Why Brittleness is Important

What makes the concept of brittleness important? Land responds differently to various practices and tools in brittle and non-brittle environments because of the speed and effectiveness of the decaying process.

In non-brittle tending environments decay occurs rapidly, and can take place without the presence of large herbivores. Primarily, decay in such locations involves small organisms such as molds, beetles, insects, and microbes who can all survive in the open, in the near to constant high humidity.

In brittle-tending environments, decay is much slower and almost always needs large herding animals to facilitate decomposition by getting plant materials in contact with the soil surface through tromping and dunging. Regardless of atmospheric humidity these large herding animals each maintain a constant internal humidity in their guts. Here they sustain very high populations of microorganisms capable of processing mature, fiber-rich plant materials such as seasonally dormant or dead grasses that vigorously develop during the growing season, and stop when the rainfall ceases.

When managing land for enhanced biodiversity and increased production, it is crucial to understand the land’s reaction to the practices and tools used on it. Resting land for durations that exceed plant recovery, for example, tends to restore non-brittle environments. However, in brittle environments, resting land for long periods of time tends to reduce productivity and degrade it.

Worldwide, more than 60% of environments are brittle tending. It should be noted that around the world there are some locations with relatively low precipitation environments that are also quite low on the brittleness scale, because the precipitation is evenly distributed. Conversely there are other locations around the planet that have quite high annual rates of precipitation, but they are regarded as very high on the brittleness scale because precipitation occurs during just a few months, and for the vast majority of the year the atmosphere is very dry.

At different levels of brittleness there is the added complexity of the intrinsic productivity of the environment. Within brittle environments we can find highly productive ones, such as the tropical highly productive savannas of Southern Africa, to low production semi-arid grasslands, such as those in southern New Mexico, USA. This will also affect the subtleties on how a specific tool is applied and the effect of our actions on the land.

It is not crucial to pinpoint the exact number on the scale. What is important is to determine if you are in a “very brittle,” “brittle tending,” “non-brittle tending,” or “non-brittle” environment, since your actions on the land and the effect of the tools you use will likely deliver vastly different results. Understanding brittleness is crucial because when the decay process is ineffective, desertification follows. Land-based businesses managing holistically in brittle-tending environments focus their decision-making on the rapid cycling of the plant materials grown each year, and sustaining an active biological environment. Human-induced desertification is characterized by poor biological activity, evidenced by low mass of plants and animals, and microorganisms.

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