Connecting Physical and Social Science to Address Complexity

While working with Ashoka to scale transformational change, I recently met a most remarkable man with a most remarkable insight.  Allan Savory is associated with environmental land management; his most remarkable insight is to integrate a physical science observation with a governance one. In 2003, he was awarded the Banksia International Award for extraordinary contributions to improving our environment on a global level.


Allan was born in Zimbabwe when it was still named Rhodesia and part of the British Empire.  He has been a game ranger, biologist/researcher, soldier, farmer, rancher, politician and international consultant working on four continents;  he is President and Co-Founder of The Savory Institute.

Allan’s physical science observation is about the critical role of “large herbivores” (cattle, sheep, elk, elephants, bison, etc.) in the health of grasslands, rangelands and savannas of the world.  Rather than being the cause of degradation, they are critical to maintaining and improving the quality of land.  Their hooves break up the soil, their excrement fertilizes, and their grazing spurs new growth.  Allan’s particular physical science insight is about the massing, movement and timing of herbivores on a particular piece of land.  Through proper management even the most devastated land can be revitalized to support many more herbivores than traditional management practice.

Holistic Management: Physical and Social

However, his genius is realizing that this is a necessary, but not sufficient, insight to produce the paradigm shift he refers to as “holistic management”.  You also need change in decision-making processes, for which he has developed a “holistic framework” that he compares to a traditional or “core framework”.  He explains that: 

“Conscious, as opposed to instinctive, decisions by humans (at all levels from household to government or international policies) are made toward the achievement of an objective. The only tools with which to manage the environment at large considered in any government’s (or development agency’s) policies or projects fall under the categories of technology, fire or rest (of the environment).  And all actions to achieve the objective are based on one or more of many factors, such as past experience, expert opinion, research results, public opinion, cost, compromise, expediency, cultural beliefs, intuition, peer pressure, fear, propaganda, cost, cash flow, profitability, and so on.”

This core framework is good in simple and complicated issues, such as application and development of hard technologies – as he points out, with everything humans “make” from buildings, computers, genetic engineering to space exploration vehicles.  However, the core framework is counter-productive with complex issues – everything humans “manage” – agriculture, desertification, economies, species, environment – where there are significant unknowns and uncertainties that require an on-going strategy for learning and exploration.  These are sometimes called soft social systems or natural systems.

Allan points out that complex issues cannot be addressed by objectives and goals or through them visions or missions.  That is because these are emergent in complex situations, and defining them in advance denies their complexity.  With a complex issue, without a holistic context you cannot address the social, environmental and economic aspects of a situation simultaneously, and both short.

Applied to desertification, Allan’s holistic framework enhances the core one with three main additions:

  1. Holisticgoal or holistic heading that ties what people value most deeply in life to their life-supporting environment.
  2. The addition of two tools that make reversal of desertification possible in the world’s seasonal rainfall environments – grazing and animal impact from large herbivores such as livestock.
  3. A set of filtering questions that ensure all decisions, policies, projects or actions are leading toward the future people desire.

This is further described for Holistic Management:  A New Framework for Decision MakingI don’t agree with it all.  For example, he includes seven “testing questions”; I don’t agree answering them thoughtfully will “take minutes rather than hours”, particularly when participatory collective analysis take significant time.  I was surprised to see a system thinker like Allan refer to the “root cause of the problem”, but then saw his description of a “mesh of factors”.  There seems to be some contradictory qualities here.   Nevertheless, it is a useful framework and I much appreciate his assertion of the importance of on-going testing.  Allan comments that:

“I actually enjoy using the holistic framework in so many situations – it helped me decide to give away valuable land and so retain all I valued in life during Zimbabwe’s tragic land grab (while family and friends told me how foolish I was), it enabled me to refuse to support people in my village when all were signing a petition protesting a new bridge across the Rio Grande that would destroy the culture of our village, it enabled me recently to show our staff the folly of grading the roads on our Zimbabwe property rather to use pick and shovel – for social, economic and environmental reasons (where everyone would have graded).  And as you know we are reversing desertification perhaps the oldest problem faced by city-based civilizations using the framework.”

Allan responds:

Some tests take time in some situations, but once those are done – like gross profit analysis of a possible enterprise for example, or structured diagnosis of a natural resource problem – the rest of the testing is very rapid deliberately. In the textbook I use a picture of Lincoln’s face to make the importance of this point. Look at it for hours and one cannot make out what it is – squint your eyes and you see Lincoln. Take hours over each testing question and you see nothing – rush through them fast not making a decision and you get a “feel” and the final decision is “how do you feel?” A little training and people do it very quickly and well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *