See below to download Chapter 1 of the book "Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems".

The purpose for writing the book "Panarchy" was to develop an integrative theory to help us understand the source and role of change in systems- particularly kinds of changes that are transforming and take place in systems that are adaptive.  Such changes comprise economic, ecological, and social systems, and they are evolutionary.  They concern rapidly unfolding processes and slowly changing ones; gradual change and episodic change;  and they take place and interact at many scales from local to global.


The cross-scale and dynamic nature of the theory led to the newly coined term - Panarchy.  The term was created as an antethesis to the word hierarchy in its original meaning of a set of sacred rules.  Panarchy is a framework of nature's rules, hinted at by the name of the Greek god of nature- Pan - whose persona also evokes an image of unpredictable change.   Since the essential focus of  Panarchy is to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable,  Holling et al. (2002) draw on the notion of hierarchies of influences between embedded scales, that is pan-archies, to represent structures that sustain experiments, test its results and allow adaptive evolution. 


Two features distinguish a panarchic representation from traditional hierarchical ones. The first is the importance of the adaptive cycle and, in particular the a phase as the engine of variety and the generator of new experiments within each level.  The second is the connections between levels. There are potentially multiple connections between phases at one level and phases at another level, but two are most significant in our search for the meaning of sustainability.  Those are the connections labeled as Revolt and Remember (figure 1).

The fast levels invent, experiment and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful, surviving experiments. The whole panarchy is both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combines learning with continuity. That clarifies the meaning of sustainable development. Sustainability is the capacity to create, test and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process of creating, testing and maintaining opportunity. The phrase that combines the two, sustainable development, is therefore not an oxymoron but represents a logical partnership.


One of the essential features of the panarchy is that it turns hierarchies into dynamic structures.  Individual levels have non-linear multi-stable properties while can be stabilize or destabilized through critical connections between levels. 


It certainly is true that slower and larger levels set the conditions within which faster and slower ones function. Thus a forest stand moderates the climate within the stand to narrow the range of temperature variation that the species experience. But missing in this representation, is the dynamic of each level which is organized in the four phase cycle of birth, growth and maturation, death and renewal. That cycle is the engine that periodically generates the variability and novelty upon which experimentation depends. As a consequence of the periodic, but transient phases of destruction (omega stage) and reorganization (alpha stage), a system's structure and processes can be reorganized. This reshuffling allows for the establishment of new system configurations and opportunities for the incorporation of exotic and entirely novel entrants into the system. The adaptive cycle explicitly introduces mutations and rearrangements as a periodic process within each hierarchical level in a way that partially isolates the resulting experiments, reducing the risk to the integrity of the whole structure.


In many ways the panarchy and its nested adaptive cycles could as well represent biological evolution. For example, at the level of a cell's nucleus, the alpha phase represents the stage at meiosis when translocations and rearrangements generate a variety of experimental genetic recombinations that natural selection operates on at the level of the individual organism. Hence species attributes can periodically be reshuffled and invented to explore the consequences of novel associations that are then tested in the longer phase of organismal growth from r to K.


The organization and functions we now see embracing biological, ecological and human systems are therefore ones that contain a nested set of the four phase adaptive cycles, in which opportunities for periodic reshuffling within levels maintain adaptive opportunity, and the simple interactions across levels maintains integrity.


Since the word hierarchy is so burdened by the rigid, top-down nature of its common meaning, we prefer to invent another term that captures the adaptive, and evolutionary nature of adaptive cycles that are nested one within the other across space and time scales. We call them panarchies, drawing on the image of the Greek god Pan - the universal god of nature. This hoofed, horned, hairy and horny deity (Hughes 1986) represents the all pervasive spiritual power of nature and has a personality and role that is described in sections of the Orphic Hymns as Goat-legged, enthusiastic, lover of ecstasy, dancing among stars, weaving the harmony of the cosmos into playful song (as translated by Hughes, 1986).


In addition to this creative role, Pan has a destabilizing role that is captured in the word panic, directly derived from one facet of his paradoxical personality. His attributes are described in ways that resonate with the attributes of the four phase adaptive cycle; as the creative and motive power of universal nature, the controller and arranger of the four elements- earth, water, air and fire (or perhaps, of K, alpha, r and omega!). He therefore represents the inherent features of the synthesis that has emerged in this comparison of ecological and social systems.


Levels of organization at different scales could be seen as a hierarchy that arises as a consequence of biological evolution. Two features enrich the notion of a panarchy in a manner that distinguishes it from traditional hierarchical representations. The first is the inclusion of the dynamics of the adaptive cycle which takes place at all scales following different internally arising and externally influenced rhythms. The second is the connections between levels.


(adapted by P. Bunnell, 2002 from C. S. Holling, L. H. Gunderson and D. Ludwig, 2002; C. S. Holling and L. H. Gunderson, 2002; R. Yorque, B. Walker, C. S. Holling, L. H. Gunderson, C. Folke, S. R. Carpenter and W. A. Brock, 2002)




Hughes, J. Donald. 1986. Pan: environmental ethics in classical polytheism. in Religion and Environmental Crisis, E. C. Hargrove, editor. The University of Georgia Press, Athens.

 File Downloads  

Chapter 1. In Search of a Theory of Adaptive Change 
C.S. Holling, L.H. Gunderson, D. Ludwig   download...

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