Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making

Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making

by Allan Savory

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Holistic Management has been practiced by thousands of people around the world to profitably restore and promote the health of their land through practices that mimic nature, and by many others who have sought a more rewarding personal or family life. This book is an essential handbook for anyone involved with land management and stewardship.  See more details below


Holistic Management has been practiced by thousands of people around the world to profitably restore and promote the health of their land through practices that mimic nature, and by many others who have sought a more rewarding personal or family life. This book is an essential handbook for anyone involved with land management and stewardship.

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Holistic Management

A New Framework for Decision Making

By Allan Savory, Jody Butterfield


Copyright © 1999 Allan Savory
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-267-5


Changing the Way We Make Decisions

In 1948 I entered Plumtree School, a boarding school in the British tradition set in the African bushveld on the border of what was then Southern Rhodesia and Botswana. When not on the rugby or cricket fields we were encouraged to get out into the bush, a gesture of liberality that offset all my adolescent frustration with formal education. I became fanatic about the bush and its big game, and a passion to return to it drove me through a university education that qualified me for a Northern Rhodesian Game Department post at the age of twenty.

Once in the Game Department I began to realize that all I loved was doomed. Not for the commonly talked of reasons—poaching and overexploitation—but rather because of our own ignorance as professional bureaucrats. But professional people do not like to admit to ignorance or to raise the questions I did. It is more customary to blame others while calling for more money, research, and staff. So began a long struggle, often very lonely, to find solutions to the deterioration I saw everywhere. Along the way I learned that what I saw in the destruction of wildlife reflects the condition of humanity and all other life on this planet. The wildlife problems that I first grappled with were little more than advance gusts of the violent storms that ultimately threaten the whole world.

Now several decades later, much water has flowed under the bridge, and I can write about the way forward that I found and subsequently developed with the help of many others. It involves no elaborate or costly technology or specialized knowledge, but rather some new insights and a new decision-making process that gives us the ability to design and to plan the future we want while ensuring that the environment can sustain it. The decision-making process can serve to manage a farm, a national park, or a city's water supply, or one's personal life, a household, a corporation, or organization of any kind. It also can be used to diagnose the underlying cause of many problems, to assess a variety of policies, and to make research more relevant to management needs.

I would not have guessed in those early years that decision-making had much to do with the challenge of saving wildlife in an ever-deteriorating environment. But in the end I found that changing the way we make decisions was key to meeting that management challenge—and many others. One experience proved pivotal to my understanding.

I was preparing a teaching exercise to show that the causes scientists, politicians, and others most often blamed for the environmental deterioration in Africa were suspect. These causes included overpopulation; poverty; lack of education, capital, and technology; collective ownership of the land (by the state, rather than the individuals who use it); government corruption; poor farming methods, such as slash and burn cropping in the forests or the cultivation of steep slopes and unsuitable soils elsewhere; lack of agricultural extension services; and overstocking on the rangelands.

There appeared to be total certainty in the matter. The only aspect really debated in the scientific literature and in the voluminous government and development agency reports was the hierarchy of the causes. If one or all of these things were indeed the causes of the degradation, then the environment should be improving in places where the opposite conditions and practices prevailed. But was it? In the western part of Texas, where I was working at the time, and where the climate was similar to much of Africa's, the rural population was low and declining. The land was owned privately and the owners had access to good education, to plenty of capital, and to the latest technology. The government, although not perfect, basically served the interests of the people and had provided them with millions of dollars in financial aid and sophisticated agricultural extension services. None of the poor farming methods listed were practiced. The rangelands could hardly be called overstocked when animals were so few compared to what they had been only a century earlier.

Nevertheless, the soil and the agricultural economy of West Texas had degraded badly Texas farmers were able to keep production levels high by using ever more fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation, and other technologies. However, vast areas of rangeland that had once sustained immense herds of bison and later cattle were hardly distinguishable from the most degraded rangelands on the fringes of the Sahara. Sand dunes were beginning to form in West Texas. The water table was falling, too, and rivers once filled with fish had been dry for decades except for the occasional flash flood. The Texas government had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fight insects, weeds, and brush that were blamed for ruining the land, but they continued to thrive. All the while, the people, as in Africa, were leaving the land for the big cities, where crime and poverty continued to grow.

Logic told me there had to be a common denominator when the same results were produced under such different conditions and practices. Communities I had visited elsewhere in North America, in Europe, and in Asia were experiencing many of the same problems. And no matter how wealthy and developed or poor and underdeveloped the community, people said these problems were getting worse, despite all the money and effort they had poured into tackling them. Was there a common denominator in these situations? Was it the same? Probably so, and probably also in the many past civilizations that had bloomed and died when their environment could no longer support them.

This common denominator was unlikely to be related to systems of government or any particular technology because we had had all manner of these through the ages. Greed and ignorance, although certainly a factor, had not been common to every situation, nor had population pressure. Areas where human populations were low or almost nonexistent, such as national parks and wilderness areas, were also deteriorating.

The only common denominator, in past and present civilizations, and in Africa, West Texas, and communities everywhere, was that human management was involved, and that it had resulted in decisions that had led to the deterioration. The forms of management had changed, and often, but I began to suspect that decision making had not. Something was faulty about the way we were making decisions, and it had been faulty for a very long time. But where was it at fault, and how were we to find out? Decisions are made in millions of ways.

The answer does not become apparent until you first examine how we make decisions and identify what is fundamental to the process. In any situation we manage, whether that be a specific entity, such as a business, or something more general, such as our personal lives, our decisions usually emanate from the desire or the need to meet a variety of goals or objectives—ranging from those aligned with some sort of mission, to those that satisfy basic needs. To make sure our decisions are in line with the expected outcome of those goals or objectives, we—either individually, or collaboratively—will consider various criteria. Depending on the context and the actions contemplated, we might ask one or more of the following questions:

Who has expert knowledge and what do they advise? What does the research show? What does our intuition tell us about it? What past experience do we have to go on? Will it do the job? How quickly? Is it allowable under prevailing laws and regulations? Is it cost-effective? Is it ethical? Will it produce a positive cash flow? Is it profitable? What will our peers say? What will the neighbors say? Is it politically expedient? Will it harm the environment? Will it have adverse social consequences? and so on.

If we are convinced the action we are contemplating will achieve the expected outcome, we'll go ahead with it. Generally, we assume we have made the right decision, although we can't be sure until we see what actually happens.

The major fault in this process—and thus, in the way we were making decisions—is that it lacks an organizing framework. In pursuing a variety of goals and objectives, in whatever situation we manage, we often fail to see that some of them are in conflict and that the achievement of one might come at the expense of achieving another. In weighing up the actions we might take to reach our goals and objectives, we have no way to account for nature's complexity and only rarely factor it in. Actions that are judged to be financially sound might prove to be socially or environmentally unsound, but how do we really know?

The need for such a framework has long been obscured because of the success we have managed to achieve without it. We have been able to develop ever more sophisticated forms of technology with which to exploit Earth's resources and to make life genuinely more comfortable, but we have not been able to do so without damaging our environment at the same time.

The earliest human populations would have had no cause to reflect on such matters as long as their technology did not surpass that of other animals that used stones to break eggs and shellfish. At that early level people could not distort their environment enough to upset ecological harmony much at all. But that soon changed.

By the time humans had acquired the use of fire, and our technology had grown sophisticated enough to enable us to reach and settle new continents or isolated islands, we were capable of inflicting enormous damage. Within 400 years of their arrival in New Zealand, the Maori had exterminated nearly all the flightless birds, including 12 different species of the giant (550-pound) moa, and decimated much of the seashore life. Following the arrival of the Aborigines in Australia 40,000 to 60,000 or more years ago, over 80 percent of the large mammalian genera became extinct. The fires deliberately set by the Aborigines when hunting, or to limit the extent of uninhabitable rainforest, led to a dramatic increase in soil erosion, the abrupt disappearance of fire-sensitive plant species, and a dramatic increase in fire-dependent species, such as eucalypts.

In North America, over 70 percent of the large mammalian genera became extinct following the arrival of Native Americans around 12,000 years ago. Mammoths, saber-tooth lions, horses, camels, piglike animals, and members of the family that included goats, sheep, and cattle were among the species lost. Native American fires were also likely to have been responsible for the fire-dependent vegetation that dominates many American landscapes today. When horses were reintroduced to North America by Europeans in the seventeenth century, the Plains Indians quickly adopted them as a means of transport. That, combined with the readiness with which they also adopted the rifle, made them highly successful bison hunters. Given time, they might have killed out the remaining bison had European immigrants not intervened and conducted a wholesale slaughter of the animals themselves.

Scientists still debate whether these mass extinctions were the result of hunting alone. The profound changes created by human-made fires radically altered the environments that had sustained these animals for tens of millions of years and must also have played a role in the extinctions. Both hunting and fire were probably responsible for the more gradual extinctions that occurred in what is now the interior of the Sahara desert, where as recently as 10,000 to 50,000 years ago elephant, giraffe, buffalo, and hippo roamed savannas and marshlands.

The technology we wield today has greatly expanded the ways in which we can alter our environment and that, combined with the exponential increase in our numbers, has magnified our potential for causing damage. Now, more than ever, we require the ability to make decisions that simultaneously consider economic, social, and environmental realities, both short and long term. Given an appropriate framework for organizing management and decision making, we should be able to do this.

Creating such a framework has been the driving force in the development of Holistic Management, but as the next five chapters will show, we had much to learn before it took shape. Four key insights discovered over the last seventy years, when taken together, proved critical. The first insight made the argument for why such a framework was needed and the form it should take. The next three insights enabled us to understand why some environments rapidly deteriorate under practices that benefit others and added pieces to the new framework that proved vital for completing it.

This new management and decision-making framework is summarized in Chapter 7 and described at length in the remaining chapters of this book. In brief, however, one begins by defining the entity being managed in terms of the people responsible for its management and the resources available to them. These people then form what we refer to as a holistic goal that describes the quality of life they collectively seek, what they have to produce to create that quality of life, and a description of the resource base they depend on as it will have to be, far into the future, to sustain what they must produce to create the quality of life they envision.


Excerpted from Holistic Management by Allan Savory, Jody Butterfield. Copyright © 1999 Allan Savory. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist, farmer, and politician, co-founded the U.S.-based Center for Holistic Management in 1984 with his wife, Jody Butterfield, a former journalist specializing in agriculture and the environment. Jody Butterfield, a former journalist specializing in agriculture and the environment, co-founded the U.S.-based Center for Holistic Management in 1984 with her husband, Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist, farmer, and politician.

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