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Dr Mike Ellis
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Lesley Pocock

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Opening address Savory Institute London Conference. August 1st 2014

 


 

Listen to daily news - indeed a very troubled world - almost all of it associated with violence and deteriorating environment if you think about it - How do we respond? Many opt out watch the soccer or play with their iPhones - others so caught up that they see no way out - some make money and dance while the band still plays. Many do the best they can in any way they can understand or see hope.

At this conference we will deal with simple, practical, real hope. Remy de Gourmont about 1900 said "Very simple ideas lie within reach only of complex minds" so let me talk about simple ideas offering great hope I believe.

I would like to start with an aim or dream that I think we all share - and go on with one simple idea that will I believe bring about that dream.

I dream of our many cultures and nations of team humanity united - thriving in harmony with ourselves, and our life-supporting environment. A world in which all land - our vast grasslands - forests - cropland - and our rivers, lakes and oceans are once more teeming with life on planet Earth.

Let me call it our dream and now get down to how we can together bring our dream about. It is fitting that I do so in the historical human melting pot -- London. - in Britain from which many fine ideals for mankind have emerged

Scanning your faces I see I am largely preaching to a very small choir - people believing in regenerative agriculture is some form. Some of you are farming in kind environments with reliable rainfall, while others are doing so in harsh environments with low unreliable rainfall. In many ways I wish I was today speaking to millions of citizens of all large cities like London - because it is they who today control our fate and who are going to suffer the greatest tragedy and violence if we do not change our ways.

In our daily lives many things are going well as stock markets boom while we shop in overflowing malls, join crowds at soccer games or the company of our friends in the pub.

But, one thing vital to all of us is- not going well - in fact horribly wrong -- agriculture.

Millions of people in our cities, universities and parliaments are assured by economists that agriculture is not very important because it constitutes only a small percentage of GDP. But how true is that? Without agriculture we could have no orchestra, museum, school, university, mining, manufacturing or any other business. No banks, no economy, no army and no government. Food and clothing for people living in cities is the very foundation and agriculture is the lubricant that keeps all of society humming along - Agriculture is the very basis of everything we do or aspire to be.

Asked what agriculture is, almost all people will say it is crop production. The reality, not understood in our cities, is that agriculture is not simply crop production but is the production of food and fibre from the world's land and waters. Fisheries, forestry, wildlife, wool, honey - all constitute agricultural production - and almost all of the land and oceans of our entire planet is now being used to sustain us.

Taking our planet's entire area crops are grown on about 5% while almost 90% provides the rest of our food and fibre - sustaining mainly our cities and our global economy because the foundation of any sustained economy is sunlight producing food through plants growing on regenerating soils, and through waters and oceans abounding in diverse life. I read Alan Greenspan's 500 page book hoping that as US Federal Reserve Bank chairman he might show an understanding, but he mentioned agriculture once in passing.

How assured are we that agriculture is serving us well? We need about half a ton of food a year to maintain a healthy person. We are producing that, but every year agriculture is also producing more than 75 Billion tons of dead eroding soil (10 tons per human alive today). Perhaps the most important statistic in the world - so let's get it clear, agriculture is producing 20 times as much dead soil as the half ton of food needed for each human every year, and it is estimated there will be about 3 Billion more people to feed from this ever-diminishing resource.

Not only this, but agriculture is leading to lifeless oceans and to the expansion of man-made deserts now dumping millions of people across borders and into city slums, or drowning trying to reach Europe. Dumping up to quarter million tons of sand some days on Beijing. Without any change in the weather, agriculture is causing increasing droughts, floods, poverty, social breakdown, obesity and new diseases, violence, pastoral genocide, recruitment for Al-Qaeda and other anti-social organizations, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and black carbon from billions of acres grassland burning every year and millions of acres of periodic forest burning, as well as wars over water. And it is also causing climate change.

As I said earlier - most of the violence and environmental destruction traces straight to agriculture.

Despite this grim picture of reality this is not a doomsday talk. Nor is it a talk, as so many are, telling us what we need to do, but never how to actually do it. I want now to talk about how we might unite team humanity around solutions . How we can achieve that ideal so that we can all realize our dream.

I will not talk about the role of livestock today because other speakers will be doing so during the conference - the theme of which is Putting Grasslands to Work.

While the theme -- Putting Grasslands to Work -- represents the main and most immediate arm of our global strategy on which we focus, there is another arm even more vital to achieving our dream. I want to use this opportunity in one of the great capitals of the world to expose you to that second arm of our strategy - changing agricultural policies through facilitating institutional adoption of new knowledge --- without which we cannot seriously address either agriculture or climate change.

Before I jump into this second arm of our strategy, to realize our dream let me provide some background.

A few weeks ago I read the views of an international team of scientists, mathematicians and philosophers at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute - laying out the five greatest threats to human survival. Climate change was not amongst those threats because, as they explained, some regions of our planet would still be inhabitable. Imagine that! What would that mean to billions of people in cities, like London, which would have to be abandoned?

Although on a far larger scale, abandoning our cities would not be a new experience. Through history agriculture has led to the failure and abandonment of many cities in all regions of the world. Rebecca Costa the sociobiologist who wrote "The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction," came to the conclusion those cities did not fail only because of their agriculture, but because their societies could not address the complexity of rising population and deteriorating environment. Apparently they turned away from knowledge or science and increasingly to faith or religion, while shelving the problems for future generations to deal with. Sound familiar?

John Ralston Saul who wrote the best selling book "Voltaire's Bastards" studied far wider problems that led to the Age of Enlightenment or Reason. Prior to Napoleon's time it was assumed that the major blunders being experienced were the result of amateurism - people could buy or inherit their positions as heads of companies, armies, etc. No more was this going to happen. From then on organizations would only be led by professionally trained competent experts. What Saul discovered, through exhaustive research across all manner of professions, was that far from decreasing, major blunders world-wide increased under expert management. Saul concluded that this was mainly due to expert training in narrow silos of knowledge.

To quote Saul "The reality is that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and coordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted."

"In many ways the differences between various languages today are less profound than the differences between the professional dialects within each language. Any reasonably diligent person can learn one or two extra tongues. But the dialect of the accountant, doctor, political scientist, economist, literary historian or bureaucrat is available only to those who become one".

Clearly, achieving our dream depends upon our ability to deal with complexity. So what does that word complexity mean to ordinary people like you and me?

Here is an easy way for everyone to understand. Think of everything we make - the car, train or plane that brought you here, the clothes you are wearing and everything that surrounds you in this room, including your phones, computers, or pace makers or hearing aids like mine. Think from this room to the marvels of space exploration. All are amazing successes prolonging and making our lives better. Everything we make uses technology and also expertise - I have no idea how to make a simple watch too complicated for my untutored mind. Everything we make has one thing in common. All have interconnecting parts and if a part is missing or breaks they generally don't work. They are not self-organizing. The jargon of science defines the things we make as complicated.

Now think of the things we do not make but we manage. Global finance and economy, Nature, agriculture, international and religious relationships, your garden, our lives - on and on it goes. It is here that we are running into problems, and have done for thousands of years resulting in terrible wars, environmental destruction and culminating now in failing agriculture and climate change threatening our very survival as a species. Every one of these things we manage, including human organizations, has one thing in common. All are self-organizing which means that if parts are broken or missing these things continue functioning without them, although in changed form. If the chair of an organization dies another is appointed and life continues. If a fish species is exterminated by overfishing, ocean life continues but in dramatically changed form. In the jargon of science what we manage is complex.

So a game of chess is not complex, but is complicated. A computer likewise is not complex but complicated. Agriculture and our institutions are complex not complicated because every aspect is self-organizing. There are other properties of complex systems, but this will do for now.

If history, and our global experience today, teaches us anything it is that to address the problems we face we need to learn how to manage those things that fall in the category of complex much better. It is hard to imagine any more pressing need given the trouble we're in. Our inability to successfully manage the complexity inherent in agriculture and in Nature, over thousands of years, and not only today, is I believe humanity's Achilles Heel. And managing complexity I do not believe will be solved with technology but with our minds.

Now let me come to how profoundly simply I believe we might address our Achilles Heel to achieve our dream of united humanity thriving on a healthy planet.

When so much goes wrong, and has done so over thousands of years, despite millions of brilliant minds enabling us to get to the moon, it points to a systemic problem. By systemic problem I mean what is happening from our actions is flowing from one common cause and not many special or individual causes.

Years ago I attended a conference in Sweden addressed by Gro Harlem Brundlant formerly Prime Minister of Norway, Special Envoy to the UN and Vice Chair of international group of wise people known as The Elders. She outlined many problems facing the international community, each costing millions or billions to fix, but all getting worse. She appealed to us scientists to try to see the connections in the hope that this might reveal causes and we might be more successful. Over the following weeks I wrote many of the issues on cards, arranging and re-arranging them seeking connections between them. Finally they all connected. Not any network of connections as we might assume, but all connecting at one common cause. One point outside of all of them. Picture 100 major global problems and a light above shining a beam down to every one of them thus all connecting at that light source or common cause.

So let's talk about single light source beaming to our major problems. That common cause I realized was the genetically embedded way humans make management decisions and develop policies - and have done since our earliest cave days. I believe we did not discover it hundreds of years ago because of it's profound simplicity. We were looking for more complicated reasons and this was below our radar.

While we appear to make decisions in lots of ways - intuitively, emotionally, rationally, scientifically, democratically, dictatorially and so on - if you look at it fundamentally, we all use a process that is shared by tool-using animals everywhere: we develop objectives, then use some tool to achieve them, based on many factors.

Let me give examples - we want to reach the moon, our objective. To do so we use technology in many forms and all our decisions about the correct technology to use will be based on research, past experience, cost, expert advice, and more. We decide to grow corn - objective - we will use plough, fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides - all technology basing our decisions on past experience, expert advice, research, cost, profitability, etc. Always the same from our cave days to our most sophisticated management today - an objective, achieved using some tool and decisions made on many factors or considerations. I now recognize this same behaviour in all tool-using animals Example - an otter - objective break open a shell - use a stone - tool - decision based on past experience, learned from others, trial, etc. This is why we call it our genetically embedded way.

So why has this way of achieving objectives enabled us to develop the amazing technological marvels we enjoy, but is somehow failing us when we need to manage things that are complex? There are two simple flaws affecting our ability to deal successfully with things that involve complexity. The first flaw is that we did not have any tool that could prevent global man-made desertification over much of the world.

The main immediate arm of the Savory Institute's strategy providing the theme of this conference, deals with this need to bring in the tool of livestock properly managed to be able to prevent most of the world's land from turning to desert.

As scientists we behave as though we have thousands of tools at our disposal to manage our environment at large. We do not. We have two tools - technology and fire (that enabled us to advance technology beyond simple sticks and stones). Example, look around at everything in this room, including the clothes you are wearing. Every single thing involved technology only made possible using fire.

And we have the concept of deliberately resting the environment to restore life (conservation). There is no tool here that can maintain biological decay annually over most of Earth's grasslands to prevent desertification. Only livestock properly managed now can do what is required. I have spoken and written much about that over the past fifty years, and other speakers will be touching on it so let me focus on the second and greater flaw in our genetically embedded way. This is the flaw that explains why we have been so unsuccessful when dealing with situations that involve things that are complex.

Let's look at this flaw with policies in mind because unless those can address complexity we are doomed as were past civilizations - turning to religion and faith while shelving problems for future generations did not work for them, nor will it for us if we are to realize our dream.

Policies, like all our actions, also have objectives. That is what they are designed to do, achieve objectives that will deal with an existing, or perceived problem. There is no other reason why governments form policies - the main role of governments. All objectives need a context, without which they lead to unintended consequences. So common are unintended consequences from our actions that many sciences and humanities talk of the Law of Unintended Consequences as a humorous reminder that we should have more humility when dealing with the world around us.

If I have an objective of lighting a fire you have no idea whether it is sensible or could lead to unintended consequences until you know why the circumstances or context for my action. Any objective without adequate context is a potential loose cannon on the deck.

Think about this for yourself. Look at any agricultural policy objectives, no matter how trivial or great, and you will realize that it is intended to address a problem. This context is so obvious we never question it - we would look foolish to question a need so obvious. Government supports funding to eradicate weeds or invasive plants because they are "a problem", or subsidizes agriculture because of problems like high food prices or low production. Consistently, no matter what the objectives of any policy, we find the context is "the problem" being experienced or perceived. This applies not only to agriculture but to other policies whether to deal with drugs, terrorism, immigration, health or anything else - but today I will confine myself mainly to agriculture.

There is no question, we do need policies. They are not the problem, but the way we develop them is - just like livestock were not the problem, but the way we manage then was.

To succeed and not result in unintended consequences the objectives of policy need to meet 3 criteria:

--- They need to have public support
--- They need to address the underlying cause of the problem, not just symptoms,
--- And they need to have a context greater than the problem - a holistic context which I will explain in a moment.
Think about that for a moment - could any policy imaginable concerning agriculture, drugs, terrorism, saving charismatic species, climate change, immigration or whatever not have social implications? Not have environmental implications? Not have economic implications? IMPOSSIBLE.

Today it would be difficult indeed to find any agricultural policy _ or for that matter one to save an endangered species - deal with drugs or terrorism - that has full public support, does not deal with symptoms and does not lead to unintended consequences. I believe we can do better than this by developing policies holistically, although success will always depend on the depth and breadth of thinking as well as the intellectual and emotional intelligence of those designing policy.

So what then does developing a policy holistically mean? How would that be different from today's integrated teams of experts developing policy while fully aware it has political, social, economic and environmental ramifications? Surely they are doing so holistically?

I AM AFRAID NOT. No matter how many, or how expert the people developing policy, the context for the objectives being limited to the problem still remains too simple for the complex reality. We do not have a word for such policy formation but because the complexity is reduced to the problem as the context, the word reductionist comes to mind.

There simply lies the systemic problem of the ages - that single cause underlying our management problems --- not only a missing tool - but human actions involving objectives with a context too simple for complex conditions or situations. No culture or nation is immune - we are after all the same species using the same genetically embedded way.

So what would a holistic context look like? In each unique situation this needs to be defined by the people involved and there are some guidelines I do not have time to cover at the moment. However, here is the generalized holistic context I use when assessing any policy as I read the papers, listen to the news or initially work in a strange country. It is a generalized holistic context for illustrative purposes to convey the idea and would I believe be common to most cultures and people.

We want stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs. Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health in balanced lives with time for family, friends and community and leisure for cultural and other pursuits. All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth's land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans.

Does this work, using such a holistic context? Yes, it does amazingly well.

Although no government has yet done so at a higher level, several have engaged in workshops with me learning how to analyze existing policies and devise fresh policies. In America far-sighted people in the U.S. Dept of Agriculture engaged me over a two year period to put some 2,000 officials through a week of such training. Over the two years they, and World Bank officials, analysed their own policies - hundreds dealing with problems such as drought, flood, invasive plants, endangered species, soil erosion, failing small towns and more. They found all their policies would fail and most would lead to unintended consequences-- because the context for policy objectives was too simple for the complexity. By using a holistic context - like that I gave you - a workable policy could be developed. That was a large sample.

One group went so far as to state that "they could now see that unsound resource management was universal in the United States" because of the lack holistic context in management and policy. This I believe true of other countries.

Repeating this with smaller samples, in India and Lesotho as well as with a large NGO operating in Kenya led to similar results.

Until a government develops policies based on a relevant holistic context we can do no better than know what is possible from this sample of trained experts working on their own policies. However I do believe that such results shine a bright light indeed on how we might achieve the dream we share.

How long we will have to wait, until any democratic government accepts the idea of developing policies holistically, time will tell. But how long that takes will be determined by how quickly public opinion shifts in favour of developing policies in this manner. This is something I did not understand earlier in my life. In fact did not understand until I read the work of the renowned British scientist Lord Eric Ashby.

Ashby studied how new scientific insights, outside societal beliefs, become accepted in democratic institutions. Using Britain and America over the last 200 years as his case study he found such counter-intuitive knowledge is only institutionally adopted when public opinion shifts. Until public opinion shifts democratic institutions simply cannot adopt new insights outside prevailing societal beliefs. Facts, data, evidence do not move institutions contrary to societal beliefs - only when enough people change are our institutions able to change. This has not changed since Galileo and probably before his time. If truly new insights are involved, our institutions head resistance until the public tide turns.

Before concluding allow me to talk about another way in which holistic management can unite us and bring those of us currently engaged in regenerative/sustainable agriculture into policy development by governments. Right now realistically we do not even have a seat at the policy table. Partly we have ourselves to blame - an unintended consequence of our objectives with inadequate context, believe it or not. Although we are increasingly collaborating each organization has it's own objectives and outreach. Every organization's objectives have the problem as context. Organizations compete for public support and meager funds - good people doing our best. In numbers we are nowhere near those who are apathetic or proposing and supporting the corporate agriculture Pied Piper. We are probably outnumbered 100 to 1. Politicians in democratic governments respond to the majority - the loudest voices. The longer we have two groups - one as small as David, the other as large as Goliath - I am afraid Goliath will dictate in problem focused policy.

What if we could turn this around? Turn it around with one unifying idea creating an even playing field? That one idea permeating the pubic mind being that policy needs to be developed in a holistic context. An idea no scientist or corporation will oppose if driven by a shift in public opinion. David would be seated alongside Goliath as equals at Arthur's Round Table and truly we would see sensible policy emerging.

Recently I was able to practically test this idea with 35 Members of Parliament in my own country on the most contentious issue in the nation - land and agriculture policy. The moment we defined a national holistic context everything soared above politics, pressuring lobbyists or any consideration but the good of the nation. By the end of the policy workshop they had the nucleus of a policy the world dreams of. If implemented, we would be producing more clean nutritious food than eroding soil. What matters most is that at no point was any knowledge used that was not already available - amongst farmers, ranchers and in corporations and universities. The change was entirely because no policy objective had any problem as context but all were in the holistic context of the nation.

I believe the picture I paint is possible in any government once they are encouraged to develop policy holistically by a supportive public.

Let me summarize and conclude

I conclude bearing in mind the gravity of the situation - population rising toward 10 Billion with agriculture in deep trouble, facing all the symptoms of global desertification and climate change and running out of time -

To achieve our dream -- of humanity in harmony with ourselves and our environment, sustaining future generations on a healing planet -- I do not believe will be possible unless we can get the holistic framework into international consciousness. Meaning management objectives need to be guided by a context greater than need, desire, profit or problem addressed - a holistic context, tying people's deepest needs to our life-supporting environment.

Both social research and thousands of years of history inform us that such a new insight will not be adopted by our vital institutions until the tide of public opinion turns

Meanwhile as this conference's theme illustrates the Savory Institute will continue to emphasize the world's grasslands and former grasslands desertifying so rapidly. It is for good reason that the world's great grain production regions are the deep soils of former grasslands rather than forest soils.

I believe that the world-wide creation of locally led and managed learning/training hubs as places where everyone, and anyone, can learn together - is the most realistic way to bring into being the synergy of ideas and knowledge to develop a new agriculture. An agriculture producing more food than dead eroding soil and once more thriving ocean life on a healing planet. A network of such hubs providing springboards in every nation spreading the knowledge till public opinion shifts.

Each of us feels small and powerless. Most people believe some new technology will emerge to rescue us, or believe there is someone wise out there thinking and planning ahead. Someone who will steer us clear of oncoming tsunami of our own making. Some Joan of Arc riding to our rescue.

No one is going to ride to our rescue, least of all any politician, corporation, billionaire or international agency, and certainly no miracle new technology. I have attended international conferences and have simply shaken my head in disbelief at the confusion - reminiscent of trying to get a clear view of the horizon by picking up a telescope only find it is a kaleidoscope. It is up to us - 7 Billion humans - and our combined voices - acknowledging that there is no "the solution" that can be produced by any organization or group, but there is a way for us all to combine our knowledge developing great synergy.

Floods never start as floods, but as single rain drops accumulating to a flood. You and I are those drops of rain - so too are your friends, family, colleagues and community in ever widening circles. Let us join our hands, minds and voices creating that flood through hubs as springboards to change or, in Buckminster Fuller's words, the trim tab that with little effort turns an ocean liner.

I know each of you is doing your best, but the times and the future of your children, grandchildren and beyond call for more. Like it or not - believe it or not - you are leaders in this great endeavour at this eleventh hour if our dream for humanity and our planet is to be achieved.

Enjoy a great conference and then let's go out and change the world one person, one family, one community, one flooded nation at a time.