Photo by Frederic Courbet / Panos Pictures


What pastoralists know

Pastoralists are experts in managing extreme variability. In a volatile world economy, bankers should learn how they do it

by Ian Scoones + BIO

Photo by Frederic Courbet / Panos Pictures

What are the connections between a banker working on a trading floor in London and a pastoralist herding animals across the grasslands of East Africa? More than you’d think. Let me explain how they’re connected; and why they can both learn from each other.

Both bankers and pastoralists must, as a matter of course, work with deep, pervasive uncertainty – where they don’t know the probability of future events. Both often confront ignorance – where they don’t know what they don’t know. These conditions of making important decisions amid incertitude require a very distinct approach to navigating day-to-day practices, as well as long-term futures.

Simple risk management is insufficient, as probabilities of events happening can’t be calculated and outcomes are unknown. Navigating pervasive uncertainty has important consequences, suggesting a particular approach to confronting a turbulent world.

Pastoralists keep livestock – camels, cattle, yaks, sheep, goats and other species – using skilled herding on diverse rangelands across the world. While making use of huge areas, pastoralism is in many respects a highly specialised, intensive form of production. Just like bankers, pastoralists specialise in managing variability. They have to because they live in some of the harshest environments on the planet, whether the savannah rangelands of Africa, the mountain pastures and steppes of Asia, or the hills and mountains of Europe and South America.

Although perhaps not as well known as banking, pastoralism also provides an important livelihood for many millions of people in more than 100 countries, involving production from perhaps a billion animals. Indeed, extensive rangelands occupy between 25 and 40 per cent of the world’s surface, and the management of these environments relies on careful grazing, often involving movement between different areas, both between seasons and over years.

For millennia, pastoralists have made a livelihood while accepting uncertainty as central and unavoidable. Sudden shocks, such as droughts, floods or snowfall, can wipe out available pasture and require herders to move to new areas. Every season is different. In Isiolo in northern Kenya, for example, in the past year pastoralists have faced a drought, locust swarms and movement restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rupa Boru is a 39-year-old female pastoralist from near Kinna; in an interview, she said:

We just received rain, but we are on the lookout for disease due to seasonal changes. We live in a cycle of fear, where you are uncertain of how the short dry period will affect the livestock, and then, after the rains, ola (drought) follows. When you move the livestock, the raiders attack and steal them all. It’s a situation where we constantly live with an unknown future.

Lasi Diida from Merti explained his fear of the unknown:

Even though we’ve received rains, we must guard our animals from Somali attacks as well as from wild animals by lighting firewood and staying awake at night. We must constantly stay vigilant of our surroundings.

The pervasive uncertainty of pastoralism encompasses everyday threats, but also longer-term change. A livelihood strategy that can make use of challenging landscapes and variable resources is embedded in pastoral identity and culture. As Apa Salo, a pastoralist from Golok in Amdo Tibet, said:

We pastoralists are lions when we live on the mountains, and we become stray dogs when we come to the lowlands. For pastoralists, livestock and mountain pastures are the gifts from our ancestors. Pastoralists must depend on the rangeland and livestock; these are inseparable.

The key to pastoralists’ survival and prosperity is actively managing uncertainty – not just reactive coping – and maintaining awareness of the dangers of ignorance and surprise.

Pastoralists had always been non-equilibrium ecologists and practitioners

Often, however, outsiders have grossly misunderstood pastoral systems. Early European travellers and colonial anthropologists viewed pastoralism as exotic, wild and unruly. They had no appreciation for pastoralists’ skilled practices. Instead, they blamed them for keeping large herds unnecessarily, damaging the environment and causing degradation and desertification. For many decades, Westerners viewed pastoralism as a backward way of life to be transformed by concepts and plans imported (usually) from settled, temperate contexts that the experts came from. The core ideas imposed came from the United States or Australia – fixed carrying capacities and stocking rates, rotational grazing and fenced paddocks, along with improved pastures and breeds.

However, in the late 1970s, a challenge to the conventional rangeland and livestock management ideas emerged from within the science of ecology. Ecologists began to emphasise the dynamic nature of ecosystems, and the consequences of appreciating variability for the properties of resilience and sustainability, now much talked about in policy circles. Initially applied to insect pests in boreal forests and wildlife in African savannahs, this became known as ‘non-equilibrium’ ecology. It has been highly influential in the scientific study of pastoralism. For pastoralists – although they didn’t know it – had always been non-equilibrium ecologists and practitioners.

Many development projects, aiming to modernise and control pastoralists, have failed over the years, because they haven’t appreciated the way that dynamic systems work. They’ve imposed fixed, technical solutions, attempting to control variability through fencing, water-points, exotic animal breeds and so on. However, attempting to stabilise and control a dynamic system didn’t result in the productivity gains imagined. Pastoralists by contrast don’t try to eliminate variability; they make use of it. To do so requires skill and practice, and often highly sophisticated herding practices that allow animals to harvest nutrients from growing plants, in order to maximise production across hugely varied and variable landscapes. Particular patches of rangeland might be especially important – the last refuges of nutritious grazing at the end of the dry season – while transhumant movements to dry and wet season or summer and winter pastures allow herds and flocks to exploit seasonal patterns.

When this carefully attuned system is disrupted, production collapses and livelihoods suffer. Often so-called ‘development’ has been the cause. In the mountains of Amdo Tibet, the Chinese government is investing huge amounts in ‘modernising’ pastoral areas. But is this progress? New roads, settled villages, expanded conservation and tourist zones, and privatised, fenced grazing areas are emerging through multiple projects. While some of this is welcome, bringing new forms of income and an expanded market, it could, at the same time, undermine the core of the pastoral production system. As Apa Tselo from Kokonor in Amdo Tibet said:

They [the government] gave us a house near the township, with a newly paved road to our door. But how about our stomachs? There is no pasture for our herd, and what can we do to feed our livestock and ourselves? What is the good of a house when you can do nothing to keep yourself and your livestock away from starvation?

Across Amdo Tibet, pastoralists reflect on how they must adapt their ways of looking after livestock, negotiating their way with government officials. In the end, they must find ways to allow animals to move, to ensure they get grazing, and everyone gets milk and cheese. Moving yaks between summer and winter pasture might become difficult as land is expropriated or fences erected. Villages able to retain some form of community-based use of rangeland, even within the strictures of government rules, do best.

They exploit variability as a productive resource, and embrace uncertainty as part of life

Pastoralists therefore make use of ‘non-equilibrium’ environments – where stability or balance is never reached, as another perturbation always comes along. Depending on the setting, this could be a drought, a flood, a disease or pest outbreak or a major snowfall, or sometimes a combination. Predictions are impossible, and climate change makes for increasing variability and more uncertainty.

Much loved by governments and agencies, there have been sophisticated attempts at developing ‘early warning’ systems and ‘disaster risk response’ approaches, rooted in predictive modelling of future events. But, despite these, pastoralists still don’t know when a disaster will strike, or its scope and impact. Surprise and responsive adaptation to fast-changing circumstances must therefore be essential features of pastoral life.

The core pastoralist principles of responding to uncertainty and generating reliability include flexible adaptation, iterative learning and collective management. Pastoralists know the real dangers lie in complete ignorance. To mitigate the impact of external shocks, they exploit variability as a productive resource, and embrace uncertainty as part of life.

What then can pastoralists show us all – including bankers – as we grapple with uncertainty and ignorance? Insights are emerging from PASTRES (for ‘Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins’), a programme that involves a group of social scientists, including anthropologists, economists, agronomists and ecologists, working with pastoralists from Amdo Tibet and India in Asia to Ethiopia, Kenya and Tunisia in Africa and Sardinia in Europe. We’re particularly interested in how diverse pastoralists respond to uncertainty across environmental, market and institutional and governance dimensions. We’re convinced they have a great deal to teach a world that’s more interconnected, mutually dependent and, in some ways, fragile than ever.

In pastoral settings, networks and social relations play an important role in responding to uncertainty. In the past, these were centred on traditional kin relations – for example, around segmentary lineage organisation in East Africa. Today, while kin and clan associations remain important, other forms of social solidarity have emerged – churches, mosques, temples and monasteries become key, as do collective self-help and mutual aid groups emerging from formal projects and programmes supported by governments and aid agencies. Identities might shift from associations with an ethnic grouping to a particular social identification, as women, young people and others mobilise together. In societies with increasing differentiation – a greater division between the rich and poor – any egalitarian ethics that existed in the past must be replaced by new forms of connection and solidarity.

Pastoralists’ first response to drought and other disasters is movement. Today there are more challenges involved: land has been privatised, enclave investments or new conservation areas exclude people, and fences criss-cross the once open landscape. Movement to once important dry-season grazing refuges is no longer possible, yet mobility remains vital for livelihoods. This is where new relations and networks arise, along with the deployment of technologies to assist.

For example, in Isiolo in northern Kenya, the Boran pastoralists make use of the now much-improved mobile-phone connections to discuss with others where there’s grass and water. Instead of trekking for days to seek out pasture, they hire young people with motorbikes to go and scout. When, in early 2020, locusts arrived devastating the rangelands, the Boran organised motorbike riders to scare away the insects from valuable grazing patches. In Kachchh in Gujarat, India, Rabari pastoralists must increasingly move between dry rangelands and village lands, where animals can graze on crop residues from the harvest. This means investment in relation-building with settled farmers who allow certain groups of pastoralists and their animals on to their fields. Networks again are key and communication central, requiring a human engagement often across languages, ethnicities and social lives.

In Sardinia in Italy, during the COVID-19 pandemic, pastoralists found it difficult to sell their sheep milk. Movement restrictions prevented travel, and large depots were often closed or were buying at much-depressed prices. Tourism collapsed, and the opportunities to sell artisanal products in holiday destinations disappeared. Alternative markets were essential or the milk would go to waste. Local market chains developed, especially for cheese, and an internet sales platform helped products reach a wider market.

External interventions – whether around a drought or a pandemic – follow from an ‘event’ and involve a staged series of, usually colour-coded or numbered, ‘risk management’ measures. Forecasts assess the likelihood of an event and assume that, based on modelling projections and past experiences, we can predict what will happen. This perspective is based on linear, ordered time, resulting in clear, defined management responses. Administrative systems gear up in this way to organise interventions – from ‘preparedness plans’ to ‘rapid response teams’.

Whether it’s a monk in Tibet or a market trader in East Africa, they need a sense of the big picture and local knowledge

Yet the hierarchical, administrative ordered time of emergency and crisis management has to articulate with the more complex, contingent, fluid flows of everyday life in pastoral settings. Pastoralists manage highly variable grazing resources over far-flung territories with mobile herds and flocks. Their experience of time, daily and seasonal, can be quite different from those of planners and administrators. In pastoral areas, the crucial organisation of labour often involves men and boys moving seasonally across the rangelands with hired herders. Women and girls can remain closer to the camp, sometimes resident in villages, and focus on looking after the milking cows, calves and breeding sheep and goats. They all experience the time of seasons and daily life in different ways.

The fast pace of ‘modern’ life, projected through the media and the ubiquitous smartphones, in turn intersects with pastoral time. For pastoralists, everyday, unfolding time is a flow not an event, and is experienced in quite different ways to how development planners experience it. Memories of past droughts, snowfall events or disease outbreaks loom large, while expectations of the future are shaped by deeper cosmologies too. The modernist vision of ‘control’ through technocratic ordering falls apart in real life. Instead, a host of other considerations apply – people’s livelihoods, spiritual beliefs, connections with nature or emotional states all become important. All of these can affect what’s done when, and by whom.

Pastoralists must combine deep knowledge of the system, drawing on tacit, experiential knowledge, as well as more formal sources. They must always scan the horizon for potential threats, remembering past experiences and deeper histories, while being attuned to the immediate, practical, local challenges of the moment. So, when discussing the challenges of managing grazing areas and the harvesting of the valuable ‘caterpillar fungus’ – a traditional medicine that grows in mountain grasslands in Amdo Tibet in China – pastoralists must have a good sense of the overall fungus market, the state of the rangeland, and who has claims over what pieces of land.

They must apply their knowledge to agree terms of land control to avoid over-harvesting. At the same time, they must ensure that locals gain the benefit, and their yaks and sheep can still continue grazing. In the case of the Golok people in Amdo Tibet, the local monastery plays a crucial role in managing resources and coordinating knowledge. Here, Buddhist religious advice combines with hard-nosed market assessments and the politics of land management, as different individuals vie for control over a valuable resource. A technocratic decision-making system, based on simple algorithms, no matter how good the model, would never work.

Just as anyone confronting uncertainty, pastoralists seek reliability, even if variability in wider conditions is accepted as the norm. Reliability emerges through engaging with diverse knowledges and practices, making use of technologies and testing out alternatives, all of which act to reduce the risks posed by variability. The goal is to avoid the pitfalls of complete ignorance, while navigating uncertainty. This requires human skill, making use of social relations, and negotiating the politics of alternative solutions.

Pastoralism might be seen as an ‘infrastructure’ – delivering goods and services to diverse people in a complex operational setting. Viewing it as such helps us think about how to generate reliability – just as it is for engineering system designs for, say, electricity or water supply to a city. In such settings, reliability emerges through the networked practices of different individuals, often providing a brokerage role between different sources of knowledge. The same is the case in pastoral settings. Whether it’s a monk in a Tibetan monastery or a trader in an East African market, people with both a sense of the big picture and local knowledge are indispensable. They are trusted and have good networks within the community, and can communicate across groups allowing rapid, effective, adaptive responses. Unsung and unrecognised, they are a critical link in the chain of effective responses to uncertainty.

The key qualities that enable pastoralism to operate as such a resilient system offer some vital lessons for the world today, including for bankers working in the global financial system. In the build-up to the financial crash of 2007-08 and its aftermath, it emerged that what made the collapse possible was excessive reliance on complex algorithms and models in an increasingly interconnected network of relations that became dominated by rapid electronic exchange. The bankers ignored uncertainty, and ignorance took over. They collapsed the future into the present and rendered it calculable through their modelling presumptions, but they overlooked instability and contingency. Pastoralists know that these are inescapable features of complex systems.

In 2009, Andrew Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, described how systemic uncertainty arose:

Securitisation increased the dimensionality, and thus complexity, of the financial network. Nodes grew in size and interconnections between them multiplied. The financial cat’s-cradle became dense and opaque. As a result, the precise source and location of underlying claims became anyone’s guess. Follow-the-leader became blind-man’s buff … [this] generated heightened uncertainty across the system as a whole.

The regulatory systems that governed banking before the crash presumed the ability to predict, manage and control. The very complexity of the algorithms and models that underpinned the banking system caused serious problems, however, precipitating contagion and collapse. With trading in complex derivatives with global exchanges occurring in nanoseconds with high-speed computers, no one knew what was going on in real-time, and volatility in one part of the network spread very fast. According to Haldane, in the build-up to the financial crash, many bankers had ‘an exaggerated sense of knowledge and control’.

The regulatory models measured risk, but didn’t encompass uncertainty, ignorance and surprise. The reliance on technical solutions to market exchange, across very wide and complex networks, in time scales that no one could apprehend, meant that the bankers had lost sight of the human, social basis of market exchange.

The very features central to how pastoralists respond to uncertainty – relying on diverse sources of knowledge, learning adaptively through networks, and navigating uncertainty through social relations, for example – were absent from the approaches to operating the world financial system. Models can be useful, but only if combined with experiential and tacit knowledges. Complex networks of mutual exchange require personal experience, emotional intelligence and collective learning to function. Technologies have their role, as ways of communicating and facilitating processes of brokerage, but they can’t replace the human elements. Reliability must emerge through social interactions and negotiation, not externally defined management systems, since it’s diverse human perspectives, cultures and practices, informed by experiences and memories, that shape decisions. All these variables operate in a large and complex financial system and also in pastoralist societies.

The lesson from the banking crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, is that attempts at total control will always fail

Those reflecting on the lessons from the financial crisis frequently recommend a shift from narrow forms of external regulation and reliance on opaque and highly complex risk-based models. This would allow those supervising financial exchanges more discretion and judgment, encouraging the recognition of uncertainty in real time. In turn, deliberation among different options in the face of inevitably incomplete information is essential. Incorporating a space for the role of contingent, unexpected events can encourage a bigger-picture view, rather than a narrow obsession with tick-box regulatory compliance. At the same time, this more synoptic view must be accompanied by breaking up the financial network across dealers and banks into smaller, linked units, so that human interactions and relationships can be facilitated and supported, and wider, impending crises spotted.

All this excellent advice, relevant to any complex disaster response, might have saved many lives during the COVID-19 pandemic too. It’s also a set of organising principles that pastoralists have long followed, and central to their well-practised routines in the rangelands across the world.

Perhaps the central lesson from the banking crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, is that attempts at total control will always fail. Over centuries, pastoralists have learned that a more embedded, caring, mutual approach, supporting adaptive learning, drawing on multiple knowledges and leading to attuned, flexible responses, enables them to survive. Pastoralists have real lessons for everyone in a new politics of uncertainty. Singular reliance on a technocratic, managerial solution – whether a banking algorithm or a silver-bullet disease-control solution – is misplaced, just as is the false security provided by predictive models, which exclude uncertainties and blank ignorance.

Instead, building forms of accountability upwards from the trading floor, from the locality confronting a pandemic or from the pastoral rangelands, requires trusted connections and relationships, and a sense of solidarity and mutuality. This might seem idealistic, but it’s what happens when things work. Banks that had networks of traders who knew each other – even if only over the phone – fared better, while those places that dealt with the pandemic best have relied on local understandings, collective action and mutual support, working across networks from local groups to government to scientists. The same applies in pastoral areas. Without idealising an egalitarian society, the importance of networks, personal exchanges, the building of trust through embedding in local institutions are all important – even if they look very different to times past. The human touch is always essential.

Today, uncertainties dominate our world. Whether climate chaos, pandemic disease or economic volatility, all are having major impacts on our day-to-day life. Ignoring this and assuming uncertainties can be controlled and managed through the political technologies of prediction and risk management is misleading and dangerous. Instead, uncertainties must be embraced as part of everyday life; too much social distance can be perilous. While not rejecting the advances in modelling or early warning systems, we mustn’t forget the importance of diverse knowledges and emotions in framing action; the intersecting temporalities that guide presents and futures through different lenses; the processes of negotiation and adaptation that result in flexible, mobile responses to generate reliability; and the trust relations and networked communication that allow for collaborative initiatives. Pastoralists across the world have taught us that these are some of the core lessons emerging from living with and from uncertainty.

All of these lessons have wider resonance. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, we live in ‘liquid times’; uncertainty is part of the human condition and, according to the social scientist Helga Nowotny, ‘written into the script of life’. As we each confront uncertainties in today’s complex and turbulent world, we could all learn a thing or two from pastoralists who continue to navigate uncertainty with deep knowledge and practised skill.

This article emerges from the collective work of the PASTRES programme (, funded through an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council. Thanks in particular to Natasha Maru, Michele Nori, Linda Pappagallo, Tahira Mohamed Shariff, Giulia Simula and Palden Tsering for contributions. The article builds on many discussions on these themes at the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex, and particularly around the book ‘The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation’ (Routledge 2020, open access), with co-editor, Andy Stirling ( Thanks to Tahira Mohamed Shariff and Palden Tsering for sharing some of the quotes from their field interviews.