What is this Panarchy Thing? : Reflections Pt 11

panarchy“Panarchy” is an odd name, but one that is meant to capture the way living systems both persist and yet innovate. It shows how fast and slow, small and big events and processes can transform ecosystems and organisms through evolution, or can transform humans and their societies through learning, or the chance for learning. The central question is what allows rare transformation, not simply change.

I have discovered people have two distinct ways of perceiving change. Some see the world evolving in a regular, continuous way. Others, like me, see the world evolving in a spasmodic way- sudden change and slow, sometimes erratic responses after such changes. Both viewpoints are, in some sense true. They each give a different perception of changes and its causes. But their differences generate arguments. The same arguments are seen in other issues. For example, some argue that biological evolutionary change is not gradual but is “punctuated”. There is lots of evidence supporting that view, but because the fossil record is incomplete, the evidence is incomplete. As a consequence, one’s philosophy dictates belief, so there is not a lot of consensus. There is a similar argument about the evolution of scientific knowledge between the gradualists like Popper, and the revolutionists like Thomas Kuhn. We saw the same difference in view among our good archaeologist friends.

Terrific to have these different views appearing in a way that permits some considered conversation. Now is the time!!!

The aspect of Panarchy that is most novel and significant concerns the phase when resisting institutions start to break down or transform, releasing the chance for a renewed system to emerge. At that moment, novelty that had been simmering in the background can emerge and be debated. And new associations begin to develop among previously separate innovations. The big influence comes from discoveries that, at that time, emerge from people’s local experiments at small scales, discoveries that can emerge at times of big change, to trigger bigger changes at large scales. That process highlights the keys for the future.

One key is maybe best captured by the word “hope”. I see hope might be emerging in the US from the results of the recent mid-term election in 2006. Certainly the results of that election have triggered a sudden storm of new and intelligent, but confused discussion. That is just what Panarchy predicts, and it certainly makes me suddenly a little more hopeful about our mid-term future.

The second key has to recognize that the small, that is the individual human, can at times transform the big, that is the politics and institutions of governance. But there are traps, and their potential needs some discussion.

The multi-authored book describing the integrative nature of Panarchy (Gunderson and Holling 2002) is partly a culmination of 50 years of my own research work, together with that of a fine group of friends and colleagues in the Resilience Project. During that project, my ideas expanded and grew as they interacted with the ideas of others- other ecologists, economists, social scientists and mathematicians – all co-authors of Panarchy. Some of those were senior and well established colleagues. Others were younger colleagues who became both the nurturers and nurtured in the work. It was a process of mutual, creative discovery that then turned personal for each of us.

For me, over those 50 years the old notion of stable ecological systems embedded in the equilibrium images of Lotka-Volterra equations, moved to that of resilience and multi-stable states (Holling 1973, Carpenter 2000), then to cycles of adaptive change where persistence and novelty entwined (Holling 1986), then to nested sets of such cycles in hierarchies of diversity covering centimeters to hundreds of kilometers, days to millennia (Holling 1992) and then to the transformations that can cascade up the scales with small fast events affecting big slow ones (Holling et al 2002) as acts of “revolution”.

Jargon, yeah. So, Lance Gunderson, Garry Peterson and I said, why not go “whole hog” and invent the term “Panarchy” for the ideas, by drawing on the mischievous Greek God Pan, the paradoxical Spirit of Nature. Join Pan, then, to the dynamic reality of hierarchies across scales, where nature self-organizes lumps of living stuff on a more continuous physical template described by power laws. Physics defines the attributes of the power law. Biology self-organizes concentrations of opportunity and of species along the power law relation. Social dynamics do the same for social structures and organizations.

Part of that organization is maintained by diversity within a scale and across scales (Peterson et al 1998 and Walker et al 1999), a uniquely panarchical representation of the role of diversity in maintaining a sustainable system. For ecosystems and landscapes, all this is arranged over an interactive scale from centimeters and days to hundreds of kilometers and millennia. Nothing static- all components flipping from quiet to noise, from collapse to renewal. Transformation is not easy and gradual. It is tough and abrupt.

It seemed to become clear why and how persistence and extinction, growth and constancy, evolution and collapse entwined to form a panarchy of adaptive cycles across scales. Hierarchy and adaptive cycles can combine to make healthy systems over scales from the individual to the planet. Over days to centuries. The panarchy shows that we benefit from local inventions that create larger opportunity while being kept safe from those that destabilize because of their nature or excessive exuberance. When innovation occurs we can sense its fate. When collapse looms we can judge its likelihood. And the timing and kind of responses to this swinging, turbulent process can be designed as an act of strategic decision. Sustainability both conserves and creates. So does biological evolution.

But it can also build dependencies, some of which become pathological blocks to constructive change. They create traps, and those require the most searching investigation now.


  • Gunderson, L.H and C.S. Holling (eds) 2002 Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press, Washington and London.
  • Holling, C.S. 1992. Cross-scale morphology, geometry and dynamics of ecosystems. Ecological Monographs. 62(4):447-502.
  • Holling, C. S., Lance G. Gunderson and Garry 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.
  • Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Ann. Rev. of Ecol. and Syst. 4: 1-23.
  • 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.

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