TED Conversations

Linda Hesthag  Ellwein

Communications, Change, and Photography, Oikonomia, Inc.


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How attached are you to your deeply held beliefs? If solutions to global problems challenge your worldview, how do you react?

Allan Savory's recent TED Talk introduced an unlikely and politically incorrect solution to reversing global desertification and climate change with the use of livestock as a tool, and different decision making.

Well-meaning laws, bureaucracies, and activists at the mercy of public opinion have stifled this work from moving forward on a large scale in the US. Belief systems and the fear of being wrong often prohibits change.

How do you respond to ideas that challenge your belief system? How do we stop our paradigms and prejudices from unfairly shaping decision making, and allowing us to take real risks for lasting change? What's your reaction to cows helping save the world? What idea have you believed and been completely wrong?


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    Mar 13 2013: I have waited a couple of weeks after returning from TEDActive to write this post. I had hoped that my feelings of intense disappointment and disillusionment would dissipate, but they haven't. Would someone please explain the selection of Allan Savory for a TEDTalk, knowing that he had systematically exterminated 40,000 majestic elephants, as a result of his incorrect hypothesis? He did not even consider minimizing his recklessness by testing his theory on a much smaller population, in a smaller area. He removed native people from their land, destroyed 40,000 elephants and THEN discovered he was wrong. How can this barbarian be invited to speak at TED?!

    Additionally, Mr. Savory’s newest hair brained hypothesis flies in the face of widely accepted research about the root causes of desertification - including global warming, short-sighted over-planting, feeding methane releasing livestock instead of adopting vegetarianism, and deforestation.

    I am a foster mother to a couple of orphaned baby elephants at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Both of them were rescued after having witnessed poachers murder their mothers for their tusks. Some of the orphans die of grief. The ones who survive are greeted and surrounded in a literal circle of love by the other orphans, trunk to tail. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is the only organization that releases orphaned elephants back into the wild. After two years of care, they are ready to return to the African wilderness. The Sheldrick graduates send a subterranean message to each other, and then arrive from miles away to “pick up” the newest member of the herd.

    If Allan Savory feels any guilt for his grievous crime against nature, he can help -http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust. It is my fervent hope that the TED organizers would choose to invite real humanitarians like Dr. Daphne Sheldrick, Dr. Jane Goodall, Ric O'Barry - Dolphin Project, Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, among others. Please add to the list - I will be happy to forward it.
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      Mar 13 2013: Thank you for your honest post Robin. I can most definitely appreciate your feeling, particularly knowing how much love and investment you have for these magnificent creatures! It's my guess others will respond to your post but I simply want to say that a mistake doesn't translate to a barbarian. I have worked with Allan in various situations over the last couple of decades, and your description is inconsistent with his character. That said, I understand why you would see it this way when your life is dedicated to their survival!

      I cannot speak for Savory, but I know his commitment is to sustaining all life. The unfortunate, unintended consequences of man's decision making can be devastating. It is for this very reason Savory developed the holistic decision making model. His intent was to prevent as many unintended consequences as possible, by addressing root causes and working towards the best possible outcome for the whole - including every elephant. In our quest for answers, or a job responsibility to a single cause (i.e. endangered specie,rangeland, deserts, etc.) , we have traditionally addressed one symptom or problem leaving us wide open for massive error to the system as a whole.

      Savory learned from his mistakes, rather than cow-towing (no pun intended) to those seeking to further their own agendas. Over the years, I've witnessed him repeatedly choosing blunt honesty and transparency, over popularity and sentimentality. I can only imagine the horror it was for a wildlife biologist like Savory to know elephants suffered at all. Isn't it how we address our mistakes - if we're paying enough attention to notice them - that matters? Making decisions holistically with vigilant attention to the results in the process will limit many unintended consequences. Savory's model has deeply influenced land management across the globe. He is rarely given credit for his monumental influence towards global sustainability - and there is still a long way to go.
      • Mar 14 2013: Linda, what a beautiful response!

        Thank you; I learned something this evening.
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        Mar 14 2013: Dear Linda,

        Thank you for your response. As a foster mom to orphaned baby elephants, I was saddened that Allan Savory had convinced the government to implement his plan on such an enormous scale. Systematically shooting 40,000 elephants to test a theory that proved to be incorrect is unconscionable.

        It seems to me that desertification solutions could include restoring the land back to the native nomadic people whom Allan Savory forcibly removed, and helping to protect and restore the elephant population, rather than bringing in methane producing non-native livestock.
    • Mar 14 2013: Robin,

      Mr. Savory's research, which led to 40,000 elephant deaths, was conducted in the early 1960's. At that time, the prevailing scientific thought was, required rest of the land to save desertification of the grasslands. The idea was, culling those elephants would eventually improve land quality and allow the grasslands to thrive, including the bounce-back of remaining elephants. Obviously, he regrets this decision, since he admitted so during the lecture, and if you have ever read any of his books you would understand he has a passion for saving all wildlife. People tend to make major mistakes early in life and regret them, this would be one of Savory's.

      Mr. Savory's way of grazing livestock is considerably different then the conventional methods used to raise livestock, most of which never actually see grass. As a cattleman myself, I can attest to the wonders a properly managed livestock herd can do to one's land. When grass is grazed properly by livestock; plant and animal diversity grow; soil quality and water retention increase; erosion and run-off into streams decrease. There are actually quite a few books that outline the success of intensive grazing. I'd be happy to offer some suggested reading to help change your mind.
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        Mar 14 2013: Dear Christopher,

        I am a vegetarian and would not be interested in reading books about livestock. Since you are a cattleman, I am pretty sure we would not agree about the environmental problems created by methane producing livestock, and in our ability to feed starving people around the planet, instead of livestock.
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      Mar 14 2013: Robin,

      I understand your emotional attachment to elephants. However, emotional attachments often cloud our judgment.

      I commend Mr. Savory for the courage of admitting his mistake of killing 40,000 elephants in public. He has to carry this cross till the end of his life now, face accusations like yours, which jeopardize all his subsequent results. He HAS to admit his mistake in every public speech he makes. If he does NOT mention it, he would be discredited as scientist for life. It's exactly BECAUSE he admitted doing it in his speech, I believe, he should be allowed to speak at TED. It shows him as a man of considerable integrity. Actually, this mistake and him admitting it, ADDS credibility to his research in my eyes. People who make such mistakes in the past would go 10 extra miles to make sure such mistake is not repeated.

      There is an old Russian saying "bowed heads don't get chopped off".
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        Mar 15 2013: Dear Arkady,

        I have not heard of any sane scientific research that began with the slaughter of FORTY THOUSAND elephants. I wholeheartedly believe in forgiveness. I completely disagree with Allan Savory’s previous and current solutions for desertification. It seems to me that solutions could include restoring the land back to the native nomadic people whom Allan Savory removed, and helping to protect and restore the elephant population, rather than bringing in methane producing non-native livestock.
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          Mar 15 2013: Robin, as Margriet's comment below implies, native people in Australia have caused as much environmental damage over thousands of years as modern practices, before methane-producing animals were introduced to Australia. This seems to support the hypothesis that it's removal of grazing species that turned Australia into desert, not methane.

          I don't defend slaughtering 40,000 elephants. That was an act bordering with a crime by today's standards. But mind you, his conclusions were peer-reviewed and were found to be in-line with a scientific opinion popular at the time. So, he did not make this decision without asking anyone. Those who agreed with him back then should share the responsibility. I'd say the message here is that today's popular environmental theories that we accept as truth (like methane-producing livestock that you mention) could be wrong as well. Are we sure that someone will not consider what we do a crime 50 years from now?

          Allan's main idea is not introducing non-native livestock. Its a method of grazing the grass. It can be done by any grazing animals - bison, rhinoceros or wombats. This is what seems to bring results. But if he is able to achieve results with cows, it clearly proves that methane was not the major issue, but the grazing was.

          I always wondered why extra CO2 emitted into the atmosphere and allegedly responsible for the global warming is not absorbed by plants. Plants love CO2. It's their food. The answer seems to be - because plants are destroyed by something else, not by the CO2 in the atmosphere. And Allan's research seems to provide the answer.

          I still admire Allan for admitting his past mistake. Perhaps, it's this mistake that caused him to think independently of the prevailing mainstream scientific theories. He seems to know enough about herding to understand the dangers of herd mentality.
        • Mar 18 2013: I have to second Arkady on virtually all points, and as a quasi-vegan (fish-eating, with occasional meat intake), I gotta say I agree with a lot of what Robin says as well...

          My occasional meat intake comes from a local farm. I know the farmer and the farm; it is a small herd, well managed and MIRGed, and the beef is gras raised AND grass finished. My move to plant based (mostly) was not based on emotional or social pressures, but on health matters, to which I have had clear and resounding results I can see and feel. I would advocate for a mostly plant based diet for EVERYONE; it is curative, restorative and sustainable for both you AND the planet...

          Robin, I think you missed something significant in the talk, blinded by that PETA II rage I know so well from cohabitating with my wife, a like minded vegetarian like yourself. YOu were so busy being mad at ALan for what he had done that you missed how mad, sad, and dissapointed he was with himself about that decision. As Arkady points out, at the time, it was done with the best intentions based on the best avaiable information. You are basing your feelings on current available information, which, if Alan had access to at the time, would have ASSUREDLY made your anger unecessary, as it NEVER would have gone down. Alan has to live with his decision for the rest of his life, as he said himself, and the pain in his eyes brought tears to mine as he said it. But how many of us have the courage to present our greatest failure as a global citizen, as cautionary tale to the rest? Damn few...

          These herds, wild or domesticated, are the answer to an immediate problem. We do not have immediate access to wild herds of ungulates, and we have ready access to vast quantities of domestic animals, for the most part being managed very badly. Doesn't it make a certain amount of sense to utilize the latter, reducing the damages to soil and helping with the damages to atmosphere by so doing?

          Please remember the question originally asked.
    • Mar 14 2013: Hello Robin - Up until 50,000 - 60,000 years ago 2/3rds of Australia was covered in lush vegetation. Research now strongly suggests that when the First Australians arrived they exterminated all of the mega fauna - what must have been vast herds of them, all within a few thousand years. As these animals - wombats as big as rhinocerouses - were un-afraid of humans, killing & eating them would have posed no problem whatsoever. Just walk up to one & plunge a spear into its heart. Allan Savory's 'conservationists' slaughtered 40,000 large herbivours with guns. All crimes of unimaginable proportions.
      The loss of the vast herds of mega fauna from the Australian continent had the same effect on this land that Allan's removal of the vast herds of African elephants had on Africa - as did the removal of the vast herds of bison on the American midwest. First, here in Australia after the demise of the mega fuana, the lush vegetation grew back madly unchecked & smoke & charcoal sediments in lake bottoms from that time are evidence that lighting-started wild fires stripped the continent bare of this plant cover almost immediately, or this plant cover just died & oxidised as Allan shows that it does without herbivores to eat & recycle it. Oxidising plants ruining the soil.
      After this initial devastation of Australia 50,000 yrs ago then the 'second Australians' arrived a couple of hundred years ago & we late comers have utterly devastated millions & millions of once productive land all-over again.
      Yes. Let's recognise the unspeakable crimes we humans have perpetrated on this planet - & on each other !!!! - but let's get on with 'un-doing' these atrocities. Let's weep for the elephants, bison & herds of wombats as big as rhinocerouses - but let's get on with restoring our ecologies & reversing climate change at the same time.
      In Australia we have a miracle-working desert re-greener in the person of Peter Andrews. His method is called 'natural sequence farming'. Check it out.
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        Mar 15 2013: Dear Margriet,

        Thank you so much for your message. I really appreciated receiving it. It looks like desertification solutions could include helping to protect and restore the native animal populations, rather than bringing in methane producing non-native livestock. I will check out Peter Andrews and his natural sequence farming.

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