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 thought Savory's talk was absolutely brilliant. His methods certainly seem to work according to the science he's done. I haven't checked up on all the particulars, I'm no environmental scientist by any means, but his before and after pictures were extremely convincing. It makes sense too. Following nature would seem to make an ecosystem thrive more. Disrupting the natural flow will disrupt the ecosystem. Sounds good.

    I don't think people should have a belief system where science is concerned. The facts are the facts. Trying to change them by belief systems is not only illogical but potentially harmful. I always respect the scientists that come out and say they don't know when the facts aren't clear instead of jumping to conclusions that support their beliefs. As for the places where science can't bring us facts, we're free to believe whatever we want. Whether or not those beliefs are true will have to be confirmed by another method.
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      Mar 14 2013: Without a belief system, science would lose direction. Don't you think? Science can tell you how to get where you want, but it won't tell you where you want to get. Where you want to get is determined by belief system.

      Here is a great essay by Leo Tolstoy where he argues this point. The essay is about his understanding or religion. I would interpret "religion" in this essay in a wider sense, as a "system of beliefs". I love the style of this essay. I believe, it's brilliantly written even though some points are arguable.


      All scientists are interested in some outcome of their research. That's normal. But that must not lead to "confirmation bias" - "counting the hits and ignoring the misses". People commonly fall into this trap. No amount of supporting evidence can confirm a rule or theory, but a single contradiction destroys it. A single contradiction indicates that a theory is either false or needs to be changed to account for exceptions which may lead to another theory altogether. Contradicting evidence cannot be dismissed.

      This is why, I'm interested to know if Mr. Savory's method has ever failed where it was tried.
      • Mar 18 2013: Alan kinda let slip one functional deficiency in a lot of natural systems for grazing; the water source (I think he quickly mentions it in reference to wildebeest). Because of the frequency and inherent traffic patterns getting to a water source, the area right around probably the most erosion sensitive ecotone in any ecosystem gets eroded beyond the ability for the animals to have a positive effect.

        Joel Salatin gets around this at Polyface Farms by using lightweight portable troughs he can transport with Quad runners, to which he has attached a water tank and pump. Pump the trough into the tank when you are ready to move the paddock (Joel uses portable electric fence on solar for his rotational grazing, mimicking Alan's predation pressure), move the paddock and trough, place trough (in a different spot than the last time you used this paddock), and refill. Brilliant!

        Joel and smart farmers like him have been following Alan for years. His holistic grazing is, at its core, biomimicry, and Nature runs the experiments for millions and billions of years. That sort of in depth research is rarely "wrong", it just needs a tweak here and there to make it work for us...
    • Mar 14 2013: There are some interesting issues here. Science, as most of us understand it, is essentially a reductionist process; you have to identify and control all the variables.

      But what Allan has developed here is HOLISTIC management. This is NOT a reductionist process.

      We have become accustomed to two competing epistemolgies: science and faith. We need new evidence procedures, new ways of evaluating outcomes. I suspect that this is what I will find as I read the books, but I'm not there yet. Still, Savory says it took him decades to appreciate Smuts' ideas. I'll give myself four hours on the plane to Denver tomorrow! ;)

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