The figure of the adaptive cycle represents the growth, release and renewal of complex systems – from cells to ecosystems and human societies. During the slow, front phase of the cycle, connectedness and stability increase. The backloop represents a rapid phase of release and reorganization, which leads once again to a time of exploitation, or growth.
Resilience Alliance founder C. S. “Buzz” Holling, from “The Backloop to Sustainability”:
The bewildering, entrancing, unpredictable nature of nature and people, the richness, diversity and changeability of life come from that evolutionary dance generated by cycles of growth, collapse, reorganization, renewal and re-establishment. We call that the adaptive cycle.
Holling again, from “Understanding the Complexity. of Economic, Ecological, and. Social Systems” (pdf):
A stylized representation of the four ecosystem functions and the flow of events among them. The arrows show the speed of the flow in the cycle. Short, closely spaced arrows indicate a slowly changing situation; long arrows indicate a rapidly changing situation. The cycle reflects changes in two properties: the y axis (the potential that is inherent in the accumulated resources of biomass and nutrients) and the x axis (the degree of connectedness among controlling variable). The exit from the cycle indicated at the left of the figure suggests, in a stylized way, the stage where the potential can leak away and where a flip into a less productive and less organized system is most likely.
Image after: Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems.
Update Jan 04. See also: Panarchy.