Every day the news includes stories about the massive loss of biodiversity occurring globally and of the destruction related to climate change. Most people view these as separate problems, but they are not.
We – team humanity – can begin to address what is all coming to be blamed on climate change.
Desertification and Biological Communities
Ecologists and many other scientists know that the loss of biological life, and in particular plant life when it leads to soil exposure, results in rapid environmental degradation. When this occurs where rainfall is seasonal and erratic (i.e. most of the world’s land), the land turns to desert.
Anyone who understands how insects pollinate plants knows that together, plant life and animal life form biological communities. From the smallest bacteria to the mightiest of trees, whales, or elephants, such biological communities are most stable and productive when comprising the greatest diversity.
Soil, when not exposed, is the greatest store of fresh water after glaciers and icecaps. In fact, soil stores about thirty times more fresh water than all the rivers, lakes, and dams in the world according to the USGS.
When one square metre of soil is exposed where I live in the tropics, you only have to walk barefoot to learn that exposed soil is too cold to stand on at dawn and too hot to stand on at noon. In comparison, a similar square metre of soil that is covered with life is generally no problem. That small micro-environment of the soil surface changes enormously without vegetative cover.
On over half of our Earth’s land, more than 80% of soil between plants is bare. Because of this, the macro-climate is changing.
Feedback loops of biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change
Feedback loops occur in nature. Biodiversity loss leads to desertification contributing to climate change leading to more erratic rainfall and temperatures contributing to increased desertification and so on. Feedback loops such as these, if not checked, grow exponentially. Where rare weather extreme records used to be reported infrequently in my childhood, they have increased exponentially to the point that they are now almost a weekly occurrence.
If not checked, this feedback loop (seen as climate change by most scientists) will ensure the degradation of our human habitat and ever more unpredictable violent weather, likely to result in billions of deaths, violence, and the failure of our city-based civilization. These are not doomsday predictions but simple Ecology 101. Understandably, there is a growing demand for the world’s political leaders to act, but how exactly should they?
We cannot solve any problem without addressing its root cause. So, what is the root cause of this feedback loop that results in the acceleration of climate change?
Most of society, including those demanding action and scientists advising world leaders, believe climate change is caused mainly by greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, deforestation, and livestock. The solutions they advocate include replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, planting billions of trees, protecting tropical forests and oceans from over-exploitation, and eating less meat.
So, what is the root cause of the changing climate? It is how we manage resources like coal, oil, and the biological life (including livestock) that exists both on land and in the oceans. It is how we are managing Nature (our life-supporting environment) to produce energy, food, and other necessities that make our civilization possible that is the root cause of accelerating biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.
What could we recommend world leaders do about management when we manage millions of things daily? This seems an impossible task.
Society believes that we manage many things, but is that true?
It is true that we produce millions of things every day: cars, cell phones, clothes, computers, art, weapons, many forms of food and fibre, medicine, and all the other things that make civilization possible.
Participants at successive climate conferences discuss producing electricity less harmfully from nature, like sun, wind, geothermal, and nuclear. Some discuss corporate production of food based on chemistry and smart technology, while others discuss farmers producing food based on the biological sciences.
Things that we produce lack emergent properties, meaning they only do what they are designed to do and they are not self-organizing. Thus, they cease to function (or even exist) if we stop producing them, a part breaks, a battery dies, or fuel runs out. We can produce things independent of one another – cell phones or violins, corn, potatoes, meat, wine, computers, or weapons. These things are not managed, but rather we produce, create, or make them.
So, the things themselves are not where the cause of the problem lies, despite their domination of discussion at global conferences designed to guide the world’s political leaders.
What then do we manage that scientists now acknowledge is the cause of climate change?
As humans, we manage three things:
ourselves (our own lives, families, organizations, and institutions),
our finances and economies, and it is through these that we manage
nature (our life-supporting environment or habitat) from which we produce everything that makes civilization possible.
These three things we do not produce; we manage.
Our inability to manage this complexity of society, economy, and nature together is, I believe, the greatest problem facing humanity.
Each of these—human society, economy, and Nature—has emergent properties not predictable through the study of their components. Further, they continue on, although in a changed form, no matter how many millions of people or cultures die, no matter if entire economies collapse, and no matter how many species go extinct. Humans, nature, and economy are inseparable—as seen most obviously through the Covid pandemic—and they are defined in systems science as “complex self-organizing” systems.
Our inability to manage this complexity of society, economy, and nature together is, I believe, the greatest problem facing humanity. It has led to the demise of many civilizations in all regions and now poses a global threat to civilization through anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Managing such complexity, especially at the policy level, is what participants at global conferences on biodiversity, agriculture, energy, economics, etc. need to advise world leaders how to do because we citizens cannot do so.
The Solution Lies in How We Manage Complexity
Each of us can manage our lives, families, farm, or small business… but only to a point. Because we are managing these within an economy, no matter where you are located, this all is impacted by the environmental destruction being driven by the global financing system. For all species, including Homo sapiens, suitable habitat is the most essential requirement for its survival in Nature, and we are losing ours. As grassroots individuals and families, we cannot act to save humankind from the existential catastrophe we face, although many are trying.
Beyond the boundaries of our families, generally we manage at an institutional scale through companies, corporations, governments, universities, churches, and other organizations. Most people today cannot make a pair of shoes because they are made by businesses or corporations. Everything today is managed at scale by organizations or institutions, including religions.
Governments manage through the enforcement of policies, laws, regulations, and in earlier societies, through enforcing customs and taboos.
Putting the pieces together, management at scale, which is accomplished through organizational / institutional policies, is the cause of biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.
How can we advise world leaders to address this when there are so many hundreds of ways of developing policies?
Governments – democratic or dictatorship – develop policies in the same way. They develop policy with both the reason and the context of the policy being to meet a need, desire or to address a problem. The policy is then developed based on advice from highly trained experts, often in integrated scientific teams, interested parties, or by professional lobbyists and their own political persuasions.
Policies, so developed, almost universally lead to unintended consequences because we are ignoring the self-organizing complexity of society, organizations, economy, and Nature in devising the policy to meet our needs, desires, or more commonly address a problem. This is “reductionist policy development”. It is universal and is the cause of climate change.
The alternative is to develop policy to meet our needs, desires, or address problems but in a holistic context, which encompasses social and cultural values, aspirations and behaviour, and ties this quality of life and economies to our life-supporting environment (Nature) as it will have to be far into the future to sustain our descendants.
In doing this, politicians can begin to successfully address the root cause of the problem which is the reductionist manner in which policy is developed universally today. However, it will require real people developing a national holistic context as the context for all policies in any nation.
A holistic context is a new concept that began its development in the early 1980s with the help of over 2 000 scientists and economists with whom I was collaborating, and progressively it became both simpler and more inclusive. An example would be the “generic” holistic context that I use when visiting a new country or analysing any policy in any field:
While I formed this “generic” holistic context I have found people resonate with it despite different cultures, tribes, social status, economic status, or religions in all countries in which I have worked.
Addressing Climate Change in a Holistic Context
How, in the confusion and conflict of today, could world leaders be shown how to take meaningful action to address climate change in a holistic context?
Let me illustrate with a clear and unarguable example where the policies of well-intended organizations are leading to a loss of biological diversity and desertification contributing to climate change where least expected: our National Parks. This would be a neutral, non-contentious case, seeing as how almost everyone wants the same outcome, which is just the opposite of what we’re seeing there.
Where I live, I am surrounded by some 30 National Parks in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. Intended to preserve biodiversity, these are some of our worst examples of biodiversity loss and desertification contributing to climate change. The opposite of what almost every human, scientist, ecologist, and environmental organization desires and intends.
If we look at these national parks, or those in New Mexico where I lived for 40 years observing similar biodiversity loss even in the Aldo Leopold Memorial Forest on the Rio Grande river, as scientists we see the canaries in our mine dying wholesale.
This we cannot attribute to climate change, fossil fuels, atmospheric carbon, livestock, methane, deforestation, corporate profiteering, greed, corruption, poaching, hunting, excessive populations, lack of education, volcanic action, or, or, or… none of which is the cause of biodiversity loss in these islands of professional management admired by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
This loss of biodiversity is a result of the management by park biologists, ecologists, and staff, dictated by the policies of their governments, environmental organizations, and international agencies.
Earlier, I mentioned that society’s belief that there are many ways of developing policy, as we learned, was a false belief.
Could there be another false belief that is leading to management destroying biodiversity and human habitat over most of Earth’s land area?
Society believes that we have many options for reversing the loss of biodiversity and the scourge of desertification, thus beginning to break the endless feedback loop of biodiversity loss/desertification/climate change/biodiversity/desertification/climate change that will make our planet largely uninhabitable by humans. This we cannot do with all the creativity, money or labour in the world, but only through using “tools.”
We are a tool-using animal. Today, no human can even drink milk without using technology, unless we go to a cow and use hand and mouth to suck. We cannot even drink water or plant a tree without a tool, and so it is with biodiversity loss in seasonal rainfall environments that lead to desertification over most of our Earth’s land area. We cannot stop this biodiversity loss without the implementation of some tool.
In the world’s oceans and in the perennially humid terrestrial environments, we do not require a tool since simply leaving things alone allows biodiversity to recover. This we observe by finding the ruins of past cities covered by vegetation and many life forms as nature’s biological life recovered in humid tropical forest environments.
Scientists advising politicians have three tools with which to address desertification. We can use fire, we can use technology in all its manifestations, or we can use the concept of resting the environment as a positive action/tool to allow biodiversity to recover as we know it does in environments of perennial humidity. The latter is being advocated as rewilding, conservation, or preserving vast areas of land and oceans to restore biodiversity.
Two of these tools (fire and resting the environment) lead to desertification in seasonally arid environments, and the third (technology), even in science fiction, cannot prevent it. We have no option but to use livestock (and other large herbivores) as tools to restore biodiversity in seasonal rainfall environments. This we discovered in the mid-1960s and learned how to do as is described in the textbook Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore our Environment. ( Island Press 3rd edition).
I, like you and everyone at conferences about climate, saving biodiversity, or deliberations on agriculture or finance and economy, such as Davos, would like to see a positive outcome that helps world leaders by not saying what they should do, but by having them experience what can be done by developing policy in a way that does address the cause of the problem, and in the end helps us hopefully break the deadly biodiversity to climate change cycle in time to save us from premature self-induced destruction.
Remember, what is lacking is not knowledge, but the facilitation skill to enable any government, environmental organization, or international institution to use the available scientific knowledge to develop policy addressing the complexity.
I propose that respected scientific bodies such as the UK Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences and others, if desired, convene an internationally observed case in which a government, helped by the world’s largest environmental and wildlife conservation organizations, develop policy to reverse the biodiversity loss in Africa’s National Parks where I live.
The Savory Institute will not develop the policy but will provide the one skill lacking which is facilitation of the process. Such a test case can be observed by all nations and media so that the public and world leaders can see how relatively easy it will be for world leaders to address climate change in this manner. Addressing the cause, using all available science and knowledge, and with harmony and agreement amongst the people of any nation.
If, as will happen, the policy so developed under international observation, is seen to unite humans while addressing the problem to everyone’s satisfaction, it will be beyond valuing in terms of human life or money.
For thousands of years we did not know how to fly and many men died trying. When the Wright brothers learned to fly the human spirit flew and we were on the moon in seventy yearsI believe the human spirit can once more fly offering future generations hope.
This is an edited version of a blogpost by Allan Savory: https://savory.global/path-to-a-climate-change-solution-qa-lets-act-now/
Allan Savory is a lifelong ecologist and the creator and co-founder of Savory Institute. He originated Holistic management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources. His Holistic Management textbook, and Holistic Management Handbook have influenced thousands of ranchers and land stewards across the globe.