A deep dive into a Holistic Management key insight

The Brittleness scale

The brittleness scale is one of the Four Key Insights that Allan Savory describes in Holistic Management, A common sense revolution to restore our environment. These four insights help us in our understanding of the natural world. I plan to dive deep into each of these insights in the future to better understand where conventional thinking and beliefs have got it so wrong.

Understanding the role of decay in all biological life cycles

All over the world, an energy source rises in the east and sets in the west, providing sunlight, which is the energy that fuels life on our planet. That energy is caught by plants through the process of photosynthesis, the basis of life on earth. That life is born, it grows, gets eaten, and is cycled through our ecosystem. All forms of life connected to this energy cycle, pass through four essential stages that can be recognized as, birth – growth – death – decay.

All four stages are essential for the cycling of indestructible nutrients. These nutrients have been cycling for millions of years, on land, in soils, and in rivers, wetlands, lakes, and oceans. Everything in you today has been in millions of other life forms before and will continue to do so until the end of time.

This nutrient cycling again is only one of four functions through which our global ecosystem functions. These are energy flow, water cycle, nutrient cycle, and biological community dynamics. Although described as four, they are one, like accessing a single room through four different windows, with each window representing one of the ecosystem processes. All life on earth depends on these processes as well as all economies, businesses, and civilization itself.

Because these essential processes are indivisible, if one malfunctions all do. For this reason, the basic cycle of life just stated as birth, growth, death & decay is essential in all environments.

A vital component of this life cycle is the biological decay of annually dying plant life on land. In the 1960s Allan Savory observed that it was the replacement of rapid biological decay by slow chemical oxidation (within the life cycle) of the world’s grasslands that was leading to biodiversity loss and desertification.

Variable conditions for biological decay

What Allan observed was that while the principles on which the four ecosystem processes functioned were universal, how the decay portion of the life cycle of plants functioned differed with the annual distribution of humidity in terrestrial environments. In effect that while the annual rainfall in London and Johannesburg might be about the same the decay in the life cycle of plants was different. Thus, it is virtually impossible to create vast areas of bare exposed dying soil around London no matter how bad the management. In such environments, any plant material above ground dying during the year simply decayed rapidly through biological breakdown – insects and microorganisms mainly – allowing the nutrients to keep cycling through various other ground-covering plants.  Even if thousands of hectares of land were subjected to chemical poisoning, ploughing, and overgrazing of every plant, nature simply filled the vacuum quickly with different living organisms – algae, moss, grass, herb, shrub or trees. Decay being a living biological process occurred rapidly because the humidity in the atmosphere and at soil level is high virtually every day supporting microorganism activity throughout the year.

In this comparison of the different environments around two cities, if we look at Johannesburg we find that while London received its rain, fog, mist, and humidity spread well through the year this is not the case in Johannesburg.  Here we find almost all humidity in the atmosphere and at the soil level occurs over about four months, after which it is dry day and night for anywhere up to eight or more months. Any plant material dying during the year must decay rapidly and most plant material above ground, including grasses, dies over the dry period of every year.  So, we find a mass of plant material dying annually but at the same time as the atmosphere has turned dry leading to a steep decline in the vast micro-organism populations required for rapid biological decay.

Dead plant material that does not biologically break down by decay does so in sunlight ever so gradually by oxidation (like a rusting ship on the shore) and this is not decay but chemical breakdown. The immediate significance is that while decay is rapidly clearing the way for life cycling to continue, chemical breakdown takes years leading to severe blockage or slowdown in the cycle of life for a great many plants and to consequent increasing bare soil as well as increasing accumulation of highly inflammable dry plant material.

We describe environments on a scale of 1 to 10 – from Non-brittle environment (Year-round moisture, equatorial rain forests)  at 1 to Brittle environment (True deserts) at 10.

Why is the Brittleness scale important?

Knowing approximately where any, land and thus biological community, lies on this scale is important to know as we manage the complexity of our families, communities and institutions through which we are managing our economy and nature to produce the food that sustains ourselves and our civilization.  And this is because maintaining annual decay of dead plant material is vital to the health of the entire biological community, both above and in the soil.,

All management of Nature (our life-supporting environment) ultimately ends with an action of us using a “tool”. Because we are a tool-using animal and incapable of the most mundane life actions without the use of our tools.

Our only tools

When we are managing nature, or our life-supporting habitat or environment, we only have a hand full of tools available to us. See below, inside the brackets are the tools available to us to manage nature. These tools are useless without our creativity to use them (human creativity) and the money & labour (either or both) involved in any management action.


All the tools we have ever crafted to improve our lives. From stones to computers, chemicals/medicines to bull dozers, satellites to a *budza.

Budza, a Shona word for hoe, a long-handled gardening tool with a thin metal blade, used mainly for weeding.


Our use of fire as a tool almost defines us a species because without learning to make fire we would still be in the stone age. It was our use of fire as a tool that enabled technology to advance to the level we enjoy today and to be the first tool-using animal having the power to change its environment on a vast scale.

Living Organisms:

While for centuries we used living organisms to make wine and cheese, we now recognize them also to manage our life-supporting environment. On a global scale, and particularly as environments become increasingly brittle on the brittleness scale, we use large ruminants, like cattle. Large ruminants offer two different tools – the tool of grazing and the tool of animal impact – helping us maintain the cycle of life so essential to the overall health and productivity of the entire biological community on which we depend. Both of which, I have written about in previous blog posts about the key insights, see below.

Tool of Grazing: The function of time in Environmental Recovery

Tool of Animal impact: The Predator/Prey connection

The tool of Rest or Non-disturbance:

The most misunderstood tool within our tool box, which is the action of resting biological communities to allow recovery or letting nature be (rewilding). Where for centuries we have had this tool of rest, it was with the discovery of the importance of not only grazing to ensure rapid decay in the world’s grasslands, but also of the behaviour of large grazing herbivores associated with their pack-hunting predators, that enabled deeper understanding of the tool of rest.  As described by Allan in the Holistic Management textbook, rest occurs in two forms. These are total rest with no large herbivores on the land to either graze or trample annually dying vegetation. And partial rest where large herbivores are grazing or overgrazing plants while barely disturbing the dead vegetation or breaking the soil surface. This is generally associated with consistently calm behaviour of scattered animals when unlike the behaviour of large herds with associated pack-hunting predators ensuring periodic bunching.

The outcome of the use of the available tools like rest in either form, grazing or overgrazing, technology or fire is influenced by where that environment lies on the brittleness scale.

Because REST is the most difficult for people to comprehend, it’s this tool of rest and its relationship with brittleness that I will focus on further.

Biological community succession in perennially humid environments (Non-Brittle)

In environments that lean towards the non-brittle end of the scale when the land and biological community is subjected to constant rest total or partial (the tool of non-disturbance) commonly known as conservation or today rewilding, decay occurs throughout the year providing nutrients to the biological communities to grow and move through the various stages of succession, towards what is called a climax community of high stability and productivity.

In such less brittle environments bare soil is covered up by nature quickly and as a result it’s very hard to create prolonged bare soil over vast areas.

The same tool of rest, in either form, however if applied in brittle environments toward the high (10) end of the brittleness scale tends to produce the opposite effect.  This is because rapid decay gives way to gradual chemical oxidation of much of the annually dying vegetation thus impeding the cycle of birth, growth, death, decay.   And this interruption leads to malfunction in the mineral cycle and thus all four processes through which nature function in all environments.

When this happens, the following tends to occur – biodiversity decreases, bare exposed soil between plants increases, available rainfall becomes less effective with droughts and floods more prevalent and exacerbated as land decertifies contributing to a less stable climate.

Read Allan Savory’s blog on national parks in brittle environments to understand what the problem with rewilding in brittle environments in more detail: https://savory.global/national-parks/

The function of large herds of herbivores and their associated pack-hunting predators in more Brittle environments

Early explorer accounts of the diversity and the amount herbivores that they encountered in both the Americas and Africa are almost incomprehensible today. The vast herds of Bison that were once seen in north America provide a clue to the amount of life found on these wild grasslands. The written reports of unimaginable numbers of mixed herds of springbok, wildebeest, zebra, etc. In southern Africa seen by the early Europeans leaving a written record are mind-boggling.  Such documentation provides a clue to how large herds of ungulates together with their pack-hunting predators ensuring such herding behaviour, were critical to the health of the entire biological communities and their stability and productivity throughout such environments in the world.

With the reduction of these vast wild herds throughout the worlds seasonal, and often low, rainfall regions of grassland and savannahs, we have been experiencing ever expanding desertification over thousands of years.

An ancient agricultural problem in brittle environments

How can our management ensure that we cycle the excess of dead grass and other organic matter found in the more brittle environments before it oxidises and thus impedes the full functioning of all life that sustains us? There is only one solution at scale! Many more large herbivores, too re-establish the relationship of vast herds of herbivores  with plant communities they co-evolved with.

Given the urgency of the problem, we will have to look mainly at livestock to fill this role, behaving in a manner to mimicking former vast wild herds.

When he first discovered this in the mid 1960s Allan faced a seemingly insurmountable problem.  How to do so, because pastoralists have run livestock for over 10,000 years, bunching and herding their animals, but their herds have led to the great man-made deserts of the world. Just look at the middle east, the area known as the fertile crescent (which is no longer fertile) and all along the edge of the Sahara, with that desert increasing year upon year.

The problem is not limited to Pastoralist communities. Modern science with fencing and many rotation and grazing systems have accelerated biodiversity loss and desertification throughout the worlds brittle environments. So how do ranchers, pastoralists and farmers plan to allow enough time for a plant (grass) recovery in amongst all the other complexity of running livestock within their environment?

Case Study: Laikipia Kenya

Laikipia county in Kenya is situated on the equator. The general pattern for equatorial environments is that they are tropical rainforests. Laikipia is a very arid environment on the equator, create by Millennia of pastoralist bunching and herding there animals in search of new grass growth. The constant over grazing of individual grass plants and lack of adequate grass recovery created this arid environment on the equator.

Managing for complexity and planning for recovery

That problem was solved by using centuries of military experience in planning in complicated ever-changing situations and became what is today the holistic planned grazing process. Using this process, we are able to overcome the environmental malfunctioning restoring full health of the environment by using livestock as tools grazing with high animal impact while minimizing overgrazing of plants through having the animals in the right place, at the right time, with the right behaviour, for the right reason.

If we choose to exclude the only tool that can closely mimic the historical wild herds that kept the world grasslands healthy, we will continue to see the desertification of these regions and the increased instability of our climate.

In the final blog in this series on Holistic Management’s 4 key insight, we will explore Holism and a whole new way to view our place in the global ecosystem and because of that understanding, it provides clues to how we should manage the complexities of everything we are a part of.

Etienne Oosthuizen

The four key insights of Holistic Management, read more