[2002] Panarchy

  title={Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems},
  author={Gunderson, L.H. and Holling, C.S.},
  series={Environmental management},
  publisher={Island Press}

In openlibrary.

My highlights:

Economic growth is not inherently good or bad. Economic growth cannot in the long term compensate for declines in environmental quality. The growing scale of human activities is encountering the limits of nature to sustain that expansion. Simple prescriptions replace inherent uncertainty, ignore multistable states.

[Panarchy’s] focus it to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, predictable and unpredictable.

Uncertainty in nature is presumed to be replaced by certainty of human control. Social systems initially flourish from this ecological stabilization and resulting economic opportunity. That success creates its own failure.

Paradox 1: New policies and development usually succeed initially, but they lead to agencies that gradually become rigid and myopic, economic sectors that become slavishly dependent, ecosystems that are more fragile, and a public that loses trust in governance. Why are we still here? Why has there not been a profound collapse of exploited renewable resources?

Paradox 2: The natural system and the economic components can be explained by a small set of variables and critical processes. The great complexity, diversity, and opportunity in complex regional systems emerge from a handful of critical variables and processes that operate over distinctly different scales in space and time. Why does expert advice so often create crisis and contribute to political gridlock? Why, in many places, does science have a bad name?

The complex issues connected with the notion of sustainable development are not just ecological problems, or economic, or social ones. They are a combination of all three. Mediation among stakeholders is irrelevant if it is based on ignorance of the integrated character of nature and people. Partial perspectives generate actions that are unsustainable.

Economists know that success in achieving financial return from fast dynamics lead to slowly emergent, nearly hidden, changes in deeper and slower structures, changes that ultimately trigger sudden crisis and surprises.

[Ecosystem ecologists know that] reducing variability and diversity produces conditions that cause a system to flip into an irreversible (typically degraded) state controlled by unfamiliar processes. [They] propose inadequate actions by largely ignoring the realities of human behavior, organizational structures, and institutional arrangements that mediate the relationships between people and nature.

Social scientists [describe] the way people store, maintain, and use knowledge in stable circumstances. They have not attended to the processes that control and maintain these institutions dynamically.

[Complexity studies see] ecological, economic, and social systems as being similar to biological processes that generate variability and expose the patterns that result to selective forces. They are detached from deep knowledge of the key natural and human processes, and from convincing tests of the adequacy and credibility of the results.

Nature flat describe[s] a system in which there are few or no forces affecting stability, there are no feedbacks or consequences from human actions. Nature balanced is a view of nature existing at or near an equilibrium condition, if it is disturbed it will return to an equilibrium through negative feedback. Nature anarchic is globally unstable, dominated by hyperbolic processes of growth and collapse, persistence is only possible in a decentralized system where there are minimal demands on nature. Nature resilient is a view of multistable states, there are periods of exponential change, of growing stasis and brittleness, of readjustment or collapse, and of reorganization for renewal. Nature evolving [views] complex systems behavior, discontinuous change, chaos and order, self-organization, non-linear system behavior, and adaptive evolving systems; exposes a need for understanding unpredictable dynamics in ecosystems and a corollary focus on institutional and political flexibility.

The controls determined by each set of biotic structuring process are remarkably robust, and the behaviors resulting are remarkably resilient, from functional diversity and spatial heterogeneity in the species and physical variables that mediate the key processes that structure and organize patterns in ecosystems. The stability domains are so large that external disturbances have to be extreme and/or persistent before the system flips irreversibly into another state. Mother nature is not in a state of delicate balance.

By “understand” we mean distinguish that which is predictable (even if uncertain) from that which is emergent and inherently unpredictable. The test of understanding is whether we can identify the processes that control the specific properties of many, qualitatively different, specific examples. We would like to discover ways to integrate and extend existing theory to achieve a requisite level of simplicity, just complex enough to capture and explain the behaviors we see. Explanations of discontinuous patterns in space, time, and structure and explanations for how novelty emerges, is suppressed, or is entrained. We also seek adaptive ways to deal with surprise and the unpredictable. We concentrate on adaptive approaches that do not smother opportunity, in contrast to control approaches that presume that knowledge is sufficient and that consequences of policy implementation are predictable.

Adaptive cycles [are] nested in a hierarchy across time and space. Adaptive systems can, for brief moments, generate novel recombinations that are tested during longer peroids of capital accumulation and storage. These windows of experimentation open briefly, but the results do not trigger cascading instabilities. Large and slower components of the hierarchy provide the memory of the past and the distant to allow recovery of smaller and faster adaptive cycles. What are needed are alternative hypotheses and specific predictions that can be tested empirically. That is possible for the natural science components of systems but much less so for social components. But we can ask where the emerging theory encounters observations that are not consistent with the theory. Why living systems are not like nonliving ones. Why ecosystems are not like organisms. Why social systems are not like ecosystems. And why liked ecological, social, and economic systems are not like any of the above.

Key features of ecosystems: Change is neither continuous and gradual nor consistently chaotic, rather it is episodic, with periods of slow accumulation of natural capital punctuated by sudden releases and reorganization of those biotic legacies as the result of internal or external natural disturbances or human-imposed catastrophes. Spatial attributes are neither uniform nor scale invariant over all scales, they are lumpy rather than continuous, concentrating resources and opportunities at particular scales, therefore scaling up cannot be a process of simple aggregation. Ecosystems do not have a single equilibrium with homeostatic controls to remain near it, destabilizing forces are important in maintaining diversity, resilience, and opportunity, stabilizing forces are important in maintaining productivity and biogeochemical cycles. Policies and management that apply fixed rules for achieving constant yields, independent of scale, lead to systems that increasingly lose resilience and suddenly break down, management has to be flexible, adaptive and experimental at scales compatible with the scales of critical ecosystem functions.

We propose that the same criteria, with several additions unique to human systems, are equally necessary for models of human institutions, organizations, and society.

Engineering resilience concentrates on stability near an equilibrium steady state, focuses on efficiency of function. Ecosystem resilience emphasizes conditions far from any equilibrium state, focuses on existence of function. Sustainable relationships between people and nature require an emphasis on the second definition of resilience, as the amount of disturbance that can be sustained before a change in system control and structure occurs. Exclusive emphasis on the first definition reinforces the dangerous myth that the variability of natural systems can be effectively controlled, that the consequences are predictable, and that sustained maximum production is an attainable and sustainable goal.

Three requirement s for a theory of adaptive change:

  • the system must be productive, acquire resources and accumulate them for the potential they offer for the future.
  • there must also be some sort of shifting balance between stabilizing and destabilizing forces reflecting the degree and intensity of internal controls and the degree of influence of external variability.
  • the resilience of the system must be a dynamic and changing quantity that generates and sustains both options and novelty, shifting balance between vulnerability and persistence.

The progression in the ecosystem cycle proceeds from the exploitation phase slowly to conservation, very rapidly to release, rapidly to back to exploitation. During the slow sequence from exploitation to conservation, connectedness and stability increase and a “capital” of nutrients and biomass is slowly accumulated and sequestered. As the system shifts from reorganization to exploitation, some of the potential leaks away because of the collapse of organization; some of the accumulated resources literally leave the system. If they were completely or largely eliminated, recovery would be impossible, and the system would slip into a different degraded state. The reorganization phase is the condition for the greatest uncertainty, the greatest chance of unexpected forms of renewal as well as unexpected crises.

We see resilience expanding and contracting within a cycle as slow variables change. Low connectedness permits novel reassortments of elements that previously were tightly connected to one another. The high resilience allows tests of those novel combinations because system-wide costs of failure are low. Those are the conditions needed for creative experimentation.

The organization phase becomes rapidly dominated by a thriving biota that is adapted to high variability of microclimate and extremes of soil conditions and can further occupy unexploited territory through effective dispersal. Resilience remains high, the innovator sees unlimited opportunity. A period of contest competition among entrepreneurial pioneers and surviving species from previous cycles ensues. This starts a progression from exploitation to conservation as the winners expand, grow, and accumulate potential from resources acquired. Connectedness between interrelated entities begins to increase because facilitation and contest competition between species inexorably increases as expansion continues. A subset of species begins to develop close interrelations that are mutually supportive. The future starts to be more predictable and less driven by uncertain forces outside the control of the system. New entrants find it increasingly difficult to enter existing markets. The competitive edge shifts from those that adapt to external variability and uncertainty to those that control variability. More return is achieved by increasing efficiency for utilizing energy, minimizing costs, and streamlining operations. Resilience decreases as stability domains contract. The system becomes more vulnerable to surprise. Organizations can become bureaucratized, rigid, and internally focused, losing sight of the world outside the organization.

All systems become accidents waiting to happen. The trigger might be entirely random and external. Such events previously would cause scarcely a ripple, but now the structural vulnerability provokes crisis and transformation because ecological resilience is so low. Accumulated resources are released from their bound, sequestered, and controlled state, connections are broken, and feedback regulatory controls weaken. In the shift from conservation to release, strong destabilizing positive feedbacks develop between the revolting elements and the established aggregates. That process is transient and persists only until the resources are exhausted.

The shift from release to reorganization represents a sudden explosive increase in uncertainty. Conditions might arise for formal chaotic behavior. The residual resources are unavailable to or not actively involved in ecosystem growth or maintenance. Species and individuals have loose connections to others and function in a wide, loosely regulated domain of stability as they progress to a phase of reorganization. Resilience is high. The released capital begins to leak away. Unpredictable associations can form, some of which have the possibility of nucleating a novel reorganization and renewal, and make it impossible to predict which events in this phase will survive to control subsequent renewal. It takes time for the reorganizations to expose the potential in surviving resources.

This might result in systems periodically probing and testing limits. The process generates and maintains diversity.

There are many examples of managed ecosystems where loss of resilience is followed by a shift into an irreversible state or a very slowly recovering state. In each case the management goal was successfully achieved by reducing natural variability of a critical structuring variable. The result was that the ecosystem evolved to become more spatially uniform, less functionally diverse, and thereby more sensitive to disturbances that otherwise could have been absorbed. The management agencies, in their drive for efficiency, become progressively more myopic and rigid; the relevant industries become more dependent and inflexible, and the public loses trust. Adaptive capacity is lost, and each swing of the cycle demands larger and more expensive solutions.

Hierarchies are dynamic structures whose features retain both the creative and the conservative properties that define sustainability. Elements of complex adaptive systems nest in one another in a hierarchy. Semi-autonomous levels are formed from the interactions among a set of variables that share similar speeds and geometric attributes. Each level communicates a small set of information or quantity of material to the next higher (slower and coarser) level. The attributes of the slower levels emerge from experience of the faster. As long as the transfer from one level to the other is maintained, the interactions within the levels themselves can be transformed or the variables changed without the whole system losing its integrity. The larger, slower levels constrain the behavior of the faster levels.

These hierarchies are not static structures. They are transitory structures maintained by the interaction of changing processes across scales. They are adaptive entities whose levels are sensitive to small disturbances at the transition from growth to collapse and from reorganization to growth. This allows the possibility of new system configurations and opportunities from the incorporation of exotic and entirely novel entrants that had accumulated in earlier phases. Panarchies, a term that captures the adaptive and evolutionary nature of adaptive cycles that are nested one within the other across space and time scales.

Revolt: when a level enters its release phase, that collapse can cascade up to the next larger and slower level triggering a crisis, particularly if that level is at the conservation phase where resilience is low. Fast and small events overwhelm slow and large ones.

Remember: once a catastrophe is triggered at a level, the opportunities and constraints for the renewal cycle are strongly organized by the conservation phase of the next slower and larger level. It is as if this connectedness draws upon the accumulated wisdom and experiences of maturity.

If new and different structures of signification can find an outlet, particularly through the consolidating power of charismatic or visionary leaders, humans can simply refuse to reconstruct an old order and put a new one in its place. This happens rarely, as it provides a threat to identity and sense of self, but is may happen very quickly. Human capacity for representation, communication and making meaning seems to drive the processes of both maintaining system integrity and dealing with change. That abstraction and reflexivity have limits when applied to complex problems of the environment. People have great difficulty solving problems that involve multiple time scales. Human systems tend to solve problems one time scale at a time. The result is systems that are successful in a certain domain, but have a rigidity that limits their resilience. Solutions tend to create spin-off problems that may appear remote in time and space. Humans often fail to build self-organizing or adaptive capacities into their technologies. The tendency is to make single-variable interventions or to create inventions without regard for their impact on other parts of the systems, to ignore internal mechanisms that facilitate adjustments, or to fail to balance objectives.

How far erosion can occur before recovery is impossible? When recovery is possible, what critical attributes need to be reinvented and reestablished from that residual memory stored in slowly fading traditions and myths in order to recreate a new, sustaining, panarchy? Every natural system is subject to regular disturbance; those that have survived must have built up some degree of resilience.

Several kinds of local and traditional practices may be found in the exploitation and conservation phases. These practices may overlap with scientific management but tend to have a fundamentally different emphasis with respect to the importance accorded to quantitative information. Monitoring is qualitative as opposed to quantitative; it can potentially lead to good management if the traditional leader is experienced and holds a memory of ecological knowledge and understanding, and if the tribal group is respectful of rituals and rules. By mimicking fine-scale natural perturbations, these practices help avoid the accumulation of disturbance that moves across scales and further up in the panarchy. During release phase, there are practices that aim at reducing the effects of disturbance and surviving the effects of disturbance. In contrast to conventional resource management that aims at removing disturbance. Practices in the rapid-release phase seem to be based more on experience than on monitoring, stored in the institutional memory of the group.

Five rules of thumb found in indigenous systems: total protection of certain species; protection of vulnerable life history stages; protection of specific habitats; temporal restrictions of harvest; monitoring ecosystem change. Each of these contribute to the reorganization phase by nurturing sources of renewal. They maintain and enhance ecological memory and its dynamics.

Customary laws should not be written down and codified. Elders and other wise persons play a key role as keepers of ecological knowledge; they help transmit knowledge by direct teaching and through rituals and oral history; and they provide wisdom to interpret novel observations. Elders’ wisdom combines both ecological and social knowledge, there is no artificial split between nature and culture. Elders span the generations to provide information feedback and are able to reinterpret current events in the light of ancient myths to help guide their society. Rituals help people remember rules and interpret environmental signals appropriately.