Category Archives: Reflections

Impacts of the 2010 tsunami in Chile

UPDATE: Here is a link to a video to Prof. Castilla’s talk (via @sthlmresilience)

03:34 a.m. February 27th 2010. Suddenly, a devastating earthquake and a series of tsunamis hits the central–south coast of Chile. An earthquake so powerful (8.8 on the moment magnitude scale), that not only is the fifth largest recorded on earth, but also moves the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, 10 feet (!) to the west.

Juan Carlos Castilla from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, recently visited Stockholm, and gave an update about the tsunamis’ impact on coastal communities. The effects of the tsunami were devastating, and the death toll from the 2-3 tsunamis alone was between 170-200 in the coastal areas of regions VI, VII and VIII. The most noticeable biophysical impact in the region is the elevation of the whole coastal area, ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters. This obviously has had big impacts on the composition of species and vegetation on the coast. The impacts on coastal ecosystems and fisheries is however still unclear.

Based on extensive field studies two months after the disaster, Castilla and his research team noted that only 8-12 (about 6%) of the 200 deceased where from fisherman families. According to Castilla, this low figure can be explained by the existence of strong social networks, and local knowledge passed on from generation to generation. As an artisan fisherman in the study, summarized one shared local saying:

“if an earthquake is so strong you can not stand up: run to the hills”

Luckily, February 27th was a night of full moon. This allowed people to more easily run for protection in the hills. According to Castilla, the combination of full moon, local knowledge, and strong bonds between neighbors, made it possible for members of fishermen communities to rapidly act on the first warning signal: the earthquake. The fact that locals also were taught not to leave the hills after at least a couple of hours after an earthquake, also helped them avoid the following devastating tsunamis. Unfortunately, visitors and tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas, were not.

Read more:

Marín, A et al. (2010) ”The 2010 tsunami in Chile: Devastation and survival of coastal small-scale fishing communities”, Marine Policy, 2010, 34:1381-1384.

Gelchich, S et al. “Nagivating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources”, PNAS, 107(39): 16794-16799.

See Henrik’s post just the days after the Chilean earthquake here.

A Moratorium on Geoengineering? Really?

In the end of October 2010, participants in the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) included in their agreement to protect biodiversity , a moratorium on geo­engineering. This CBD moratorium came timely as the debate around geoengineering virtually exploded internationally with several high-profile reports being published by, amongst others, the British Royal Society, and the U.S. Congress. The IPCC has announced it will organize several expert meetings in 2011 to focus on geoengineering, to help prepare the next review of climate science, due for completion in 2014.

But what does this “moratorium” really imply? This is not a trivial question considering the often acclaimed fragmentation of global environmental governance, and the fact that most geoengineering schemes would have impacts on additional planetary boundaries such as land use change and biodiversity. Two main (and highly simplified of course) interpretations seem to exist in a quite complicated legal debate.

One is that the CBD moratorium places a considerable limit on geoengineering experimentation and attempts. The only exception are “small-scale” controlled experiments that meet specific requirements, i.e.: that they are assumed in controlled settings and for explicit scientific purposes, are subject to prior environmental impact assessment, and have no impacts beyond national jurisdiction. Proponents of this position note that even if the CBD moratorium is not legally binding, governments launching large geoengineering experiments would “risk their credibility and diplomatic reputations”, a strong enough disincentive that effectively “blocks risky climate techno-fixes”. The Canadian NGO ETC Group elaborates this point here.

The second position instead highlights several points that undermine the strenght of the CBD moratorium. The first is that the agreement has no legally binding power, and that formal sanctioning mechanisms are absent. The CBD moratorium is “soft law” which implies that States  still could launch geoengineering schemes unilaterally. Note also that the United States has not formally ratified the CBD convention.

Second, even though the CBD moratorium might be seen as defining an upper limit on the scale of geoengineering experiments, key definitional questions remain to be teased out. What is to be defined as “small-scale” and  “experiment”? And what is its status compared to other related pieces of international law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the London Convention, and the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, just to mention a few.

Third, as the US Congressional Research Service notes in its report, international agreements are best equipped to deal with disputes between countries, and not necessarily between one country and one private actor, or between private actors that may shift locations to suit their interests (pp. 29). And major private or semi-private actors and funders are out there, including the Bill Gates and Richard Branson $4.6 million Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Resources, Ice911, Intellectual Ventures (see WJS article “Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose”), Carbon Engineeering, Planktos Foundation, and GreenSea Ventures (featured in Nature here).

So, do we really have a real, effective global moratorium on geoengineering? Far from it it seems. Feel free to disagree in the comment field below.

Originally posted in

Marine parks, forced removal and global politics

Mauritius suing UK for marine park around US airbase

The Internet version of BBC News just released notice that the island nation of Mauritius is suing UK for legislating a Marine Protected Area around British islands close to Mauritius (1000 km). The reserve is named Chagos Marine Park, argued by then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband to “double the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection” (in April 2010). With its 545 000 sq-km area the are includes some 220 coral species (half the recorded species of the Indian Ocean), and more than 1,000 species of reef fish. However, the islands was before the 1960’s home to a local people that the British government forcefully removed to give space for a US military air base.

Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos
archipelago and the site of a
US military base. Photograph: Reuters

The reserve is therefore hotly contested demonstrating with all clarity the multi-level politics of any natural resource management or biodiversity preservation project, and the various and contested ways by which human and nonhuman relations are being forged. Parsing from three BBC News articles from 2004-2010 (see here), and The Independent (here), a short story can be given on how geopolitics, national and international efforts of protecting biodiversity, overlap with ‘local’ dynamics, and the dignity of a people.

US air base and forced removal

People of Chago protesting for the
right to return to their island.

In the 1960s the British island colony was leased to the US for an air base, which since then has been in use, not least during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In leasing the island the British government took actions that forcefully removed some 2000 people living on the island, and moved them to the neighboring nation Mauritius. The removal was accomplished through that the British government bought the only company employing people on the island, and then closing the company down leaving island people without an income. This was paired with blocking goods coming to the island, leaving people without income and food forcing them to move.

The forced removal of people has, it seems, been converted to an argument for the current high biodiversity and good state of the ecosystems observed at the islands. This in turn has of course been made into an argument for conservation. As reported by The Independent:

The absence of human habitation has been a key factor in the preservation of the pristine coral atolls, the unpolluted waters, rare bird colonies and burgeoning turtle populations that give the archipelago its international importance.

The removed island people, the Chagossians, have run a case before in the British courts to return to their island. In 2008, the British Law Lords voted 3 against 2 in favor of the British government, but islanders continue their case. Although some of the islanders express that they could – in the event of them returning – co-live with a nature reserve if only some fishing and use of the area was allowed, others mean that it “would effectively bar them from returning“. This interpretation was enforced by the recent diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, which also triggered the Mauritius government to sue the British government in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. In this cable, “[a] UK official is quoted as saying it should put an end to any possibility of the displaced islanders returning“, according to BBC News.

Scaled networks of power
This intriguing example draws together different networks and scales of power that generate not only dynamic debates, but also intervenes – and tries to intervene – in a certain physical space and its social-ecological dynamics. A recent move in political ecology has traced such scaled networks, partly drawing on actor-network theory, see e.g. work by Erik Swyngedouw [2, 3] and Nik Heynen.

In Chagos these scaled networks seems to be mainly shaped through historical connections to colonial power and empire ambitions, cold war geopolitics, scientific community networks of fact-making, national sovereignty claims, and local identity and claim-making.

Whereas local residents were robbed of their homes, dwellings and resources, the British government could earn money on the strategic position of this old colony lying close to the Middle East by leasing it to the escalating military ambitions of post-war US. A side-effect of this, it seems, was to sustain well-working ecological functions in the seas around the islands, preserving species and habitats being lost elsewhere due to fishing and other exploitation activities.

Enter the international community of scientists, that by the time of 1990’s had produced arguments and facts of why these types of protected areas are globally important for the protection of marine species on scales greater than just the islands. In confronting the many thousands of fishing vessels and distant fish markets that put global pressure on marine ecosystems, Marine Protected Areas are thought to function as havens and sources of species in networks of energy exchange and species interaction over greater spatial scales. A speculation is then that the quoted UK official, and Mr Milliband, could use the weight of these natural scientifically produced facts to effectively also put an end to the claims by the Chagossians, and come out as triumphant savers of the seas at the same time.

Similar cases of how scaled networks influence especially land-based protected areas are plenty in the literature, however, this is one of the most intriguing marine examples I have heard of. Furthermore, the current suing process by Mauritius, and the reason why Chago Archipelago again became news, is due to another novel network of power, namely WikiLeaks, whose activities continue to ripple through the interconnected world of media.

Note: The different articles from BBC News can be found here, here, here, and here. More on this news and the Chago Archipelago, see here.

Should Political Science Be Relevant?

This article might be of interest for all political scientists doing sustainability research. After decades of being dominated by quantitative models and theory-driven research, a panel of prominent scholars at the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting, discussed whether  political science at all, was relevant for policy-makers trying to solve real-world problems. The Inside Higher Ed reports:

Gerry Stoker shared “a wicked thought” […]. What if he called as many senior figures in political science as he could reach and asked them “if they had ever said anything relevant in their entire careers”?


[…] Stoker also said that the discipline doesn’t reward relevance. A young scholar is more likely to be promoted for “the novelty of methodological contribution” than for “research that actually has an impact.”

The panel included very interesting interventions from prominent political scientists Sven Steinmo (University of Colorado at Boulder), Bo Rothstein (Göteborg Universty, Sweden) and Elinor Ostrom (Indiana University/Arizona State University). Prof. Bo Rothstein provided an interesting  observation:

Rothstein, […], said that maybe the problem to discuss isn’t whether political science is relevant, but whether American political science is relevant.

“If you want to be relevant as a discipline,” he said, “you have to recruit people who want to be relevant.” And in this respect, he said, American political science departments are not doing well.

Read the full article here.

Brian Walker’s Research Areas for Resilience Science

Brian Walker, the former director of the Resilience Alliance reflected on the future of resilience science in his introductory talk at Resilience 2008. In his talk Probing the boundaries of resilience science and practice, he identified seven important research areas for resilience science:

  1. Test, criticize and revise the propositions about resilience made in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems and Ecology and Society special issue – Exploring Resilience In Social-Ecological Systems.
  2. Develop models of social-ecological systems that can produce the key aspects of the rich behaviour of the world. In particular these models should be able to produce:
    i) dynamics in which systems cross multiple thresholds,
    ii) produce “backloop” dynamics, and
    iii) incorporate models of adaptive governance that incorporate leadership, trust, ‘shadow’ networks, sleeper links, and poly-centric governance arrangements.
  3. Extend resilience theory from local or regional scales to the global to address questions such as:
    i) Do we need new propositions for global resilience issues?
    ii) Over what ranges of scale can we apply existing theory?, and
    iii) How important are scale-dependent processes?
  4. Resilience theory needs to better understand the consquences of multiple simultaneous shocks, because transformative change seems to be often triggered by two (or more) simultaneous shocks. For example an environmental shock and an economic (or political) shock occurring at the same time.
    Resilience theory needs to understand what coupled or sequential shocks are likely, and how could we go about assessing resilience to them. An example of this is the current food crisis that developed from the coupling of agriculture, energy, and climate issues.
  5. What are the differences between transformational change, adaptability and resilience? Transformability is the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when conditions make the existing system untenable. In much of the world the need is to transform, not to make the existing system regime more resilient. What are the design principles of transformations?
  6. How can we assess the costs and values of resilience? What is the difference between general (broad spectrum resilience to many things) vs. specified resilience (to a few specific things)? How can we conceptualize the danger in ‘optimizing’ for specified resilience? How much should we spend (or forego) to increase resilience?
  7. How can the value of different regimes be assessed? The desirablity of a regime usually depends upon the perspective it is viewed from, and different people have different perspectives. Coping with these perspectives is a challenge. But more fundamentally, this requires not just assessing the value of different ecosystem services, but also understanding the identity of a system, and its ability to maintain itself.
  8. Non-mathematical approaches to resilience. While mathematics is beautiful to some, it is difficult to communicate and in some situations is insufficient. We need to increase our ability to represent resilience in a variety of forms. This presents a challenge to the humanities and arts community. At Resilience 2008 we saw contributions towards this understanding, but there is much more to develop. Can science and the humanities work together to provide the impetus towards a richer, more resilient world?

Buzz Holling’s reflections video seminar

Holling Seminar SRC/SU - 2007Buzz Holling, recently gave a talk at the Stockholm Resilience Centre where he reflected on his career and how he has developing ideas in science and policy.

He discussed his early work on predation, his original 1973 resilience paper, adaptive management, the adaptive cycle, and Panarchy, as well as the insights, barriers, and opportu­nities that were part of his research process.

The Centre has put the talk online as a video seminar (Windows Media Player Time: 01:05:10).

Index of Buzz Holling’s Reflections

buzz holling photoThe fourteen part series of reflections by Buzz Holling on ecological research and practice recently. Below is an index to the reflections. These can be found as a single document on the Resilience Alliance website. The series starts with an explanation A Journey of Discovery and then continues through 13 sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. How it began
  3. Resilience
  4. Ecosystem Reality – Workshops
  5. Ecosystem Reality – Modelling
  6. From Ecosystems and Economics to Social Systems
  7. Panarchy
  8. Testing Panarchy
  9. Diversity and Resilience
  10. What I Learned of Organizations
  11. What is this Panarchy Thing?
  12. Where Ideas Originate; What Makes Some Useful?
  13. Where to go Now?

Where to go Now? : Reflections Pt 13

I was surprised and delighted to learn during this year, 2006, that several organizations have recently been established with resilience as one of their primary themes. The most recent is a new Center on Resilience and Sustainability for Social/Ecological Systems in Sweden. It has just been formed by Stockholm University, the Beijer Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute. It joins three other centers that have been recently established with resilience as their focus– for Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity in Australia, for Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre, UK and, more loosely, for Parks, Ecosystems and People in South Africa.

All have indicated programs for collaboration among the groups, and other members of the Resilience Alliance itself. That is all a very new acceleration of work on both the theories and practices of resilience. They are extraordinarily appropriate places for launching novel experiments, novel knowledge and novel actions at this time of international turmoil. They provide places that beautifully stimulate novelty and excellence across disciplines in a flexible atmosphere where discussion and debate periodically pace deep deliberative enquiry. The Internet can play a big role that creates an international place for such enquiries and debates. They are outstanding examples of the creation of integrative support for fundamental interdisciplinary study.

I started this paper with a good news report and a bad news one about events I now see locally, nationally and internationally.

Essentially I have learned that at such times I certainly do not try to solve the problems of the rigid or the collapsing system. Instead, I initiate a variety of experiments, mobilize my understanding, develop experiments, models and tests, and wait for an opportunity to emerge that might use the results. In our variety of regional studies that always happened. At that time a menu of possibilities then exist for renewing the system. And we hope that happens globally as well.

No one at this time of deep change should define the profile for the research that will grab the emerging systems in the world. Instead, it is precisely the time to ask what interests you? It is the time where individuals can have the greatest effect.

So, in closing, here is what interests me, one individual, now.

Social Traps: I’d sure like to learn more about different societal traps and why some are irreversible. We guessed at two in the Panarchy book’s third chapter. One was a “poverty trap” where a society flips out of an adaptive cycle at a large political scale in a way that progressively triggers similar collapses at ever-smaller scales. Structure (organizations and institutions) is destroyed in the process, leaving the society finally as independent families separately struggling for survival, having lost their portion of the society’s capital. Learning and self-help is minimal. We also posited a “rigidity trap”, where wealth was great, resilience high and internal connectedness strong. That is the kind of hierarchist trap that freezes the adaptive cycle by ejecting dissidents and minimizing learning. I think of the fundamentalist religions as examples- dangerous examples. I know the healthy state for a society is one where there is a nested set of adaptive cycles; continually testing changed circumstances and adapting to them. But they can slip out of that sustaining state, into traps. Some of those traps are essentially irreversible. We need to learn more about them. We need more examples that demonstrate them. And we need to learn ways that can lead to ways out of them.

Social Adaptive Cycles: I’d also like to discover where and why some social systems- public organizations, private firms, regions, nations, international consortia- are much slower than ecosystems to break creatively and seem so much slower to transform into new structures with new opportunities. That often seemed to be the case for our case studies of regional public and political organizations, at least, where a market does not force change. And for national and international assemblages, think of the anthropological and modern examples- anarchy and the first World War, the Marshall Plan and its incredible success in facilitating recovery in Europe, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had mixed results we are still living with. Panarchy, resilience and the connections of memory and revolt between scales provide a new focus for this old question.

Living on the Edge:
I am very interested to see tests that show whether cities, organizations and economies on the edge of social/economic/ecological lumps, have the same features of living on the edge of crisis and opportunity as do animals living on the edge of their body mass lumps. That is where the dynamic nature of panarchies starts to provide insights into constraints and opportunities for changes and transformations that can ride the natural forces.

A Panarchy Game: I would love to see collaboration between those who have developed panarchy thinking and those who are developing certain kinds of games. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity and the Sims, was an early one, and now has efforts that capture abilities to zoom in to the small and out to the large or into the fast and out to the slow [Spore]. These are the games of the “Long Zoom and the Long Now” that are emerging independent of the kind or research that led to Panarchy. But it is driven by the same goals, the same fun, and the same intensity. The two need to be joined for a bump in innovation.

Globalizing Experiments: I’d also like to see more experiments on the Web and the internet, some in conjunction with occasional face to face meetings, some designing new ways to present educational programs, some using novel ways to display complex data or policies simply, some providing new ways to present and explore information, like Goggle Earth, some developing interactive games for regional and global social and ecosystemic designs, some presenting more Blogs, debates and discussions, some that use movies that express dynamic changes in an intelligible manner. We have done some of that- most notably by Garry Peterson for his Young Scholars Dialogues in Ecology and Society and this blog – Resilience Science. We need more.

Self-organization Combining with Evolution: I’d like to support studies that explore how the link between self-organization of entities at different scales in the Panarchy link with natural selection to affect the speed and scale of evolutionary change. I believe that self-organization and natural selection jointly flourish and interact as a new way to view evolution, opening up another fruitful landscape for enquiry and theoretical development. In the sciences of biological evolution, that combination can often be viewed as either an obscure or an excessive representation! But it is suggestive and provocative, and that has particular value at times of deep change. It again opens a new landscape of thought for investigation and action from local, to regional to global scales. That is a big journey from its start, over 40 years ago, when I was immersed in lovely experiments of deep enquiry about praying mantids!

To conclude, I argue that we preeminently need novel integrative work. Specifically, novel work that integrates the economic and social with ecosystemically driven understanding. Multi-scale, searching for the relatively simple features of complex systems. Fundamentally non-linear. A testing of a range of methods and a disbelief in any of them. A wedding of theory, empirical examples and application. An emphasis on a search for generality, which needs cooperative works with others expert in other fields, but ones who share the curiosity and fun of mutual discovery. That is much more valuable, now, in this time of political turbulence and transformation in the world, than new policies and new planning exercises. They are too early, and too dangerous in their reliance on successes that worked for past problems. We now live in too new a world.

Where Ideas Originate; What Makes Some Useful? : Reflections Pt 12

I have been asked why I have so many novel, yet useful ideas, ones that eventually move to some kind of fruition, testing and, usually, after a very long time, acceptance.  I do not really know, so what I write here is a guess.

I am prodigiously curious about nature, and that triggers initial ideas.   I am also terribly persistent and stubborn about developing and testing an idea that grabs me; at those times I am totally and narrowly focused, driven by the potential. That is what eventually makes an idea useful.  So I conclude that nature creates the idea; stubbornness makes it useful!  But I have had to learn how to see nature.  It is curiosity, anecdote, funny correlations, jokes and metaphors that have done that.

I enjoy communicating the excitement and the evolving stages of these ideas to others.  And I like to discuss all this in classes with students, involving them directly in whatever research is most topical.   That leads me to careful mentoring of some younger colleagues whose talents stand out.  Earlier I mentioned a number of them.

I am delighted if others become interested and propose extensions or alternative explanations.  I get profoundly upset if, at such times, someone says these suites of nascent ideas, or any one idea is wrong and that projects based on them should stop. I have got into big arguments with distinguished scholars over that one!  In contrast, I see them as rich ways to explore the unknown; I see them as rich ways to develop friendships that endure.

Frances Westley once pointed out to me the three principal types of scientist she sees.  Those are consolidators, technical talents, and artists. Consolidators accumulate and solidify advances and are deeply skeptical of ill formed and initial, hesitant steps. That can have great value at stages in a scientific cycle when rigorous efforts to establish the strength and value of an idea is central.

In contrast, I love those initial hesitant steps and like to see clusters of them. That is the kind of thing needed at the beginning of a cycle of scientific enquiry or even just before that. Such nascent, partially stumbling ideas, are the largely hidden source for the engine that eventually generates change in science. So I am not a particularly good consolidator.

I also am not a preeminently good technical person, though I do have sufficient technical experience to have developed considerable, well-grounded skepticism of the biases existing in traditional methods.   I know some statistics, something about modeling, something about mathematics and a lot about biology. I enjoy integrating across all those talents.

But I love the nascent ideas, the sudden explosion of a new idea, the connections of the new idea with others.  And I love the development and testing of the idea till it gets to the point it is convincing. That needs persistence to the level of stubbornness and I happily invest in that persistence.   I guess I fit somewhat into the artist type, less the technical type and still less into an efficient consolidator.

As part of that kind of scientist, I have tried to develop senses that help me listen to intriguing voices that are hidden amongst the noise.  Owlish ways to hear the rustle of the mouse. The simplest example of what I mean is in sculpting, another pleasure I have.  I start with a number of hazy ideas, and then I discover the image caught and hidden in the swirls of the wood’s grain.  I listen to the voice of the wood.

My research has always been like that.  In the early days of investigating predator/prey functional responses, the device that helped retain generalization was components analysis.  It was a way to engage levels of complexity and maintain generality.  It required a beast-for-the-moment design- the beast most appropriate for the step in hand.  The result was many voices, each playing facets of one song.  Praying mantis, insect parasitoids, deer mice and shrews, barracuda and iao, salmon, the suite of insectivorous birds in the boreal forest.  Lions and gazelles.  It was a way to listen to the hidden voice of nature.  Those voices led to the discovery of resilience.  Not a song but a symphony!

More recently, at last I heard the “world is lumpy” music that emerges from patterns in ecosystems at scales from centimeters to hundreds of kilometers, from days to millennia.  And the approach used to examine the subtleties is a bit of strong inference, but more of adaptive inference and multiple lines of evidence- from every major biome in the world, from endangered and invasive species, from nomadic and sedentary organisms (Holling and Allen 2002).  And beyond that, similar rhythms, once heard, seem to be in economic systems, social and behavioral.

Adaptive ecosystem management has been the same process.  The workshops evolved to let human voices speak- scientist, scholar, and practitioner.  I learned who they were, in heart and spirit, and each had a different contribution.  The Peerless Leader learned the guiding melody.  The Blunt Scot was on percussion.  The Snively Whiplash provided the creative dissonance.  The Utopian dreamed the impossible dreams. And the Compleat Amanuensis recorded it all.  The Benevolent Despot hummed a lot.  All these folks and the revealing workshop process and models are described in Holling and Chambers (1973).

At this point, I am delighted with the results of some of my more recent inventions, which have been made with great help from colleagues of the international Resilience Alliance and the Internet journal Ecology and Society. I really do not know what the Alliance and its journal will become as they evolve.  But basically right now they provide a foundation to develop devices to listen to the quiet voices of people- scientists and scholars of many stripes, practitioners, and for them to listen to each other.  In universities, government, the public and the private sector.  I wish in business as well.  For the moment, it is people in the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, in Spain and Malaysia, South America and Madagascar, Canada and Australia.  In Africa.  And not just in the US.  We identify voices that have been masked by the noise, ones where novelty and experience combine.  We are finding ways to have deliberative conversations among listeners.

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

Holling , C.S. and Craig Allen. 2002. Adaptive inference for distinguishing credible from incredible patterns in nature.  Ecosystems 5: 319-328.

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.