On the heels of finding the new website featured in the last post, I came on this story in WorldWatch about Buzz Hollings by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Hollings is a pioneer in developing models for describing and governing complexity. He calls the framework “adaptive management.” I prefer to call it adaptive governance because complex systems cannot be “managed” in the usual sense of the word. Complexity is a central part of the new story of sustainability. Maybe the discovery of two excellent discussions of the subject in the course of only a day is a sign that this story of how the world works is taking its place alongside the old one based on traditional, reductionist science and the associated belief that we can explain everything through mathematical and other forms of laws. Both ways are only stories we tell to make sense of the world. Sometimes one works better; sometimes the other does.

Homer-Dixon includes a segment of a conversation he had with Hollings. I thought it very much worth repeating here. Note carefully that this took place before the current financial system collapse. (Hat tip to Garry Peterson)

Homer Dixon started the interchange with Hollings with this question: “Why do you feel the world is verging on some kind of systemic crisis?”

There are three reasons,” he answered. “First, over the years my understanding of the adaptive cycle has improved, and I’ve also come to better understand how multiple adaptive cycles can be nested together-from small to large-to create a panarchy. I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story.

Second, I think rapidly rising connectivity within global systems-both economic and technological-increases the risk of deep collapse. That’s a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.

A bit like the implosion of the World Trade Center towers,” I offered, “where the weight of the upper floors smashed through the lower floors like a pile driver.

Yes, but in a highly connected panarchy, the collapse doesn’t have to start at the top. It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It’s the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth’s biosphere-that’s particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together. And if this happens, they’ll reinforce each other’s collapse.

The third reason,” he continued, “is the rise of mega-terrorism-the increasing risk of attacks that will kill huge numbers of people and produce major disruptions in world systems. I’m not sure why megaterrorism has become more likely now. I suppose it’s partly a result of technological changes and the rise of particularly virulent kinds of fundamentalism. But I do know that in a tightly connected world where vulnerabilities are aligned, such attacks could trigger deep collapse-and that’s particularly worrisome.

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.

Panarchy describes complex systems containing nested adaptive cycles operating at diverse scales of time and extent with a web of interconnections between the separate cycles. The image above depicts this arrangement.

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