Why we can put a man on the moon but cannot manage our only home – Planet Earth


In a long life I have given many talks on profound issues but I consider what I have to say today the most important talk of my life.

We live in turbulent times facing grave problems –increasing dissatisfaction with failing government policies, massive biodiversity loss on land and at sea, expanding deserts and climate change. And we are aware of the results: migrants flooding into Europe, civil wars such as in Syria, mounting conflict in the vast region right across North Africa up into China. That is a very short list.

All of these, and many more problems, are self-inflicted wounds not caused by any natural phenomena.

I believe the situation we face is a greater danger than all wars ever fought. When all nations should be mobilizing to address such danger our governments, and international agencies, wallow in confusion.

These problems are not new – what is new is the global scale.

When so many brilliant minds over centuries have failed to address such problems – while we have the technology, and knowledge, to put a man on the moon – it indicates to me that there must be a simple underlying reason. Why can we explore space, but we cannot manage our only home – Planet Earth – to keep her healthy while feeding ourselves at the same time. Why is it that as intelligent beings we cannot live in harmony with one another and our environment that sustains us? There is a simple reason that I will explain.

When I came to the United States as a political exile I gained entry in that class of scientists with specialized knowledge from which the United States would benefit. Within a short while far-sighted people in the American government engaged me to provide training in Holistic Management. Over two years about 2,000 scientists, officials drawn from all land management agencies, and faculty members from agricultural universities, as well as USAID and the World Bank attended training sessions.

This large sample of academics, managers and policy developers analyzed their own policies and did not find one likely to succeed. But each group also figured out how to modify those policies so they would succeed. One group made a statement and I quote “We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the United States.” Frankly this is global.

I did similar training on a smaller scale in India and in Lesotho — which led officials to similar conclusions. In Zimbabwe I facilitated a workshop to develop an agriculture policy with 35 members of Parliament in violent conflict between their political parties. Using the holistic framework to develop the policy they worked in complete harmony. They produced a policy that if applied would result in millions more people out of cities on the land producing clean food on regenerating soils.

But in every one of these cases nothing changed.

The same policies that officials, and academics, described as seriously flawed remain flawed. Neither the far-sighted people in the government nor I had any idea why. It turned out that we had not studied our history.

Institutions reflect the views of society. When counter-intuitive new insights appear, such as those we used in analyzing the policies mentioned, institutions are incapable of adopting them until a significant percentage of the population accepts the new ideas. Systems Scientists call this a “wicked problem” meaning nearly impossible to solve.

History teaches us that no amount of evidence, data, or proof supporting the new view shifts any organization be it university, environmental or cattlemen’s organization, government, church or international agency. I can find no instance in history where any institution has accepted new counter-intuitive thinking ahead of public perception changing.

Public opinion simply has to change before our institutions can do so – no matter how serious the problem or crisis. For example, it makes no sense to any normal person for America to produce oil to grow corn to produce fuel. But institutional scientists do so and will not change till public opinion changes.

Civilization depends entirely on agricultural policies produced by institutions. Policies so bad that ordinary people are rebelling in a mounting world-wide food movement. Imagine a world in which institutions, rather than imposing flawed policies, developed them in harmony with the people. Imagine an agricultural policy that produced more clean, healthy, nutritious food than eroding soil, and had the support of the entire nation! What a different world that would be.

Here is the good news: that wonderful vision can happen when we bring public opinion along with policies – its called Holistic Management

Let me explain what that means.

Slide showing two lists:
• What we make – Transport on air land or water. Cellphones, radio, TV. Space vehicles. Weoponry. Computers, robotics. Dams, buildings, roads. Electricity from solar, wind, wave action. Etc

• What we manage – Agriculture-crops, livestock. Fisheries. Economies. Finance. Government policies. Development projects. Human relationships. Bureaucracies. Churches. Governance. Etc.

If we look at the first list we see amazing success with everything we make. Nothing we make is self-organizing. Things we make do not work if a part is missing, fuel runs out or a battery goes flat. By definition everything we make is called a complicated hard system and is not complex. Now look at the second list. What we manage, including organizations, is self-organizing. If a part is missing, a species dies out, critical people die all moves on but in changed form. What we manage is self-organizing and complex by definition.

With almost everything that we manage we are running into ever more serious problems – like one tsunami after another hitting us – ending with climate change.
Clearly we and our organizations fail to manage complex situations effectively.

Now management occurs at two fundamental levels—at the grass roots (in our homes and businesses and other enterprises); and at policy level leading to laws and regulations that dictate management practices.

Let me explain very simply, and I believe unarguably, why our management of complex situations so often fails.

From our homes to governance to international affairs, management involves a web of social/cultural, environmental and economic complexity. This is as certain as water flows downhill.

When we manage anything we do so by taking actions to achieve objectives — but before we take any action we need a reason, or context, for that action. If I say I intend to light a fire you have no idea if that is wise or foolish until you ask me what for? What is my reason or context? I might be an arsonist and burn the place down, or I might be wanting to cook our food.

We always do have a reason, or context, for our actions or objectives. Think about this and you will recognize the context is – to meet a need, a desire, make a living, make a profit, get an education, etc. – or to fix a problem. And without fail the context for policies is to deal with a problem.

Even in cases where whole teams of highly trained specialists develop policy, and even when they are all fully aware that the policy will have social, environmental and economic consequences the entire focus is reduced to the problem at hand. No matter how complex the situation, it is reduced to the problem as the context for the policy – that is why conventional management is reductionist.

The result of reductionist management, and policy, is that we commonly experience unintended consequences – this is so common that economists in jest refer to “The Law of Unintended Consequences.”

For example United States drug policy – has increased drug use and spread violence. The war on terror spreads terrorism with enormous economic and social consequences. Policies to kill invading plants increase them while we poison the water and kill many other species. And of course we see this with agricultural policies of many nations resulting in agriculture being the most destructive extractive industry in history— worse than coal and oil and mining the world’s soils and oceans.

Most of all we see the policies of governments, environmental and development organizations increasing conflict. This we see right across North Africa where the latest United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will increase the problems they address and conflict. Why? Because the many institutions that developed the UN goals reduced the complexity to a series of problems to fix. And we see this here in the United States. For example, the growing conflict between ranchers, environmental organizations, and government agencies that led to the first and second Cliven Bundy fiascos – in which armed citizens confronted government agencies and led to the death of one rancher.

It is really very simple to understand why – because policies fail to address the fact that people have different objectives. Consistently I see different objectives leading to conflict – indeed being the main cause of conflict.

So now what is the solution? The world looks to technology– some technological silver bullet. Reflecting public opinion, our institutions likewise look to technology. I do not believe there can be a technological solution to this biological problem of massive environmental degradation, and social fallout including global desertification, and its role in climate change.

But there is a simple way for us to solve these many problems if we use the holistic management framework to address the cause – that cause is our inability to manage complex situations. There is no other cause.

I learned this over 35 years ago from prolonged attempts to use livestock to solve the problem of desertification – we got good results initially that then fell short. Something was still missing. I had not paid sufficient attention to social and economic factors. Without going into all the dead leads, high hopes and failures we finally achieved consistent results with the development of Holistic Management in the early 1980s. The same Holistic Management framework that those officials and scientists used, as I described at the beginning. Let me explain simply how anyone can do it.

The first two steps in Holistic Management are incredibly important because they help prevent conflicts.

First we establish clear boundaries as to what is being managed – is it a ranch, farm, national park, ocean fisheries, tropical forest or whatever. Is it a development project or is a policy being developed? And then we establish who exactly makes management decisions or develops the policy or development project, and for whom? In doing this we identify not only those who make the management decisions but also those people who have veto power. That includes people in the structure with the power to just say no, and those who can mobilize public opinion for or against policy. And we identify those who influence, or are influenced by the management or policy, whose support we need.

Second, we gather the managers including those with veto power and those public opinion influencers to develop what is known as a holistic context. If you have never heard of this, that is no surprise. It’s new.

The holistic context is a clear statement- a deeply thought out and agreed statement – of how people want their lives to be – based on their culture and values. How they want their lives to be is then tied to their life-supporting environment — not as it is today but in the healthy condition it will have to be hundreds of years from now for their descendants to still be living such lives.

Throughout this process there is no discussion of any objective, problem or any action to deal with a problem. The people who develop the holistic context have to be in total agreement on the context before any objectives or actions are considered. Only in the light of that holistic context can any idea or solution be judged wise or unwise – like lighting that fire I talked of. Achieving total agreement on the holistic context without any compromise resolves or prevents conflict. This I have experienced even in cases of severe and angry disagreement where people began by stating emphatically that agreement in their community was impossible.

Let me read to you a simple generic example of a holistic context – this is one I personally use when I visit a new country, read scientific papers, listen to the news and so on.

Stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs. Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health and 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, by a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans.

This simple holistic context is, I think you will agree, something with which people in any culture would resonate.

Over many years of helping people to develop their own holistic context I have yet to find disagreement on these basic points. The holistic context is 0% how to achieve the ideal desired and 100% what people want.

Once you develop the holistic context you then get on with managing much as you do today. You still have objectives to meet needs, desires, make a profit, etc. and have to deal with problems. And as we have always done you consider many factors — such as past experience, research results, expert opinion, cash flow, profitability, friends advice or whatever. But before any decision is finalized you run it through seven questions we call context checks — these ensure your actions are socially, environmentally and economically in context – you own holistic context.

This is teachable. And can be taught in a very short time to anyone open to learning. Training thousands of people I have found that young people not having to unlearn first learn it easily – a common remark is that it is just commonsense, and for reasons we do not fully understand women learn it quicker than men.

Over more than half a century of training people from those with doctoral degrees to nonliterate villagers I have never yet found that ignorance blocks learning. I have seen many times, that what we already know, or believe, and our egos block learning. And that starts with me.

My many years of struggle to develop a management approach that would produce consistently sound results was almost entirely due to what I already knew from my university training that blocked me from seeing the obvious. And I had to learn to set ego aside – to strive for something beyond any concern for self and be willing to immediately acknowledge mistakes.

Let me conclude:

With little doubt humanity now faces a dire situation. We will not mitigate or adapt to global climate change any better than the proverbial frog can adapt to slowly boiled water.

Two years ago a group of eminent scientists, mathematicians and philosophers at Oxford university reported on the five greatest threats to human survival. They did not include climate change and they explained why – because some parts of our Earth they believed would still be inhabitable! If true, that means billions of people dead, ghost cities and the most appalling suffering and violence.

Our organizations or institutions do not have an answer. If we rely on them we face the very real prospect of exactly that kind of future. Developing policies holistically may sound idealistic — even utopian — but if anyone has a better idea we need to hear about it, because time is running out.

Holistic Management does enable us to manage complex situations – and I believe the inability of our institutions to do so is truly the greatest threat to the survival of Team Humanity.

I believe there is hope and it lies in a simple progression:

First, public understanding – we need to get people to understand that management cannot be reductionist in a holistic world, and to insist that management and policy be holistic. If we can develop a better Holistic Management framework, fine, but right now this is the best we have got.

Second, we need greater public understanding about the role of properly managed livestock, without which we simply cannot save civilization as we know it. I have covered this many times in our textbook and in my TED Talk. Thousands of pastoralists, farmers and ranchers as well now as universities, NGOs and others are already on the move in a global network of hubs affiliated with the Savory Institute. But we need to move faster and we need to direct serious funding to regenerating the habitat for all life on Planet Earth.

Leadership will not come from politicians, universities, environmental organizations or any institutions – – leadership involves shifting public perception and that is up to you and the person on either side of you. It is up to you in whatever way you can to begin to change society’s view of management and livestock, or only some parts of our planet will be inhabitable, as those Oxford dons foresee.

If you do become active – you and your friends and their friends -Team Humanity has one last chance. But we’d better get started.

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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