Brittle or Non-Brittle Environment? | This is the Question

Non-Brittle Rainforest – 1 on the Brittleness Scale.

Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash.

I’m an experienced scientist and I am aware that to provide valuable and useful information to their audience authors must be accurate. To become an expert in any subject field takes time. This is why a properly researched article is qualitatively very different from someone’s opinion piece. An opinion piece, while useful in raising awareness and starting a conversation, is not an academic article which despite their flaws, including often not being publicly accessible, they remain the best source of accurate information.

However, whenever I read any academic or non-academic work, one issue that consistently disappoints me is when an author fails to fully disclose all the key information that supports their reader to draw valid conclusions. As I will detail shortly, one vital piece of information that is often neglected in written works on topics like soil health/fertility, plant nutrient recycling and landscape restoration is whether we are we referring to a brittle tending or non-brittle tending environment?

What is the Brittleness Scale?

I recently completed a course on Holistic Management. Holistic Management is a decision-making process based on principles of Holism developed by Allan Savory to restore degraded landscapes and/or prevent further desertification. This course was an eye-opener on many fronts; however, it was the concept of the brittleness scale, which is arguably Allan Savory’s greatest contribution to landscape restoration, that really opened my eyes.

The brittleness scale refers to the level and distribution of humidity at ground level throughout the year and is measured on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being non-brittle like the Daintree Tropical Rainforest and 10 being very brittle like the Great Sandy Desert which gets little or no rainfall throughout the year. While most other environments fall somewhere between these two boundaries, it is important to note that rainfall per se does not determine brittleness, rather it is the distribution of rainfall throughout the year. The actual rating on the brittleness scale is not so critical. What is crucial is whether an environment is brittle-tending or non-brittle-tending. As we shall see the implications for this are quite profound.

We live in Perth, Western Australia, which is a brittle tending environment that has a long, hot, dry period followed by a short, cold, wet period and a brief growing season. The term brittle tending perfectly describes the way our vegetation breaks down. Trees, shrubs, and plants cuttings dry out and become hard, and crunchy, and remain intact for a long time. When we crush the leaves and stalks, they break into tiny sharp pieces in our hand feeling much dried egg shells.

Brittle Desert Landscape – 10 on the Brittleness Scale

Photo by Simon Maisch from Unsplash

The Brittleness Scale Matters

The brittleness scale matters because it affects the way vegetation breaks down and nutrients recycle in these two distinct environment types and requires different approaches to manage them. In non-brittle tending environments organic matter degrades quickly because of a biological process activated by small animals (insects) and ultimately, microbes. Nutrients and minerals are recycled quickly back to the soil leading to high nutrient availability for new plant growth causing these environments to be typically green and lush. Because of this we can rest a non-brittle tending landscape like a farm pasture, and the plants will quickly recover. Footage from Sir David Attenborough’s recent documentary “A Life on Our Planet” shows how the city of Pripyat in the Ukraine has been resumed by Nature and become a wilderness paradise once humans abandoned the city following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. This striking example shows how non-brittle tending environments will recover if allowed to rest.

However, in brittle tending environments plant matter degrades chemically. Plants turn grey as they oxidise and slowly break down over a long time. Therefore, brittle tending environments appear harsh and dry because they recycle nutrients and minerals slowly.

Even trees degrade slowly in brittle tending environments and turn grey and remain upright for more than 50 years showing little sign of degrading whereas a fallen tree in a forest (non-brittle) is rapidly covered in moss and returns to the soil in a matter of a few years.

One way to think of brittle tending environments is they are already degraded landscapes that were once far less brittle. The Fertile Crescent in the Middle East is perhaps the best example of a very brittle environment today that was once rich and fertile. It is a sobering proposition to consider that all landscapes without proper management will become more brittle over time.

Manage Brittle vs Non-Brittle Tending Environments Differently

While rest is an effective way to manage non-brittle environments for recovery because vegetation degrades biologically, leading to rapid recycling and high availability of nutrients, rest doesn’t work in a brittle-tending environment. This is because plant matter degrades slowly and this process contributes to more damage. From a management perspective our goal is to speed up the process of organic matter break down to increase nutrient availability that supports new plant growth. How do we cause this? One way is to shift how plant matter breaks down from a chemical to a biological process and this requires an understanding of how to do this effectively in a brittle-tending environment.

According to Allan Savory, the answer lies with ruminant animals. The rumen of animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and deer, are richly abundant in microbes. Allan Savory recognised that the biological activity in the ruminant gut can replace the biological activity seen in the soil of non-brittle environments to break down plant matter. With this knowledge, Savory developed his ideas for Holistic Planned Grazing to utilise the impact of grazing ruminant livestock, ultimately restoring 100% plant cover over soil (no bare ground) 100% of the time.* Although ruminant animals are the subject of a lot of bad press, without the biological activity of their rumen to speed up nutrient recycling, I am unaware of any other practical way to restore degraded, brittle tending landscapes.

Brittle or non-brittle, that is the first, crucial question

Whether we manage a large landscape, a farm or an urban block the first crucial question we need to ask is whether the environment is brittle tending or non-brittle tending? Regardless of the property size, if it’s non-brittle tending, we know that rest will restore and replenish the nutrients in the soil. If it’s brittle-tending we know that rest won’t replenish soil nutrients, and this can only be achieved using ruminant animals. However, the question of brittleness is still important for small-scale urban blocks used for growing local food. Although we can’t use ruminants to recycle plant nutrients on small urban blocks, we need to find other ways to achieve this. Keen to find a solution that works in our brittle, urban environment, I’ve read about sustainability, soil fertility and replenishing soil nutrients using plant cuttings. One question that always comes up is will this work in a brittle tending environment? Many people write with ‘authority’ that what they recommend is the answer for every environment e.g., growing food without chemicals using the ‘crop and drop’ method. These solutions might work in a non-brittle tending environment but to work in a brittle tending environment a huge amount of added water is needed that is often unavailable. We’ve learnt it is important to interpret what we read with caution and ask if this will work in our environment with different soil types, climate, rainfall, evaporation rate and now, our level of brittleness? Finally, how can we achieve biological break down of plant matter in brittle tending, urban environments without using ruminant animals? Our goal is to accelerate the composting of organic matter and using microbial activity and worm farming is one option.

Collectively we need to raise awareness about the brittleness scale with our families, communities, and ultimately our policy makers. We face an existential crisis due to climate change, unprecedented natural disasters, chemical exposure, pollution and food shortages. Our planet is dying and we need to change the way we live and make a conscious choice to heal the earth. Restoring landscapes is possible and can be done with holistic management. The first question to ask is whether this a brittle or non-brittle tending environment?


* We acknowledge that ruminant livestock contribute more to the regeneration of brittle environments than solely digesting plant matter biologically. For the purpose of this article, however, we did not want to introduce other concepts and instead chose to focus only on the contribution of ruminant livestock to the breakdown of plant matter in brittle environments.