Collapse and Renewal


Resilience was the first concept that shaped my growing understanding of change. It emerged over 35 years ago, when I discovered two stability states when I was exploring predator/prey interactions. The causes were clear and seemed to be universal for ecosystems. They were defined from an extensive series of experiments that had established the general foundations for what eventually turned out to be a small set of four predation types. The beasts involved in the experiments ranged from mantis, to mice, to shrews, to birds, to lions, and even to people. They each represented a beast for each moment and question, chosen together to satisfy the goals for holism, generality, reality and precision. I insisted that the four types of response applied to all predation from bacteria to submarines!

This work became the heart of the recognition that complex adaptive systems have more than one regime of existence, and that they exist with the possibility that the control of regimes can flip from one state to another.

The significance of this discovery was the recognition that ecological systems live with variability, and that events near the border of instability are as important as events near an equilibrium state. The properties of the dynamic stability regimes can shift and contract, reducing the resilience. That is what traditional resource management attempted. So collapse can occur, if, for example, populations of fish, or fowl or vegetation are managed near a sustained equilibrium, reducing variability, the stability regime can contract to allow the populations to flip into a different state. The collapse of cod in eastern North America or the sudden appearance of eutrophication in lakes are examples.

The concept that change occurs in cycles, led to what we called theadaptive cycle. It represents another step in the emergence of a useful theory. It combined one well-known concept of growth, with a new appreciation of a second phenomenon of collapse. The well-know concept was that ecological systems grow from a pioneering state to a mature state, for example from a field to a mature forest. But, in addition, ecological systems also collapse, releasing accumulated capital that contain elements that can become reorganized for a renewal of the cycle. That is when novelty and the unknown can emerge- but more of that later.

The first phase of growth we call the “front loop” and it represents a process of increasing efficiency and a learning process that occurs in small steps- is incremental. That is when efficiencies in production of a product or sequestering of biomass are controlled by a smaller number of dominant elements or species. The second phase we call the “back loop”, and represents the freeing or collapse of earlier control, the expansion of resilience and a learning process that occurs as a bigger jump that is probing and actively adaptive.

Linear or gradualist theory can only represent the front loop phase of growth, which in ecological and economic systems, is often the longest period. Non-linear theory, also can represent that growth, but it adds, in particular, the rarer collapses, their origin and their constructive as well as destructive consequences.

Panarchy adds the idea of a hierarchy of adaptive cycles working in two ways, between small and fast and big and slow – from, for example, the leaves on a tree, in a series of distinct stages, to the forest of an ecosystem or even biome. The interchange between hierarchical levels can be two ways; one from the big and slow to the small and fast as a kind of memory of the past. An example is the seeds and refuges developed in the forest stand, which can set the stage and conditions for the next start of the ecosystem cycle. The other is a rarer interchange from the fast and small to the next slower, from for example, the outbreak of a defoliating insect to the defoliation of the forest. That represents, in a sense, a revolt of the small against the big. This two-way interaction between cycles of the panarchy represents the way living systems both persist (from memory of the large and slow) and yet innovate (from revolt of the small and fast). It shows how small and big and fast and slow events and processes, can transform ecosystems and organisms through evolution, or can transform humans and their societies through learning, or the chance for learning.

The central question is what allows rare transformation, not simply change. This is the third concept of learning – very big and transformative and unknown. It is panarchical for it represents a radical change in the structure and operations of hierarchical levels.

Those attributes of resilience/panarchy theory lead to the necessity of active adaptive management for managing the long-term persistence of living systems and their landscape attributes. My great friend Carl Walters, who is also a Volvo Environmental Prize winner, was one of the prime creators and developers of adaptive management that is actively adaptive and experimental at an appropriate set of scales.

Active adaptive management emerges because complex adaptive systems have more than one regime where they function, i.e. more than one stability region. Moreover those regimes persist because of the variability and diversity of the system. If that variability and diversity is changed enough, then the regimes shift, contract or expand in ways that can carry society and ecosystems into conditions where risks and opportunities are unknown. In short, into conditions of crisis and uncertainty. Hence policies to manage or develop a system have to recognize there are deep unknowns in addition to the known processes and the uncertain ones. Active adaptive management provides the only balanced approach, I can think of, where certain predictions, and uncertain forecasts are combined with policy experiments and responses that test and adapt to the unknown.

When collapse occurs it can be a natural part of the pattern of adaptation and learning. That is what happens in forests when they burn or are attacked by natural enemies. Recovery typically replaces the old with a similar but new pattern that is similar because of the memory reserved in seeds and vegetation of the understory.

But when the collapse occurs as a consequence of long effort to freeze the system into one paradigm of development and management, then it might involve collapse of a level of the panarchy, which in turn threatens other levels. The collapse of ancient societies has this character- the top religious and political controls can collapse, triggering the gradual collapse of institutions till the family is left as the sole source of survival. It leads to a “poverty trap.”

My Progress of Discovery
The multi-authored book describing the integrative nature of resilience and panarchy (Gunderson and Holling 2002) is partly a culmination of 50 years of my own research work, together with that of a fine group of friends and colleagues in the Resilience Project. During that project, my ideas expanded and grew as they interacted with the ideas of others- other ecologists, economists, social scientists and mathematicians – all co-authors of Panarchy. Some of those were senior and well established colleagues. Others were younger colleagues who became both the nurturers and nurtured in the work. It was a process of mutual, creative discovery that then turned personal for each of us.

For me, over those 50 years the old notion of stable ecological systems embedded in the equilibrium images of Lotka-Volterra equations moved to that of resilience and multi-stable states (Holling 1973, Carpenter 2000), then to cycles of adaptive change where persistence and novelty entwined (Holling 1986), then to nested sets of such cycles in hierarchies of diversity covering centimeters to hundreds of kilometers, days to millennia (Holling 1992) and then to the transformations that can cascade up the scales with small fast events affecting big slow ones (Holling et al 2002) as acts of “revolution.”

Jargon, yeah. So, why not go “whole hog” and invent the term “panarchy” for the ideas, by drawing on the mischievous Greek god Pan, the paradoxical Spirit of Nature. Join Pan, then, to the dynamic reality of hierarchies across scales, where nature self-organizes lumps of living stuff on a more continuous physical template described by power laws. Physics defines the attributes of the power law. Biology self organizes concentrations of opportunity and of species along the power law relation. Social dynamics do the same for social structures and organizations. That is the “world is lumpy” view, the more recent focus of discovery, that, to me, tests the panarchy theory’s reality (Holling, 1992).

Part of that organization is maintained by diversity within a scale and across scales (Peterson et al. 1998 and Walker et al. 1999), a uniquely panarchical representation of the role of diversity in maintaining a sustainable system. For ecosystems and landscapes, all this is arranged over an interactive scale from centimeters and days to hundreds of kilometers and millennia. Nothing static – all components flipping from quiet to noise, from collapse to renewal. Transformation is not easy and gradual. It is tough and abrupt.

It seemed to become clear why and how opposites combine. Persistence and extinction, growth and constancy, evolution and collapse entwine to form a panarchy of adaptive cycles across scales. Hierarchy and adaptive cycles can combine to make healthy systems over scales from the individual to the planet. Over days to centuries. The panarchy shows that we benefit from local inventions that create larger opportunity while being kept safe from those that destabilize because of their nature or excessive exuberance. When innovation occurs we can sense its fate. When collapse looms we can judge its likelihood. And the timing and kind of responses to this swinging, turbulent process can be designed as an act of strategic decision. Sustainability both conserves and creates. So does biological evolution.

But it can also build dependencies, some of which become pathological blocks to constructive change. They create traps, and those require the most searching investigation now, in these times of turbulence – of international fiscal systems, of economic health, of oil dependencies and an unstable Middle East, of sudden increases in food prices, of increasing evidence of climate change. A large number of previously independent signals have converged into an interconnected storm of change.

Views of Change
People have two distinct ways of perceiving change. Some see the world evolving in a regular, continuous way. Others, like me, see the world evolving in a spasmodic way – sudden change and slow, sometimes erratic responses after such changes. Both viewpoints are, in some sense true. They each give a different perception of changes and its causes. But their differences generate arguments. The same arguments are seen in other issues. For example, some argue that biological evolutionary change is not gradual but is “punctuated.” There is strong evidence supporting that view, but because the fossil record is incomplete, the evidence is incomplete. As a consequence, one’s philosophy can sometimes dictate belief, so there is not a lot of consensus. There is a similar argument about the evolution of scientific knowledge between the gradualists like Karl Popper, and the revolutionists like Thomas Kuhn.

It is useful to have these different views appearing in a way that permits some considered conversation. Now, at this time of great and extensive turbulence, is the time.

The aspect of resilience and panarchy that is most novel and significant concerns the “back-loop” phase when resisting structures and institutions start to break down or transform, releasing the chance for a renewed system to emerge. The many ecosystem examples are matched by many business examples where technology shapes products from sneakers, to automobiles, to electrical appliances. At that moment, novelty that had been simmering in the background can emerge and be stimulated. And new associations begin to develop among previously separate innovations. The big influence comes from discoveries that, at that time, emerge from people’s local experiments at small scales, discoveries that can emerge at times of big change, to trigger bigger changes at large scales. That process highlights the keys for the future.

The world is now faced with unstable food prices, oil dependencies, financial disruption, and climate change. There is need now, to get rid of the rigidities that block innovation, to try to stabilize the extreme structures, and to encourage a plethora of experiments that link people and processes in unexpected ways. Some, and perhaps many of those experiments will fail. But some will succeed and set ingredients for another swing of the adaptive cycle.

One key is maybe best captured by the word “hope.” I see hope might be emerging from the confusing flow of events of the recent US Presidential election process in 2008, and of the confused responses to the present financial crisis. These are important because they have international ramifications. Certainly the results have triggered a sudden storm of new, but confused discussion. That is just what panarchy predicts, and it certainly makes me suddenly a little more hopeful about our mid-term future.

The second key has to recognize that the small, that is the individual human or small groups, can at times transform the big, that is, transform the politics and institutions of governance. That is what led me to form the Resilience Alliance, an organization that exists nowhere and everywhere. It is maintained by the Internet, has launched and expanded a novel Internet journal, Ecology and Society, and has nurtured integrative studies that provide deeper and broader foundations of understanding upon which to form policies.

It is formed by 17 groups from around the world, each of whom provides modest dues to provide a sustaining foundation. It draws its strengths from the energy, resources and imaginations of people who love integrative enquiry, and have individual experiences of life in different places. Over its nine years of life it has spawned additions to known institutions like the Australian Coral Reef Center, South Africa Regional Parks, and a Global Change Center in the UK. It has led to the establishment of new resilience centers such as the Social Innovation Center of Frances Westley, in Canada, and, preeminently, a remarkable new center, the Stockholm Resilience Center, that Carl Folke and Johann Rostrom so wisely designed and run. All these organizational changes emerged from the Resilience Alliance perspective and people, and the opportunities for interchange that evolved. There was little central planning – perhaps three people, part time, particularly Brian Walker from Australia and Steve Carpenter and Lance Gunderson from the U.S. There was maximum-bottom up opportunity from many people of different ages. People, ideas and policy now move in a global setting, to affect local enterprise.

And now those lessons need to be recognized again. I have commented on the sudden appearance in 2008 of apparently independent events that in fact are interconnected – oil, food, climate, financial and economic signals of sudden change or of anticipated collapse. Financial collapse is the only one remembered at the moment, but all are interrelated. It is classic panarchy theory with events unrolling. A long front loop of increasingly efficient and expanded growth, has accumulated excessive opaqueness and rigidities, has added transient solutions that hide problems as they try to correct them, to finally create an accident waiting to happen.

Of course there are rapid responses to attempt to correct and sustain the systems. Of course the resistors of social innovation have been sidelined: all good. But, since there is no way to predict the path out, there is a need for something else. When resources and capital collapse the world becomes not only uncertain it also becomes unknown. That is the time when a plethora of experiments are needed. Many will fail, but some will succeed to synergize each other and to spawn a new adaptive cycle – or a new trap.

It is a time for a new global alliance of global and regional experiments, with the same flexibility and inexpensive nature of the Resilience Alliance, but with expanded partners from science, business and the public. The Resilience Alliance has been terrific in experiments for innovative study. Now we need a new effort to launch novel integrative actions as experiments to open paths for the future.

What I Have Learned
Change that is important is not gradual but is sudden and transformative. There is a common base cycle of change in individuals, in ecosystems, in business, in society. Increasing rigidity halts a long, slow period of growth and increasing efficiency. That begins a period of creative destruction and a fast period where uncertainty is great, where novelty emerges, and where new foundations are formed for a new cycle to begin. That is where we are now heading internationally.

In the United States, it is a time when the power of the state has achieved rigidity unseen since the triumphs of the falling of the Berlin Wall. Politicians have reacted to extreme disturbances, like the appalling terrorist attacks of 9/11, with powerful military response, a blind view of history and cultures, and a greedy desire for narrow benefit. Global economic expansion and dependence on peaking oil supplies, particularly in the Middle East, lock geopolitics into a self-destructive state from which transformation is extraordinarily difficult.

That is the time when change is most uncertain. We are living in it now. In this year we have simultaneously faced the sudden appearance of now reinforcing flips – sudden increases in the price of oil, increases in the costs of food, a financial collapse and the start of a recession, the retreat of Arctic ice sheets with climate warming, and accelerating loss of biodiversity. That is a lot to swallow and it reflects a process of human development and expansion since WWII.

But it is also the time when the individual has the greatest influence: when experiments determine the future; when the Internet opens opportunities for collaboration within and across nations; and when low cost mistakes are glorious because they trigger learning.

And these are the lessons I have learned that help in that process of dealing with turbulence:

1) Separate individual thought and work is essential but now, when integrative studies are the only way to reveal understanding, work with others is equally so. An individual’s knowledge can be combined with that of others to make the whole greater. In doing that we each recognize that we do not know everything but we do know, and know well, something. We learn with grace and humor and patience to work with others from different disciplines and backgrounds.

2) Complexity is in the mind of the beholder, in the patterns that are generated by causes that are simpler. Not as simple as once thought, but explained by a kind of “Rule of Hand”, not by a “Rule of Thumb’. Quite simply, I found in case after case of ecosystem change that four to six sets of variables operating at a number of different scales, in a non-linear way, captured nature’s flipping behavior. It turns out that ecosystems are temporary assemblages, pausing for a few hundreds of centuries in a passing state of quasi-stability as part of evolutionary change. Think of that when we think of the reality of global climate change.

3) There are about three kinds of scientists – the consolidator, the technical expert, and the artist. Consolidators accumulate and solidify advances and are deeply skeptical of ill formed and initial, hesitant steps. That can have a great value at stages in a scientific cycle when rigorous efforts to establish the strength and value of an idea is central. Technical experts assess the methods of investigation. Both assume they search for the certainty of understanding.

In contrast, I love the initial hesitant steps of the “artist scientist” and like to see clusters of them. That is the kind of thing needed at the beginning of a cycle of scientific enquiry or even just before that. Such nascent, partially stumbling ideas, are the largely hidden source for the engine that eventually generates change in science. I love the nascent ideas, the sudden explosion of a new idea, the connections of the new idea with others. I love the development and testing of the idea till it gets to the point it is convincing, or is rejected. That needs persistence to the level of stubbornness and I eagerly invest in that persistence.

All types of scientists are necessary, but I would love it if we could encourage and include the innovative type of artist. At the least, enjoy rigor, but never inhibit the innovative artists.

4) I learned that the key to make effective designs was to identify large, unattainable goals that can be approached, but not achieved, ones that relate to fundamental values of free speech, freedom, equity, tolerance and education. And then to add a tough design for the first step, in a way that highlights or creates options to design, later, a second step – and then a third and so on. We found that the results were steps that rapidly covered more ground than could ever be designed at the start. At the heart, that is adaptive design, where the unknown is great, learning is continual and actions evolve.

5) I am prodigiously curious about nature, and that triggers initial ideas. I am also terribly persistent and stubborn about developing and testing an idea that grabs me; at those times I am totally and narrowly focused, driven by the potential. That is what eventually makes an idea useful. So I conclude that natures create the idea; stubbornness makes it useful! But I have had to learn how to see nature. It is curiosity, anecdotes, funny correlations, jokes and metaphors that start that. It is new emerging theory that completes it.

One has to learn to develop senses that help us listen to intriguing voices that are hidden amongst the noise. Owlish ways to hear the rustle of the mouse. Do that and the future will be fun and rewarding. We all might even help, at this time of great change and threat, to develop further a world of justice, understanding and equity.


Gunderson, L.H and C.S. Holling (eds.). 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press, Washington and London.

Holling, C.S. 1992. Cross-scale morphology, geometry and dynamics of ecosystems. Ecological Monographs. 62(4):447-502.

Holling, C.S., Lance G. Gunderson and Garry D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S. (eds.). Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 3,, 63-102.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Ann. Rev. of Ecol. and Syst. 4: 1-23.

Peterson, G., C. R. Allen, C. S. Holling. 1998. Ecosystem Resilience, Biodiversity, and Scale. Ecosystems 1: 6-18.

Walker, B.H., Kinzig, A., and Langridge, J. 1999. Plant attribute diversity, resilience, and ecosystem function: The nature and significance of dominant and minor species. Ecosystems. 2: 1-20.