Frequently asked questions

So holistic thinking and action is the new way. Have we been doing it wrong all these years, and do we need to throw out everything we've learned?

No. Many people, when they hear about the benefits of managing wholes, sense a criticism of the tools of thought and decision making that they have been trained in or have absorbed. And it is certainly true that the technology and economic prosperity that has been created for much of the world by "mechanical" thinking has enabled growing numbers of people to see the ecosystem and human life in a more holistic way.

It is not a question of either/or, it is a question of and. Jan Christiaan Smuts wrote in the 1920s (see Paradigms and decision-making frameworks) that "the natural wholes of the universe fall under both concepts [of mechanism and holism]." Linear, mechanical, and reductionist thinking has been essential to human success and will continue to be. Holistic thinking and action, however, is a valuable alternative, particularly in times of rapid, unprecedented change, where we are dealing with complex situations with numerous interdependent variables.

Isn't holistic management mainly about cows and grazing?

No. Holistic management is about learning to manage everything in your life, including ecosystem function, toward a holistic goal. This will seem confusing to those accustomed to viewing nature as a domain or reserve, rather than as cycles, function, process. See Allan Savory's The New Agriculture for more.

Is holistic management a movement, a cult, or what?

As a social phenomenon, holistic management might best be described as a "situational grouping" of people who are trying to adapt to enormous changes — on the land, in society, and in the economics of their businesses and communities — and through these changes want to maintain their values, what is supremely important to them in life.

The term situational grouping is from Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970), in which he describes the many changes that challenge our ability to adapt. People are forming situational groups to support each other and share learning about the changes they are going through, and how they are managing them.

The situational grouping around holistic management has at least two characteristics.

  1. It is coming from the edges, rather than from the centers of institutional power and intellectual authority — from people who treat received opinion much like a cow treats a barbed wire fence. As long as she has enough to eat, she stays away. Otherwise, she looks for a hole.
  2. It is about transformational change (beliefs and behaviors), rather than modificational change (strategies and actions).

Is holistic management a process, a product, or what? What are the principles?

As Bob Chadwick observes, holistic management, consensus building, and other processes are not ends or purposes in themselves. They are how-tos, or tools. The need and desire for real results, rather than allegiance to particular methods, is what drives practitioners along the bumpy road of change. When people want results that are significantly different — socially, economically, and ecologically — they are faced with transformational or paradigm change.

When I reflect on what I've learned from the people I've visited in the course of publishing Patterns of Choice, there seem to be three common (and certainly overlapping) threads.

1. Holism, the simple but far-reaching idea that wholes are
greater than the sum of their "parts." This is also the principle of systems thinking, of synergy, win/win, and abundance. Instead of just dealing with issues or problems, they concentrate on enhancing systems. Creativity and monitoring are essential.

2. Working from the asset base. Many people I've met aren't just taking aim at problems, faults, labels or diagnoses, and deficiencies. They're working to build capacity in people, in soils, in communities. Along with this comes the need to work from a holistic goal, life purpose, or best possible outcome.

Asset-based development is not centered on strategies or programs, but on people and the ecosystem. It is responsive rather than strategic, and it is about empowerment rather than control. It requires a belief in the capacities of people and of nature. It works toward best outcomes, rather than being based on worst outcomes.

A different style of leadership goes along with this. As Bob Chadwick says, "Servant leadership is where we're headed. Not a leader who tells you what to do, but a leader who brings diverse elements together and lets them figure out what to do."

3. A different attitude toward time. Time is an investment, an opportunity, rather than a cost or expense. When people work toward creating opportunities rather than meeting deadlines, it becomes easier to see underlying problems rather than surface symptoms. They are "going slow to go fast," working toward improvement rather than perfection, and managing process rather than events.Merve Wilkinson is a good example. He has "a long-term perspective and a day-to-day participation in a living landscape that evolves over decades and even centuries." Or, as Wallowa County forester Bob Jackson puts it, you manage a woodlot and create results "one day at a time."

Next question?