Holistic Management Framework Part 1

Holistic Management® Framework
Mike Everett
Consultant and Instructor

As some, or most, of you know I have been working the last two years on becoming a Holistic Management® Certified Educator, which basically means I would be certified by Holistic Management® International to teach Holistic Management®. Part of my Learning Plan is to share what I have learned with other Heifer staff members and if asked to work with them on specific subjects with their projects. As an attempt to help fulfill that objective in my Learning Plan, I’m beginning an Introduction to the Holistic Management® Framework series for FRA members. I will begin with a short history of Holistic Management® and how it came about which will include a discussion of the Four Insights that made the current iteration of Holistic Management® possible. First though, I would like to describe what Holistic Management is and is not.

Holistic Management is a tool that can be used by anyone in any situation to assist them in making decisions. It is a framework for addressing immediate and future needs in all areas, social, financial, and environmental. It assists in working toward a desired future, not as a reaction to a negative present. This framework for decision-making allows one to account for consequences of the actions planned, before that action is taken or rejected. It is not a “silver bullet”, it takes work and commitment and practice for it to function as it is designed to function. While it began in the natural resource arena, it has been shown to work for businesses and individuals in all walks of life.

Our story begins in southern Africa, in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to be exact. Allan Savory, a trained biologist, natural resource manager/game warden, opposition politician, and rancher, worked for a number of years on game reserves. Following the advice of the day for resource management, he oversaw the elimination of large number of native animals in the parks to reduce overgrazing, tsetse fly numbers, and protect farms. The problem was that none of these steps led to increased forage, more productive animals, or reduced health problems. River banks became steeper and steeper, droughts became longer and more devastating – thousands of wildlife and domestic animals died, people starved and moved to the cities, and desertification of crop and range land increased. In other words none of the accepted solutions for “correct” resource management actually solved anything; in fact they were making things worse.

So Mr. Savory and others began to look for alternative explanations and a better way to manage and make decisions about what he observed on the ground. This search over time led to four key insights over a period of 30 years. These insights are: 1) Nature functions in wholes; 2) the Brittleness scale; 3) the Predator-prey connection; and 4) Time is more important than numbers. Let us take a look at each of these insights and their consequences.

1. Nature functions in Wholes. All of us know that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. But we have looked at nature, including humans and everything else, as we have looked at machines – as a group of parts. If a part was removed or adjusted, the machine would continue to function. These parts are merely different aspects of the same whole. A flower is more than the roots, stem, leaves, petals, stamen, and pistil; it is the relationship between them and the surrounding insects, soil, animals, etc. In nature everything is a whole within a whole within a whole. In our flower example, each petal is a whole unto itself, but it is within the whole of petals, which are a whole within the plant, which is a whole within a group of plants, which is a whole within a specific environment, which is a whole within the worldwide ecosystem, which is a whole within the earth, which is a whole within the solar system, which is a whole within the universe.

By adopting a holistic paradigm, we realize that a plant or animal or ecosystem is more than a random grouping of parts, but a web of relationships in which if one thing is changed, the whole is changed. This paradigm shift of looking at the world in wholes instead of parts is the first insight and perhaps the hardest for many of us to accept and make.

2. The Brittleness Scale. We know that all environments are different, some are dry, some are wet, some are windy, some are cold, some are hot, etc. If all environments are different, why would we think that taking the same action would lead to the same response? The second insight is that “Environments exist on different ends of a scale depending on how well humidity is distributed throughout the year and how quickly dead vegetation breaks down” (HMI, Principles for Success: Healthy Land, Sustainable Future, 2007, pg 11). Environments which have evenly distributed humidity and rapid break down of dead vegetation, think rain forest, are a 1 on the brittleness scale; true deserts are a 10. In non-brittle environments, it remains humid throughout the year and any dead vegetation is rapidly returned to the earth. In brittle environments, humidity is very erratic, there may be a rainy season and a dry season, or there may be scattered precipitation and humidity throughout the year but with significant variance in distribution. In these environments, dead vegetation breaks down very slowly unless adequately disturbed. The importance of this is that actions taken to enhance biodiversity and increase production result in different outcomes in these different environments. For example, in non-brittle environments, resting land restores it, in brittle environments, resting land tends to damage and degrade it.

3. The Predator-prey Connection, or Livestock can improve land health. Allan Savory noticed during his time as a wildlife biologist that “in brittle environments, relatively high numbers of large, herding animals concentrated and moving as they naturally do when pack-hunting predators are present, are vital to maintaining the health of the grasslands we thought they destroyed”( HMI, Principles for Success: Healthy Land, Sustainable Future, 2007, pg 12).

How can this be so? Two reasons, one is that grasslands, herding animals and predators evolved together over millions of years in Africa, the Plains of North America, the steppes of Eurasia, and the pampas of South America. Grass and herds depend on each other, and the predators depend on the herds. The second reason is the response herding animals have to the presence of pack predators. They bunch together in defensive positions and mill around attempting to always keep the predators in sight. While doing this they are trampling old, gray plant material, breaking up the capped soils, scatter seeds and then cover them with soil, dung, and urine. Since we know from the second insight that dead vegetation in brittle environments breaks down slowly, mainly due to not being in contact with the earth and a lack of microorganisms to break them down, this insight shows us how livestock can be managed in brittle environments to mimic the natural patterns. By trampling down the vegetation, putting it in contact with the soil, releasing microorganisms that do break down vegetation in their dung and urine, and spreading seeds, livestock can improve the land and the forage in brittle environments. It also points out ways that managers in non-brittle environments can use livestock to improve their land and forage.

4. Time is more important than numbers. Even following the 3rd insight, a mystery remained, why did some areas with large animal impact deteriorate, while others improved? Mr. Savory continued to research and at last he found the work of Andre Voison, a French scientist and author. Voison’s research on grazing in a non-brittle environment led him to the conclusion that if animals remained in one place for too long, or returned to the same spot too soon, the plants became overgrazed. Plants after grazing use energy stores in their roots to grow new leaf. Thus if an animal remains in one place or returns while the plant is still using root energy to grow, overgrazing occurs, even if it is just one animal. Timing also affects soils, if animals remain too long, or return too soon, soil can be overtrampled losing its structure.

Therefore the 4th insight is that “overgrazing of plants and damage to soils from trampling has less to do with the number of animals on the land, and more to do with the amount of time the plants and soils were exposed to the animals” (HMI, Principles for Success: Healthy Land, Sustainable Future, 2007, pg 13).

This concludes the first in a series of articles on Holistic Management. These four insights underlie the concepts and practice of Holistic Management and have evolved over 40 years from the experiences not just of Allan Savory, but of thousands of ranchers, farmers, small businesses and non-profits, families and individuals the world over. Next time, I will start describing and explaining the Holistic Management® Framework itself, beginning with Defining the Whole one is managing.

For those wishing more information about Holistic Management, you can contact me or go to the source. Holistic Management International, located in Albuquerque, has a number of resources available. Their website is www.holisticmanagement.org.