Category Archives: Reflections

What I Learned of Organizations : Reflections Pt 10

I have been lucky enough, or inspired enough, or periodically unsettled enough to have worked in five organizations during their times of innovative inspiration, and two organizations as they wound down or consolidated. As much as any research, those experiences shaped my thoughts and sometimes actions about the inevitability of growth, collapse, novelty and renewal.

I learned an important organizational need during this time. Specifically, the more integrative demand required by studies of ecosystems, economies and societies needs integrative support that sees fundamentals in both theory and application. Early on that came from grants and enthusiasm provided by Evan Armstrong, an insightful leader in Canada’s Dept of the Environment- a guy who was not a scientist at all, but was a manager and was, of all things, Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance.

Integrative organizations then became the supporters of such work, as they began to emerge as a consequence of integrative methods begun during WW II. For me, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis provided an astonishing place, in its early years around 1972, to work with some of the best in different fields- George Dantzig in optimization, Howard Raiffa in decision theory, Tjalling Koopmans in economics, Mike Fiering in water/stochastic modeling, and Alex Basykin in mathematics. We all learned from each other as we tested the usefulness of novel methods for novel systems. Bill Clark and Dixon Jones were my partners in this and each has made huge contributions to related fields.

That experience became the opportunity for us to identify and then test the value of methods developed in other fields- particularly economics, operation research and decision theory. Our conclusions were presented in Clark et al. (1979). It was a huge step in understanding the strengths and limitations of familiar methods and of new methods from other fields. That effort and the experience at IIASA shaped our research and education activities for the next decade at least.

Later, the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics became the center of integrative work that much influenced me. Carl Folke and Karl-Goran Maler were the brilliant minds and designers of this remarkable institute. It became a truly integrative center for studies of excellence. And the Santa Fe Institute has had the same innovative, integrative role in the development of Complexity Theory.

That leads me to jump a bit to the future. The large influences of wonderful, integrative organizations like IIASA, Beijer and SFI, can come and go. They often become burdened by their success and rarely are able to maintain the same liveliness and novelty needed over time. Instead, the novelty develops in one place and then typically shifts elsewhere, expanding, extending, testing and deepening the work as it moves. The intellectual area or topic becomes the evolving entity, but often not the founding organization itself.

Still, IIASA, Beijer and SFI live on, and with the natural process of acquiring new leadership, they each can move to new phases of innovation. That is more likely if the design of the organization has a modest capital of structures bound up in it. If that is true, then the Beijer Institute, the least encumbered of these centers, promises a new phase of novel work. All the more so since I have just learned that the new Director chosen by a committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is Carl Folke, a singular and wise man of great accomplishments!

For the same reason, the Internet perhaps also provides an alternative means to develop integrative and adaptive organizations at low cost. They could, perhaps, offer a more sustainable organizational partner to encourage novel, integrative research among groups. That is what led us to form the Resilience Alliance and the Internet journal Ecology and Society.

The Resilience Alliance is formed by about 15 groups from around the world, people who all share the same enthusiasms and flexible desires for novel and relevant work. They each provide a modest annual membership fee to publish the journal and maintain the organization. Committed people, and grants do the rest. Integrative workshops interspersed with integrative research, integrative educational material and programs and novel modes of communication provide a foundation for both fundamental integrative science and policy research.

The Resilience Alliance has a very simple structure. It is our entry to the set of experiments needed to sustain innovation and excellence in a troubled world. There has been one very successful change in leadership when Brian Walker of Australia took over from me. He designed an essential and very significant phase of grounded testing of theory, and added new organizations and people. In the next couple of years he hopes for another shift in leadership and direction. Will the very busy folks involved find one person, or two, who can commit to that? We will see; I sure hope so.

Clark, William C., Dixon D. Jones and C.S. Holling 1979. Lessons for ecological policy design: A case study of ecosystems management. Ecological Modelling 7: 1 – 53.

Diversity and Resilience : Reflections Pt 9

The three synthesis papers I’ve discussed all converged on some observations and conclusions concerning how resilience, really robust resilience, arises from diversity. I had long shared most biologists’ faith that the two were linked. But then, in contrast, I had also become convinced that the structure of ecosystems emerges from the effect of a handful of key processes and their few associated species. They create a self-organized entity. Were these few species not the central species whose function had to be preserved? Were not the rest simply those that existed in response to the basic structure provided by the key processes and species? Was the faith in the value of many species exclusively an, essential, but still purely aesthetic value? Another nice puzzle!

But the two values- one of aesthetics and one of structure and function- came together for me from discoveries presented in three additional papers. One was Holling, 1988. That work examined the impacts of the 35 species of insectivorous birds that set the essential 40-50 year boom and bust cycle of the spruce budworm and forest in New Brunswick. I used our budworm/forest simulation model to explore the significance over the full range of potential predation from nothing to maximal. Three distinct cycles appear – one around 15 years in length, one around 50 and one around 100 plus years. The first is set by foliage dynamics, the second by avian predation and the third by tree generation time. But I was surprised to discover that the 40-50 year cycle was maintained over a very large range of predator densities. The 35 species add robustness to that effect, operating consistently until the densities are lowered by more than 70%. Then the system flips into one or other of the other cycles. That is a demonstration of response diversity, something that Brian Walker also showed for plant functional types (Walker et al 1999). In both cases there is a lumpy structure – of mass for the birds and of biophysical measures of function for the plants. That is, plants and animals echo the same structure.

Time and space scales of the boreal forest

That is all brought together in a synthesis by Peterson et al. (1998) of alternative models for diversity and ecosystem behavior. That paper exposed, for the first time, the existence of two scales for diversity processes: diversity that affects resilience within a scale and diversity that affects resilience across scales. It is based on the recognition of lumpy attributes of ecosystem properties. In that paper, we show the mechanism by which astonishing robustness occurs across scales because multiple species in a functional group (e.g. avian predators of spruce budworm) can substitute for one another in different climatic conditions and can spread their influence across scales in space because their differences in size are associated with different scales of movement. Hence there are two aspects of response diversity responses- within a scale and between scales.

Holling, C.S. 1988. Temperate Forest Insect Outbreaks, Tropical Deforestation and Migratory Birds. Mem. Ent. Soc. Can. 146: 21-32.

Peterson, G., C. R. Allen, C. S. Holling. (1998). Ecosystem Resilience, Biodiversity, and Scale. Ecosystems 1: 6-18.

Walker, B.H., Kinzig, A., and Langridge, J. 1999. Plant attribute diversity, resilience, and ecosystem function: The nature and significance of dominant and minor species. Ecosystems. 2: 1-20.

Testing Panarchy : Reflections Pt 8

The third paper of my papers that the students asked me about was:

Holling, C.S. 1992. Cross-scale morphology, geometry and dynamics of ecosystems. Ecological Monographs. 62(4):447-502.

That paper was inspired by my 1986 chapter The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change, which I reviewed earlier. I designed the paper to be a test of the basic structure proposed in the 1986 chapter. That is, that there are fast/slow dynamics and cross scale interactions occurring in a dynamic hierarchy. If so, then all ecosystems should be dominated by variables that cluster or lump around a small number of scales and frequencies. The original argument was that measurements of sets of any kind of data from an ecosystem would cluster into a small number of “lumps”. The lumps would be shaped by breaks in the speeds and spatial scales of organizing variables across the Panarchy, and by the discontinuities inherent in the non-linear adaptive cycle.

Birds in boreal landscapes

The paper examines the most easily collected data I could think of – that is of the body mass weights of mammals and birds in different boreal latitude biomes- forest, prairie and marine. The test exceeded the capacity of any traditional statistical technique but the data did show clear indications of lumpiness. Moreover the lumpiness, at some scales, was unique to the ecosystem being sampled. Although the initial hypothesis was essentially that a landscape structure created the lumps, other hypotheses (e.g. founder effect, phylogeny, trophic size concentration) were proposed and tested. Only the landscape argument, or more accurately, the hierarchical/panarchical hypothesis, held up. The rest failed.

Fascinating relationships occurred when mammal body mass lumps were compared to those of birds, suggesting very different numbers of dimensions to their search- mammals as one dimensional searchers (they search a path!), birds as three (they search a volume!). A lot more testing is needed but the speculation is fascinating and fun. The causes of size dependent home range data of herbivores and carnivores suddenly became clear and coherent. The lump categories or lump patterns emerged as a signature of the structure of each ecosystem. I tend to see these as an analogue to spectral images characterizing chemical systems.

Later work by colleagues studying other ecosystems confirmed and extended the basic idea.  Craig R. Allen has a big set of data from ecosystems around the world, all of which show the lumpy structure (Allen and Holling 2002). And his demonstration of body mass lumps in mammals, birds and reptiles of the Everglades also shows that the structure is very robust. That is, extinct species of one size are replaced by new species of similar sizes. Complex systems (as in the tropics) result in complex lump patterns (Carla Restrepo et al, 1997), lumps suddenly add a cross scale dimension to the role of biodiversity (Peterson et al. 1998), the extinction of large mammals 11,000 years ago in the new world, was actually an extinction of lumps associated with transformation of coarse scale landscape (Lambert and Holling 1998). Havlicek and Carpenter (2001) examined their marvelous data from years of data collection in their experimental lakes areas in Wisconsin, and see the same lumpy structure and demonstrate that the structure is strongly conserved. Raffaelli (Raffaelli et al. 2000) shows littoral organisms are organized in body mass lumps in an experimental set up whose manipulations show strong persistence of the lump structure.

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Panarchy: Reflections Pt 7

panarchyThe essence of our conclusions to the Panarchy book occurred to me on a plane as I flew to a meeting with officers of a foundation that was new to me. I had to summarize, succinctly, the whole resilience project for them, and this became the way to do exactly that. There were, initially 12 conclusions- my 12 Commandments from the Resilience Mountain! But I do like those conclusions. They appear in Discoveries for Sustainable Futures Chapter 15 of the Panarchy book.

A broad, flexible and openly managed MacArthur Foundation grant made integrative work possible for that project. A marvelous group of people became the heart of the panarchy component – Buz Brock, Steve Carpenter, Carl Folke, Lance Gunderson, Don Ludwig, Lin Ostrom, Garry Peterson, Martin Scheffer, Brian Walker and Frances Westley. This is a mix that is strongly ecosystemic but also has powerful economic, social and mathematical science expertise.

One workshop was held in Zimbabwe at a moment in the nation’s history where experiments were being tried and successfully implemented that shifted from disastrous drought-sensitive cattle ranching to larger spatial scale cooperative wildlife management and tourism. Ranchers learned to remove the barriers in their minds and the fences on their land. They learned to abandon the ideas of the past because there was literally no alternative- loans and insurance were impossible to get and savings had disappeared.

During that period, the government watched and security agents stalked. Ultimately the larger scale of federal government action destroyed the imaginative regional experiments on recovery. And now the country erodes and slowly collapses. It is truly destruction, without much sign, yet, of recovering creative destruction.

In that workshop, the economists proposed a specific route to theory expansion that seemed to me to be too limiting, too much a useful stretch for economics, but insufficient for our larger theme. So I encouraged two projects to emerge: One, (the economists’) was called the theory project. It faced the difficulties presented by non-linearities in their models- an important step in itself. The second (the ecosystem/social) was therefore named the ante-theory project (or to some, caught by the humor of the situation, the “anti”- theory project).

We could have attempted a synthesis at that time. But spawning two separate activities seemed to have a greater potential for discovery. That happened, but it was with something of a sacrifice in quickly joining ecology and economics. That still requires interesting further steps in order to achieve a deep and useful synthesis that might join ecosystem science, non-linear economics and social science.

That is all part of the penalty and opportunity in cross-disciplinary investigation among brilliant, accommodating but stubborn participants. In such cases, the best for the moment often is not to solve the problem, but just separate, encourage two streams, and continue to see what develops. I think we are still in that slow, but healthy process.

I got involved on the Science Boards of the Beijer Institute and Santa Fe Institute and a bit in Beijer’s biodiversity project run by the economist Charles Perrings. Later I launched my own “Resilience Project”, with Karl-Goran Maler and Carl Folke at Beijer that led in five years to well over 100 papers written by a wide disciplinary range of participants, that were published in specialist and interdisciplinary journals. We guessed that over 300 scholars became part of the sequence of workshops

In addition, a core part of the project was the design and preparation of four books. One was the integrative Panarchy book (Gunderson and Holling, 2002) that was meant to show what we developed to test and integrate the separate theories and knowledge in ecosystem science, economics and aspects of the social sciences. The other books were designed to address separately the ecosystemic, social and economic dimensions of resilience. The ecosystem book focused on multi-stable states in large scale ecosystems – Resilience and the Behavior of Large-Scale Systems (Gunderson and Pritchard, 2002). The social one was a lovely book on governance of and institutions for social-ecological systems – Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change (Berkes, Colding and Folke, 2003). The economic one concerned non-linear economics focused on renewable resource ecosystems – The Economics of Non-Convex Ecosystems (Dasgupta, P. and K.-G. Maler 2003).

Younger colleagues are now becoming the “engines” and spirit that are now taking over and driving the intellectual advances. I think in particular of Marty Anderies, Graeme Cumming, Line Gordon, Marco Janssen, Ann Kinzig, Jon Norberg, Per Olsson, and Garry Peterson. I have learned from each of them directly, and perhaps helped them, as well as from a bunch of others who are working closely with other folks who helped lead the Panarchy project.

Resilience and multi-stable states now seem to be pervading notable parts of ecosystem science and related social sciences, and even emerging in policy. Both features are affecting international policy of some nations. And I note in a bibliographic survey by Marco Janssen, that the original 1973 resilience paper has been a central reference that links vulnerability and resilience research. That is indeed pleasing since it took such a long time to happen. And it was delightful to have a major review paper on resilience – Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management – appear in the same Annual Review series that my original paper did 31 years earlier (Folke et al 2004). Carl Folke made that happen!

Finally, among the emerging influential pieces, Martin Scheffer has a major book on the same subject in press with Princeton University. It was inspired by his own remarkable experimental demonstrations of ecosystem flips in shallow lake systems in Europe- the first experimental demonstrations of the reality of multi-stable states in ecosystems.

And Thomas Homer-Dixon’s 2006 book on political change in a turbulent world, culminates with the significance of resilience and panarchy. He names it The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization. Now that is Panarchy! It is where crisis and opportunity merge in the affairs of man. It is a book that expands the theoretical and applied relevance to the profoundly important issues underlying international, religious and economic extremism of our times.

And recently I read the new book by Frances Westley and colleagues (2006), Getting to Maybe! The title is a take-off on the well known book on negotiation techniques, “Getting To Yes”. But the work avoids the certainty of “Yes”, replacing it with the realistic, evolving reality of useful “Maybe’s”. She describes the paths achieved by ordinary people designing mutual relationships and creating imaginative organizations at local, and regional scales. She describes the way to move to engage real politics. It is a deeply revealing book based in large measure on the complexity theories of Panarchy, and the practical experience of Frances, a very wise person!

Berkes, Fikret, Johan Colding and Carl Folke , 2003. Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge University Press.

Dasgupta, P. K.-G. Maler (editors). 2003. The Economics of Non-Convex Ecosystems. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Gunderson, Lance H. and Lowell Pritchard Jr. ( eds.) 2002.. Resilience and the Behavior of Large-Scale Systems. Scope 60, Island Press, Washington.

Holling, C. S., S.R. Carpenter, W.A. Brock, and L.H. Gunderson. 2002. Discoveries for a sustainable future. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) (2002) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 15, 395-417.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas, 2006. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization., Knopf Canada.

Westley, Frances, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quin Patton. 2006. Getting to Maybe. Random House Canada.

From Ecosystems and Economics to Social Systems: Reflections Pt 6

panarchyMy personal discovery that economists could be synthetic and insightful provided the spark for another series of studies that finally led to an effort to collaborate with economists, ecologists, social scientists and mathematicians to develop an integrative theory and examples of systems change and evolution. The rationale was that the theories developed in each of those disciplines were not wrong, just incomplete in different ways.

The integration of the results of the Resilience Project was presented in the book Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Gunderson and Holling 2002). In it I tried to summarize my present understanding of complex adaptive systems in the first three chapters, and in the conclusions in Chapter 15. Perhaps those chapters, and the book, will eventually have the citations and influence of the three papers that were highlighted by the student’s discovery of key Ecosystem references.

Writing the third, key chapter of theoretical synthesis, (Holling et al. 2002) was like a “mind dump”! I was happy with the content I wrote, but the style is very condensed, very dense. Some sentences could have been expanded to a few pages, some short paragraphs to a full chapter. But space was limiting.

As modest help, I also wrote an essential condensation of the book in Holling, 2001. And a more lightly written summary that expanded the work to its possible relevance to the big social and political changes that were set in motion after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (Holling 2004). I suggested it was the time for small scale abundant experiments in living, and working. It is a time when individuals have the greatest chances for influence, as resisting institutions weaken and fail. Do not develop an overall plan for those experiments, but set a tactical goal, which, in this case is novelty, safety and low cost. The invention of the internet offers explosive opportunity. Some fail, some succeed and that can provide seeds for subsequent healthy re-creation. That is a way for the trap, now global, to be transformed into something more positive for the future of people. There are ways out!

But maybe that alone is too naïve and hopeful. Consider the present moment.

I wrote the above paper one and a half years after 9/11. As I write these reflections it has been five years. What has been unrolling is the same pathology as described earlier for the resource management pathologies. So far, the responses to terrorism have been largely quick and expensive military fixes and security checks, followed by quick successes. But the result has led political leaders to ignore the slowly enrolling causes, and long-term failure.

Therefore, in addition to a plethora of experiments, now it is clear we also need to attend the slow variables as well. We need responses to the slow, deep changes that have caused the explosion. It is not just evil loose in the world. There is humiliation, inequality and ignorance, combined with an exaggerated fixation on a particular extreme identity found in the fundamentalism of the religions of Abraham- of Christians, Muslims and Jews. That is a slow process to create; a slow process to redress. And all is made more rigid by the dependence of developed countries and of powerful ones on the oil of the Middle East. People seem locked into their personal, fear-ridden regimes that are self re-enforcing, creating differences between them, not bridging them: a deep, deep trap. Panarchy perhaps helps in providing a theory and contexts.

Holling, C.S. 2001. Understanding the complexity of economic, social and ecological systems. Ecosystems 4: 390-405.

Holling, C. S. 2004. From complex regions to complex worlds. Ecology and Society 9(1): 11. [online] URL:

Holling, C. S., L.H. Gunderson and G.D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 3, 63-102.

Ecosystem Reality – Modelling: Reflections Pt 5

The second advance produced by our series of studies of large scale ecosystems was a set of deep case studies with modeling efforts that could be used in a comparative analysis of ecosystems behavior and ecosystems management. Those examples included some 20-30 examples of crisis-ridden histories of forests, fisheries, agriculture, human diseases and water resource development.

One theoretical study suddenly helped significantly, when my eyes were opened to the essential way to understand and display the (relatively simple) causes of complex behavior (Ludwig, Jones and Holling, 1978). It was Don Ludwig and Dixon Jones who taught me the way, using the essence of qualitative differential equation theory.

It all started when Don took a half page I wrote explaining the essence of the causes of forest changes mediated by spruce budworm in eastern Canada. He then turned that into a coupled, three differential equation model that expressed the interacting dynamics of budworm, foliage and trees. Meanwhile Dixon, with help from Bill Clark and I, had been developing the big simulation model of the system that emerged out of a series of workshops with the scientists and policy people in New Brunswick. As part of our philosophy of economy in modeling, I had been careful to leave out the effects of avian predation, relying on an eventual check with measured behavior of the whole system in nature to tell us what essentials we had missed. When we discovered that the behavior of the simulation model simply did not match the field behavior, we used it and our ecological knowledge to discover the “missing process”, as a kind of interactive, diagnostic procedure.

The missing piece turned out to be one with certain specific nonlinearities at low densities of budworm and low volume of foliage. The only process we could discover to fill the bill was predation by the 35 different species of insectivorous birds. That linked us back to my earlier set of predation discoveries and we added the effect using the predation equations and parameter data from the field. The effect added progressively stronger predation as budworm densities rose from low levels, and faded thereafter as budworm populations increased- that is, a domed shaped response. Since the densities of birds were essentially constant, that predation effect gradually weakened as the forest aged and the increasing volume of foliage dispersed the searching by birds. The result was periodic outbreak of the insect in older forests.

When these same bird predation effects were then added to Don’s differential equations, that too began to reflect what occurred in nature. So it was a beautiful example of the power of linking three key methodological concepts; Don’s qualitative differential equation approaches, Dixon’s scientifically infused simulation modeling and my general process analysis modeling (Ludwig et al. 1978). The advance led to a clear way to understand and compare the 20-30 examples of complex ecosystem behavior in totally different kinds of situations (Holling, 1986).

The results appeared in the second paper discovered by the students i.e. in Holling 1986. It is a chapter in the first (and maybe only) significant book that deals with sustainability in a fundamental, interdisciplinary way. That book was Bill Clark’s inspiration and creation. My chapter for the first time developed the theoretical discoveries emerging from the comparison of those ecosystem studies. Some of the key features of ecosystems popped out: e.g. there had to be at least three sets of variables, each operating at qualitatively different speeds. There was an essential interaction across scales in space and time covering at least three orders of magnitude. Non-linearities were essential. Multi-stable states were inevitable. Surprise was the consequence.

And a puzzle emerged concerning what seemed to be an inevitable pathology of resource management. In case after case, the same pattern appeared. An economic or social problem was identified as being present or looming in the near future. It was then narrowly defined and treated in a least cost manner for fast corrective response. Then, unknown to all, the system evolved.

First, the problem seemed to disappear. Budworm outbreak populations became controlled, forest fires were suppressed before spreading, water was stored and irrigation became possible for agriculture, fisheries were augmented with hatchery stocks, and so on. Second, industry expanded: pulp mills, tree harvesting, agriculture, fisheries and with that, regional economic and social development.

Third, slow, unappreciated changes occurred that meant that resilience was restricting, was declining. In most cases, the resilience declined because spatial heterogeneity shifted to a more homogeneous state. A “spark”, once initiated, could therefore spread up scale. That is, conditions for outbreaks in healthy forests spread, forest stands became more homogeneous in age and became fuel rich, salt accumulated in soil as soil water levels rose, natural fish stocks gradually went extinct leaving fisheries precariously dependent on a few enhanced stocks. All became disastrous surprises waiting to happen.

Slowly decreasing resilience faced fast increasing economic and social dependencies that made retreat and redesign extremely difficult. Working with nature was rarely conceived. Instead, the response to correct the surprises, started or continued a sequence that maintained the evolving system with more and more costs. The classic example of that is the Everglades, which, after over 80 years of four crises, now is launched into an eight billion dollar restoration, with little active adaptive design. In contrast, the Columbia River system is deeply involved in a policy that indeed does exploit natural forces in an interesting adaptive scheme.

Other examples of “command and control”, of passive and active adaptation in regional social/ecological systems have been recently described in Olsson et al 2006, leading to a set of considerations and actions we identified for successful transformation toward adaptive governance,

This universal pattern represented one of the social traps later discovered as a potential for panarchies. Subsequent avoidance of the trap can occur through learning and actions to enhance resilience by reintroducing spatial heterogeneity at appropriate scales. But often the remedial responses simply continued and extended the process, protected by gradually increasing investments of money to monitor, subsidize and control.

Adaptive cycle

And I used the paper to present the first big theoretical synthesis. That was the place where the Adaptive Cycle was first described and presented. That is, there are four components of change in ecosystems, the traditionally known and slowly evolving exploitation and conservation phases and the newer, fast, unpredictable creative destruction and renewal phases. The first two are when capital and skills are slowly accumulated, but resilience is typically gradually lost. The last two are when unpredictability explodes, capital is freed for other roles and novelty can become implanted. Moreover, those same four components seemed to provide a general metaphor for all systems, and examples were discussed from economics, technology, institutions and psychology. In fact, I discovered that the creative destruction phase had already been posited decades earlier by an economist, Joseph Schumpeter, for international businesses. Maybe economists were not all so narrow!


Holling, C.S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In: W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn (eds.). Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. Chap. 10: 292-317.

Holling, C.S. and A.D. Chambers. 1973. Resource science: the nurture of an infant. Bioscience 23(1): 13-20.

Ludwig, D., D.D. Jones and C.S. Holling. 1978. Qualitative analysis of insect outbreak systems: the spruce budworm and forest. J. Animal. Ecol. 44: 315-332.

Olsson, P., L. H. Gunderson, S. R. Carpenter, P. Ryan, L. Lebel, C. Folke and C. Holling 2006. Shooting the Rapids: Navigating Transitions to Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society 11 (1): 18. [online] URL:

Walters, C.J. 1986. Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. MacMillan, New York.

Walters, C., and Martell, S. 2004. Fisheries Ecology and Management. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.

Ecosystem Reality – Workshops: Reflections Pt 4

The second paper the students identified was: Holling, C.S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In: W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn (eds.). Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. Chap. 10: 292-317.

For me, the 1973 “Resilience’ paper launched the Adaptive Management work, with Carl Walters at the University of British Columbia- a great friend and a truly brilliant, maverick scientist who walks a non-traditional path that creates new traditions. His work on adaptive management methods has been a classic contribution to the field (Walters 1986). More recently he has advanced ecosystem dynamics understanding using his creation of foraging arena theory which had its beginnings in my own predation work (Walters and Martell 2004).

The resilience research led us to mobilize a series of studies of large scale ecosystems subject to management- terrestrial, fresh water and marine. All this was done with the key scientists and, in some cases, policy people who “owned “ the systems and the data. So the process encouraged two major advances.

One advance developed a sequence of workshop techniques so that we could work with experts to develop alternative explanatory models and suggestive policies. We learned an immense amount from the first experiment. That focused on the beautiful Gulf Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Vancouver. We chose to develop a recreational land simulation of recreational property. I knew little about speculation, but we made up a marvelous scheme that used the predation equations as the foundation- the land of various classes were the “prey”, speculators were the “predators” and a highest bidder auction cleared the market each year. The equations were modifications of the general predation equations. The predictions were astonishingly effective and persisted so for at least a decade. As much as anything, it reinforced the earlier conclusion that these equations were powerful and general. But the important conclusion concerned the workshop process and the people.

The essence of those workshop methods were fun to present in a critical paper where the workshop processes were described and where key personalities were represented in delightful cartoons drawn by Roy Peterson, a cartoonist in Vancouver, and methods were expressed as a game. (Holling, C.S. and A.D. Chambers. 1973 ).

workshop characters 2

It was fun to reveal the truth about characters like Snively Whiplash, The Blunt Scot, The Utopians and The Peerless Leaders and such in this way, but a reviewer in Ecology turned it down by saying “no one wants to know about the games people in British Columbia play!” BioScience reviewers were more enlightened so I happily published there.

workshop characters

Those approaches helped shape the essential design and maintain the flexibility of the big international Resilience Project that I began about two decades later. It produces a turbulent, broad and delightful process of mutual discovery for those who chose to be part of it.

I learned that the key design was to identify large, unattainable goals that can be approached, but not achieved; ones that relate to fundamental values of free speech, freedom, equity, tolerance and education. And then to add a tough design for the first step, in a way that highlights or creates options to design, later, a second step—and then a third and so on. We found that the results were steps that rapidly covered more ground than could ever be designed at the start. At the heart, that is adaptive design, where the unknown is great, learning is continual and actions evolve.


Holling, C.S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In: W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn (eds.). Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. Chap. 10: 292-317.

Holling, C.S. and A.D. Chambers. 1973. Resource science: the nurture of an infant. Bioscience 23(1): 13-20.

Ludwig, D., D.D. Jones and C.S. Holling. 1978. Qualitative analysis of insect outbreak systems: the spruce budworm and forest. J. Animal. Ecol. 44: 315-332.

Walters, C.J. 1986. Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. MacMillan, New York.

Walters, C., and Martell, S. 2004. Fisheries Ecology and Management. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.

Resilience: Reflections part 3

My bridge to studying ecosystems started once I shifted to combine the functional and numerical response equations with others concerning other processes in order to make a population model, of interacting predator and prey. That is when, suddenly and unexpectedly, multi-stable states appeared. Lovely indeed. Great fun and a big surprise to me! A new landscape for exploration opened.

Non-linear forms of the functional responses (e.g. the Type 3 S-shaped response) and of reproduction responses (e.g. the Allee effect) interacted to create two stable equilibria for interacting populations, with an enclosed stability domain around one of them. It was the responses at low densities that were critical- that is where vertebrate predators have yet to learn to locate the prey easily, and where mates are too scarce to find each other easily. Once discovered, it seemed obvious that conditions for multi-stable states were inevitable. And that, being inevitable, there were huge consequences for theory and for practice.

Up to that time, a concentration on a single equilibrium and assumptions of global stability had made ecology, as well as economics, focus on near equilibrium behavior, and on fixed carrying capacity with a goal of minimizing variability. Command and control was the policy for managing fish, fowl, trees, herds, and freedom was unlimited to provide opportunity for people.

The multi-stable state reality, in contrast, opened an entirely different direction that focused on behavior far from equilibrium and on stability boundaries. High variability, not low variability, became an attribute necessary to maintain existence and learning. Surprise and inherent unpredictability was the inevitable consequence for ecological systems. Data and understanding at low densities, rare because they are all the more difficult to obtain, were more important than those at high-density. I used the word resilience to represent this latter kind of stability

Hence the useful measure of resilience was the size of stability domains, or, more meaningfully, the amount of disturbance a system can take before its controls shift to another set of variables and relationships that dominate another stability region. And the relevant focus is not on constancy but on variability. Not on statistically easy collection and analysis of data but statistically difficult and unfamiliar ones. That needs a different eye to see and a different theory to perceive consequences.

About that time, I was invited to write a 1973 review article for the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. I therefore decided to turn it into a review of the two different ways of perceiving stability and in so doing highlight the significance for theory and for practice. That required finding additional rare field data in the literature that demonstrated flips of populations from one level or state to another, as well as describing the recently discovered known non-linearities in the processes that caused or inhibited the phenomenon. That was a big job and I recall days when I thought it was all bunk, and days when I believed it was all real. I finished the paper on a “good” day, when all seemed pretty clear. By then I guess I was convinced. The causal, process evidence was excellent, though the field evidence concerning population flips, was only suggestive. Nevertheless the consequences for theory and management were enormous. It implied that uncertainty was inevitable. And that ecosystems, in an evolutionary time span, were momentary entities pausing in a flip to different states. As I’ll describe, it took about 30 years to confirm those conclusions for others.

This paper began to influence fields outside population/community ecology a bit – anthropology, political science, systems science first, then, later, ecosystem science. It became the theoretical foundation for active adaptive ecosystem management. But it was largely ignored or opposed by practitioners in the central body of ecology. What followed was the typical and necessary skepticism released by new ideas, that I’ll describe briefly here because it is such a common foundation for developing science.

One early ecological response to the paper was by Sousa and Connell (1985). They asked the good question “was there empirical evidence for multi-stable states?”. They attempted to answer by analyzing published data on time series of population changes of organisms to see if the variance suggested multi-stable behavior. They found no such evidence. This so reinforced the dominant population ecology single equilibrium paradigm, that the resilience concept was stopped dead, in that area of science.

It seemed to be an example of evidence that refuted this new theory. But their evidence was inappropriate and the theory was not! In fact, their evidence, as is often the case, was really a model, incomplete because the collators unconsciously used an inappropriate model for choosing data that were incomplete.

There are two problems with their analysis:

  1. They did not ask any process question (are there common non-linear mechanisms that can produce the behavior?). That is where the good new hard evidence that I had discovered lay.
  2. They rightly saw the need for long time series data on populations that had high resolution. As population/community ecologists of tradition, however, their view of time was a human view- decades were seen as being long. That view is reinforced by a “quadrat” mentality. Not only small in time, but small in spatial scale; and a theory limited to linear interactions between individuals in single species populations or between two species populations, all functioning at the same speed (e.g. predator/prey, competitors). It represents the dangers caused by inferring that “microcosm” thought and experiments have anything to contribute to the multiscale functioning of ecosystems. Steve Carpenter has a perceptive critique of that tendency (Carpenter, 1996).

The multi-stable behavior can only be interpreted within the context of at least three but, as suggested in the Panarchy paper/chapter, probably not more than five variables. These variables need to differ qualitatively in speed from each other. It is therefore inherently ecosystemic. It is the slow variables that determine how many years of data are needed for their kind of test. None of their examples had anywhere near the duration of temporal data needed.

As an example: The available 45 years of budworm population changes they analyzed seemed long to Sousa and Connell and to all those conditioned by single variable behavior and linear thinking of the times. But the relevant time scale for the multi-equilibrium behavior of budworm is set by their hosts, the trees or the slow variable. What is needed for their tests was yearly budworm data (the fast variable) over several generations of trees (the slow variable), i.e. perhaps one and a half centuries – not 45 years. The normal boom and bust cycle is 40-60 years

It has since taken 25 years of study of different ecosystems to develop data for appropriate tests. Examples include those using paleo-ecological data covering centuries at high resolution, the deep and shallow lake studies and experiments of Carpenter (Carpenter 2000) in the United States and of Marten Scheffer, in Europe (Scheffer et al. 1993), the experimental manipulations of mammalian predator and prey systems in Australia and Africa by Tony Sinclair (Sinclair et al. 1990), and a variety of studies of specific ecosystems- sea urchin, coral reef etc. Terry Hughes and his colleagues’ works on coral reefs stand out as examples. Carpenter’s important summary paper makes the point (Carpenter, 2000). Multi-stable states are real and of great importance, although they are difficult to demonstrate. Surprise, uncertainty and unpredictability are the inevitable result. Command and control management temporarily hides the costs, but the ultimate cost of surprises produced by managing systems that ignore multi-stable properties is too great. Active adaptive management is the only alternative management response possible. Steve Carpenter and Buz (W.A.) Brock – a great ecosystems scientist together with a wonderful ”non-linear” economist- show why in a classic paper where a minimal model of a watershed, farming styles, of regional monitoring and regional decision regarding phosphate control, encounter the surprises created as a consequence of a multi-stable state (Carpenter, Brock, and Hanson, 1999).


Carpenter, Stephen R. 1996. Microcosm experiments have limited relevance for community and ecosystem ecology. Ecology 77 (3) : 677-690.

Carpenter, S.R. 2000. Alternate states of ecosystems. Evidence and its implications for environmental decisions. In, M.C.Press, N.Huntley and S. Levin. (eds). Ecology: Achievement and Challenge, Blackwell, London.

Carpenter, S.R., Brock, W.A., Hanson, P.C., 1999. Ecological and social dynamics in simple models of ecosystem management. Conservation Ecology 3(2), 4. URL:

Scheffer, M., S.H. Hopsper, M-L. Meijer, B.Moss and E. Jeppesen. 1993. Alternative equilibria in shallow lakes. Trends in Ecol. & Evol. 8 (8): 275- 279.

Sinclair, A.R.E. , P.D. Olsen, and T.D. Redhead. Can predators regulate small mammal populations? Evidence from mouse outbreaks in Australia. Oikos 59: 382-392.

Sousa, W.P. and J.H. Connell. 1985. Further comments on the evidence for multiple stable points in natural communities. American Naturalist 125, 612-615.

      How it began: Reflections Part 2

      Let me start with the origins of the first paper the students discovered, that on Resilience (Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. ARES 4: 1-23.). Since that paper really opened my eyes to the ecosystem scale, I’ll then spend a bit more time referring to it, and how it originated.

      That paper came from a series of earlier experimental studies and papers analyzing a particular process, predation. The goal was to see how far one could go by being precise, realistic, general and integrative. These are goals that normally are dealt with independently in at least partial isolation from each other in order to achieve useful and useable simplification. (The key, classic references are (Holling 1965 & Holling 1966).

      Those studies did well, and eventually led to a way to classify categories of predation into four types of functional response (how much they eat) and three types of numerical responses (how many there are). The categories and resulting simplified models seemed to apply to everything from bacteria foraging for food to submarines hunting ships! But none of that was ecosystem research. It was all traditionally experimental and analytical; but at least it was synthetic, non-linear and had great generality.

      The key conclusion relevant for ecosystem science, was that it was possible to develop small suites of well tested realistic models and define a small number of general classes of responses for key population processes. The marvelous dean of ecology at that time, Bob MacArthur, wrote me at the time of the publication of the first Functional Response paper, arguing the work was too detailed and complex to be very useful for theory in ecology. That is true in a narrow sense, but he did not know that the paper was a planned step in a process that finally did yield less complex equations, but ones more complex than was traditional for the theory of the time. The “somewhat more complex”, however, led to a world of differences in the behavior of systems, because of the non-linearities in the processes. And, most important, the equations representing the various classes of processes, were sufficiently realistic, something I thought then, and now know, was a central need for further development of theory for ecosystems. That was the first hint of the “Rule of Hand” – not too simple, not too complex- that was highlighted in the conclusions to the book Panarchy (Gunderson and Holling, 2002). That is, all that is needed is a handful of key variables. The classic “disc equation experiments” and paper launched the whole sequence that led, finally, to simpler mathematical representations that captured the essential reality that I thought was needed (Holling, 1959).

      Continue reading

      Introduction: Reflections Part 1

      In May 2003, three graduate students from a mid-west university in the US, discovered that three of my papers were among the 13 most cited papers/books by authors in the journal Ecosystems 1998-2000. They asked me to comment on the papers- their origin, relevance and directions the field of ecosystem ecology might be headed.

        Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Ann. Rev. of Ecol. and Syst. 4: 1-23.
        Holling, C.S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In: W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn (eds.). Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. Chap. 10: 292-317.
        Holling, C.S. 1992. Cross-scale morphology, geometry and dynamics of ecosystems. Ecological Monographs. 62(4):447-502.

      Each of those papers was a synthesis paper about ecosystems and their components that was the culmination of several years of earlier work. And, in fact, there were two additional synthesis papers, one of which preceded these three, but with a focus on behavioral ecology, not ecosystems. And one of which followed them, and was the first step in integrating ecological and social systems, again not just ecosystems. Overall, the five papers represent a progression from experimental work seeking for high certainty about simple systems, to systems work of high uncertainty about complex systems. In the latter situation, the unknown is inevitable, methods need to accept that reality and the rules for simplifying are not traditional ones. In a way, the work progressed from a focus on understanding more and more about less and less, to learning less and less about more and more!

      The earliest paper was:

      Holling, C.S. 1965. The functional response of predators to prey density and its role in mimicry and population regulation. Mem. Ent. Soc. Can. 45: 1-60

      It has been heavily referenced over the 41 years since it was published.

      The other is much more recent:

      Holling, C.S., Lance H. Gunderson and Garry D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In: Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling (eds), 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Ecological Systems. Island Press. Chapter 3, 63-102.

      This last paper presents all I think I have learned over the years about the structure, function and history of ecosystems, social systems and the way they survive, evolve and succeed or fail. I have no idea how well that paper will affect the community of science or practice, but I am very happy with its content, although not with its style of writing.

      I am writing now to give a personal view of what I believe I have discovered – my personal, explorers’ guide of intellectual journeys that truly excited me when, as it seemed to me, wondrous new lands periodically suddenly emerged that no one had seen or remarked on before. For scientists, those are the times when a tsunami wave of excitement triggers a passion for discovery.

      This series Reflections will continue over the next few weeks.