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Expired · 7th June 2009
Ray Grigg
(Part 2) As valuable as Dr. Buzz Holling's notion of panarchy theory is in helping us understand the cyclical changes in forests – the way they move through continuous phases of regeneration, growth, increasing connectivity, and then rigidity, crisis, collapse and regeneration again – his thinking is much more valuable in helping us identify and correct the same trends occurring in our modern civilization. It, too, is a natural system that has been moving through a growth phase for the last several centuries and is now becoming increasingly interconnected and rigid, conditions that are prelude to a crisis.

Indeed, the course of our globalized world has been following all the adaptive characteristics of Holling's notion of panarchy theory. If he is correct, we are approaching the end of a growth phase, a time when the rising "dependence" within the system, together with increasing specialization and efficiency, create a fatal loss of resilience. As we continue to exploit every possible resource and niche on the planet, our entire socio-economic system loses its adaptive options as it becomes more dependent on the smooth functioning of a rising proportion of its interlinked components. This "peaking", Holling contends, usually leads to a collapse.

As a measure of our vulnerability, simply choose a few examples of the cumulative effects that can be caused by any single disruption:
• Just one crash on a freeway stops traffic, creates huge jams and leaves thousands of commuters and transporters delayed for hours.
• Contamination at just one processing plant taints food supplies across a continent.
• A malfunction at one nuclear power plant almost eliminates the supply of critically important medical isotopes.
• One terrorist attack inflicts huge amounts of fear and a country spends billions of dollars on measures to prevent the repeat of such an event.
• Just the hint of a pandemic raises global panic, devastates tourist industries and slows international travel for months.
• A policy of unregulated mortgages in the US triggers a subprime crisis that spreads throughout the international financial system, undermining confidence in money markets and sending the global economy into a tailspin.
• Our nearly total dependence on a supply of cheap oil for transportation, innumerable consumer products and nearly half our food production transforms any hint of a shortage into convulsions of worry and nightmares of consequence.
• The excessive emission of a single gas, carbon dioxide, threatens to alter the planet's climate, displace hundreds of millions of people, induce droughts and re-structure global economies.

Indeed, the very efficiency of our global economic system, an attribute we herald as a virtue, is victimizing the planet's ecology. Maximizing performance and productivity drives the continual expansion of the world's economy. "Based on current trends," writes Thomas Homer-Dixon, "global output of goods and services will quadruple from US$60 to $240 trillion (in 2005 dollars) by 2050" (WorldWatch, March/April, 2009). Panarchy theory argues that this kind of growth eventually self-destructs. A civilization, like an athlete trying to run ever faster, needs progressively more energy to maintain itself. The system collapses when the energy return falls below the energy invested. The Roman Empire failed, Homer-Dixon suggests, because it became too complex to be supported by its food-based energy system. How, then, are we to reconcile rising growth with falling energy supplies?

Panarchy theory – and even common sense – dictates that the growth phase of any adaptive cycle cannot continue indefinitely. Continuous growth may seem possible when we are wholly emersed in the euphoria of it. This is why the insightful perspective of such people as Buzz Holling are so important – and so disturbing.

In Holling's assessment of our history, "This is a moment of great volatility and instability in the world system. We need urgently to do what we can to avoid deep collapse. We also need to figure out how to exploit the opportunity provided by crisis and collapse when they occur, because some kind of systemic breakdown is now almost certain" (Ibid).

Holling makes two crucially important points here. The first purpose of panarchy theory is to identify the behaviour that is leading to collapse and, therefore, to use the forewarning to avoid the unwelcome outcome that it predicts. The second is to prepare for the collapse by minimizing the impact.

Some people have already started to prepare for this eventuality, as if a subliminal consciousness were already sensing an impending danger. Globalization is losing its allure. Countries are moving toward greater self-sufficiency. Agricultural land is being protected, resources considered and ecologies preserved. Food security is prompting local buying and home gardens – community gardens are appearing in many urban and rural neighbourhoods. Young people are returning to old farms to restore the fields with vegetable crops. Organics are on the rise. Cycling is popular and is being encouraged for commuting in most cities. Cars are getting smaller and more efficient. The indications of awareness are everywhere.

These steps, of course, are just the beginning of the beginning. But the signs are evident. The marvel that many people hold for our modern civilization now comes coupled with a pervasive apprehension. Perhaps panarchy theory offers some clarifying insights about what is amiss and what we might do.