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Reflections on Savory: The Science and the Philosophy Pt. 2

Posted by Chad Kruger | December 14, 2012
Managing Change Northwest recently brought Allan Savory of the Savory Institute to the Pacific Northwest to speak to the Washington Cattleman’s Association, the Tilth Producers of Washington, and a special workshop and keynote in Seattle for consumers. CSANR co-sponsored Savory’s PNW tour because we thought he brought a challenging message that many in our region needed to hear. Below is the second of a two-part post of my reflections on what Savory had to say when he was here.

Part 2: The Philosophy

In my previous post on this topic I shared my thoughts on the controversial nature of the science behind Allan Savory and Holistic Management (HM). In this post, I will focus on my view of the philosophical challenge Savory presented when he was here.

There is no question that Savory is a bit unconventional. He’s one of the few people in the world that can be classified both as an ardent environmentalist and a zealous promoter of global livestock production (albeit in an unconventional production system). He started all three presentations I saw by articulating that while agriculture was to blame for most of the environmental, political and social ills we face today it (particularly livestock agriculture) is also the only possible way for us to restore and regenerate global ecosystems and societies. If you are confused, you are not alone.

The basis for his case in support of livestock is rooted in his philosophical perspective that normal human decision-making processes are inherently flawed … because we make decisions without a sufficient appreciation for the context in which we make those decisions. The lack of context facilitates decisions that lead to unintended consequences – which he points out are generally to blame for the various social and ecological failings we are seeing today. He argues that HM helps us understand the context for our decisions by utilizing a series of simple filtering questions that improve our ability to achieve desirable outcomes. So, how does this philosophical core lead to the idea that cows can save the planet?

Here is his “context” argument in a nutshell:

  1. The US (and most of the rest of the world) still exports more soil through erosion processes than food. This is a symptom of an agricultural system that is “desertifying” – meaning it is losing biodiversity through management practices that leave soils expose to the elements. Removing livestock from integration with crop exacerbates desertification.
  2. Agriculture is not just crop production – it includes all production of food and fiber from land and water. Crop production is not possible on more than 80% of the global land base and therefore feeding a rising global population will require livestock and wildlife.
  3. Livestock are the only “management tool” we have to manage “desertification” on the large percentage of global lands that have a seasonal rainfall climate – because they are the only way for broad-scale bio-mimicry of the pre-historic herbivore/grassland ecosystems that dominated these climatic regions.
  4. Climate change will intensify these detrimental trends and make it impossible [his conclusion] for global agriculture “adapt” to climate change.

This context leads him to conclude that even though livestock (and agriculture) are often implicated as the leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, we don’t have a choice but to use them to “restore” global ecosystems.

Savory wants us to confront the fact that our existing belief systems, no matter how well-intentioned, usually lead us to the wrong conclusion and decision. In fact, one of the key tenets of HM is that “you must assume that you are wrong” and you MUST be willing to change your mind and ultimately your actions when the data (in light of context) supports a different conclusion than you would have otherwise reached. I think it is refreshing to hear someone articulate that it’s okay to change your mind when you learn that you are wrong.

I think HM is a good process that will likely lead to improved social and environmental outcomes when individuals and communities are committed to using it. It’s a very Aristotelian framework that provides a rigorous and usable structure that enables an individual or community to get beyond the cycle of demeaning debate and move forward with goal-oriented decisions.

Savory may or may not be right about the importance of livestock in saving the planet. As I mentioned in my prior post, his ideas are unconventional and many other scientists currently believe the data supporting planned grazing are inconclusive. At this point, however, I agree with Savory that we KNOW the current approach is not working and even in the absence of conclusive data it’s worth trying to apply a different philosophical approach to global agricultural management. And yes, that means changing how we think about livestock’s long shadow.