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In the first article in this series, I argued that despite a rash of intractable global problems humanity is now moving toward a major transformation that will lead to a better future.

One reason I believe this to be the case: “panarchy theory.” Developed by the ecologists Buzz Holling and Lance Gunderson (Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature), the theory helps us understand how complex systems of all kinds, from organisms to ecosystems to social systems, evolve, adapt and experience transformation–sometimes suddenly.

All systems, the core idea of panarchy theory says, move through a four-stage adaptive cycle. The cycle’s duration can range from seconds to years to millennia, and may occur from the level of soil bacteria to the whole ecosphere. The adaptive cycle shown in the illustration below involves:

  • A stage of creative growth in which the young system builds new capacity, is open and adaptive, and has a high level of resilience;

  • A stage of conservation, in which the system gradually matures and accumulates capital; in which connectivity increases and resilience decreases;

  • A release stage where the ordered system, in its present form, may experience a sudden, even catastrophic crisis or collapse, which releases accumulated capital; and

  • A stage of reorganization that involves a spike of creativity, innovation and new strategies, leading to a new growth stage.

A forest nicely illustrates this adaptive cycle. A new forest grows rapidly as a variety of species exploit all available niches. As it evolves the forest conserves ever-larger amounts of natural capital in plants and soil organic matter. The forest eventually becomes overgrown, creating conditions for a forest fire. Fire might seem a catastrophe, but it also leads to the release of natural capital and a new growth phase, perhaps with different species dominating or even a shift to a new ecosystem altogether. The forest might become grassland, which supports a different combination of species.

As mentioned, every organism and community of organisms moves through adaptive cycles. The term panarchy refers to a hierarchy of adaptive cycles nested within each other, much like Russian dolls. A forest is part of a regional ecosystem, which in turn is part of the global ecosphere; within the forest are various subsystems and organisms also going through the four stages.

The Social-Ecological Panarchy

While panarchy theory applies to ecosystems, it also has similarities with other theories of adaptation and change. Its core ideas recur repeatedly in literature, philosophy, religion and studies of human history, as well as in the natural and political sciences.

The Baha’i Writings say that the world has gone through many universal cycles preceding this current one. Abdu’l-Baha explains that, “The divine and creative purpose in them was the evolution of spiritual man, just as it is in this cycle. The circle of existence is the same circle; it returns.” – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 220. However, each cycle results in some degree of progress. Religions, countries, social movements, ideas, all go through stages of adaptation that lead inevitably to some form of renewal and improvement.

Similarly, Buzz Holling proposes that panarchy theory applies to all complex systems, and that human systems such as government, the economy, or culture are included with ecological systems in the stack of nested cycles that influence each other. As Thomas Homer-Dixon points out, we can look at “humankind—including all our interactions with each other and with nature and all the flows of materials, energy, and information through our societies and technologies—as one immense social-ecological system.”

Humankind can represent a kind of ultimate adaptive cycle in which everything else is nested. And since the industrial and especially the consumer revolutions, humanity has invested in the growth and conservation stage of its adaptive cycle, building up immense capital. In fact, growth has become the raison d’etre of the entire social-economic order.

As in all complex systems, resiliency declines as growth, complexity and connectivity increase. According to Holling, the longer a system is “locked in” to its growth phase, the greater its vulnerability and the bigger and more dramatic its collapse. If the growth phase goes on for too long, “deep collapse” eventually occurs.

Holling argues that the world is now reaching a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major pulse of transformation, something on the scale of the agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions of the past. “The immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative,” says Holling. “The only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.”

So according to this theory, our vast social-ecological system now faces a major pulse of transformation that, while potentially catastrophic, can also be highly creative. Millions of people have already involved themselves and their communities in a range of social, economic, political, ecological and religious “adventures” that can provide new options for a society in a stage of reorganization—but more on that in the next article in this series.

So yes, to answer the question posed in the title of this essay, global transformation is inevitable. This understanding of the inevitability of change doesn’t have to create fear, however—instead, it can give us reason for optimism and hope.

2 Comments

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  • Lavone Minyard
    Jul 12, 2016
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