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.

2 thoughts on “From Ecosystems and Economics to Social Systems: Reflections Pt 6”

  1. We are seeing the same responses now to the release of IPCC #4. Let’s seed the oceans with iron. Let’s seed the air with sulfur. Let’s put mirrors in space around the world. All big, expensive actions which, like war, will ultimately cause even greater harm than the problem they’re intended to solve.

    The operation was a success. The patient died. In my field, we call these anti-patterns.

    The concept of “slow variables” is important. I’ve never heard the phrase, but I recognized it immediately. It’s intuitively clear that these affect the deep causes, which in turn, sooner or later, lead to the apparent “crises” and our reactionary responses to them.

    I imagine the slow variables as big dials with hundreds and thousands of positions. Turning the dials slightly will have the effect we desire, just not in our lifetimes, nor in the lifetimes of our nations.

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