Holistic Management

So it turns out that just because you have no sense of humour, you aren’t necessarily unworthy of attention. Jan Smuts, it would appear, was quite the man. Einstein referred to him as one of about 30 people in the world who truly understood Einstein’s concepts of relativity. Allan Savory, founder and developer of Holistic Management, spent years working out his theories, having dismissed Jan Smuts 1926 book entitled Holism and Evolution as being too old to be of much use. After about 15 years, Allan discovered that Smuts was speaking to exactly what he had been driving at himself, and then gladly clambered onto the shoulders of the giant that was Smuts, and has built from there.

Fig 1. Jan Smuts shares a joke with reporters

Savory developed 4 key insights over a period of years:

Insight No. 1 –  The Idea of Wholes. In the same way as one considers one’s body as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts, so too in any complex system, is the whole the element to be studied. By trying to run up a model from the composite of the parts, you end up with something similar to the blind men describing the elephant. Bill Reed is clear that you can’t meaningfully design anything less than an entire watershed – now that’s a whole. And Bill goes back to continental drift and works from there to build up his understanding of a ‘whole’. Jan Smuts held that you could break a whole down, but not meaningfully know a whole by building up the sum of the parts.

Where this is of use to us in the built environment is that we know we all tend to work in silos to a greater or lesser degree. In our practice, we have structured it specifically to allow for as much trans-disciplinary input as possible, and that does work, but we could do more. Bill Reed is on the same page when he speaks of Green Buildings, and how we need to look at the building as a functioning whole rather than ‘bolt-on’ green widgets we can add to the H-VAC system or tweak the electrical engineering.

If you look at the things humans have got right (and exclude environmental damage), they are all technologies that operate in silos (transport, computers, energy, weapons, civil & structural engineering, architecture). When you look at our failures, they are all in the interrelationships of things (the environment, politics, economics, agriculture, justice and equality). We suck at relationships. Whenever there is a complex interaction between things, we stuff it up. We also are fast learning that relationships are the only things that matter, which probably explains why the world is in the state it’s in.

Insight No. 2 – Brittleness – This is one of those ‘Lightbulb moments’, that when you hear it, you can’t believe you didn’t see it – a bit like gravity.  Savoury developed the ‘Brittleness Scale’ from 1 to 10, with 1 being a really humid environment like a rain forest, which is the extreme of Non-brittle’ and 10 the opposite extreme of Brittleness, as one would find in a desert with no humidity. In a ‘Brittle’ environment, there is not enough humidity to supply water for bacterial and fungal processing of carbon – so dead wood just sits there, unchanged and tied up.

In Non-brittle environments, it breaks down quickly through these vectors. The implications are huge. In ‘Brittle’ environments, only the moist, warm gut of herbivores contain the cellulose breaking bacteria needed to keep the carbon cycle flowing – without which the carbon cycle stalls and the biosphere goes into senescence, with moribund material accumulating and large areas of open soil appearing, which compounds the problems. Resting the soil in Non-brittle environments will cure overgrazing. In brittle environments, it makes the problem worse. With 67% of the earth’s land area classed as brittle, that makes for an important consideration. The trick of resting the land, as used in non-brittle environments (which is where our agricultural knowledge base originated and continues to inform our farming sciences) is the wrong approach in a brittle environment.

Traditional wisdom holds that grazers exhaust pasture lands, and when your land is showing signs of stress, it should be rested. Holistic Management holds the opposite view, having observed the interrelationships between the grazers, plants and microorganisms – and the predators too. Its all about seeing the system as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts.

Insight No. 3 – The Predator-Prey relationship. The study of the Pisaster Disaster in Paine’s Milestones in 1966 showed that when a ‘keystone’ species is removed from an ecosystem, the complexity of the system suffers. The Yellowstone National Park suffered a tremendous dieback of veld and fauna species with the extermination of the grey wolf.

Within a few years of it’s reintroduction, the reversal of damage was noticeable. So too in African veld management, has the loss of predators resulted in changed grazing habits of herbivores, who now tread lightly around obstacles rather than pulverize the obstructions as they do when being chased. When being chased, they void their bowels and tramp down material more effectively than when grazing at leisure, and the veld suffers. The complexity and social relationships of the herds are also disturbed. My Sergeant Major used to say that sometimes its not a bad thing for a regiment to bleed. He managed to say it and sound wise, rather than a pathological dickhead like all the other officers all did.

It may seem at first glance to be counter intuitive to reintroduce predators to keep the biodiversity in balance,  but it turns out that it is not the case. All the more reason to look after the Great White Shark. If no predators are handy in your neck of the woods (a conceivable state of affairs), they can be replaced by means of electric fences to hold the herds tight, or proactive herding using mixed herds of cows, sheep, goats, donkeys etc.

Insight No. 4 – Overgrazing is a function of time -not animal numbers. No small one this – you can graze thousands of herbivores at a time, the impact on the veld is how much time they spend in one spot before moving on. The old adage trotted out at this juncture is that there is a big difference between a cow grazing a field for 365 days a year or 365 cows grazing a field for one day a year. Tests performed on grasses where they were graze constantly, less frequently and given adequate rest showed rot development commensurate to the correct rest time of the plant between grazing, which developed a deep, fibrous root system that held topsoil in place. Grass constantly grazed had no time to develop an adequate root system and so is easily uprooted and resulting soil erosion results.

Holistic Management focuses on proper Recovery Periods for grasses, which is distinct from Planned Grazing periods. Whilst the two are close cousins, what you measure is what you get – if correct recovery is what you are after, your protection will lie with the veld. The balancing act between the two is what will decide if you succeed or fail as a farmer.

In an inadequately managed environment, a condition of ‘partial rest’ can happen whereby the most tasty grass varieties are grazed into decline, whilst less favoured species become moribund.

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