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The Holistic Resource Management Quarterly

(Since this article was written, The Holistic Resource Management Quarterly has become Holistic Management in Practice)

The Holistic Resource Management Quarterly. Published by Holistic Management International, 1010 Tijeras NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102 (505-842-5252). $25 a year.

Here is a periodical, which at first glance seems addressed to farmers and ranchers, in which we can see the development of a major new tool of thought. For fifty issues, since 1983, it has recorded the learning process in an "invisible university" of people who are striving to reverse the losses of biodiversity on their land, get out of debt, make family businesses work better, and stop the bleeding in their communities. They are doing this by changing the way they make decisions.

"For several centuries now," writes editor Jody Butterfield, "we've labored under the belief that if we could only manage the parts well, the whole would come right. But increasingly, voices from every quarter imaginable are refuting that belief." The successes of our society, she notes, include outstandingly effective technologies, but with significant unintended consequences. Our failures tend to occur in those areas where complex relationships between overlapping wholes predominate: the biodiversity that is the support system for human life, our human relations, and our economy.

This isn't your average alternative magazine. The Quarterly makes it obvious that this novel and practical decision making has been developed in response to complex problems--such as desertification/biodiversity loss and the failure of family farms and ranches--that did not respond to conventional "solutions." Each issue is filled with questions, observations, stories, and advice by ranchers, farmers, businesspeople, teachers, government workers, and community activists who have made or are making the mental shifts that are necessary to change their decision making. Readers will encounter actual change, rather than vague or untested recommendations.

What is being recorded here is a Kuhnian paradigm shift, elaborated in practical, comprehensive, and grassroots detail. An Argentine rancher observes, "Once I was able to view myself as a part--and only a part--of larger wholes, all the tenets of conventional management began to fall one after another: nature as a passive object; engineering as a godlike endeavor; species divided into 'good' and 'bad'; weather as a problem; technology as the paramount solution; my family and my personal life as something apart from the way I make my living."

For many ranchers, the paradigm shifts have kept them in business. "After nearly 90 years of my family on this ranch, we are finally learning how to operate it," observes a Montana rancher. The magazine has accounts and advice on dysfunctional family relationships, debt reduction, and monitoring changes on rangeland and in the soil. It delivers an unequalled view of the real (and seldom discussed) problems and successes in agriculture and natural resource management.

The holistic approach and decision process featured here is largely the work of Allan Savory. Savory began his career as a wildlife biologist in Northern Rhodesia, where he began to observe the deterioration of the grassland after game and livestock were removed in an attempt to eradicate the tsetse fly.

During the guerrilla war of the 1960s, Savory formed and led the Tracker Combat Unit of the Rhodesian Special Air Service. While tracking he continued to observe ecological processes at the soil surface, and struggled to understand why conventional scientific approaches could neither account for the desertification nor reverse it. Like many, he initially blamed domestic livestock, but he came to realize that herds of large herbivores helped maintain biodiversity in arid grasslands. Where domestic livestock had replaced the wild herds, grazing was typically continuous and light.

As a consultant to ranchers and graziers, Savory advocated that management of domestic livestock imitate the behavior of wild herds under pressure from pack-hunting predators: concentrated grazing and disturbance, followed by long periods of plant recovery. Overgrazing, he came to realize, was a function of time and not of numbers of animals.

Savory realized that the Rhodesian civil war was unwinnable, and advocated the inclusion of blacks in government. Prime Minister Ian Smith regarded this as treason, and Savory left Rhodesia and came to New Mexico to continue his work against desertification. Savory has observed that the American West is "understocked and overgrazed."

He has remained at odds with much of the range-management profession, as well as with many environmentalists and international development workers, for his belief in the efficacy of properly managed herds of grazing animals in preventing and reversing desertification, and maintaining the health of watersheds, in what he calls the world's brittle environments, where plant decay occurs slowly. In these environments, the action of hooves in breaking the soil crust and compacting the soil is necessary, he says, in maintaining an effective water cycle and in the germination of seeds. And in these brittle environments, large herbivores are the only effective means of cycling carbon back into the soil.

What is remarkable is the growth of these ideas under testing and under failure. In the last dozen years a decision-making process has matured that is founded on individual values, basic ecosystem processes such as the water cycle, the mineral cycle, succession, and solar energy flow, and the approach based on wholes. A basic component is the cultivation of an ever-present awareness of what is actually occurring in and on soils, in human relationships, and in finances, rather than the more usual assumption that things are proceeding as they ought.

There are articles that analyze policy, research, and organizational function from the point of view of wholes. There are examples of how to focus human creativity on real problems, thus avoiding the fragmentation and continued defense of faulty decisions so characteristic of turf battles.

One article points out that we have been deceiving ourselves in attributing the Mississippi flooding of 1993 to the system of levees, the draining of swamps, or unheard-of rainfall. All of these contribute to flooding, yet the overriding factor, we learn, is a damaged water cycle over the majority of the watershed's surface. Past and present human management on much of these farmlands and rangelands typically deprives the soil of cover and reduces organic matter, leading to excessive runoff (as well as erosion) when the heavy rains do come. Unless we address the fundamental causes of the watershed deterioration as a whole--and a basic component of this is the way we make decisions--we will continue to face the consequences.

A teacher reports on the decision making at his agricultural and technical college. "There is absolutely no concern about quality of life. Oh, we talk about it in the classroom, but the success of our graduates, as tracked by the placement office, is measured strictly by the salaries earned . . . . This measure is then translated as the academic merit of individual departments, which then drives the budget allocations, which shapes the curriculum." Yet he sees hope in his students and in the holistic learning process. "The fact that I use their creativity to help make decisions, that we can talk about what is going on with the plants, the soil, and the animals without quoting the literature, and the fact that they can see results, is going to make classroom life more challenging for their other teachers."

Savory has several articles on global warming. He suggests that unless we can reverse large-scale shifts in ecological succession (such as widespread desertification on the arid two-thirds of our land mass) that are harming earth's ability to balance atmospheric gases, we are unlikely to be able to stabilize the carbon content of the atmosphere even if we do succeed in cutting industrial emissions. It is not an argument in favor of relaxing environmental regulations, but a sobering view of the limitations of the widely held interpretations that shape policy. Desertification, he points out, is a more serious threat to the carbon-oxygen balance than is the burning of tropical forests.

He writes that we can begin to address these problems successfully, including all human causes of global climate change and excessive flooding, if we base our decisions on a comprehensive goal that begins from our most deeply held values and hopes, as well as on an understanding of the basic ecosystem functions--instead of on single criteria or the problems we experience, which all too often are the residue of previous decisions. Though social and economic causes have been popular explanations for the decline of past civilizations, catastrophic declines in biodiversity that manifested themselves as desertification, soil erosion, and flooding have been large factors, he says. "Until we do change the way decisions are made, we'll merely be rearranging the chairs on the decks of the Titanic."

Savory is fond of quoting Einstein to the effect that the perfection of means and the confusion of ends characterizes our age, and that the thinking that got us into our present situation is not the same thinking that will get us out of it. Indeed. The holistic management model whose ongoing development can be seen in this magazine contrasts mightily with the interdisciplinary method and with the common decision making based upon multiple goals such as stopping population growth, eradicating hunger, and shrinking the ozone hole--necessary as these are. It has been described as the management of process rather than the management of events.

Paul Hawken sums up one the of the key insights of this holistic view. "If you ask any group of people anywhere in the world, 'How many of you woke up this morning with the intention of destroying the world?' nobody would raise their hand. So if we're doing it without intention and yet we're doing it anyway, it means that it's embedded in how we do things as opposed to being something that we want to do. And that tells me it can be reversed."

Judging from the Quarterly, the Center and its members are not just talking about such a reversal--they are living it. From a practical standpoint, they show us which difficulties are imaginary and which are real. With a flexible, detailed, and tested approach that unites the material and the spiritual, they are showing us how possible it is for us to take real responsibility for where we are headed.

Cliff Montagne is Associate Professor of Soils, Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman.