Thursday, 11 April 2013

‘Allan Savory: How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change’ – a review

This video was one i ignored, in my weekly rounds, while looking for something worthwhile to watch/read.

The reason? It seemed fanciful. I moved on, and forgot it.

TED's mantra might be "ideas worth spreading" but what conference organiser would host ideas “not worth spreading”?
Their utility is actually purely in awareness, for a movement or idea. The general idea is that someone gets up on stage and says something, and regardless of how true it is, they have a captive audience, and that is what matters to them. Consequently, they’ve had everyone from Ben Goldacre – grand arch-lord of the statistical dominions of epidemiology – to some guy reciting someone else’s poem.

But as i said, i thought the content fanciful, and so i passed over it.

I didn’t count on Facebook, however, where i saw this particular video exhorted with great passion.

“This man will save the world”, it cried!

“Ah – i must take a better look at this – i daren’t dimiss it, casually”, i thought.

And so i spent 40 minutes watching his presentation, and taking mental notes, and then another 80 minutes researching his Institute’s background, to find out more about their activities – the wizard behind the wall of Oz, so to speak. Then i went for dinner, and afterward came back to write this.

And over the next few weeks (in the interests of senescence and belatedness) this is what i’ve recounted...

...and i’ve found numerous problems. As well as further data.

If you like, you can skip the ‘presentation’ bit without too much trouble.

The Presentation Itself


The first error that i noticed (ignoring the graphic of an Earth in flames (line 1)), was when he showed a snapshot of the world’s greenery, or lack thereof, and said it showed change - it did not. The diagram was a photograph, assembled as if to peer through the clouds. How could this possibly demonstrate change, unless taken with an extremely long exposure. But in that case, before and after would be blurred together, anyway.

This is what the picture looked like: See here (line 2)

This is what a picture of change looks like:

Yes – a false colour image – to represent the change.


Soon after, he claims 'everyone's told' that desertification is caused by livestock. I anticipated that he might be about to use the ‘conspiracy theorist’s’ fallacy of “it’s the official line” which is intended to imply great doubt.

But ‘gravity’ is an official line – everyone’s told that gravity exists, too – does that make it doubtful? No. Like the picture of a burning Earth, this is a little red flag, but maybe flagging nothing.

My anticipation was fulfilled when he used a paraphrase of the old Galileo line, which is much favoured by cranks -- "skeptics thought the world was flat... i am Galileo... even though the evidence contradicts... i must be right".

What he said was “we were once just as certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then, and we are wrong again”.

Galileo was right because he followed the evidence. He was contradicted by people – most-significantly bigots in silly hats – who believed themselves to be right in spite of evidence. And millions of people followed them, with similar disregard to evidence, instead on the claims of the clergy’s ‘expert’ status (authority). There are far too many fake ‘experts’ nowadays (and there always have been) but in a scientifically strong age, it would be foolish not to demand evidence for claims.

Current ideas of desertification are based on evidence – this renders the Galileo trope obsolete. I’m not sure whether to hope he picked this up through bad company, or whether it was spontaneous – either way doesn’t make him look good. Again, this is a little red flag, but a bigger one.


At this point, he says removal of people led to land deterioration, but correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation. Is he a superstitious pigeon?


Then he says moving elephants was "political dynamite" -- but moving people wasn't!? A curious comment. A result of editing?


He points at pictures of Jornada Research Station (line 3), and says they’re from a climate change report. They don’t seem to be – they’re from here – a site run by more ‘holistic farming’ advocates, and here – and oh look, they quote Savory, this time. So who’s really referencing whom?


He says plants have to decay biologically... as opposed to? He then says that if they don’t decay biologically, then they oxidise... and biological decay doesn’t involve oxidation? I’m seeing bigger red flags here, through my awareness of the term “oxidation” being connected with anti-oxidant related pseudo-science. Oxidation isn’t an intrinsically ‘evil’ process. I hope he’s not appealing to another branch of pseudo-science, here.


He says emission of carbon from above-ground plants is prevented with fires, by preventing the baring of earth. Fire management around the world employs strategic fires to prevent bigger ones, which would result in even more bare earth; but the utility of fires in African grasslands, according to Wiki, at least, is to break down stiff species, to return their trapped carbon to the ground, for other species to utilise, which supports biodiversity and soil quality. It seems carbon is emitted from these fires (as is intuitive) but the rise of other species in their wake causes net gain of carbon to the plant biomass. So it isn’t the baring of earth that is prevented – it is the release of nutrients for other species to use that is enabled, which results in overall carbon retention.


He says there’s "no other alternative left to mankind" than the scheme that he has pioneered, which basically involves... adding cows. And plenty of them. I shall point out that other options not being good ones doesn’t make this one valid, by way of necessary contrast. If we didn’t have any options, that would just be a case of ‘tough shit’.

He presents pictures of end-products as if they were real. Let’s just remember that because thse pictures are offered as predictions, we can’t know whether they will become real. Let's not get carried away.


He claims that we’ve had 10,000 years of "extremely knowledgeable farmers". Well, they knew nothing about climatology. Even methods of crop-rotation were still maturing, in the 16th-18th centuries, CE. Nor did they have foresight of the distant industrialisation that’s caused the climatic change that is, in turn, causing desertification. Extremely knowledgeable farmers, 10,000 years ago? I think not.


He says modern Science "accelerated desertification" – he’s definitely wandering toward 'Naturalistic' pseudo-science now. Science is not the problem – and even if it were -- isn’t modern Science what he’s offering??? This guy claims to be a Biologist, remember.

Slightly later, he shows a picture of woman with a graphic (line 4), instructing separation of animals - this does not show new learning, though – haven’t farmers always done this? Is this the science that has exacerbated desertification, or does science in farming not count?


He announces that he conducts a "holistic management and planned grazing" process through his institute. This is dodgy terminology. "Holistic" is a term usually used in pseudo-science, because it means “all-encompassing”. In practice, however, it’s used to cover bunk that encompasses nothing. Vagueness is often the mounterbanker’s salvation.

It’s such a shame that pseudoscientists have seized terminology that would otherwise be useful. ‘Astrology’, for example, means ‘study of the stars’, so would be a more appropriate term than ‘astronomy’, for Astronomy.


He says his method will "address all of nature's complexity, and our social, environmental, economic complexity". It sounds too good to be true... and all you have to do is add cows!


This point is truly extraordinary! He compares "nearby" areas “on the same day, with the same rainfall” - one all sand, and the other marshy (line 5). Is he seriously claiming that this difference is caused by cows trampling over it!? As you might have detected, credulity is not high in me, at the moment.


At this point, he shows grandchildren with "hope for the future". Let’s hope it’s not a false one.

Zimbabwe – the place Savory is based, and where these pictures were taken, contains tracts of luscious vegetation. Again according to Wiki:” Zimbabwe contains the most fertile farmland on the continent”. What changes are we really seeing, here? Are other places drying while these places wetten, or what?


A Patagonian with a 25000 sheep flock, is described as "really mimicking nature now". HOW'S THAT MIMICKING NATURE!?

The idea of what’s ‘natural’, as is always the case with Naturalism, is blurry and weird. The desertification is natural. Regions getting green again is natural. But what caused it? Credulity: falling further. Cynicism: rising.


He says “95% of land can only feed people from animals”, then delineates a vast area of the world, containing many of the breadbaskets of those regions, that millions of people are dependent upon for food... vegetable food. Overly-simplistic? Yes. Did you know two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is unfit for humans to live on? I know – we’re lucky to be here at all, with all that OCEAN!!


He says "Everything is more productive and we have virtually no fear of dry years"; "And get very great increases in crop yield"; "it is the only hope of saving their families and saving their culture"; "millions of men, women and children are suffering and dying". Emotive stuff. OK if you're right - not if you're selling pseudo-science - that would be exploitation.


The presentation's over, and a TED guy asks him a question: "Where do the cows get food in desert areas?" Savory's answer: "We never have to feed them - one grass in 100 miles feeds all you need - just stick to a "sigmoid curve". LOL - what's that supposed to mean?

It turns out the term ‘sigmoid curve’ is used in emotionalistic pseudo-science in place of the word ‘cycle’, e.g. here. All he means (i think) is that seasons come and seasons go, and all you have to do is time your activities with the seasons... where’s the amazing insight in that???

But never feeding all these introduced animals? Really? Does the soil benefit through their starved carcasses? "One grass in 100 miles"...

Beyond the presentation

As you might have guessed, i’ve really not been impressed by the presentation!

The claims are far too grand, the evidence so lacklustre, and the demonstration of general awareness is lacking too. I suppose the excuse for all of this would be: “I was limited by the medium – by being on stage. I had to play to the audience...”.

So let’s take a look at his web-site and supporters, to get a better idea of what’s going on inside the Savory ‘just add cows’ Institute...

One of his apostles says it's not about the cattle. They're just a tool. It's not about the cattle. Here:

'Addressing Misconceptions About Holistic Management'

But Savory himself keeps saying it *is* the cattle.

They're confused and self-conflicting. This further pushes me toward classifying the movement under 'pseudoscience'. Surely members of the same team can reach agreement?! Science converges belief, Superstition diverges it. Remember – we’re not talking about hypotheses here – he’s not throwing out ideas that might work – he’s saying these *do* work.

This particular supporter has uploaded all kinds of videos to YouTube, for the Savory Institute, including one of Prince Charles' championing. Ah - there's another problem...

'Prince Charles endorsement of Allan Savory'

Prince Chaz has a terrible history for siding with quacks and cranks of all kinds. His endorsement shouldn't be counted as an outright condemnation, like it would be for other people i can think of, but it certainly isn't a good sign.

Surely, if you were a reputable, scientific movement, you would go for someone with a less-embarrassing better reputation? They seem to be deliberately appealing to the Greeny, hippy people who distrust evidence. A TED talk would be the perfect place to spread such ideas – persuasion counts, but facts do not, on stage; and TED has a good reputation for real Science.

On the subject of their various awards, including the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award, which they claim enthusiastically, i have no doubts that they won them; but awards are generally not given on the basis of evidence of deservedness - they are given according to how eye-catching someone's movement has been. They are given because someone else already knows about them, and wants to inflate their acclaim. Awards are generally given for “recognition of...” and not for ‘achievement in...’.

For examples, everyone knows Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize (2009) - before doing anything. Fewer know the EU - an entire international inter-governmental organisation - has won it too (2012). And some will also know that a homophobic, bigoted ex-President of Poland got a Nobel Peace Prize, even when the Nobel Peace panel knew of his history at the time (1983).

Many awards around the world are given with a similarly casual, populist attitude. But now try to name last year's winners of the Nobel Physics Prize. It wasn't Peter Higgs. You're probably struggling for either name, or just shrugging your shoulders. Oh, alright, i’ll tell you...

It was Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland, "for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems". This is who proper awards go to - people you've never heard of; because they get their heads down and work like proverbial dogs.


On the web-site:

The 'What We Do' -> 'Healing The Land' page lists some of their investors. One is 'Level 3 Capital Advisors, LLC' whose web-site seems... businessey. Nothing wrong with that. Technically.

The other one mentioned is 'Armonia, LLC', whose web-site reads:

"Ar-mo-nia: (Italian) Harmony. Armonia uses multiple forms of capital (financial, human, network, intangible) to support systemic shifts towards harmony. Our intention is to catalyze regeneration of soil, soul, and society. We believe in seeding society with values of fundamental interconnection, well-being, and holism. Our work is to support and partner with visionaries who are implementing this viewpoint."

[coughs: “bullshit!”]

This is one of their main financial backers? They seem as stuffed with pseudo-scientific 'holistic' crap as Horniman's walrus is, with taxidermic preservative!

Really, Allan - is this who you associate with?

"Every man is like the company he wont to keep" - Euripides (~2500 years ago)

Let’s hope this, too, is an erroneous indicator of Savory’s claims.

The Savory Institute is listed, on its 'Donate' page as:

"We are a project of Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit focused on harvesting nature’s intelligence to research, demonstrate and design whole systems strategies for sustainable development. Sustainable Settings is our 501(c)(3) fiscal agent."

Taking a cursory read of the Sustainable Settings web-site reveals a similarly Greeny, left-wing, science-free zone, including this paragraph (as an example):

"Though we teach many skills and focus on particular avenues of becoming alert and aware we do not teach specialization here. Specialization is part and parcel of why we, humanity in the 21st century, are in the mess we are in. It was the reductionist’s perspective that has allowed us to think we had power over Nature and that some how gave us the chutzpa to act the way we have, in defiance of nature’s economy. Here at Sustainable Settings we proudly graduate alert, hopefully humble, thrifty, disciplined, patient, and even frugal Certified Generalists."

The word i'm thinking of is definitely "hippy". I'm not sure why... <s>

Getting good at some particular thing (specialisation) has always been the bane of humanity... oh, wait, it hasn't – that’s a ludicrous claim!

{A fiscal agent is just an entity that does a non-profit’s financial administration for them, due to their lack of expertise.}

Don’t think my green, planty backdrop, and my herbaceous PC desktop background (which, i am aware, you can’t see) are erroneous.

I value biodiversity and ‘nature’ (by its real meaning – the world around me) and i certainly want to live ‘in harmony’ with the world around me (the ecosystem of which i am a part) but i have no intention of losing my brain to left-wing, hippy, libertarian, anti-technology nonsense that, far from empowering us to live with nature, actually leaves us subject to all the negative aspects of it that thousands of years of Science has enabled us to overcome. Diseases, for a bloody good example.

We have the rationality of evidence-based reasoning – Science – we should use it. Where is the reasoning behind ‘just add cows’? We need evidence. If Savory has any actual, verifiable evidence of his claims, then he’s doing a bloody good job of hiding it!

I have, however, read this, in which Savory says “Managers of land almost never achieve publication in peer reviewed jourals (sic) concerning range management in particular, because such journals are controlled by, and the International Range Management Society is dominated by, research people lacking both skills and training in management. Such researchers have over many years refused to accept management results as anything but annectdotal (sic), because they cannot replicate management of any financial, social and land management situation on small plots for statistical analysis.”

Ah, right – so there is evidence. At last!!

...and it’s negative evidence. The typical crank excuse is that replications don’t work, because the people doing the replications don’t have the skills necessary to do the same handwavey bullshit that the cranks did. 'Psychics', for example, claim that skeptics can't test them because... they're immune to psychicyness... or something like that.

If you’d told them what you’d done in enough detail, then they would be able to follow you, and get the same result. Blame for the lack of replication must remain at your shoes, Mr. Savory.

Further research reveals more data that contradicts the un-savoury claims of Mr. Savory.

Better Grazing Not a Solution

Now it's clear that the Holistic Management pseudoscience is not new – so why did TED book him? Is this a mistake they are currently rueing? I hope so.

But wait... it gets worse.

Steve Gallizioli interviewed

It seems Savory has been exploiting the conflict between wildlife and livestock advocates for years.

Originally, Savory offered his variously-named ‘management’ schemes to please both the cattle industry and the environmentalists who were worried about farming’s impact on the surrounding environment. What more pleasing claim can you have than “add cows, enhance environment, get more of everything”? Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

This leads on to another problem.

Savory heads an organisation that benefits, financially, through duping other people into thinking that his scheme will "address all of nature's complexity, and our social, environmental, economic complexity" to give them "hope for the future", with “very great increases in crop yield". After all, "it is the only hope of saving their families and saving their culture”.

This means Savory’s talk is potentially not just embarrassing for TED, but might also breach their house rules, too. They don’t say what the rules are for home-based talks, but under their TEDx section (for events to be associated with TED but not run by them) they say:

Content: Speakers must tell a story or argue for an idea. They may not use the TED stage to sell products, promote themselves or businesses. Every talk's content must be original and give credit where appropriate. Speakers cannot plagiarize or impersonate other persons, living or dead.”

Let’s check one of those sentences:

“They may not use the TED stage to sell products, promote themselves or businesses.”

Potential breach? I think so.

And to add further salt into the TED people’s wounds, the very next paragraph reads thusly:

“Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk -- TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community.”

Read that last sentence again... and again, if need be.

Savory’s claims have *not* stood up to scrutiny from the scientific community.

See the Gallizioli link, if you skipped over it.

Never mind, TED. But the greater cost could be to the people that Savory purports to be helping. Wrecking their already-struggling homes with hoards of cows is not going to do them any favours!


I didn't believe this man to be deliberately charlatanistic. Not at first. In fact, not until i found that he has been making counter-evidential claims for many years, did i believe it.

If he really believes the claims that he makes (has become a shut-eye) then Savory must be suffering from the Naturalist Gaia superstition – the idea that everything lives in harmony, as long as you don’t touch it. >99% of species that have ever existed are now extinct – the idea that we can afford to base our actions on Naturalistic, karmic delusion is not one that we can afford.

Like i’ve said – this superstition is not one that the people of desertified areas can afford. People like TED audiences can afford an error – they cannot.

Unfortunately, for us, age does not necessarily mean wisdom. The claims made in his TED video are unevidenced. In fact, because they’ve been tested and found lacking, they’re counter-evidenced.

If the idea of ‘just adding cows’ still appeals, don't enthuse yourself too much - reality, as Ben Goldacre often says "Is a little more complicated than that".

Let's not pretend TED talks are, in practice, the highest grade of empirical evidence, however - they are merely someone talking on a stage - nothing they say is necessarily true.

When Ben Goldacre himself did his two talks, at TED, it was to create awareness – that is what public talks are good for – regardless of whether that awareness is of true content or fictional content! Think public book readings.

What’s gone wrong, here, is that an international forum has been given to someone that should not have been allowed to benefit from it. It is not an environment in which the standards of scientific inquiry can be maintained – people expect to be told stuff when they watch TED presentations. They don't expect to be lied to. But they have been lied to, because the wrong man was given a mic.

There are ways to change climates -- after all, if we can desertify them, then we can undesertify them. But 'just add cows' is too simplistic to work.

Let’s not make it easy for charlatans to trash the world we love.

Stay skeptical, people. Stay skeptical.

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