic context.

Now let’s look at a second flaw in universal decision-making.

I have talked about one flaw explaining why we find it difficult to manage complexity. Now I have to talk about another that makes it simply impossible to address desertification and mega-fires and thus ultimately climate change – even if we had been able to manage complexity.

Earlier I mentioned that we are a tool-using animal. Let me now return to that.

When we manage nature we apply our creativity, labour and money through tools. No one listening to me now can even drink water without using a tool, unless you go to the nearest river and drink with your hands and mouth.

When I was commissioned to train those 2,000 professional people by the American government I knew that they believed they had a great many tools at their disposal, and thus options to manage our environment – nature.

Accordingly, I had everyone list every tool they had ever been taught to use in any university in the world, or in any profession, and also to list any tools they might ever have used in their private lives. In each session literally hundreds of tools were listed by those men and women.

We then broke all the many tools into categories. And doing this it became clear to everyone that we only had two tools. We had our ever-advancing technology since the stone age, and we had fire. We also learned that we could categorize one other action as a tool and that was the idea of resting nature to allow recovery of biodiversity – commonly called conservation.

As I had discovered in the 1960s, desertification occurred only in seasonal rainfall environments where chemical oxidation replaced biological decay in annually dying vegetation where there were too few animals – like most of Australia. Desertification did not occur where oxidation did not replace biological decay no matter how old vegetation was regardless of animals.

The rainfall in London and Johannesburg is about the same. Around London dead grass decays biologically and desertification does not occur. Around Johannesburg dead grass mostly does not decay but breaks down chemically by oxidation and desertification occurs. A profound difference we ecologists and scientists failed to spot until I observed it in the field and drew attention to it fifty years ago.

And in a 2013 TED Talk viewed by millions of people, I explained why we have no option but to use livestock as a tool without which it is simply not possible to reverse desertification playing, as it does, a major role in climate change.

It is going to require millions more animals on the land to reverse desertification than we can even imagine today after centuries of belief that too many animals caused desertification.

Thankfully today due to training thousands of people – and the TED Talk – millions of people are now aware of things like capped soil and oxidation and are saying that we have to use livestock mimicking nature.

Now let me wrap up.

The cause of desertification, mega-fires and climate change is management. That I believe no reputable scientist would any longer dispute.

Management by politicians and governments on a large scale is done by scientific experts, academics and lobbyists advising or pressuring politicians on policy. While politicians are surrounded by specialists and experts far more intelligent and knowledgeable than I am, I believe they do not have any expertise in managing complexity.

And managing complexity is what political world leaders and your Prime Minister have to do as they mobilize to act as is being demanded.

I could leave it at that, but in view of the gravity of the problems we face if you will indulge me, I will end my lecture in an unusual way.

I would be negligent if I did not break with tradition and end with a recommendation based on everything that I have learned in a long life devoted to finding solutions.

The demand for action is going to increase. The conflict can only increase as it has been doing all my life. No one is truly assisting world leaders by even suggesting how they might mobilize and manage the situation more dangerous than all the wars ever fought.

As a former President of a political party and Member of Parliament, I understand why no Prime Minister or President can act decisively as our youth are demanding.

With such thoughts in my mind and knowing what I now know, what would I do if the responsibility stopped with me? What would I do if I was your Prime Minister expected to act on a war-footing just as allied leaders did to manage the Second World War?

Let me explain what I would do as a way of making a recommendation.

First, if I was your Prime Minister I would carry on as usual and take no political risk. I would govern as Australians expect, developing policy as you do on the basis of expert advice and lobbyist pressures as normal.

While preparing this lecture, I heard on the BBC that Australian scientists are advising the use of fire to prevent mega-fires – by burning inflammable material before it can accumulate and lead to a mega-fire.

Desertification, mega-fires and climate change are inseparable. Using fire in this manner could in the short-term decrease mega-fires – be a band aide. But long-term both desertification and climate change are likely to increase for two reasons.

First, fire is a major factor in desertification and climate change. And second this policy does not address the cause of climate change – and we have to address the cause.

So, as your Prime Minister knowing this can only be a band aide, I would support such fire-fighting in any policy and take no political risk because the nation expects it and it is the best advice currently available to me.

However, while carrying on a usual, I would establish a small Climate Policy Taskforce. This task force would be composed of four to six well-educated people – say a good liberal arts education. People with no expertise in policy making and or expertise in climate change, desertification or agriculture.

I would charge this taskforce with facilitating the development of a national policy to address the three greatest issues – desertification, megafires and climate change. A policy that addresses the cause which is current management.

Such statesmanship above politics the nation would respect. There is of course no place for political ideology, nor any lobbyist, specialist ego or financial vested interest in such policy. The policy that emerges will be based on addressing the full web of complexity but in a national holistic context.

I would expect the task force to first familiarize themselves with the Holistic Management policy analysis & development process – getting what assistance or training they need. Thereafter the taskforce would involve all of Australia’s scientists and specialist experts in all fields in the development of any policy.

The taskforce would not develop the policy. They would facilitate its development making sure knowledge of every scientist, economist, academic is brought to bear as the policy is developed by the nation. And I would anticipate the task force delivering the broad structure of workable policy within a year. That is not far-fetched because almost all the knowledge you need is already in Australia amongst your many experts in different fields and in your universities – reductionist policy development is the cause of climate change not a lack of knowledge.

I would expect the task force to deliver a policy that has full support of all Australians – young and old. Policy that can then be finetuned ready for adoption. This will require further time obviously because it could well run to several policies – in agriculture, mining, finance, education, national parks, forestry, etc. All of them coordinated under one overall umbrella climate policy.

That is what I would do.

What is the risk with what I am suggesting — a policy task force running concurrently with government as usual? The only risk is that no workable policy is developed and perhaps a million dollars are wasted.

What is the upside of what I am suggesting? Policy supported by the nation emerges and is adopted in due course. And the value simply cannot be measured.

It is impossible to measure the value in any monetary form or in the millions of lives that will be saved by Australia being the first nation to begin seriously addressing the cause of climate change.

Thank you for the honour of inviting me to present today’s lecture about the future of Australia and the world that I know Tony Coote dreamed of when he established the Mulloon Institute.

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.
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