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“We were once just as certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then, and we are wrong again.” That’s what Allan Savory had to say at TED about science’s view of desertification, a form of land degredation in which land loses its vegetation and bodies of water1. For years, scientists have believed that overgrazing by livestock is a major cause of desertification, and Allan Savory shared this opinion as a young biologist. Now Savory argues that we can prevent desertification by grazing more animals, with their movement carefully planned to mimic nature.

Could you explain your theory of the ‘greenification’ of deserts and the use of livestock to fight climate change to our readers?

Actually I do not have any theory, only practice.  The theory was provided by J.C.Smuts who wrote Holism and Evolution, in 1926.  Smuts explained that scientists would never understand Nature (the aim of science) till we understood that Nature only functioned in wholes and patterns, rather than with interlinking parts as in our mechanistic world view.  From Smuts’ work Systems Science and Chaos Theory developed later but I believe these theories, although useful, lost much of the essense of  Smuts.  When Smuts theorized that nature functions in wholes and patterns it resonated with all I was experiencing as a biologist working with large wildlife populations in Africa, and I could relate to that.  There are a number of academic centers of study concerning complexity such as the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.  These I find too academic and constantly theorizing while the world is falling apart with wave after wave of problems of increasing magnitude because of our inability to address complexity – social, environmental and economic. When your house is on fire putting the fire out practically was to me more important than theorizing how to prevent fire or put fire out.  My observation that nature, in seasonal humidity environments, functioned through large herbivores ensuring rapid annual biological decay began by simply observing that the most healthy land I worked in was associated with the highest animal numbers in reasonably intact populations (still very large numbers, herds and large packs of lions, wild dogs, etc).  Initially I, and two American Fullbright Scholars with whom I was working, tried to reverse the land degradation through management of wildlife alone in what has in South Africa and the US become the Game Ranching industry, but the problems worsenned.  From there to working out that we could practically regenerate soils and vegetation using livestock was a long struggle because I, like most people, vilified livestock for causing desertification.


When you as a scientist so dogmatically say that the ONLY thing left to humanity is to use livestock to reverse global desertification it is upsetting to many because there is seldom only one solution.  Why are you so dogmatic? 

I am only dogmatic over this one point alone and for good reason. Desertification begins with soil exposure between plants making the available rainfall less effective to both grow plants and replenish the greatest storage place that exists for fresh water and carbon – our soils. This in turn begins with destruction of soil covering dead plant material or litter.  In the seasonal humidity environments where desertification is occuring most of the litter is provided by grasses because rainfall is generally too low for full tree canopy cover and leaf fall to provide adequate soil cover.  Two things in such environments lead to a high percentage of bare soil between plants – inadequate disturbance of dead plant material and or fire.  And if inadequate disturbance of dead plant material is accompanied by overgrazing of plants the problem is exacerbated.  Over more than 10,000 years I am sure many things have been tried to slow or reverse man-made desertification, including over my lifetime many range science attempts with numerous rotational and other expert prescribed grazing systems as well as “expert prescribed grassland burning.” In addition, range scientists developed and promoted the massive use of machines developed to mimic the disturbance of animals, reseeding grasslands, planting trees and of course massive use of herbicides and more.  All but planting trees where rainfall is high enough have failed.

 As humans we are tool-using animals and for well over a million years we have enjoyed the “tool” of technology beginning with sticks and stones. And for about a million years we have had the tool of fire.  From that point on we could melt stone and enter the copper, bronze and iron ages with our “technology” exploding and continuing to do so. For most of human existence we only had these two tools – technology and fire. Then with the development of domestication of plants and animals we developed the idea of resting land (pastoralists moving their animals and rotating crops with rested land) as a “tool”.  We now see this “tool” in the concept of conservation and in reducing animal numbers to provide more rest for land and plants.   The only other tool we have developed is to use small micro-organisms to make cheese, wine and now we are begining to make new organisms as tools to break down oil, etc.  Train in any university in the world in any profession and you will only be trained to use money, labour or human creativity through one of these “tools” to manipulate our environment at large. And this includes to address desertification and climate change.

Two of our “tools” – resting land and fire exacerbate desertification and climate change in seasonal humidity environments. And there is no tool in the human tool bag that can mimic nature’s past role of large herbivores and their accompanying pack hunting predators to sustain rapid biological decay and soil cover in the vast seasonal humidity environments, and especially so as rainfall becomes lower.  Only an animal with the micro-organisms in it’s gut can do what is required.

Range scientists realizing the need for periodic high disturbance, but fearing livestock causing desertification, developed large machines to mimic animals trampling, breaking soil surfaces and laying litter as well as machines to plant grasses instead of animals.  Despite no known scientific research, or even established scientific principle behind using technology to mimic animals, and because such practices were redommended by “authorities” both governments and international agencies proceeded. Millions of dollars were spent on such machines and practices in the United States and other countries. All failed.  Now, yes, I do state dogmatically that we have to use actual animals rather than technology to mimic animals and the micro-organisms in their gut, and the most practical and controllable left to us are livestock properly managed. And in conjunction with wildlife as we are demonstrating in Zimbabwe.

Your theories are undeniably innovative and have therefore been criticised by “official” science. Those who criticise your studies claim that the supporting data don’t have a scientifical basis. How would you reply to that?

Holistic management involves addressing social, environmental and economic complexity both short and long term in any management situation from government or international organization’s policies to managing a crop farm or rangelands to reverse desertification.  In all situations we use a modification of the universal underlying framework of conscious decision making, and wherever livestock are involved or required to reverse desertification, we then use the holistic grazing planning process to address that complexity.

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Clearly management needs to be holistic and can never be reductionist, and using the holistic framework we transcend scientific disciplines while obviously using knowledge and scientific principles gleaned from all disciplines and even traditional knowledge for example in agriculture.  As such holistic management lies outside the paradigm of range science believing that grasslands or rangelands can only be managed by various rotational and other grazing systems prescribed by range scientists.  Prescribed by “experts” such management systems have, as I indicated in my TED talk, accelerated desertification even in the United States.

While there are a great many peer-reviewed studies supporting all of the science applied using both the holistic framework and it’s planned grazing, I am not aware of a single peer-reviewed paper that is critical of this process.  There are I know many peer-reviewed papers published by range scientists critical of many of the short duration, rotational and other grazing sytems that they believe and claim represent holistic management.  None of those authors made any attempt to either understand or study holistic management lying as it does outside the paradigms of their profession.

The latest and most up to date paper allegedly critical of holistic planned grazing is one by Dr David Briske et al summarizing previous range science literature.  But none of the papers cited bear any relationship to holistic management as outlined earlier.  And Briske et al has been refuted by other academics, including one of the authors of the paper.

Unfortunately such “expert or authoritative” opposition is normal whenever a major paradigm shift occurs in science and it would be abnormal if this was not happening as has been written about since Galileo and is well described in “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” by Thomas Kuhn.

What we are experiencing is nothing but a paradigm paralysis problem.  It required many years, and deaths, before brilliant cavalry officers could comprehend that barbed wire, machine guns and trenches had rendered horses impractical in modern tank and infantry battles.  In like manner brilliant range scientists have yet to come to terms with understanding the replacement of all past rotational and other grazing systems prescribed by “experts” disregarding social, environmental and economic complexity. In this case tragically millions more men, women and children have been dying as the institutional paradigm shift gradually takes place.

As one respected American range scientist wrote recently in his blog, “I have no question that there is strong scientific support for holistic management.” There is considerable peer reviewed research supporting all the science applied in holistic planned grazing available to anyone interested, as well as a simple explanation of the Science & Methodology available at

If your intutions are correct, yours could be a momentous discovery. Would you say that your theory still has some weak point or objective difficulties that delay its implementation?

About thirty years ago Dr Jim Teer, a respected American range and wildlife scientist said to me “Either you are wrong and we will not be able to dig a hole deep enough to bury you, or you are right and we will not be able to build a monument high enough!”  I responded by asking what he thought, to which he stated he was sitting on the fence!

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I do believe that with the seriousness of global desertification and the costly symptoms of man-made droughts, floods, poverty, social breakdown, abuse of women and children, cultural genocide, emigration to Europe, violence, war and climate change, we can afford no further fence-sitting.  Either range scientists and climatologists need to come forward with some logical or scientific flaw in the holistic framework or in it’s grazing planning process, or we need to start mobilizing globally to start realistically reversing desertification playing so major a role in climate change.

What are the next steps to take in the diffusion of holistic science? 

Unquestionably our world-view is shifting from centuries of being mechanistic to becoming a holistic world-view.  The last major shift in world view of such magnitude was from believing our Earth was the centre of our universe to understanding that it was not. That shift took  many years as this one will.  The social and Systems Science I have studied suggests that such new paradigm-shifting developments in science only gain institutional acceptance when public opinion demands it. No amount of facts, data or research shifts institutional acceptance only public opinion brings about that shift. Most scientists on whom governments, majore environmental organizations and international agencies rely for advice, opinion and policy formation work in institutions.

One of the unplanned emergent properties of institutions, highlighted by Systems Science and supporting research, is that they are almost watertight to new paradigm-shifting innovations in science. Although many idividuals change their views institutional change can take 100 years or more, and it only occurs when public opinion forces change.

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For a simple example universities, environmental organizations and government agencies and even cattlemen’s ranching organizations still adhere to the belief that overgrazing of plants is caused by too many animals. But we have known beyond any doubut for over sixty years from French pasture researcher Andre Voisin’s work that overgrazing of plants is not due to animal numbers. Despite the publication in five major languages and lapse of over 60 years no institution I know of has yet accepted this advance in science contrary to the institutional belief. Meanwhile thousands of ranchers, pastoralists and range scientists in their individual capacities have worked with me, and practice has spread to about 15 million hectares of land world-wide.  Public opinion change is now just beginning to pressure institutional change.

What has been lacking to speed institutional change was the technology now provided by social media for information to the public to bypass “authority figures” as my TED2013 talk has finally achieved. From now mounting public opinion is what is needed to speed the demand that governments, international agencies and others including our large NGO’s promoting desertification and climate change accidentally, conduct full and proper enquiry into holistic management as a possible way of addressing such problems.  If it is found wanting in any respect it, along with me, should be abandonned.  But if not found wanting we need to mobilize globally and rapidly as time is running out.  After having put over 2,000 fellow scientists through training and they having helped iron out minor problems remaining, I am now confident it will withstand such testing.

How did your way of thinking change from the slaughter of elephants to what it is today, where you claim that“desertification is only a symptom of biodiversity loss”? What were the moments that marked the evolution of your theories?

As mentioned, I have no theory but simply a decision making and planning process to address the amazing complexity involved in managing all natural resources.  It was my major mistake in believing, because of my scientific training, that too many elephants were the cause of the terrible destruction we are still experiencing in some of Africa’s wonderful national parks that simply made me determined to find solutions.

Only years later having greatly increased my understanding was I able to look back in hindsight and realize that the destruction (desertification) I was seeing in national parks began with the loss of biodiversity – mainly lowly soil-covering litter and it’s billions of micro-organisms of decay.  This preceeded the loss of plant species followed by animal species and my research had in ignorance entered part way down the chain of destruction “proving” too many elephants were the cause.  How wrong I was.

 I should clarify that I am talking of most of the world’s land where humidity is very seasonal.  Conservation based on the concept of resting the environment or leaving it to nature is the most powerful “tool” we have to restore and maintain soil cover and biodiversity in environments of permanent, or near permanent humidity, but this distinction we did not previously draw in range science as I illustrated in the TED talk with the information and pictures of rested research plots and national parks desertifying as badly as anything in Africa.  I believe that using the holistic framework to enable us to do so in a socially, environmentally and economically sound manner, we need to rethink the entire concept of conservation in seasonal humidity environments.


Your Ted Talk was watched by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world: what is the role of digital media in the diffusion of your theories to the general public and international governments?

Thanks to technology and TED’s role in exposing the world to new ideas that talk has now been seen by over two million people and is still rolling.  As I wrote in the textbook “Holistic Management: A New Decision Making Process” (second edition 1999 Island Press) we would not address desertification and climate change until there was a global recognition of the seriousness for human survival, and the technology to be able to communicate globally.  Thankfully that technology it now available and has enabled us to get this work out to the public bypassing the years of suppression by “expert authorities”.

The leadership required can never arise from any government, university, international organization but only from ordinary people communicating and that is beginning thanks to digital media becoming active following TED.

What is good environmental communication and what isn’t?

I do not know.  All I do know is open and honest communication is desirable and necessary. And that such communication will involve the need to listen first to understand before responding.  What is not healthy is authority figures – academic, corporate or political controlling environmental information to the public for various reasons.  Despite open conflicting information publicly debated being a messy process the public are remarkably able to discern what is sensible and institutions are not.  We are seeing this now with over 1,000 public comments on the TED talk that I observe – most constructive and pleased that there is hope where the public were being bombarded with doomsday scenarios.  Some simply airing their pet agendas with many saying desertification can be reversed using Permaculture and tree planting which are wonderful but not over billions of hectares of rainfall too low for trees or crops. And some rehashing the range science criticisms that as mentioned do not have any connection to holistic management of which I was talking.  Messy but the public will use commonsense I predict.

What is generally not good environmental communication is that put out by institutions, although by no means universally so. Commonly institutions have an agenda be it preservation of the status quo, fund raising, corporate profits or defending institutional ego and this biases environmental information. I say this because of not only my own experience of authorities and the lengths that they will go to suppress information, but because of Systems Science.  As Systems Science shows, we form organizations, or institutions, to be efficient and they generally are.  However being complex systems they also have unplanned emergent properties that are described in the jargon of Systems Science as “wicked problems” – meaning extremely difficult to solve.

Two of the unplanned emergent properties of institutions brought to light by research are (1) that they are almost watertight to new paradigm shifting knowledge as we have experienced since Galilleo and (2) no matter how intelligent or caring the individuals within a heirarchical organization the outcome commonly exhibits two characteristics – lacks commonsense and humity.  An example of the latter would be if we were to ask any ordinary sensible person “Does it make sense to produce oil to grow corn and then use 40% of that corn to produce fuel for cars?”  The answer would be no that is not sensible facing climate change and with a billion hungry people already.  However look at all the many institutional scientists in the US that supported such policy, and how what little opposition there was came from a handful of independent scients and educated members of the public.  We can I believe place far more reliance on the public for commonsense than we ever could place on institutions controlling or influencing the media.

Having pointed out such problems I do love and learn a great deal from the many environmental documentaries produced by various organizations and look forward to such documentaries about desertification.

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Do you think someone is lying to us about climate? How can we recognise a media fraud? And who can we trust?

Yes institutional lying is I believe taking place to prolong profits and to protect egos.  There is often fire under the smoke in common sayings. “Never believe anything until there is an official denial”, “You can measure the eminence of a scientist by the number of years he holds up progress” and there are more which would be amusing were the situation not as serious as it is.

Just as the tobacco companies were proven to be lying to the public we are I believe seeing evidence of the same behaviour from oil, coal and gas companies striving to keep profits flowing despite the risks now apparent to the future of humanity and all higher life forms. And as I mentioned at TED that we are changing the climate is beyond doubt even disregarding atmospheric pollution from fossil fuels.  Desertification on the scale it is happening simply cannot occur without changing the macro-climate just as is also happening with deforestation and global biomass burning.

The entire issue of global desertification and climate change should long ago have been put on a war footing by all governments but this will not happen until forced by public opinion.  By war footing I mean that when at war any nation mobilizes, buries differences and unites, doing not what we want to do but what we have to do.  At such times any individual lying and deceiving and damaging the common good would be convicted of treason.  The behaviour of certain major corporations today deceiving and confusing the public should be seen as treasonable behaviour I believe and the day will come when it is seen as such. But only with a major shift in public opinion will politicians be able to act wisely and all of us regardless of culture, colour, tribe, religion or any other devisive issue begin collaborating as human beings.

Personally I have no answers but do try to receive information from many sources and weigh things up myself, but if anything trust most publically supported radio and television stations and programs.




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