Yesterday, we presented the first part of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation of the panarchy theory of Buzz Hollings. It focused on the contradiction between efficiency, driven by interconnectedness, and resilience, which needs diversity and some degree of separation.
There is another aspect to it we want to present today. Each level of ‘adaptive cycle’, such as in the example of the forest, is embedded, ‘nested’, in cycles operating at lower and higher levels. If all these levels operate at the same point of the cycle, it spells trouble because they will be vulnerable to the same problem.
It’s easy to see how a uniforming globalization can have this effect, as we are witnessing now, and why localization measures, such as distributed local energy and distributed monetary systems, offer a protection against a unique world-system.
Thomas Homer-Dixon on ‘nested cycles’:
“There’s one more essential part to Holling’s theory. He argues that no given adaptive cycle exists in isolation. Rather, it’s usually sandwiched between higher and lower adaptive cycles. For instance, above the forest’s cycle is the larger and slower-moving cycle of the regional ecosystem, and above that, in turn, is the even slower cycle of global biogeochemical processes, where planetary flows of materials and elements-like carbon-can be measured in time spans of years, decades, or even millennia. Below the forest’s adaptive cycle, on the other hand, are the smaller and faster cycles of sub-ecosystems that encompass, for instance, particular hillsides or streams. In fact, adaptive cycles can be found all the way down to the level of bacteria in the soil, where the smallest and fastest cycles of all are found. Here things happen on a tiny scale of millimeters or even microns, and they can take place in minutes or even seconds. So the entire hierarchy of adaptive cycles-what Holling and his colleagues call a panarchy-spans a scale in space from soil bacteria to the entire planet and a scale in time from seconds to geologic epochs.
This brings us to the most important point of all for our purposes: the cycles operating above and below play an important role in the forest’s own adaptive cycle. The higher and slower-moving cycles provide stability and resources that buffer the forest from shocks and help it recover from collapse. A forest may be hit by wildfire, for example, but as long as the climate pattern across the larger region that encompasses the forest remains constant and the rainfall adequate, the forest should regenerate. Meanwhile, the lower and faster-moving cycles are a source of novelty, experimentation, and information. Together, the higher and lower cycles help keep the forest’s collapse, when it occurs, from being truly catastrophic. But for this healthy arrangement to work, these various adaptive cycles must be at different points along that figure-eight loop. In particular, they mustn’t all peak at the top of their growth phases simultaneously. If they do-if they are “aligned at the same phase of vulnerability,” to use Holling’s phrase-they will together produce a much more devastating collapse, and recovery will take far longer, if it happens at all. Should a wildfire hit a forest at the same time as the regional climate cycle enters a drought phase, the forest might never regenerate. “