Category Archives: Big Back Loop

Novelty Needed for Sustainable Development – Resilience 2008

conclusions panel resilience 2008

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has released two press releases on the conclusion of Resilience 2008.

The first Novelty thinking key to sustainable development reports on the concluding panel of the conference in which Elinor Ostrom, Sverker Sörlin, Carole Crumley, Line Gordon and Buzz Holling reflected on the conference, lessons from the past and the answers for the future.

Buzz Holling, considered the father of resilience thinking, called for freedom and flexibility in order to generate multilevel change and novelty thinking. This is needed in a time when several crises are emerging, he said.

– This year a cluster of predicted crises have become aware to the public, such as the rise of food prices due to energy market changes and the collapse of the financial market. We see that small instabilities and risks spread to practically all developed countries in the world. However, globalisation also adds a great positive value because the individual or small groups can have an increasingly global effect, Holling said.

Resilience as an continuance of sustainability thinking
Sverker Sörlin and Carole Crumley both argued that we have moved beyond traditional discussions around sustainability and that resilience thinking is increasingly being embraced as an integrated part of sustainable development thinking.

– Resilience thinking will not replace the sustainability discourse, but we can use resilience to develop sustainability further, Sörlin said. He was followed up by Line Gordon who noted that the key approach with resilience thinking is that although we might have solutions for sustainable development, we will face challenges and we must be prepared for surprises.

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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.

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.

Great Transition Papers

gsg global trajectoriesGlobal Scenario Group developed a pioneering set of global environmental scenarios, which presented six global scenarios. There were three main scenario types, which each had two variants, producing: Conventional Worlds (Policy Reform and Market Forces), Barbarization (Fortress world and Breakdown), and Great Transitions (Eco-communalism and New sustainability paradigm).

These scenarios have some similarities to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Scenarios. The GSG scenarios – Policy Reform, Fortress World, and Eco-communalism – are similar, but less ecologically oriented than the MA scenarios – Global Orchestration, Order from Strength, and Adaptive Mosaic. The fourth MA scenario TechnoGarden – market oriented ecological efficiency – does not correspond any of the GSG scenarios.

The Great Transition Initiative continues the GSG project by promoting a global transition to a sustainable society via a fundamental enhancement of global democracy and citizenship. It has prepared a set of papers Frontiers of a Great Transition that explore the challenges, opportunities, and strategies that a transition to sustainability requires. The paper are available as freely downloadable PDF files on the Great Transition Initiative website.

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El Nino, Global Warming, and Anomalous North American Winter Warmth

On RealClimate, Michael Mann has a good explanation of what is going on with North America’s unusual winter weather. He discusses what parts of the weather may be due to ENSO fluctuations and what part could be a signal of climate change.

US temp dif The pattern so far this winter (admittedly after only 1 month) looks … like a stronger version of what was observed last winter … . This poses the first obvious conundrum for the pure “El Nino” attribution of the current warmth: since we were actually in a (weak) La Nina (i.e., the opposite of ‘El Nino’) last winter, how is it that we can explain away the anomalous winter U.S. warmth so far this winter by ‘El Nino’ when anomalous winter warmth last year occured in its absence?

The second conundrum with this explanation is that, while El Nino typically does perturb the winter Northern Hemisphere jet stream in a way that favors anomalous warmth over much of the northern half of the U.S., the typical amplitude of the warming (see Figure below right) is about 1C (i.e., about 2F). The current anomaly is roughly five times as large as this. One therefore cannot sensibly argue that the current U.S. winter temperature anomalies are attributed entirely to the current moderate El Nino event.

Indeed, though the current pattern of winter U.S. warmth looks much more like the pattern predicted by climate models as a response to anthropogenic forcing (see Figure below left) than the typical ‘El Nino’ pattern, neither can one attribute this warmth to anthropogenic forcing. As we are fond of reminding our readers, one cannot attribute a specific meteorological event, an anomalous season, or even (as seems may be the case here, depending on the next 2 months) two anomalous seasons in a row, to climate change. Moreover, not even the most extreme scenario for the next century predicts temperature changes over North America as large as the anomalies witnessed this past month. But one can argue that the pattern of anomalous winter warmth seen last year, and so far this year, is in the direction of what the models predict.

In reality, the individual roles of deterministic factors such as El Nino, anthropogenic climate change, and of purely random factors (i.e. “weather”) in the pattern observed thusfar this winter cannot even in principle be ascertained. What we do know, however, is that both anthropogenic climate change and El Nino favor, in a statistical sense, warmer winters over large parts of the U.S. When these factors act constructively, as is the case this winter, warmer temperatures are certainly more likely. Both factors also favor warmer global mean surface temperatures (the warming is one or two tenths of a degree C for a moderate to strong El Nino). It is precisely for this reason that some scientists are already concluding, with some justification, that 2007 stands a good chance of being the warmest year on record for the globe.

Reorganization after Collapse

adaptive cycleIn Science (Jan 5 2007), Kathleen Morrison reviews After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies. The book sounds interesting. It is an edited volume focused of the neglected phases of reorganization and growth that have follow civilization collapse:

Glenn Schwartz’s introduction to After Collapse points out, however, not all of these phases have been equally well studied. Studies of state collapse and of the initial development of complex societies have continued to be counted among the big questions of archaeology. Why the regeneration of complex societies after episodes of collapse has not, to date, been a major focus of research can be attributed to an archaeological obsession with origins and in particular with “primary states,” those six places where complex polities developed without prior organizational models. The diffusionary logic that the idea of the state was somehow a sufficient condition for the emergence of complex polities has been long discredited, yet for some reason archaeological disregard for so-called “secondary state formation” has continued. Not only do the vast majority of cases of state development fall under this rubric, but so do instances of regeneration after collapse. Hence, the reasons for underanalysis of this important process are, if not clear, at least explicable. What all this suggests is that the examples presented in After Collapse have the potential to inform on processes of state (re)formation more generally; addition of these important cases can only add to our understanding of state generation as well as regeneration.

Schwartz notes that the study of state regeneration is, in large part, a study of “dark ages,” a term that, besides encoding value judgments developed under conditions of centralization, also refers to the paucity of textual information for periods after collapse. The negative valences of terms such as dark age and even collapse certainly reveal viewpoints firmly invested in text-based history (no period is darker than any other to an archaeologist) and in social hierarchy (what falls apart in a collapse are often structures of inequality). Archaeology, however, is well situated to address issues of change where texts disappear.

Here it is worth clarifying what contributors to this volume mean by collapse. As Schwartz enumerates, collapse “entails some or all of the following: the fragmentation of states into smaller political entities; the partial abandonment or complete desertion of urban centers, along with the loss or depletion of their centralizing functions; the breakdown of regional economic systems; and the failure of civilizational ideologies.” Note that this definition refers only to the collapse of complex political structures and that death and destruction are conspicuously absent. Although the focus of After Collapse is decidedly on continuity and renewal, archaeological studies of collapse itself have always recognized that civilizational traditions and peoples rarely disappear.

What, then, causes state regeneration and how does it proceed? Are, as Schwartz asks, such processes simply replays of earlier developmental episodes? Or are new strategies and trajectories involved? One might think, given the popularity of climate- and resource-oriented explanations for collapse, that many scholars would place regeneration at the feet of climatic amelioration or environmental regeneration. However, with the exception of Ian Morris’s careful exposition of the transitions from Mycenaean (Late Bronze Age) Greece through the Greek Dark Ages and on to the Classical Period, contributors to this volume have surprisingly little to say about environmental conditions. Perhaps this is because the Greek case, like the Classic Maya, is an example of what Bennet Bronson in this volume calls “genuine regeneration,” not simply the shift of a political or economic center but a transformation of the entire system. Indeed, the differences between Classical and earlier periods are profound (with perhaps little more than the memory of a lost heroic age linking them)–a shift even more substantial than that seen in the Maya region, albeit one covering much longer periods of time.

Contributors analyzing other regions (including Egypt, Peru, Cambodia, and Bronze-Age Syria) favor either Bronson’s “stimulus regeneration,” state building explicitly based on a hazily understood model distant in space or time, or his “template regeneration,” a revival process based on fully understood, well-recorded models, often states close to the revived polity in space and time. Although both of these terms evoke the language of early 20th-century diffusionism, they at least have the advantage of stressing the ways in which regenerating polities make use of existing models of and ideologies for systems of structured inequality.

While After Collapse also asks when regeneration might not appear, the volume presents only one such counterexample, Kenny Sims’s analysis of the upper Moquegua Valley, Peru. There complex political forms failed to regenerate after the fall of the Tiwanaku and Wari empires. Sims argues that restriction of local residents to client status and, at best, mid-level positions within the Wari administration left them without the wherewithal to (re)generate a centralized state. The general enthusiasm for Bronson’s memory and knowledge-oriented categories might reflect the selection of cases themselves, few of which are examples of more radical collapse, in which depopulation as well as deurbanization took place.

In many ways, both the strengths and weaknesses of After Collapse reflect larger trends in archaeology. Contributors carefully consider how, precisely, people managed (or failed) to regenerate a complex polity after a political collapse, including some interesting considerations of the ways in which collapse presented opportunities for previously marginal elites to become the central players in regenerated regimes. However, there is disappointingly little willingness to consider why, specifically, complex polities (re)emerged–to address the origins of the secondary state, to use the jargon. This is an important question, with implications for state formation in innumerable cases, well beyond the sample of collapsed polities. If, for example, as Lisa Cooper, building on the arguments of Yoffee and Adams, suggests of Bronze-Age Syria, village-based organization was actually more stable in the long term than urbanism, then perhaps the formation of a complex polity might itself constitute “collapse.” Such a perspective, suggested only half-seriously in Yoffee’s closing remarks, might actually be salutary in finally purging the discipline of its rise-and-fall thinking. This could bring us one step closer to using the great strength of archaeological research, its immense time depth, as a serious guide for contemporary considerations of the sustainability and continuity of civilizations in the face of rapidly changing natural and social conditions.

Africa ReOrienting: China & Africa

Two recent newspaper articles on the role of new Chinese trade with Africa. From the New York Times China’s African Adventure:

China is now one of Africa’s largest customers not only for oil but also for timber, minerals, cotton and other natural resources. China in turn has flooded Africa with cheap consumer goods. The I.M.F. forecasts that China’s trade with Africa will top $50 billion this year and could reach $100 billion by 2010. Over the last five years, sub-Saharan Africa’s growth rate has almost doubled, to 5.8 percent from 3 percent; economists attribute much of the increase to trade with China and other Asian countries.

The perils of Beijing’s Africa strategy in the International Herald Tribune:

Politically, China’s “hands-off politics” approach was initially a welcome change for many African leaders who bristled over the conditions imposed by the United States, Europe and multilateral institutions.

… Beijing’s unwillingness to press its state- owned firms on good governance and social responsibility is producing a backlash in several African countries. Last month, Gabon ordered the Chinese energy firm, Sinopec, to halt exploration in Loango national park after a U.S. conservation group accused it of desecrating the forest and operating without an environmental-impact study.Anecdotal evidence also suggests simmering grass-roots resentment of the growing Chinese presence. Legal and illegal Chinese immigrants are moving to Africa by the hundreds of thousands to work in extractive industries, construction and manufacturing, prompting charges that Chinese investors are taking rather than creating jobs.

Ultimately, African leaders have to decide whether Beijing’s “strictly business” strategy is compatible with the principles of transparency and good governance set out in their New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Every day brings new evidence that getting China to sign on to these principles will be critical for the continent’s long term development and stability.

The New York Times article China’s African Adventure goes on to present a US reaction to China’s increased trade with Africa:

The People’s Republic has declared 2006 “the Year of Africa.” The West had its own unofficial Year of Africa in 2005, and it is instructive to compare the two. The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible. Earlier this month, at a much-ballyhooed summit meeting in Beijing attended by political leaders from all but five African states (the ones that recognize Taiwan), the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, announced that China would provide $5 billion in preferential loans and credits over the next three years, effectively doubling aid to Africa, while canceling many outstanding debts. A dozen Chinese companies signed agreements for $1.9 billion worth of construction projects and investment.

If we believe that a model of development that strengthens the hand of authoritarian leaders and does little, if anything, to empower the poor is a bad long-term strategy for Africa, then we are going to have to come up with a strategic partnership of our own. And it is not only a question of what is good for the African people. The United States has a real security interest in avoiding failed states and in blocking the spread of terrorism in East and North Africa. What’s more, the United States already imports 15 percent of its oil from Africa, mostly from Angola and Nigeria; that figure is bound to rise and could even double, eventually making Africa as large a supplier of oil as the Middle East now is. China’s Africa policy shows that globalization is increasingly divorced from Westernization. We have grown accustomed to the idea that Africa needs us; it’s time to recognize that we, like China, need Africa.

Embrace the Collapse: another Homer-Dixon interview

The Tyee, an online Vancouver newsite, has a two part interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon, which focusses on some different issues than the Worldchanging interview. The first part Embrace the Collapse focusses on learning from collapse, while the second part, An Internet Idea Army, focusses on social learning. From the article:

Thomas Homer-Dixon says there’s hope. Not that global warming isn’t upon us, or that terrorists won’t explode a nuclear device in the near future, or that the growing gap between rich and poor won’t result in deeply destructive conflict, or that our social, political and economic systems aren’t deeply vulnerable to collapse.

No, not that kind of hope. That’s actually called denial. The question is, what might we do when one or all of those events — which Homer-Dixon calls “moments of contingency” — shake us out of our collective inertia? What might we do to ensure that, ahem, more is very much less.

In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, that’s the central question. Can we turn failure into some kind of success? Homer-Dixon thinks we can, and his prescription isn’t very complicated. One thing we must do, he says, is develop a “prospective mind,” by which he means think ahead, and plan to take advantage when a crisis creates an opportunity.
…Homer-Dixon devotes a large section of the book to the work of former UBC professor and ecology guru Buzz Holling, who has looked at what allows complex natural systems to remain resilient. At the core of Holling’s “panarchy theory” is the simple idea that complex systems grow, become brittle, collapse and then renew themselves. If the growth cycle goes on too long, however, the potential increases for “deep collapse,” which can pretty much cut out that heartwarming renewal stage.

It’s the human tendency to try and keep everything as it is that has Holling and Homer-Dixon worried. If we don’t plan for the occasional collapse, if we don’t plan for real change, we’re going to pay and pay and pay.

The Upside of Down is also a hopeful book. Homer-Dixon, the Victoria-raised director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, wants us to learn from ecology. He wants us to see human endeavour through nature’s lens. Systems grow, mature, become rigid, and break down. If we accept that this is true for human systems, we will be better able to create less rigid, less dangerously interdependent systems to minimize potential domino effects, and we will learn to plan for renewal when things do break down.

Of course, many people can talk a good line about impending peril. The question is, what are they actually doing about it? Homer-Dixon places a great deal of faith in individuals, in their ability to collaborate, create consensus, and place that consensus squarely in the public realm in a manner that cannot be ignored.

Some bits from the interview are below: Continue reading

Interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon on Upside of Down

WorldChanging‘s Hassan Masum interviews Thomas Homer-Dixon about his new book, Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. The book is heavily influenced by the work of people in the Resilience Alliance – Buzz Holling, Sander van der Leeuw and and Joe Tainter in particular, along with the book Supply Side Sustainability by Tim Allen, Joe Tainter and Thomas Hoekstra.

HM: For me, one of the most resonant focal points of your book was the dual theme of resilience and catagenesis. I wonder if you agree that a particularly practical avenue is to adopt “low-regrets” technologies and systems?

More generally, what creative new kinds of institutions, customs, or ways of thought would you like to see arise, that could help spur catagenesis on an ongoing basis?

TH: We need to build buffering capacity in our societies and systems that’s fungible, that can be moved back and forth between different eventualities.

In the first part of the book, I talk about people’s desire to hold on, to keep things the same. But we can’t always keep things the same, since we don’t have as much control over reality as we think we do. This is very different from being fatalistic. The whole idea of the prospective mind is to develop a new set of customs – proactive, anticipatory, comfortable with change, and not surprised by surprise.

Institutionally, we could build in tax incentives and subsidies for people to make households more resilient. For example, if we have an energy grid that’s unreliable, maybe we shouldn’t build condo apartments that are totally dependent on electricity for elevators, water, and air conditioning. In some business towers, the windows don’t even open without power. This kind of housing is fundamentally reliant on large-scale centralized power production.

But what if our economy provided tax incentives for residents and commercial centers to have autonomous power production? If these kinds of incentives were incorporated into everyday policy – whether transportation, electricity, food or water – our systems would evolve to be more capable of withstanding shocks.

I’m sure if we got smart people around the table to think about this, we would generate thousands of specific ideas. Right now resilience isn’t treated as important, so people don’t pay a premium for it – and there will be a cost associated with the necessary capital investments, a cost that draws resources away from other things. But you’re buying resilience – a positive externality in the system, that benefits everybody to the extent it’s there.

It’s partly the role of government to provide encouragement to do these kinds of things. Distributed open source problem solving would also be an essential feature of a society which recognized that catagenesis is an important part of adaptation – that you’re going to have growth, increasing complexity, breakdown, recombination, regeneration, regrowth, and so forth in cycles again and again. A system able to incorporate those cycles in a natural, “standard operating procedure” kind of way is going to require non-hierarchical distributed problem solving.

Let me take an analogy. Within our market economy, the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction is manifested every day – the growth of new industrial sectors, their decline and obsolescence, their replacement by new technology. Individual companies will start and grow, but may eventually go bankrupt. This creative destruction is part of the everyday world in market economies – it’s part of life, and a reason why market economies are so adaptive.

Somehow we need to take that normative comfort level that markets have to adaptation, and introduce the same kind of culture into our social and political worlds. Remarkably, in economies nobody assumes that things stay the same. But in political systems, everybody assumes change is an anomaly, and to the extent change is allowed, it’s incremental and managed.

HM: How are you feeling about this book, now that it’s complete and about to be released?

TH: It’s scary because it’s an encapsulation of 30 years of thought, and I know I’m going to take some bruises on this one. One of the reasons I spend much of the book talking about the problems we face in detail is that I’m sick of people dismissing the fact that we’re in a serious situation. By the time you finish chapter 8, if you’ve been listening and thinking, it’s going to be hard to deny at least the possibility that there will be serious breakdowns in the future.

The last part of the book is about denial, about what breakdowns might look like, and what we might do about them. [With the potential of open-source democratic problem-solving and resilience], it’s the first time I’ve started to see a glimmer of something that offered a way out. At the end of the last book, I didn’t have a sense of what the way out might be.

It was by reading Buzz Holling’s work that I realized what normally seems bad can be an enormous opportunity. It’s a radical idea that some people are not going to like, and they may ridicule and pigeonhole it.

Ecology for Transformation

David Zaks and Chad Monfreda write on Worldchanging on Steve Carpenter and Carl Folke‘s 2006 paper in Ecology for Transformation (

Ecology has long been a descriptive science with real but limited links to the policy community. A new science of ecology, however, is emerging to forge the collaborations with social scientists and decision makers needed for a bright green future. Stephen Carpenter and Carl Folke outline a vision for the future of ecology in their recent article, Ecology for Transformation. You need a subscription to access the full article, so we’ll quote them at length:

“Scenarios with positive visions are quite different from projections of environmental disaster. Doom-and-gloom predictions are sometimes needed, and they might sell newspapers, but they do little to inspire people or to evoke proactive forward-looking steps toward a better world. Transformation requires evocative visions of better worlds to compare and evaluate the diverse alternatives available to us … Although we cannot predict the future, we have much to decide. Better decisions start from better visions, and such visions need ecological perspectives.”

Ecology for Transformation offers the perspective of resilient social-ecological systems. Simply put, it recognizes that ecosystems and human society are interdependent, and that they need the capacity to withstand and adapt to an increasingly bumpy future.

Examples of resilient social-ecological systems abound in all kinds of notoriously difficult to manage areas, like natural disaster response and rangeland management. Resilience sounds great, but how do we get there? Fortunately Carpenter and Folke offer a theoretically robust three-part transformative framework:

1. Diversity
2. Environmentally sound technology
3. Adaptive governance

Diversity constitutes the raw material we can draw from to create effective technologies and institutions. It reflects the wealth of genetic and memetic resources at our disposal, in the form of biodiversity, landscapes, cultures, ideas, and economic livelihoods. We need to foster diversity as an insurance package for hard times because…

“…crisis can create opportunities for reorganizing the relationships of society to ecosystems. At such times, barriers to action might break down, if only for a short time, and new approaches have a chance to change the direction of ecosystem management. To succeed, a particular approach or vision must be well-formed by the time the crisis arises, because the opportunity for change might be short-lived.”

Environmentally sound technology ranges from incremental advancements in energy efficiency to innovative economic tools like natural capital valuation and markets for ecosystem services. Diversity and technology should sound familiar enough to WorldChanging readers. Ecology for transformation, however, goes on, to challenge us to engage in adaptive governance that recognizes the reality of constant change. The authors define adaptive governance as:

“Institutional and political frameworks designed to adapt to changing relationships between society and ecosystems in ways that sustain ecosystem services; expands the focus from adaptive management of ecosystems to address the broader social contexts that enable ecosystem based management.”

Governance is much broader than what we normally think of as government and encompasses all of the actors who shape the way we work, live, and interact. Communication across various scales, from individuals to institutions, is vital for effective governance. Many of the management and governance structures currently in place are static, but an ‘adaptive’ approach promises more sustainable outcomes by negotiating uncertainty and change.

Steve Carpenter, WA Brock, and I addressed the issue of how scientists can encourage transformations by creating new management models in our 2003 paper Uncertainty and the management of multistate ecosystems: an apparently rational route to collapse (Ecology. 84(6) 1403-1411). We wrote:

…scientists can contribute to broadening the worldview of ecosystem management in at least three ways.

(1) Scientists can point out that uncertainty is a property of the set of models under consideration. This set of models is a mental construct (even if it depends in part on prior observation of the ecosystem). It therefore depends on attitudes and beliefs that are unrelated to putatively objective information about the ecosystem. Despite this discomforting aspect of uncertainty, it cannot be ignored.

(2) Scientists can help to imagine novel models for how the system might change in the future. There will be cases where such novel models carry non-negligible weight in decision, for example when the costs of collapse are high. The consequences of candidate policies can be examined under models with very different implications for ecosystem behavior. Such explorations of the robustness of policies can be carried out when model uncertainty is quite high or even unknown, for example in scenario analysis.

(3) Scientists can point out the value of safe, informative experiments to test models beyond the range of available data. In the model presented here, fossilization of beliefs follows from fixation on policies that do not reveal the full dynamic potential of the ecosystem, leading to the underestimation of model uncertainty. Experimentation at scales appropriate for testing alternative models for ecosystem behavior is one way out the trap. Of course, largescale experiments on ecosystems that support human well being must be approached with caution. Nevertheless, in situations where surprising and unfavorable ecosystem dynamics are possible, it may be valuable to experiment with innovative practices that could reinforce desirable ecosystem states.

I think our second point, the need for creative synthesis, is not emphasized enough in science, which tends to focus on testing existing models. Ecological governance needs new ways of thinking about nature that are useful in governance situations. The creation of novel, practical models is a vital part of connecting science to policy and action. Without practical models, people are unable to develop desirable policy or effective actions.