The Weekend Wonk: Alan Savory on Greening Deserts and Reversing Climate Change

March 9, 2013

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about this TED talk, asking me if I had seen it, and what do I think.

Finally got around to watching it last night, and I agree, this is a worthy topic for discussion, for a couple of reasons.

a) We are clearly in carbon overshoot, and need to come up with novel ways to manage forests and soils over coming decades, to soak up as much carbon as possible

b) This speaks to what is for some, a standard ecological prescription, which is that animal husbandry is always in every case destructive, and contributes to climate change and desertification. Savory agrees that there is a right and wrong way, but makes a case that with the right practices, ruminants can become a powerful tool for healing damaged land and sequestering carbon.

One remembers that when European settlers (ok, illegal aliens) came to America, they found black soil 6 feet and more thick in Iowa, Illinois and the plains. That soil has now been reduced to inches by technological agricultural practices, and a major project for the coming century would be to turn that around, if we are to maintain a viable agricultural base. And those original soils, well, the Buffalo had something to do with that…

Indigent to the prairie and a primary food source for Indian tribes, the buffalo was slaughtered to near-extinction by the white man in the 1860s. This photograph, which captures only a fraction of the bones from the estimated millions of buffalo shot for their hides and often left to rot, can be found in Michael Blake's "Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency."

Indigent to the prairie and a primary food source for Indian tribes, the buffalo was slaughtered to near-extinction by the white man in the 1860s. This photograph, which captures only a fraction of the bones from the estimated millions of buffalo shot for their hides and often left to rot, can be found in Michael Blake’s “Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency.”

53 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Alan Savory on Greening Deserts and Reversing Climate Change”

  1. witsendnj Says:

    Another study about early climate disruption supports his propostion:

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/vergano/2013/03/02/anthropocene-climate-farming/1955041/

    I’m not so sure about that pile of buffalo bones being solely unique to illegal aliens – my understanding is that the native americans were wont to drive stampedes off cliffs, killing far more than they could use, creating mountains of bones as well.

    A succinct description of what humans have done and are still doing to do big slow animals is here:

    http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2013/03/humans-are-clueless-about-themselves.html

    and from my own post (excerpt) on Savory here:

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2013/03/queen-noor-has-hope.html

    Take, for a more obscure example, this excellent TED talk by the engaging Zimbabwean biologist Allan Savory, who couldn’t be more excited to explain that HIS idea of Holistic Management is essential to prevent further desertification, re-green the earth, and avert catastrophic climate change. His Hollywood audience was so enthralled, you would have thought he found a foolproof formula for weight and wrinkle loss. Seriously, to all appearances, he has got a terrific idea that he’s been implimenting with great success for decades – but he forgets that there are so many other issues, that no one solution will save us from the utter devastation looming on the horizon from multiple converging catastrophes.

    The mere fact that there are so many individuals and organizations trying to save the world could be interpreted as uplifting encouragement – except that none of them will put aside their own turf to genuinely cooperate together, which is arguably the most telling example of how misguided and futile and incoherent, however well-meaning (some more and some less), their efforts ultimately are. What’s almost funny is that most people don’t know anything about any of them! They haven’t even heard of tar sands, or the pipeline, they haven’t the least inkling that climate change means that THEIR lives are going to be changed! Peak oil is some odd joke, and overpopulation is a distribution problem that will be solved by more smart people like themselves having more babies.

    Have a nice weekend, enjoy the mild temperatures before the summer fry!

    • rayduray Says:

      Gail,

      That Queen Noor interview is a stitch. It’s absolutely hilarious to hear her claim that Ronald Reagan was the leader on nuclear disarmament. Talk about vassal state obsequiousness. As well as a completely Orwellian re-writing of history. Oy vey iz mir!


  2. I think you would also like to watch this TEDx talk by Tony Lovell on similar findings. It goes into more detail to show the maths behind the idea that we could sequester vast ammounts of carbon by changing the way we manage our pastures.

  3. omnologos Says:

    I feel the Mayan end-of-the-world approaching. Or is this the bit where the leopard will lie down with the baby goat?

    • MorinMoss Says:

      The human race won’t disappear anytime soon due to climate change, even under the most pessimistic projections.
      But there are many vulnerable countries, places where millions of people are just getting by and it won’t take very much to push them over the edge into oblivion.

      We used to care about these things as part of the national consciousness;I attended fundraising events built around USA for Africa where everyone seemed to be genuinely concerned, even if they weren’t all sure if it was going to be more than a short-term fix.


    • Omnologos, Please clarify for those of us who are challenged by mystical similes.

  4. Jason Says:

    Jason’s scepti-sense has been tingling. But notes that this is a topic about which he knows literally nothing.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      thanks, I was hoping for some input like that:

      “Continued advocacy for rotational grazing as a superior strategy of grazing on rangelands is founded on perception and anecdotal interpretations, rather than an objective assessment of the vast experimental evidence. We recommend that these evidence-based conclusions be explicitly incorporated into management and policy decisions addressing this predominant land use on rangelands.”

      still feel the need for more info, tho.

  5. witsendnj Says:

    Wake up Peter my comment is in moderation purgatory.

  6. rayduray Says:

    I’m reminded of the section of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” where he visits Joel Salatin at the Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley. The gist of it is that Salatin used similar principles to those discussed by Allan Savory to move livestock across pastures on a rotating basis in order to increase soil tilth and in effect take clapped out land that had been largely ruined by standard farming practices and return it to a state of superior soil health and animal and crop productivity.

    http://michaelpollan.com/books/the-omnivores-dilemma/

    http://www.polyfacefarms.com/


  7. A TED video with positive responses on both WUWT and here… is this a first? WUWT’s response is positive because it highlights desertification and climate change due to land use change and the odd logic that the would needs more cattle.

    Google ‘mob grazing’ for details of how agriculture is finally catching up with environmental needs.

    • rayduray Says:

      The Devil Is In The Details

      So Jules, I followed your suggestion. I Googled “mob grazing”. Quite a fascinating topic that’s getting a lot of coverage.

      As I stumbled through the stubble I found an article at the “Mob Graze” website about an unlucky farmer in SW Missouri who lost some cattle to “Johnson Grass Bloat”.

      Which sounds awful. Basically the cattle blow up from the nitrates in an introduced weed species. And if that doesn’t get ’em, the cyanide will.

      There’s more to this short-duration/high-intensity grazing than meets the eye.

      http://mobgraze.com/

      http://www.koamtv.com/story/18967342/toxic-grass-kills-six-cattle-in-southwest-missouri


      • The US rancher belt seems to have a lot of interesting fauna and drought, a place where different herbivorous evolved when compared to Europe so perhaps the problem is the animals- maybe bison cope with stress related pasture better than cattle.

        But what must be clear to us humans by now is there is no single fix for our problems. It is a complex world.

        • rayduray Says:

          Hi Jules,

          Re: ” a place where different herbivorous evolved when compared to Europe so perhaps the problem is the animals- maybe bison cope with stress related pasture better than cattle.”

          There’s no doubt about it. The bison was profoundly well adapted to the American prairie in which it co-evolved with the flora over millenia.

          In comparison to the bison, which can outrun bears and wolves and were superbly adapted to weather extremes, the cattle that Europeans introduced to the West were finicky eaters, slow-witted, easily predated and prone to a host of diseases. Come to think of it, they are a lot like us.

    • andrewfez Says:

      This is an incidental comment, but i was Googling ‘Faint Young Sun Paradox’ the other day and came across a WUWT link where Watts was speculating that albedo related positive feedback (warming melts ice, allows more sun energy in, melts more ice; and vise versa) was the significant driver of pulling us in and out of glaciated periods, as it would amplify small changes in temps, secondary to tilting (Melankovich style).

      I just thought it was a little odd that he would speculate about a mechanism that would cause a huge increase in global temps via positive feedback. Perhaps I can take comfort in that he believes this to be a very slow process….

      http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/10/16/a-simple-resolution-to-the-faint-young-sun-paradox/


  8. Thank you Peter for this post, and for the reader comments about rotational and mob grazing. (A fabulous reason to delay downloading turbo-tax.) I think we can all agree certain that reading a paper authored by 9 scientists on crop rotation burns many more calories than watching a Ted presentation.

    Although related, it seems that different issues are being addressed The Savory Institute’s mission is to restore marginal land undergoing overt desertification by emulating the lost delicate balance created by wild herds operating under the threat of predators. Unthreatened domesticated livestock tend to casually meander about as individuals. Regardless of the grazing process used to maximize the rancher’s stocking rate, livestock does not impose concentrated conditions that force them to abandon sections of land for any length of time. The pastures deteriorate at an imperceptible rate.

    The video on this page is an excellent complementary version of the TED talk.

    http://www.savoryinstitute.com/desertification/


  9. […] I've been hearing from a lot of people about this TED talk, asking me if I had seen it, and what do I think. Finally got around to watching it last night, and I agree, this is a worthy topic for di…  […]

  10. uknowispeaksense Says:

    To me, it all makes sense for the countries that historically had large herds of ruminants and other grazers. I think its a bit different for us here in Australia. We’ve got a lot of desert and a lot of really marginal land and some of these areas don’t see rain for years and when it comes it will either be either a spit or a deluge. We don’t have large herds of grazers except for our macropods, but even with the artificial watering they receive from bores and onfarm dams, their numbers don’t come anywhere close to what would be required. We did have large herbivores at one point but they all pegged out 40000 – 20000 years ago through a combination of hunting but also a natural drying that was occurring as the world headed towards an ice age. That said, I think, that this could work in the top end where our tropical savanna has seasonal rains but for the rest of the country with the exception of the coastal fringe,we are likely to continue down the path we’ve been on of increasing desertification from having not enough grazers due to not enough water.


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