ELEPHANT MAN: Notes on Science, Salvation, and the End of the World
by Ross West
What if global warming wasn’t the terrifying and intractable problem we all know it to be? What if someone figured out how to make it all go away? Like hope incarnate, that someone walks onto the stage at a TED conference in the form of Allan Savory, a fit silver-haired white Zimbabwean in a button-down oxford shirt. He’s a dignified son of the British Empire whose sincerity is surpassed only by his urgency—and when he says ME-thane, you know he’s a lot smarter than you are.
He lays out a captivating story about the earth’s expanding deserts (both a symptom of, and a contributor to, planetary demise) and how they can be transformed to verdant productivity. Using a method Savory has perfected, ranchers manage their livestock to mimic what buffalos and other free-roaming herd animals did for hundreds of millennia before human interference. Always on the move, these animals trample vegetation and provide cover that absorbs and retains water; their hooves plow up hard ground and bury seeds; their wastes enrich the soil. The resulting plant-rich expanses will halt climate change by removing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and, as Savory explains, “safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years.”
This low-cost, low-tech fix is not a band-aid, not a stopgap ploy to kick the can of catastrophe down the road for another couple of decades until—we hope, we dream, we pray—technology bails us out. No, his plan promises far more: it will take levels of atmospheric carbon “back to pre-industrial levels.” For ecologists and planetary scientists, as well as for parents worrying about the world into which they’ve brought children, this is the Holy Grail, a ticket back to Eden.
Now, it was a while ago that Savory spoke at the 2013 TED conference, and since then the runaway freight train of global warming has roared six years closer to the washed-out bridge of eco-holocaust. What’s intriguing about his talk is not the technical merits of his solution (few of us are qualified to make that judgment; I’m certainly not), but the questions it raises about how we as a society of non-scientists evaluate and respond to such ideas. Why do we find a plan such as his so appealing? Is our attraction to simple answers delivered by charismatic individuals damaging our ability to make wise choices?
Less than a month after his talk, half-a-million people had watched the video at TED.com. That surge of interest has continued unabated: 2.6 million by August 2014 . . . 3.7 million by February 2017 . . . 6.6 million by December 2019. His talk draws on average more than 2,650 viewers each day.
Where his ideas are not attracting much attention is among academic researchers. Peer-reviewed papers investigating his “holistic management and planned grazing” method are few, far between, and even further from providing unambiguous support for his grand claims. Savory is addressing what is without question the most complex problem ever to face humanity, yet he doesn’t base his argument on supercomputer modeling and evidence gathered using other advanced technologies. Indeed, his conceptual framework would be familiar to any goat herder living in the past 10,000 years: desert, grass, animals and their predators, fire and rain, urine and dung.
The point of his talk is not to persuade the minds of data-demanding scientists: when he lets fly the arrow of his impassioned rhetoric he is aiming straight for the listener’s heart. Our mismanagement of grasslands, he says, “is causing hunger, poverty, violence, social breakdown and war, and as I am talking to you, millions of men, women and children are suffering and dying.” Like a cancer doctor informing a patient of the worst possible news, he solemnly intones his terminal prognosis. “If [present practice] continues, we are unlikely to be able to stop the climate changing, even after we have eliminated the use of fossil fuels.”
Having inflamed our primordial fears of chaos and annihilation, he offers an alternative future, one dripping with milk and honey, where families are well-fed and prosper, cultures are saved, and wastelands blossom into fertile savannas.
TED materials hail Savory’s ideas as “surprising,” “striking and controversial,” and “a significant breakthrough”—so significant, in fact, that TED Books quickly repackaged the talk’s content into a slim volume, flogging the merch with a companion piece under the regrettable headline, “Let’s unite as Team Humanity to revive degraded land.” While catchy, this pep-rally cheer doesn’t do justice to the book’s lightning bolt of a title: The Grazing Revolution: A Radical Plan to Save the Earth.
Masterminding a Massacre
In the 1950s, young Savory earned an undergraduate degree in botany and zoology at University of Natal in South Africa then got a job with the Colonial Service’s Game Department. While assigned to protect animals that would populate future game preserves in Northern Rhodesia, one of his projects was to remove what he calls the “hunting, drum-beating people” from their land. But banishing the pesky drumbeaters had an unintended consequence: the grasslands began to die.
Damn, damn, damn—and who’s to blame? Savory’s suspicion focused on the area’s roving herds of elephants. In short order his research proved—that’s the word he likes to use—proved it was the bloody pachyderms, beasts often 12 feet tall and weighing 12,000 pounds, that were stomping the vigorous veld into desert. He recommended to his superiors that the elephants be, shall we say, removed.
The plan was so extreme, such “political dynamite,” that the government assembled a panel of experts to evaluate it. This brain trust sharpened their pencils, made their calculations, and duly deemed the plan jolly good. Teams of rifle-toting hunters soon fanned out into the bush, tracking down their quarries and chambering their large-caliber cartridges.
Bang. One bugger down.
Bang. Another grass-trampling blighter exterminated.
After years of slaughter, the list of the dead numbered forty thousand.
In his talk, Savory expresses great remorse for this little boo-boo (eighteen words of heartfelt contrition) before galloping on to expound his next surefire, well-researched plan and to prove how it’s going to be the world’s salvation.
Uh, wait a minute.
African elephants are the largest animals on dry land. They’re intelligent and empathic tool-users. They grieve and mourn their dead.
When we are confronted by horror on an unimaginable scale something in our human makeup abstracts the tragedy, numbing us with cool detachment. Was ten thousand the number of blankets we sent for tsunami relief or the number of the dead? Paradoxically, by focusing on a single victim we gain a deeper, more compassionate understanding not only of that individual but also of the vastly greater atrocity.
George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” recounts a colonial police officer in raj-era Burma tasked with killing a misbehaving bull elephant. The officer sends a rifle shot into the behemoth’s head, but it only drops him to his knees.
At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed
with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright,
with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time . . .
You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and
knock the last remnant of strength from his legs . . .
The elephant collapses, shaking the ground, his rhythmic breath coming in “long rattling gasps.” The officer fires again.
The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still
he did not die . . . [I] poured shot after shot into his heart
and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression.
The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a
The shooter can endure the cruelty no longer and flees in disgust. “I heard later that it took him half an hour to die.”
Times forty thousand.
The blood of each great beast dripping red from Allan Savory’s hands.
Team Humanity’s Flawed Captain
“Someone Give This Man A Nobel Prize Already. He’s Going To Save The Planet!” So exclaimed the headline at Upworthy, a popular online viral vector, only days after Savory’s talk. The accompanying text was no less breathy, a fawning, time-coded synopsis of his main points along with the author’s enraptured responses: “At 19:50, I think I screamed AMEN.”
Similar enthusiasm gripped more traditional media as well. The TED Radio Hour (a best-of anthology of TED talks co-produced by National Public Radio), for example, featured Savory in a segment devoted to “moving beyond conventional wisdom.” Holistic management fit perfectly on this program, which bills itself as “a journey through fascinating ideas, astonishing inventions, fresh approaches to old problems.”
Just how hungry are we for Nobel-worthy ideas of the fresh, fascinating, and unconventional variety? Savory’s website crows that his talk, “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change,” is not only among the “Top 100 Most-watched” of the 3,200 TED talks available online but also was voted in 2014 “one of the 50 most intriguing TED talks of all time.”
In this presentation Savory asserts, “burning one hectare of grassland gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants than six thousand cars. And we are burning in Africa, every single year, more than one billion hectares of grasslands, and almost nobody is talking about it.”
Perhaps nobody is talking about it because these numbers are pure gibberish. More than six thousand cars operating for how long? As long as it takes to burn a hectare of grassland? Or maybe for the twenty-year life of the car? (At how many miles per day?) According to Savory’s math, the intentional torching of grasslands in Africa yields more pollution than six trillion cars! The total number of cars, trucks, and busses currently on earth is just over one billion.
At roughly the same time he delivered with such authority the alarming facts about those billion hectares of African grassland going up in smoke each year, an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research estimated the annual area burned worldwide to be less than half a billion hectares.
Savory says his plan will work if applied to “half the world’s grasslands.” National Geographic estimates that grasslands cover a quarter of the earth’s land surface; to run his experiment, all Savory needs to have placed under his management is one-eighth of the entire planet.
Since the true believers don’t see red flags when Savory can’t make it through a twenty-minute dog-and-pony show without blunders and howlers, one would hardly expect them to dig critically into his background. Even a cursory Internet search produces a revealing profile by C.J. Hadley (written after the elephant genocide and before the TED talk triumph) in which Savory comes across like an Old Testament prophet with a megalomania problem: “These floods and this flood damage will just get worse and worse and worse and the deserts will just keep advancing, advancing, advancing until somebody, someday finally understands what I’m saying.”
He seems to like how he looks in the robes of the misunderstood genius, possibly those of the martyr: “We used to burn people at the stake for coming up with truly original work and, tragically, one way or another throughout my life, I’ve tended to think ahead and come up with stuff that to me seems common sense but to other people seems way out and threatening.” Humble is not a word to associate with Allan Savory.
But hubris is: “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people [like me] make discoveries.”
Rather than using his TED talk to observantly and creatively broaden the critically important conversation about global warming to include all promising solutions, Savory—who routinely castigates mainstream science for being reductionist—reduces the discussion to this: “There is only one option. I repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists. And that is to do the unthinkable and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.”
My way or the highway.
Less than two months after the talk, writer James McWilliams published a withering piece in Slate (“Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong”) filled with damning objections to, caveats about, and refutations of Savory’s miracle cure. A herd of skeptical writers and scientists followed, trampling the green shoots of Savory’s ideas, cutting into the soil of his anecdotal proofs with the hooves of their analyses, fertilizing the rocky ground of his personality with abundant crapping.
On the TED Radio Hour, host Guy Raz confronts Savory with the credibility problem: “Your science has been challenged. Researchers have looked at the data—”
“No it hasn’t,” Savory interrupts. “They are challenging what I am not saying.”
Stupid scientists at their stupid universities with their stupid PhDs.
For his part, Savory keeps his distance from meritocratic academe, choosing rather to preach to the choir from the safer confines of his own pulpit. The Church of Savory has been housed under many roofs: The Center for Holistic Management (incarnated variously as the Allan Savory Center, the Savory Center, and Holistic Management International), the Africa Centre of Holistic Management, and the Savory Institute. For a while he was issuing communiqués on his blog, Allan Savory Uncensored.
With so many reasons for the public to be wary, why does this dubious dogma remain so popular? In the first hundred seconds of his presentation Savory is explicit about what he’s selling: “I have for you a very simple message that offers more hope than you can imagine.” In our world, where it seems every research finding paints a bleaker picture of the planet’s future, the gloom gets to be so oppressive, so overwhelming, so dispiriting that we crave any glimmer, any vague promise of a brighter tomorrow. And “more hope than you can imagine”? When there’s that much hope, who needs to read the fine print?
Demagogues and charlatans have always followed this dictum: if you’re selling hope, sell it with as much passion and certitude as you can muster. When Guy Raz asks his guest, “You are as sure of [your grazing thesis] as you are sure that you were wrong about the elephants—you are that sure that you are right about this?”
Savory responds, “I would stake my life on it.”
And surely bwana would not miscalculate this time like bwana miscalculated before.
As his talk builds to its rousing finale, Savory reprises his seductive appeal to hopeful hearts: “I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity. Thank you.”
The audience jumps to its feet, erupting with hoots, whistles, and zesty applause. After a sustained ovation, TED Curator Chris Anderson joins Savory on stage and gives voice to the crowd’s ardor when he says, “everyone here [. . .] wants to hug you.” Savory basks in the moment, soaking in the adulation, the celebrity, the acceptance, the love.
“A sahib has got to act like a sahib,” Orwell wrote in his essay. “He has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.”
And sure enough, Savory does many definite things—he writes, gives speeches, makes videos, forms tax-exempt organizations. Desperately wanting others to agree with him, he endlessly rehashes the same arguments, shows the same before-and-after photos that prove (in his mind) how his vision is the planet’s one and only hope. The cottage industry that is Savory runs seminars, certifies “Accredited Professionals” (“credit will be given for participation in Savory Institute workshops and our online courses”), offers eco-tourism packages to Zimbabwe, sells books and hats and T-shirts and water bottles. But mostly, he’s eternally available at TED.com for the worried and frightened souls who go there each day by the thousands, fervent seekers desperate for an answer.
Savory imagines himself a seer, a visionary who, if only he were listened to, could save us all. Perhaps the most telling of his oracular insights, the one we should listen to, is this: “The information which fits our beliefs we see very quickly and easily. The data which does not fit our beliefs is almost invisible to us.”
Ross West writes about the media’s role in shaping (and sometimes warping) the public understanding of science. For eight years he was the University of Oregon’s science writer and editor in chief of its research magazine, Inquiry, before becoming senior managing editor at Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His writing has appeared widely in print publications (from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics) and on the websites The Satirist, Spank the Carp, and Brevity; and has been anthologized in Best of Dark Horse Presents; Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and Best Essays Northwest. He served as text editor of the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.