By Joern Fischer
A little bit earlier this year, Kate Sherren, Ioan Fazey and I published an empirical study on how different groups of farmers were trying to adapt to climate change. The paper was based on the technique of photo-elicitation — in this method, individuals are asked to take photos, and then they are interviewed about why they took certain photos and what was important to them in those photos.
In our case, farmers were asked to take photos of things in their landscape that were significant to them. Kate had interviewed two types of graziers — some practicing “holistic management” and some grazing the land conventionally. Holistic management is a controversial way of managing grazing systems; at its core is a kind of ‘systems thinking’. Its origins are in southern Africa and in the United States of America. Some people think holistic management is a complete waste of time, and contributes to environmental degradation just the same as other kinds of grazing. Others believe it can fundamentally improve sustainability of grazing systems.
The most striking pattern we found in our study was that holistic farmers thought and talked very differently about their farming systems. They were much more likely to appreciate natural variability and try to work within it; rather than talk about how to buffer themselves against natural variability by the use of new technologies (such as better silage facilities or precision agriculture). Biodiversity was seen by holistic managers as a central part of their farming operations (though individuals differed in their scientific understanding of biodiversity), a finding also suggested by Stinner and others in the USA.
In our paper, we suggest that there is much to be learnt from the general principles advanced by holistic managers, in terms of how they think about adaptation to natural variability. Australia’s grazing lands are likely to experience greater climate extremes in the future. How should farmers adapt to climate change? Through better technologies? Or through different ways of thinking about farming operations, and their place within ecosystems?
Depending on which way Australian farmers, as a whole, go, it is possible that we will see fundamentally different outcomes in farming ecosystems. And this is why “paradigms” matter: while they may seem boring theoretical constructs to some, how we think fundamentally shapes how we act.