CEF Spotlight

Context for Our Decisions & Actions

By Allan Savory, Founder & President, Savory Institute allan

Many people confuse Holistic Management with a grazing scheme or something similar to rotational grazing. In reality, it is much more than that and is in actuality a decision-making framework that was developed from my work, and the work of many others, in ecology and then later in agriculture.

No matter which of the many decision-making tools people use, they all focus on goals and objectives. The same can be said of development projects and government policies, such as the various wars on drugs, terror, invasive species/weed control or any number of management initiatives. Objectives need a context to be judged wise or unwise, suitable or unsuitable, good or bad. Objectives without context are like loose cannons on the deck.

If I were to say, “I am going to light a fire” (objective) and ask your opinion, what would you say? You would have no idea what to say without a context. If the context was to cook your food it is good, if to burn down your house it is clearly bad. So it is with every objective– a context is needed.

While there is seldom anything wrong with our objectives and goals, we run into problems and failures due to simple contexts in a world of complexity. Let me clarify what I mean by complexity. If we look at all the things we make, we find we achieve our objectives with amazing success from the development of the first stone-age tools to putting a man on the moon. The things we make involve what in systems science are called hard systems and defined as things that are:

  • Man-made
  • Complicated but not complex
  • Do what they are designed to do
  • Have emergent properties
  • Whole is greater than sum of the parts like a computer that with many parts put together it computes
  • Have no unexpected emergent properties, do not work if a part is missing because they are not self-organizing
  • When problems arise they are relatively easy to solve.

If we look at the things we manage, such as human organizations, agriculture, natural resources, economies, etcetera, we find we are running into ever-mounting problems. Problems such as what we are experiencing with global finance, resource depletion, failing governments, agriculture producing more eroding soil than food and accelerating desertification with its symptoms of mounting poverty, droughts, social breakdown, emigration, violence and global climate change. These things we manage are all in systems science language known as soft or natural systems and defined as:

  • Complex
  • Self-organizing (work with components missing by reorganizing)
  • Have emergent properties, including unexpected
  • Unplanned and in many cases unknown emergent properties and feedback loops
  • When problems arise in these systems they are extremely difficult to solve

With nature, societies and economies all being complex, and functioning in wholes and patterns, if the situation is simple, the objectives set by the decision makers might be achieved, but in all other cases they are more likely to lead to unintended consequences – some favorable, but most unfavorable. When the context remains simple in more complex management situations, we not only fail to achieve objectives, but will surely experience a chain of unintended consequences.

The key to managing holistically lies first in understanding one’s “Holistic Context,” whether people are acting as an individual, in a group, or a larger organization. The holistic context is defined by the decision makers and is utilized when planning actions or strategies and in each unique situation that is under their management. There are three key parts of a Holistic Context: quality-of-life, forms of production, and future resource base. Quality-of-life basically asks the question, “What do I want my life to be like?” It connects to our values systems—Why are we doing what we are doing? What motivates us? Once you have identified the quality-of-life you want to have, you’ll need to determine what forms of production need to be in place to support the quality of life you described. “What do I/group have to have to support a life like that?” The future resource base asks you to think about what needs to be in place to sustain the forms of production far into the future and how you’ll need to behave to achieve that, as well as the future landscape – a description of how the land in your resource base must be in the future to make such things possible for you and future generations.

The concept of intentionally providing context for objectives that tie people’s cultural, material and spiritual needs to their life-supporting environment is increasingly needed and yet is quite novel to humanity. If we are to successfully address the problems facing us today—including climate change—management clearly needs to be holistic. Climate change will continue, even in a post fossil-fuel world, unless we address the contributions made to carbon emissions by agriculture. This problem is of the highest priority.

So while our ultimate goal is to raise the standard of living for all humanity – to increase everyone’s quality-of-life, and how we do this by changing the way people make decisions in their daily lives, our primary focus for what we do day-to-day in the present is centered around agriculture and particularly grassland management.

All photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and through the power of sunlight the plant is able to break down the CO2 from the air along with water (H20) from its roots and create Carbo-Hydrates (from the carbon and hydrogen) and what’s left over is Oxygen which is released back into the atmosphere. Grasses have a unique additional benefit in that they store that those carbon-based sugars underground in soil where it feeds a symbiotic web of fungal and bacterial life that science is only beginning to understand. There in the soil the carbon-based organic matter becomes humus a source of long-term fertility to grow even more biomass and it acts as a sponge to hold onto water so that nearby plants can grow bigger and grow for a longer amount of time. There are endless regenerative techniques, that when tested against someone’s context, can be used to benefit both livestock and crop production. So while Holistic Management can benefit everyone in their daily life, the Savory Institute focuses on grasslands, as we believe those environments have the highest return on investment for our planet’s future in producing food, creating clean water that recharges the water table, raising economic living standards, and rebuilding communities around the planet.

To learn more about how this process happens and where livestock can be used as a tool to regenerate landscapes watch the following two videos:

Wallace Stegnar Lecture Series:

Savory Institute team member Chris Kerston talks about regenerative grazing:

And if you’re ready to learn more about these concepts and engage with our global network of practitioners around the globe, we’d like to invite you to attend our annual international conference, this year themed, Artisans of the GrasslandsCrafting the Future of Food and Agriculture, which will be in San Francisco, on Oct 2-4. Last year the event was in London, next year we are highly considering Sydney. We are expecting an attendance of hundreds of enthusiastic participants from every corner of the world, comprised of ranchers/farmers, researchers, NGOs, government organizations, impact investors and educated consumers. Our conference is designed to be a venue for producers and consumers to come together and celebrate the cavalry of people embracing the holistic paradigm shift in ecology, health and diet. Additionally, our 27 Savory Network Hubs, which are training and support centers for Holistic Management, from all over the world including everyone from gauchos, to Massai, to cowboys who are actively engaged in this movement will be joining us. It’s a really special event and the perfect opportunity for someone to learn more about holistic decision-making and to celebrate grasslands.

Learn more here: http://savory.global/artisans-of-the-grasslands


Allan Savory was born in Rhodesia, southern Africa. He pursued an early career as a research biologist in the British Colonial Service of what was then Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia), and later as a farmer, game rancher, politician and international consultant, based in Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe). In the 1960s, while working on the interrelated problems of increasing poverty and disappearing wildlife, he made a significant breakthrough in understanding what was causing the degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems. He went on to work, as a resource management consultant, with numerous managers, eventually on four continents, to develop sustainable solutions to environmental degradation and its many symptoms including poverty and violence. In 2009 Savory and others with whom he had worked for many years formed the Savory Institute to expand the holistic framework into global consciousness to sustain life on Earth.

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