COP26 Talk by Allan Savory

November 2021  

There is a growing demand for world leaders to act on climate change.   This is the 26th conference discussing what they should do. 

The 25 million dollar Virgin Earth Challenge seeking fizzled out, and now the Royal Foundation and Prince William seek solutions through  rewarding innovation.

Everyone knows that we cannot solve any problem without addressing its root cause.  So, what is the root cause of climate change?

Most people believe it is caused by greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, deforestation, and livestock. Solutions focus on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, planting billions of trees, protecting tropical forests to heal our planet losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

I have been invited to talk about how regenerative agriculture might help address these causes and sequester carbon in the soil. I do not however intend to do so because I know so little about agriculture, carbon or soil and more knowledgeable speakers than I are doing so.

While I fully support regenerative agriculture and the rapid replacement of fossil fuels, I want to talk about something I believe is of greater importance.  

My subject is the root cause of the problem, because as everyone knows unless world leaders address that we will not succeed.  

I will also propose an immediate action, that perhaps the Royal Foundation can lead, which will enable world leaders to see a simple way to address the cause of the problem.

So, what is the cause of the problem?

After decades of denial that humans are causing climate change, now almost all scientists acknowledge that we are causing it.  This acknowledgement is profound.

If we are causing climate change then management is the root cause.  It is how we manage coal, oil, livestock, forests, food production and other resources that results in biodiversity loss, desertification, mega-fires and climate change.  

What could we recommend world leaders do about management when we manage millions of things daily?  This seems an impossible task.

Society believes that we manage many things but is that true?

It is true that we produce millions of things daily such as cars, cell phones, clothing, computers, art, weapons and various forms of food. 

Participants at COP26 are discussing producing electricity less harmfully from nature – sun, wind, geothermal, nuclear.  Some are discussing producing food based on industrial corporate management, chemistry and smart technology, while others discuss farmers producing food based on the biological sciences.  Everything that we produce is not self-organizing.  This means that it stops if we stop producing it, a part breaks, a battery or fuel runs out.   We can produce things independently – cell phones or violins, food or weapons.   Nothing that we make or produce is managed, it is produced.

So this is not where the cause of the problem lies, although it will dominate discussion at COP26.

What then do we manage that is causing the problem?

We manage only three things.  Humans (our own lives, families and organizations) and we manage economies and nature.   These we do not produce or make, we manage.

Each of these continues, although in changed form, no matter how many millions of people die, no matter if entire economies collapse and no matter how many species go extinct.  Humans, nature and economy are inseparable – as the Covid pandemic taught us.

Our inability to manage complexity is the cause of the problem and this is what COP26 participants need to advise world leaders how to do because we citizens cannot do so.  Let me explain.  

Each of us can manage our lives and families, but only to a point – because we are doing so within our local economy and global finance is driving environmental destruction.  As grassroots individuals and families we cannot act to save mankind from the environmental catastrophe we face.

Beyond our families we manage at an institutional scale through corporations, governments, universities, churches, environmental and other organizations.  Institutions, generally do what they are formed to do efficiently by managing themselves, their finances and through those nature at scale. 

Everything humans produce comes from nature and returns to nature.   


Governments manage through policies, laws, regulations, and in earlier societies by customs and taboos.

In summary management at large scale through institutional policies is the cause of the problem. 

How can we advise world leaders to address that when there are so many hundreds of ways of developing policies?  

Society believes there are many ways of developing policies but is this true?  Over sixty-five years of working with thousands of fellow scientists and resource managers we discovered a new management insight. 

Governments – democratic or dictatorship – develop policies in exactly the same way.   They develop policy in the context of meeting a need, desire or to address a problem. The policy is then developed based on advice from highly trained experts often in integrated scientific teams, interested parties, pressure groups as well as their own political persuasions.

Such policies automatically reduce the complexity of humans, economy and nature to meeting a need, desire or addressing a problem. That is reductionist. 

Political leaders and governments do not develop policy in a context that embraces complexity by tying our lives, economies and behaviour, to our life-supporting environment (nature) far into the future.  A way of developing policy that does address the cause of the problem.

Let me illustrate with a future pandemic and climate change example – agriculture and biodiversity loss in national parks.  

Agriculture is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters.  Harvesting fish from the oceans, wildlife, timber, livestock and crop production are all agriculture.  Without agriculture we cannot have an orchestra, church, university, bank, any business or economy. 

Agriculture is the foundation of civilization.  


Almost our entire planet is engaged in agriculture.  Ocean life and tropical forests are being decimated and man-made deserts are expanding.  We are producing twenty times as much dead eroding soil every year as food we need for every human alive today.

Where I live I am surrounded by some 30 National Parks in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.   Intended to preserve biodiversity, these parks are some of our worst examples of biodiversity loss, desertification, contribution to future pandemics and climate change.

If we look at these national parks, or those in New Mexico where I lived for forty years, we see the canaries in our mine dying wholesale. 

This we cannot attribute to climate change, fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, livestock, deforestation, corporate profiteering, greed, corruption, poaching, hunting or excessive animal numbers, none of which is the cause of the problem.

The cause is the management dictated by the policies of environmental organizations, governments, and international agencies.  Something I became aware of as a young ecologist and began studying sixty-five years ago.

Earlier I said that society’s belief that there are many ways of developing policy was we learned a false belief. 


 Let me now deal with another management belief that is false.

Society believes that we have many options to address global desertification playing a major role in climate change, and the point at which we can begin to break the cycle of desertification, mega-fires and climate change spiralling out of control.

We are a tool using animal.  Using all the money, labour and creativity in the world no human can even drink milk without using technology – unless we go to a cow and use hand and mouth to suck. We cannot even plant a tree without a tool.  We can only reverse desertification using tools.

For brevity I will simply refer to a 2013 TED Talk I gave on reversing desertification viewed by about 8 million people and refuted by no scientist who studied the process.

In that talk I pointed out that we have three tools with which to address desertification.  We can use fire, technology in all its manifestations or we can use the concept of resting the environment as a positive action or tool, to allow biodiversity to recover.  The latter is being advocated as rewilding, conserving, or preserving vast areas of land and oceans to restore biodiversity.

Two of these tools lead to desertification and the third (technology), even in science fiction, cannot prevent it as I described in that TED Talk.  

No amount of management or policies can address the problem without a tool that can reverse desertification.

No amount of conferences from COP1 to COP100, or prizes and awards will save future generations unless we replace beliefs with science and address the cause of climate change.

I, like everyone at COP26, would like to see a positive outcome that helps world leaders by not saying what they should do, but demonstrates how it can be done by developing policy in a way that does address the cause of desertification, mega-fires and climate change spiralling out of control.

I would like to propose that one outcome of COP26 participants, media and independent reporters is support for the idea of having one, internationally observed, case in which the government of a small nation develops an agricultural policy embracing the complexity. The knowledge needed to develop a policy that also ensures the national parks do not contribute to biodiversity loss, pandemics, desertification and climate change is already available. 

Remember, it is not scientific knowledge that was missing but the inability to manage complexity. What is lacking is facilitation skill to enable any government to use the available scientific knowledge to develop policy addressing the complexity.  This facilitation skill can be provided by the Savory Institute based on over half a century of such policy development and reversing desertification restoring biodiversity. 

Doing this the best ideas and science, as opposed to beliefs, will float to the top without disagreement and conflict.  The subsequent policy, developed with the full support of the nation as well as local and international scientists and experts, can then be considered by for adoption.

I propose such a test case be observed by all major nations so that world leaders can see how team humanity can address the problem at it’s root cause.

Perhaps what I propose can be done under the auspices of the Royal Foundation and the Royal Society, as the oldest national scientific institution in the world, after they have fully investigated what I am proposing.

If, as I believe will happen, the policy so developed under international observation, is seen to unite humans while addressing the problem to everyone’s satisfaction it will be beyond valuing in terms of human life or money.

For thousands of years we did not know how to fly and many men died trying.  When the Wright brothers learned to fly the human spirit flew and we were on the moon in seventy years. Now that we know what is causing climate change, I believe the human spirit can once more fly offering future generations hope.