Pastoralists are one category of cultures that doesn’t get much attention. The news in covering places far from us and barely inhabitable are now presenting images of goat herds traveling through emergency villages of the displaced. This is nothing like the herds of cattle who were brought overland from the American arid South to exploit the vast federal grasslands that supported what became cowboy culture. More about that later.

This intriguing article compares pastoralist strategy with that of bankers in our times!

“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.” So this is getting at the shift from labels to processes that Tim Ingold and others have been working on. Pastoralists are one of the oldest variations of culture — right between hunter/gatherer and the first villages — but banking is recent. In its present complexification it is almost impossible to grasp. This approach helps.

“For millenia, pastoralists have made a livelihood while accepting uncertainty as central and unavoidable. Sudden shocks, such as droughts, flood or snowfall, can wipe out available pasture and require herders to move to new areas. Every season is different.”

“Pastoralists had always been non-equilibrium ecologists and practitioners.” Do you need to be told why this is relevant with our cockamamie weather and sudden pandemic, apart from economic panic?

“The core pastoralist principles of responding to uncertainty and generating reliability include flexible adaptation, iterative learning and collective management. Pastoralist know the real dangers lie in complete ignorance.” You know who has not yet learned that.

The organization “herding” these pastoral ideas is called “PASTRES” which stands for “Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resililence”. They have a website:

The essay pursues several ideas. One is the advantages of smart phones for sending people out on motorbikes to scout for new places to pasture and another is the power of motorbikes to scare locusts away from green spots. I didn’t know that would work. I expect that drones might be pretty useful, esp. since in the places where pastoralists are herding, there may be outlaws who will attack them.

A recent adaptation is that the sheep herders in Greece have not been able to sell their sheep milk, because the marketing collapsed in the pandemic, so they converted to making and storing cheese. This might require the women to stay in a town with facilities, but they have always done this for other reasons, like working with breeding or very young animals.

The major key to survival is human systems which began with kinships networks and continued from early days with religiously anchored systems like monasteries where webs of mail correspondence and travel can be maintained. Trading partnerships, ties between herders and farmers willing to let animals graze their stubble after harvests, depend on the moral qualities of dependability and honesty that carry into most human enterprises. These ways of behaving and human networks are what are needed now in our own cities.

Modern people may see clusters of pastoralists resting and talking, maybe in the shade of a tree, and assume nothing is happening, but in fact the people are making of each other into reservoirs of valuable information by telling stories and maybe drawing maps in the dust. When the scientists and do-gooders came waving the flags of ecology, their attempts to make things into rules and algorithms failed miserably.

“Perhaps the central lesson from the banking crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, is that attempts at total control will always fail. (Tell Putin that.) 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.” Anything else is false security.

There’s one aspect that needs to be mentioned that is not in this article but has been a principle I’ve seen in action many times. It is knowing the animals that are being moved, which is the basic principle of their survival. If these animals are sheep, they will need to be pushed from behind, maybe with dogs. But if they are goats, the herder may go out in front, maybe playing an instrument, like the Pied Piper. This worked with both rats and children. I’m not sure it will today work with rats or even locusts, but it still works with children and young adults.

The thing is, what happens when they get to the destination? It had better be thought about the next destination. If democracy is being challenged though we had assumed we’d already arrived where we wanted to be (we had not) we’d better get those motorbikes and smart phones working.




Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.

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