Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems

From Adaptive Cycle
Jump to: navigation, search


Koen, Sybe, Tobias Lensker, Toon

Authors: L.H. Gunderson, C.S. Holling

Publication Year: 2001


Title: Panarchy

Publisher: Island Press

Categories: Digital Transformation, Crisis, Revolt, Innovation, Adaptability, Adaptive Cycle, Crisis, Resilience, Revolt, Organizational Change, Adaptive Cycle, Ecology, Resilience


The book examines theories (models) of how systems (those of humans, nature, and combined humannatural systems) function, and attempts to understand those theories and how they can help researchers develop effective institutions and policies for environmental management. The fundamental question this book asks is whether or not it is possible to get beyond seeing environment as a sub-component of social systems, and society as a sub-component of ecological systems, that is, to understand human-environment interactions as their own unique system. After examining the similarities and differences among human and natural systems, as well as the means by which they can be accounted for in theories and models, the book examines five efforts to describe human-natural systems. The point of these efforts is to provide the means of learning about those systems so that they can be managed adaptively. The final section of the book uses case studies to examine the application of integrated theories/models to the real world.

Critical Reflection

According to Holling - What does sustainability depend on?

  • Internal: social, political, ecological, or economic
  • External: external factors include foreign debt, structural poverty, global environmental problems, social/political/economic conflict

Explanation of the two approaches to complexity of sustainability indicators’‘‘
Emory Roe views complexity as anything we do not understand, because there are apparently a large number of interacting elements. The appropriate approach, according to Roe, is to embrace the complexity and resulting uncertainty and analyze different subsets of interactions, each of which seem relevant from a number of fundamentally different operational and philosophical perspectives Gunderson and Holling suggest that the complexity of living systems of people and nature emerges not from a random association of a large number of interacting factors rather from a smaller number of controlling processes. These systems are self-organized, and a small set of critical processes create and maintain this self-organization.
Explain the term Panarchy
Panarchy is the term we use to describe a concept that explains the evolving nature of complex adaptive systems. Panarchy is the hierarchical structure in which systems of nature (for example, forests, grasslands, lakes, rivers, and seas), and humans (for example, structures of governance, settlements, and cultures), as well as combined human-nature systems (for example, agencies that control natural resource use) (Gunderson and others 1995) and social-ecological systems (for instance, co-evolved systems of management) (Folke and others 1998), are interlinked in never ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal.
The idea of panarchy combines the concept of space/time hierarchies with a concept of adaptive cycles.
The panarchy describes how a healthy socioecological system can invent and experiment, benefiting from inventions that create opportunity while it is kept safe from those that destabilize the system due to their nature or exces-sive exuberance. Each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, protected from above by slower, larger levels but invigorated from below by faster, smaller cycles of innovation. The whole panarchy is there-fore both creative and conserving.
According to Simon – what are the two main dynamic functions of hierarchies?
One is to conserve and stabilize conditions for the faster and smaller levels; The other is to generate and test innovations by experiments occurring within a level.
What are the three properties that shape the Adaptive Cycle?

  • The inherent potential of a system that is avail-able for change, since that potential determines the range of future options possible. This property can be thought of, loosely, as the "wealth" of a system.
  • Potential, or wealth, sets limits for what is possible - it determines the number of alternative options for the future
  • The internal controllability of a system; that is, the degree of connectedness between internal controlling variables and processes, a measure that reflects the degree of flexibility or rigidity of such controls, such as their sensitivity or not to perturbation. Connectedness, or controllability, determines the degree to which a system can control its own destiny, as distinct from being caught by the whims of external variability.

The adaptive capacity : that is, the resilience of the system, a measure of its vulnerability to unexpected or unpredictable shocks. This property can be thought of as the opposite of the vulnerability of the system. Resilience, as achieved by adaptive capacity, determines how vulnerable the system is to unexpected disturbances and surprises that can exceed or break that control
‘‘‘ How would you describe an opportunity within an adaptive cycle of an economic system?
These novel entrants are inventions, creative ideas, and innovative people.
What are the two important steps that connect levels of panarchies?

  • Revolt
  • Remember

What role do those cross-scale interactions play in a system?
Revolt can cause a critical change in one cycle to cascade up to a vulnerable stage in a larger and slower one.
It is typically a situation in which fast and small events overwhelm slow and large ones. Once triggered, the effect can cascade to still higher, slower levels, particularly if those levels have accumulated vulnerabilities and rigidities
Remember facilitates renewal by draw-ing on the potential that has been accumulated and stored in a larger, slower cycle.
Periods of success carry the seeds of subsequent downfall, because they allow stresses and rigidities to accumulate. How do modern democratic societies defend themselves against large episodes of creative destruction?
Through periodic political elections.
Explain under what conditions panarchies might collaps totally.
Adaptive cycles become maladaptive.
An adaptive cycle collapses because the potential and diversity have been eradicated through misuse or due to an external force, an impoverished state can result, with low connectedness, low potential, and low resilience, thus creating a poverty trap.
A collapse might occur in a society traumatized by social disruption or conflict, so that its and adaptive abilities are lost.

  • A situation of great wealth and control, where potential is high, connectedness great and in contrast to the phase where those conditions exist in an adaptive cycle-resilience is high; that is, a wealthy, tightly regulated, and resilient system.

The high potential would be measured in accumulated wealth or abundant nat-ural capital. The high connectedness would be created by efficient methods of social control, in which any novelty is either smothered or its inventor ejected. It would represent a rigidity trap.
What are the three specific features that distinguish human systems from other systems?


How is the balance and tension between change and sustainability being managed?
Via the critical processes of four R‘s
release, reorganization, remembrance, and revolt.

  • First, the back-loop of the (adaptive) cycles is the phase where resilience and opportunity is maintained or created, via "release" and "reorganization".
  • Second, the connections between levels of the panarchy are where persistence (via "remembrance") and evolvability (via "revolt") are maintained.


Koen, Sybe, Tobias Lensker, Toon