Why the livestock farmer is the world’s next guru


A national park in Kenya. Photo by Damian Patkowski on Unsplash

I was very taken by a British professor’s assertion the other day that bankers and pastoralists share more than we might think. Both, said Ian Scoones, work with deep, pervasive uncertainty and both often face unknown unknowns. This makes,  he suggested, for “a very distinct approach to navigating day-to-day practices, as well as long-term futures”.

It’s a fascinating comparison and Professor Scoones is well placed to make it because he’s an agricultural ecologist at the Institute of Development Studies and is interested in agrarian change and sustainability.

One of the points that emerges from the professor’s argument about pastoralists is that they offer valuable lessons to everyone (including bankers) because “the core pastoralist principles of responding to uncertainty and generating reliability include flexible adaptation, iterative learning and collective management”. Pastoralists “mitigate the impact of external shocks,” he adds, and “exploit variability as a productive resource, and embrace uncertainty as part of life”.

At this particular point on our planet, when our systems seem more fragile than ever, it’s an important mindset. Possibly one that might even be key. Professor Scoones and a group of social scientists, including anthropologists, economists, agronomists and ecologists are working through the European Research Council-funded six-country collaborative PASTRES programme, to investigate pastoralism and uncertainty. PASTRES incidentally stands for an “Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins’.

The scientists are working with pastoralists from Amdo Tibet, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tunisia and Sardinia. The professor says that there’s particular interest “in how diverse pastoralists respond to uncertainty across environmental, market and institutional and governance dimensions” especially in a moment, when as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, we live in ‘liquid times’.”