Panarchy Synopsis: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems

Panarchy Synopsis: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems


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‘Panarchy’ is a new term coined from the name of the Greek god Pan, a symbol of universal nature and associated with unpredictable change. It represents an alternative framework for managing the issues that emerge from the interaction between people and nature. That interaction generates countless surprises, often the result of slow changes that can accumulate and unexpectedly flip an ecosystem or an economy into a qualitatively different state. That state may be not only impoverished, but also effectively irreversible. Thus, understanding how such change occurs is critical to achieving a sustainable society.  Developed from the work of the Resilience Alliance, a worldwide group of leading organizations and individuals involved in ecological and economic research, Panarchy provides a framework to understand the cycles of change in complex systems and to gauge if, when, and how they can be influenced. This synopsis introduces lay readers and decision makers to this widely acclaimed line of inquiry and to the basic concept behind Panarchy, published by Island Press.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559633307
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 08/01/2002
Edition description: 1
Pages: 64
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Lance H. Gunderson is associate professor and chair in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
C. S. Holling is emeritus eminent scholar in the Department of Zoology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Bernice Wuethrich is a science writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian, Discover, Science, International Wildlife, and New Scientist magazines.

Read an Excerpt

Panarchy Synopsis

Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems

By Lance H. Gunderson, C. S. Holling


Copyright © 2002 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-261-3



Life proceeds through uneven rhythms of change—slow periods of gradual change and sudden surprises. The surprises can be negative or positive: an industry is made suddenly obsolete by the development of a new technology; an insect pest erupts in a forest; a hobby transforms into a thriving business; a series of genetic mutations allow an animal to fight off a parasitic infection.

"Such surprises are an essential part of any living dynamic system," says Holling. "Through surprises, systems are both renewed and tested. Within ecosystems, biosurprises play the enormously important role of introducing unexpected novelty, a potential source of renewal."

Understanding when and how novelty emerges or is suppressed lies at the heart of panarchy. It can provide policymakers and ecosystem managers with vital insights into when and how to act—and whether action is fruitless.

"Management of natural resources goes in cycles," Gunderson says. "At times in the cycle there is leverage to change things. What people usually see in management systems are the gridlock and the failure. The panarchy cycle points out that there are phases marked by opportunity, creativity, and novelty—when good things can happen."

By studying dozens of ecosystems around the world over the last several decades, ecologists have learned that novelty emerges as part of a cycle consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release (or "creative destruction"), and renewal. From one phase to the next, the strength of a system's internal connections—its flexibility, resilience, and its vulnerability to disturbance—change. The adaptive cycle is not an absolute, and many variations exist in human and natural systems. However, it provides both a useful metaphor to classify systems and order events and a theoretical framework in which to pose questions and testable hypotheses relevant for understanding transformations in linked systems of people and nature.

Although ecologists have most thoroughly documented the adaptive cycle, the idea was sparked by an Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, whose writings span the first half of the twentieth century. Analyzing the economy's boom and bust cycles, he described capitalism as a "perennial gale of creative destruction," coining the phrase now used to describe the disturbances that periodically punctuate the adaptive cycle. A closer look at the adaptive cycle sheds light on how it may operate in both ecosystems and economic or social systems.

Four Phases of the Adaptive Cycle

1. The rapid growth or r phase. Early in the cycle, the system is engaged in a period of rapid growth, as species or other actors colonize recently disturbed areas. These species (referred to as r-strategists in ecosystems), utilize disorganized resources to exploit every possible ecological niche. The system's components are weakly interconnected and its internal state is weakly regulated. In ecosystems, the most successful r-strategists are able to proliferate despite environmental variation and tend to operate across small geographical areas and over short time scales. In economic systems, r-strategists are the innovators and entrepreneurs who seize upon opportunity. They are start-ups and producers of new products; they capture shares in newly opened markets and initiate intense commercial activity.

2. The conservation or K phase. Transition to the K phase proceeds incrementally. During this phase, energy and materials slowly accumulate. Connections between the actors increase. The competitive edge shifts from species that adapt well to external variability and uncertainty to those that reduce its impact through their own mutually reinforcing relationships. These "K-strategists" operate across larger spatial scales and over longer time periods. As the system's components gradually become more strongly interconnected, its internal state becomes more strongly regulated. New entrants are edged out while capital and potential grows, and the future seems ever more certain and determined.

In an ecosystem, the potential that accumulates is stored in resources such as nutrients and biomass. An economic system's potential can take the form of managerial and marketing skills, accumulated knowledge, and inventions.

But the growth rate slows as connectedness increases to the point of rigidity and resilience declines. The cost of efficiency is a loss in flexibility. Increasing dependence on existing structures and processes renders the system vulnerable to any disturbance that can release its tightly knit capital. Such a system is increasingly stable, but over a decreasing range of conditions. The transition from the conservation to the release phase can happen in a heartbeat.

3. The release or omega (Ω) phase. A disturbance that exceeds the system's resilience breaks apart its web of reinforcing interactions. In an abrupt turnabout, the material and energy accumulated during the conservation phase is released. Resources that were tightly bound are transformed or destroyed as connections break and regulatory controls weaken. The destruction continues until the disturbance exhausts itself.

The disturbance can occur when a slow variable triggers a fast variable response. For instance, the slow growth and aging of a fir forest triggers the outbreak of an insect pest. Or the slow growth of debt and gradual decline of profits finally triggers a financial panic.

In ecosystems, agents such as forest fires, drought, insect pests, and disease cause the release of accumulations of biomass and nutrients. In the economy, a new technology can derail an entrenched industry. But the destruction that ensues has a creative element. This was Schumpeter's "creative destruction." Tightly bound capital—whether equipment, money, skills, or knowledge—is released and becomes a potential source of renewal.

4. The renewal or alpha (α) phase. Following a disturbance, uncertainty rules. Feeble internal controls allow a system to easily lose or gain resources, but it also allows novelty to appear. Small, chance events have the opportunity to powerfully shape the future. Invention, experimentation, and re-assortment are the rule.

In ecosystems, pioneer species may appear from previously suppressed vegetation; seeds germinate; non-native plants can invade and dominate the system. Novel combinations of species can generate new possibilities that are tested later.

In an economic or social system, powerful new groups may appear and seize control of an organization. A handful of entrepreneurs can meet and turn a novel idea into action. Skills, experience, and expertise lost by individual firms may coalesce around new opportunities. Novelty arises in the form of new inventions, creative ideas, and people.

Early in the renewal phase, the future is up for grabs. This phase of the cycle may lead to a simple repetition of the previous cycle, or the initiation of a novel new pattern of accumulation, or the precipitation of a collapse into a degraded state.

Taken as a whole, the adaptive cycle has two opposing stages. The "front loop" encompasses rapid growth and conservation, and the "back loop" encompasses release and reorganization. The front loop is characterized by the slow accumulation of capital and potential, by stability and conservation. The back loop is characterized by uncertainty, novelty, and experimentation. The back loop, and the renewal phase in particular, is the time of greatest potential for the initiation of either destructive or creative change in the system. It is the time when human actions—intentional and thoughtful or spontaneous and reckless—can have the biggest impact.

An Industrial Cycle

The adaptive cycle metaphor may shed light on aspects of the auto industry's history, says Resilience Alliance member William Brock, an economist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In the 1950s, when gas was very cheap and gas wars kept driving its price even lower, Detroit automakers were building large tail finned cars. They were gas-guzzling machines, glamorous and big, Brock recalls. The automobile industry at that time could be considered in the conservation phase of the adaptive cycle, accumulating capital, building factories, and growing ever more dependent on the production of large automobiles, until it was set on cruise control and the future looked great.

Then, in the early 1970s, gas prices skyrocketed, and cars were lining up for blocks to get gasoline. People suddenly became interested in buying small cars made in Japan. The unexpected foreign competition sent the automobile industry into a tailspin, abruptly ushering in the release phase. The industry's first response was to try to convince the U.S. government to impose high tariffs and quotas on Japanese imports. This step would inflate the price of foreign-made cars and discourage American buyers, thereby attempting to protect an American industry that had been caught asleep at the wheel. "But the demand in the U.S. for smaller cars not only pressured the political system to get out of the way, it also pressured the U.S. industry to reevaluate its strategy," Brock says. Using the adaptive cycle metaphor, this reevaluation could be viewed as a renewal phase, when novelty arises and new ways of doing business and meeting demand can emerge.

Indeed, GM, Ford and Chrysler regeared. Corporate executives, labor unions, and creative teams were now open to new ideas. They designed new cars, reorganized their assembly lines, and reformed relationships between labor and the companies. Old "capital" in the form of old ways of doing business disappeared in a gale of creative destruction. Gone were the tailfins of old; light, fuel-efficient, lightweight sedans ruled the day. U.S. automobiles rose in quality and began to meet the public's needs, ushering in a new cycle—which appears to be on a course similar to the last.

Cars have gotten bigger again, SUVs rule, and gas prices are once more rising, casting doubt on the maxim that bigger is better. "The adaptive cycle metaphor suggests the industry is heading toward another round of creative destruction," Brock says. He predicts that within a few years, we may have more expensive gas or gas pump lines. The auto industry may have to pass through another crisis and before it starts building new products like hybrid, smaller SUVs that can run on 40 miles per gallon.

An Ecosystem/Management Cycle

A second example of the adaptive cycle comes from a classic ecological study of spruce/fir forests that grow across a huge swath of North America, from Manitoba to Nova Scotia and into northern New England. Among the forests' many inhabitants is the spruce budworm, a moth whose larvae eat the new green needles on coniferous trees. Every 40 to 120 years, populations of spruce budworm explode, killing off up to 80% of the balsam firs. But renewal follows this episode of creative destruction, and the forests regrow to repeat the cycle.

Following World War II, a campaign to control spruce budworm became one of the first huge efforts to regulate a natural resource using pesticide spraying. The effort, supported by an air force in New Brunswick, was meant to minimize the economic consequences of the pest on the forest industry. It ran into problems early on.

"The goal was not to eliminate the insect but to keep the forest green, which, unfortunately, is good for budworm too, since they like mature trees," Holling explains. While the moderate spraying regime avoided a catastrophic budworm outbreak, it allowed the insect to grow in numbers and range, until it became a simmering problem spread across ever-larger areas. Meanwhile, the program's partial success increased industry's dependence on the spraying program, intensified logging, and spawned more pulp mills. "Management was trapped—if they stopped spraying there would be an extensive impact. It was the standard resource management pathology," Holling says.

In 1973, Holling, working with the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, tackled the problem. A series of workshops, and the leadership of Gordon Baskerville, the newly elected minister of the Department of Natural Resources, enabled a reinvention of policy.

The advances were made based on an understanding of the natural adaptive cycle of forest and pest. The cycle begins in the rapid growth phase, when the forest is young. Trees are small and the foliage that budworm larvae consume is limited. While spruce budworm is present, forest birds that prey on the larvae keep its numbers down. During the transition from rapid growth to conservation, the forest slowly matures and foliage increases, providing more food for the budworm. The bird population increases as well, but tops out while the forest canopy continues to grow. Finally, during the cycle's release phase, the larvae outstrip the ability of the birds to control them. Larvae numbers explode, killing the majority of forest trees. Their rapid demise opens up new opportunities for plants to grow, and during the renewal phase, the forest ecosystem begins to reestablish itself. The cycle repeats.

Understanding this cycle led to fundamental changes in management of the forest and the pesticide regimen. Rather than using low doses, the foresters needed big doses, but only when the budworm population had exploded beyond the capacity of natural controls to keep their numbers in check. Along with an appropriate harvesting regime, these less-frequent doses of pesticides represented a way to work with nature at both the beginning of the cycle and at its end. The result was that the forestry industry introduced much less insecticide into the ecosystem overall. The insights also changed the way in which the industry assessed the status of the forest and the way the forest was managed by different companies. In essence, the industry gained more freedom locally to develop innovative ways to harvest mature trees to better compete with the budworm. Management of the forest was thus fundamentally transformed, regional leadership combined with local independence to achieve more ecologically responsible harvesting of the forest.

The example of the spruce budworm and the fir forest illustrates a natural disturbance to which an ecosystem has adapted. Companies that harvested the forest initially operated without regard to the natural cycles of trees and pest. Early policy was headed for disaster. But management went through its own adaptive cycles and was able to learn and change, not only averting disaster, but developing sustainable forestry practices in harmony with natural cycles. Unfortunately, such successes are more the exception than the rule.



Like the spruce/fir forest, other ecosystems are adapted to disturbances ranging from fire to storms, and usually recover rapidly. But now human-induced disturbances commonly occur on a far greater scale than natural disturbances. Increasingly, these human disturbances—includ—ing the effects of management—exceed the resilience of the system.

Most ecosystem management focuses on maximizing the output of a particular product, such as fish catch or wheat yield. By managing with the goal of increasing the productivity of a narrowly defined product, the overall resilience of the system is weakened, making it rigid and more vulnerable to disturbance. It becomes an accident waiting to happen. At the same time, management agencies typically become more myopic and rigid, relevant industries become more dependent and inflexible, and the public trust is lost. Overly stressed ecosystems lose their integrity and flip into a degraded state. That state, however, may be as stable as its preferred counterpart, and may persist for decades or even centuries.

Gunderson and Holling call this now familiar sequence of events the "pathology of resource management." Consider how:

• Semi-arid rangelands become shrub deserts: moderate, stable grazing by cattle reduces the diversity of rangeland grasses. Among the grasses lost are drought-resistant species. Their disappearance means that droughts leave the soil denuded of plants, causing the soil to become less permeable and reducing the amount of available water.

• Flood control and irrigation lead to large ecological and economic costs: effective flood control leads to higher human settlement in fertile valleys and a large investment in vulnerable infrastructure. When a large flood eventually overwhelms the dam and dikes, the result is a dramatic reconfiguration of the river's social and economic landscape.

• Fisheries collapse in spite of a highly developed theory of fisheries management. The North Atlantic cod fishery is a typical example. Its initial success led to increased investment in fishing fleets and equipment and overexploitation of the fish. When the fish stock showed signs of distress, management agencies became paralyzed. The collapse of the fishery in the early 1990s put 30,000 Canadians out of work and ruined the economies of 700 communities.

In each case, management targets a single variable (meat production, water levels, and fish stock, respectively) to control at optimal levels. It presumes to have replaced uncertainty in nature with the certainty of human control. Social systems initially flourish from this ecological stabilization and resulting economic opportunity. But that success creates its own failure.


Excerpted from Panarchy Synopsis by Lance H. Gunderson, C. S. Holling. Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Panarchy?

Chapter 1. The Adaptive Cycle: Surprise and Renewal
Chapter 2. The Pathology of Resource Management
Chapter 3. Resilience
Chapter 4. Connectedness
Chapter 5. Matters of Scale
Chapter 6. Natural Congregations
Chapter 7. Cascading Change
Chapter 8. Remember
Chapter 9. The Adaptive Cycle and Local Knowledge
Chapter 10. How Do Human and Natural Systems Differ?
Chapter 11. Challenges of Adaptive Management
Chapter 12. Panarchy and the Economics of Natural Resources
Chapter 13. Learning: An End and a Beginning


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