Letter to Futures Colleagues

Hi Futures Friends,

I want to tell you about an exciting development in my life.  I’m going to Africa for the month of September to work with an environmental restoration initiative in Victory Falls, Zimbabwe called The Africa Center for Holistic Management.

Africa Center for Holistic Management

Victoria Falls

This sojourn relates to my interest in climate change and the future, plus a general desire to do something positive that also breaks with the daily patterns in my life.  I don’t specifically know what my duties will be in Zimbabwe, but I’ll find out, and I will do whatever I can to be helpful and to learn. One thing I intend to do is blog, so keep your eyes open for that.

Below are some of my thoughts and resources regarding this undertaking.  I look forward to your comments and to being more actively involved on the list.

All the best,

– Seth

Restoring Grasslands – Key Regulators of Climate Stability

Like most of you, I’m interested in climate change. One facet of that which has caught my attention recently is grassland ecosystems.  You probably haven’t heard that much about this topic so far, but I think in the years to come you will.  Grasslands are key regulators of climate stability.  They are, in fact, the most prominent ecosystem and largest bio-sequesters of carbon on the landed surface of the Earth – with approximately twice the capacity of forests.  Think of grasslands – also known as savannas and prairies – as massive carbon sponges.  Atmospheric carbon is sequestered in the soil which in many places are (or were) meters deep.  The “Great Plains” of the American West are grasslands, as are the vast savannas of Africa.  Grassland health is key to our future. When grasslands degrade, the soil dries, releases carbon, and reduces the capacity of the land to produce food and retain water.  Carbon loss through improper land management, largely on grasslands (which are converted to agricultural or grazing resources) is a major contributor to atmospheric CO2 and until relatively recently outpaced even fossil fuels as global warming’s prime offender.  For a sustainable future, we need to prevent further degradation of grassland soils, and, wherever we can, reverse the damage.  Noted soil scientist Professor Rattan Sal of Ohio State University, estimates that the restoration of degraded soils could sequester 75 gigatons of atmospheric carbon over the next 25 to 50 years, which, on its own, is enough to remove approximately 35 ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere, and get us closer to safe levels. Unlike other schemes on the table, this approach is low tech, cost effective, and provides numerous environmental and social benefits.

The group I’ll be working with, The Africa Center for Holistic Management, is demonstrating grassland recovery in the Zimbabwe savanna and is an affiliate organization of The Savory Institute, which focuses on restoring grasslands worldwide.

The Savory Institute

Both the Savory Institute and the Africa Center for Holistic Management were founded by Allan Savory who is an innovator in grassland ecosystem management, and, I believe, one of the most important thinkers in the world today.  Allan Savory was born and raised in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.  I think about Allan Savory today, similarly to how I thought about Buckminster Fuller in the 1980s, and it is delightful to see how the Buckminister Fuller Institute recognizes the important contributions that Savory is making. See paragraph below.

Allan Savory – Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award Winner

In 2010 Allan Savory and the Africa Center for Holistic Management (the group I’ll be working with) won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for a project titled Operation Hope, http://challenge.bfi.org/winner_2010.  The $100,000 award is given “to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems”.   Other Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award Winners include John Todd for his Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World project, and and the MIT CityCar project.

The Savory Approach – Controversy and Promise

The Savory approach for grassland ecosystem restoration is considered controversial because it relies on the use and impact of grazing animals (cattle), and no one questions that cattle management is largely to blame for much of soil loss worldwide.  Cattle, of course, are also contributors to atmospheric methane.  The controversy regarding Savory, however, is fueled largely from an under appreciation of the basic premise, which is that grasslands co-evolved with ungulates and depend on herd impact for their health and survival.  This co-evolution is one of the most pronounced in biology, with both grassland ecosystems and herding, grazing mammals appearing simultaneously around 35 to 50 million years ago.  When you think of grasslands, think of 100s of millions of herding mammals, such as the oceans of buffalo that used to migrate between Mexico and Canada, and the wildebeests and springboks of Africa where herds, as recorded by early settles, would pass through for days and were too large to see the ends of.  Historically there were many more grazing mammals than there are now, and the soils were healthier, the streams more plentiful, and the methane and carbon concentrations in the atmosphere quite lower.  The problem is not with grazing mammals, but in how we manage them.  This management is detrimental to both the mammals and the ecosystem. Savory’s approach, in the absence of natural herds, is to attempt to manage cattle in a way that simulates natural herd behavior therefore helping to restore depleted grassland soil.  In general, this will call for tighter densities and regular movements (as herds would do in the presence of predation).  But it is never that simple, nor something that can be easily prescribed. The process is difficult. Nature is fickle, and results are mixed.  But, I believe, the theory is sound, and offers promise. As Savory put it, we need an “holistic” approach to land management and that requires integrating more variables than is typically practiced.  In the end, we are probably going to have to bring back herd corridors for grazing mammals, in the US and elsewhere.  Exactly how we get millions of buffalo and wolves back into the central US, I’m not sure, but much of the land there is already depleted and serving no value.  If land owners can be convinced that allowing migrating herds to pass through can improve their soil, restore water tables, and bring back birds and other wild life, then why not?  And if they can get some carbon credits in the process, all the better. This is a area we need to think about. In the meantime, where animal husbandry is done, it certainly can be done better, and I think that the Savory approach is worthy of further attention.  Also, frankly, I’m not afraid of controversy, and I think these debates are where we discover our future, and our humanity. I look forward to being in the thick of it.

My Role as a Futurist in This Endeavor 

Recently, environmental futures has become a greater interest of mine. I have always been a technologist, and probably always will, but, of late, I am being pulled more toward the environmental side of the discipline, and particularly in regards to the environment’s capacity to mitigate climate change. I am fascinated with the myriad ways that nature uses to sequester carbon, and the role that carbon plays in the health of ecosystems – from grasslands, to forests, to oceans.  From a technical point of view, I see this as an optimization problem – nature employs complex networks to route each carbon molecule to where it is most needed.  It we learn to use nature, we will optimize the mitigation potential.  If only airports could handle luggage with the same facility. Also, I guess I’m discouraged by the direction of discourse regarding technological “fixes” to global warming – such as ocean iron fertilization and cloud seeding.  Ironically, we may need all of these to some extent, but I am underwhelmed by their claims and more inspired by the prospects of large-scale ecosystem restoration.  I see myself getting focused around this issue, and my time in Zimbabwe being a platform from which to get a better perspective about it.  Eventually, I hope to combine the environmental and technical sides of my futures interest to create systems that restore land, communicate its potential, measure it’s success, reward those who are doing it, and, of course, provide visions for collaborative action.

What Questions Should I Be Asking? 

– How Can I Use This Opportunity to Help Inform the Futures Community?  What Research Questions Should I Take With Me?
Seeing as I will be there for a month, I thought this might be a good opportunity to do research on behalf of you all, if you have any particular questions that you think I might be able to get answered, or at least look into while I’m there.  As a futurist, I’m interested in seeing what scenarios are plausible for a future where grasslands / savannas around the world are not only preserved, but, in many cases, restored.  How can we maintain these complex and fragile ecosystems that are key to our survival while also meeting the demands of development?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on “research questions” I should take with me.

My Vision Statement – Why Am I Going To Africa?

I am going to Africa because I believe the question of the survival of human culture is being answered on a small ranch in the Zimbabwe savanna, not far from the valleys of our origins.

There, a dedicated team of villagers, scientists, animal handlers, and other interested folks, are trying to recreate the conditions from which humans evolved, and upon which tomorrow’s generations are dependent.

Their action concerns the future of food production, water security, land health, and ultimately, climate change.

This group is trying, through the simplest of methods, to restore what the entire arc of humanity has done its damnedest to remove – the skin of Gaia – soil.

Gratitude – People to Acknowledge

I’d like to acknowledge four individuals, and fellow futurists, who have helped inform my thinking and action on this matter.

• The first is fellow UHCL Future Studies classmate, Jim Laurie.  Jim and I graduated UHCL together in the early 1990s and we have been friends and colleagues since.  Jim helped expose me to environmental futures in general, and to the work of Allan Savory in particular.  To put it simply, Jim taught me to how to be fascinated with the complexity of soils and ecosystems and how to “get back to the land”.  My undertaking in Zimbabwe is a direct result of his influence.
• The second is fellow WFSF list participant, Eric Kemp-Benedict.  Actually, Eric and I are practically neighbors, and both work in Somerville, MA, near Tufts University. In 2009 he arranged for Jim Laurie and I to speak at the Stockholm Environment Institute where he works. This was a great honor and learning experience. I am indebted to Eric for this and for his insistence on scientific rigor.  It is rewarding to have him as a colleague and I hope my learning in Zimbabwe can contribute to greater understanding of strategies for climate change mitigation worthy of scientific discourse.
• Third, of course, I guess it goes without saying that I would not have a professional futures leg to stand on without the leadership of UHCL champion Peter Bishop.  Thanks Peter.  Many futurists would be nowhere without you, me among them.
• Finally, I need to thank my high school teacher, mentor, and futures advocate extraordinaire, August “Gus” Jaccaci.  If not for Gus, I never would even of heard of Future Studies. I wrote my vision statement above on his deck in Vermont. After the First Global Conference on the Future (Toronto, 1980), Gus summed it up as follows: “The Native Americans came in first. The environmentalists came in second. Everyone else was in the dust”.


Allan Savory – TED Nomination Video (short) ** Please Watch This **

Allan Savory – Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis? (1-hour and well worth it.  You will learn more about climate change, biodiversity, and hope for our future in this video than in years of coursework).

Operation Hope – Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award Winner

Papers and Articles

A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change, Allan Savory

Holistic Management of African Rangelands, Constance Neely and Jody Butterfield, LEISA, Vol 20, No 4, 26-29, 2004

Greener Pastures – What goes on in the stomachs and under the hooves of cows might be the key to turning deserts back into grasslands, and even taming climate change.
http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2011/06/greener-pastures/Savory Institute

Soil Carbon Sequestration To Mitigate Climate Change and Advance Food Security. Rattan Lal
http://journals.lww.com/soilsci/Abstract/2007/12000/Soil_Carbon_Sequestration_To_Mitigate_Climate.1.aspxFAO – UN – Grasslands Carbon Working Group



“If we’d never discovered fossil fuels, we still would have been facing climate change brought about by humans.  There should be no debate about whether or not climate change is occurring; it has already destroyed more than twenty civilizations”.

“For the Earth’s soils to once more sequester carbon as they formerly did it is essential to restore living soils with ever increasing organic matter…”.

– Allan Savory

“We are dealing with 10 global issues at the moment: food security, availability of water, climate change, energy demand, waste disposal, extinction of biodiversity, soil degradation and desertification, poverty, political and ethnic stability, and rapid population increase.  The solution to all of these lies in soil management”.

– Rattan Lal


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