Thomas Homer-Dixon on panarchy

By David Parkinson

Podcasts are wonderful!! In our house, there are a bunch we subscribe to and listen to whenever they come out: one for news (Democracy Now); one for media criticism (Counterspin); a few for general shits-n-giggles; and a couple that cover collapse, spirituality, and consciousness. Of those last ones, the two we like best are The Psychedelic Salon and The C-Realm Podcast.

The C-Realm Podcast is hosted by a guy who calls himself ‘KMO’, and he covers a pretty broad range of topics, focusing on petrocollapse, relocalization, psychedelics and unconventional states of consciousness, and the technological singularity.

It’s really worth digging through the C-Realm archives to check out the conversations KMO has had with such important thinkers as Ran Prieur, Sharon Astyk, John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, James Howard Kunstler, Albert Bates, Catherine Austin Fitts, and many others. It’s one of the most amazing archives of real news and real thinking in the world today.

On a recent podcast, KMO’s guest was Thomas Homer-Dixon, who spent much of the time talking about his adaptation of the theories of Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling, who has developed a theory of how complex systems evolve over time. I don’t want to give all the details here; you should go find the podcast, settle down with a nice cup of tea or something stronger, and spend some time listening to KMO’s conversation with Thomas Homer-Dixon — which really turns out to be KMO asking four or five questions and Homer-Dixon giving extremely long and detailed answers, something you will never find in the commercial media, no matter how well-intentioned they are (and they rarely are).

If you’re more of a print person, you might find this short piece from WorldWatch online to be more your style. It’s an adaptation of some material from Homer-Dixon’s 2006 book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Here is an excerpt from the article, in which Homer-Dixon is talking with Buzz Holling:

“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.”

And then Homer-Dixon askes:

Can we get through this transition wisely and safely? Not if we refuse to understand its implications and simply continue what we’re doing now. In Buzz Holling’s terms, we’re busily extending the growth phase of the adaptive cycle of our planetary economic, ecological, and social system. In the process, this planetary system is becoming steadily more complex, connected, efficient, and regulated. Eventually it will become less resilient; it may, in fact, have already started to lose resilience.

Obviously, there is very little that we can do as individuals to restore resilience to the tightly-intertwined global systems which are now beginning to fall apart. We can restore resilience on the local level, though, and some of this is starting to happen very naturally and on a small scale, distributed throughout the community; unfunded, underfunded, shoestring, half-assed efforts to get little projects underway.

And meanwhile, the reigning mindset of big glossy top-down expensive ‘community development’ trundles along, unaware that its moment in history is trickling away.


Post facto

February 2009
    Mar »

RSS recent posts: dmitry orlov

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

RSS recent posts: energy bulletin

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

slow tweets…

Creative Commons License
The content of this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.

%d bloggers like this: