Panarchy in Progress

Sometimes ecosystems collapse.

Panarchy in Progress

Panarchy is an empirically-informed model of the cyclical nature of complex adaptive growth, development, and change dynamics within ecosystems. The concept of panarchy arose in disciplines concerning themselves with sustainability and development sciences, and can be a framework for understanding the life, death, and regeneration of forests, economies, and institutions.

The utility of the panarchic model as a framework for understanding patterns, relationships, and tendencies that define life, growth, transformation and death in complex adaptive ecosystems stretches       well beyond the bounds of any one discipline or type of ecosystem.

Panarchy suggests tendencies that may be present in all interconnected complex adaptive systems. Cycles characteristic to the panarchic process can be observed in the trajectories of human interactions and reactions within social relationships, work, and even behavioral habits.

Assumption: Everything is a part of an ecosystem, and/or has traits of an ecosystem.
Our bodies are ecosystems.
Our communities are ecosystems.
Our cultures and economies are ecosystems.

Our relationships and our families are ecosystems, too, and are thus shaped by the same tendencies of any system to thrive when conditions are ideal, to fall into collapse during crisis, to heal, reconcile or move on having learned what we learned, to begin again in the next phase of growth.

Assumption: Everything is connected.
Although the above statement reads like an over-simplistic bumper sticker, it is absolutely true that everything is connected, in various ways and to various degrees.
Assumption: Everything causes something to happen. Even if we do nothing, or if something appears to be doing nothing, eventually there is an effect.

Panarchy describes the ways that systems organize and evolve in relation with one another. The cycles of complex adaptation are unfolding around us and within us all the time. Our lives as we know and experience them are vast constructions of interactions among dynamic variables, and in each moment there are multiple processes unfolding all around us and within us.

A panarchic cycle is driven by variables that are shaped by other panarchic cycles; What happens within one cycle impacts the state and direction of other cycles.

Panarchic cycles vary in the amount of time that it takes for a system to progress through the processes of growth, unsustainability, collapse, and reorganization. Depending on the scale of the complex adaptive systems involved, some panarchic cycles - such as those that shape forest ecosystems and the health of oceans - unfold over millennia. Sometimes, one can observe the processes of growth, acceleration, revolt/collapse, and regeneration in the seemingly simple course of a conversation that doesn’t go well.

We are living in vastly nested panarchic cycles. A panarchy is a nested set of complex adaptive systems.  Panarchic processes shape tendencies in growth, evolution, transformation, and sustainability in many living ecosystems, societal institutions, and economies.  

The experiences we may have within our individual lives are informed by panarchic processes that involve our physical bodies, our relationship with the environments we live in, and the events which unfold within our lives as a result of culture, economy, access to resources and opportunities, and relationships.

The panarchic cycle can be identified by four distinct phases:

R: Rapid growth

The emergence of an ecosystem or a new system of ecosystemic relationships. The potential of the ecosystem is determined by resources which support or impede the growth and development of the ecosystem and its constituent parts, with what happens in one sector of the ecosystem becoming inextricably connected to the health and development of other sectors, each of which is comprised of numerous variables which exist and evolve in accordance with one another.

In the panarchic ecosystem of an individual human life, an enormous amount of growth and change takes place very quickly, and one’s potential is augmented or impaired by access to resources which promote growth within and across domains of living such as physical health, social and emotional health, economic and occupational health, and spiritual health.

Events that impact growth and development can be fast or slow. For example, illness or food scarcity will predictably impact physical health. Stresses and trauma shape not only physical, but social and emotional health in reflexive relationship with economic and occupational health.

In panarchic models, the R phase is marked by a period of rapid development and the emergence of structural relationships within the ecosystem and everything it is connected to. In the natural world’s way of striving to live and to grow, the R phase may be characterized by exploitation of available resources, or development of growth patterns or resource relationships that may not ultimately be sustainable. In nature, the R phase can be a period of intense, fervent growth - a field of seedlings all sprouting in unison, clamoring for nutrients, water, and light, the hunger that drives a seasonal migration.

K: Acceleration of growth, expanded complexity in relationships between interdependent variables, the complexity of a system informs its resilience, both in the vulnerability to disturbance or in the inability to adapt or grow in healthy ways.

In the natural world, individual species tend to exploit resources available to them in an ever-evolving drive towards life and sustainability of species. The invasive tendencies of some plant and animal species is not the result of avarice, but simply the nature by which these species try to gain a foothold in living. The K phase is characterized by increased resource utilization to support rapid growth, and by the emergence of increasingly complex connections and dependency arrangements between constituent species within an ecosystem developing in concert with one another. This interconnectedness may reduce flexibility in adaptation through multiple variables reinforcing the behavior and roles of one another.

When adaptive change or innovation is impeded within one complex adaptive variable by its relationship with other variables within the system it is a part of, the resilience of interdependent variables can be reduced as the system itself becomes self-reinforcing of structures and relationships which may, depending on social ecological systems, not be ultimately beneficial to the health and equilibrium of the ecosystem. These interdependencies  create strongly coupled hierarchies that may be vulnerable to disruption by external factors or that may prove to be internally unsustainable as growth exceeds capacity of the ecosystem to support the structures and relationships which have emerged within it.

If variables within a panarchy are inextricably linked to variables that connect to other complex adaptive cycles, if collapse occurs at one level or scale of the ecosystem, a cascade of collapse can occur.

Ω: Revolt, Breakdown, collapse, release of resources
When an ecosystem becomes unsustainable, or when it is critically impacted by external forces or internal structures which compromise resilience, the ecosystem can no longer sustain the operations and relationships which defined it, and a collapse process begins.

The collapse of an ecosystem can be slow or fast, depending on the unique structures of economy and relationship which exist within the ecosystem and the external pressures or resources which may augment or ameliorate the process of collapse.

Within the complex adaptive systems that comprise an individual human life, collapse may be created by conditions such as illness and injury, deprivation of resources to support growth  in the form of poverty, conflict within families and communities which dislocate or change the role of the individual within the larger systems they are a part of, and can lead to disruptions in resilience and adaptive capacity. Depending on the individual and the circumstances of their lives, collapse or vulnerability to collapse may be indicated by increased subjective distress, impairment in functioning in health and growth promoting ways due to internal or external factors within one’s life, and significantly heightened biological stress.

α: Renewal, organization and/or reorganization
Following collapse, the ecosystem begins a process of reorganization, leveraging resources which remain from previous ecosystemic iterations and relying on knowledge gained in previous growth cycles.

In the natural world, this may be observed as the release of seeds following a fire and the re-establishment of hardy and adaptive species from which a new iteration of the ecosystem will arise. The question of which constituent attributes or species will come to define the reorganized ecosystem depends on the rate of growth of individual species, availability of conditions/resources needed to thrive, and barriers to growth such as - in forest ecosystems - soil quality, pathogenic factors, and water availability intersecting with event variables such as floods, fires, drought, or agricultural and industrial development.

In any panarchic cycle, a number of connected panarchic and complex adaptive cycles are shaping the successive details of the development course, the outcomes of defining events, and relationships that define the panarchy.

For example, if one considers the life of an individual human being within a panarchic framework, it is necessary to consider the factors and variables which determine health and potential within the individual’s environment. Factors such as poverty and vulnerability to poverty, increased risk of adverse experiences, access to resources, and other social ecological determinants of health have to be considered.

In each successive and evolving panarchic cycle, the organization and health of the ecosystem is informed by what came before it, and by the assets and barriers that evolve with growth.

The Panarchy of Mental Health

To understand human distress/well-being dynamics, and the workings of qualitative and functional states of being/existing within our individual and communal lives in relationship with the environments we live in, it is necessary to take into account myriad variables and to understand - at least generally -the workings of complex adaptive systems, as these workings shape the tendencies of all living things.

Like all things that are living, human well-being depends on access to resources and conditions that support growth and health.

The circumstances into which an individual is born play a massive role in the course their life is likely to take, the experiences they may have, and the impact those experiences have on health and ability to live well. This fact is well-established across all disciplines concerning themselves with human health.

Our understanding of the negative health effects related to conditions such as, for example, malnutrition and exposure to toxins, is empirically supported by decades of medical research, and the social sciences have deeply explored and documented the ways that factors such as poverty and violence affect the health and function of individuals, families, communities, and the global society. Public health initiatives have gathered extensive data on the relationship between poverty, trauma and health outcomes across all demographic sectors on multiple scales.

There is a sea of research spanning all disciplines that strongly suggests that what happens within our lives matters.

We all intuitively know that what happens to us matters, that we are deeply affected by the events of our lives. Events can be acute or unfolding over the course of a life stage. Our lives are ever evolving momentary culminate outcomes of the events we have experienced and the ways those events have shaped us and driven us, charted our courses. At any given point in our lives, multiple events are unfolding simultaneously.

Beyond the scope of our conscious awareness of what is happening in our lives and how we are affected, events across all interconnected scales of family, community, culture, and economy are unfolding in relationship with the environments we live in.

The Panarchy of the Human Stress Response

Assumption: There is no clean slate, no neutral state, in the human nervous system. Even our DNA carries knowledge of stressors and desires.

Prior, even, to the moment we are born, we are having experiences and processing - at least in some way - information about our environment. Our bodies are reacting to motivations to seek basic necessities for living and to threats or injuries we experience or perceive within our environment, and - as we grow - our relationships.

In the human stress response, one condition or response catalyzes subsequent reactions and conditions.

Biological stress responses unfold in a causal sequence of activities occurring within our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and our psychological responses to fear and stress conduct themselves similarly, with one state of cognition and perception stimulating a qualitative and functional shift in the operations of stress-affected psychological, cognitive, and emotional states.

You can see this process of cascading reactions in responses to fear-producing events or stimuli, the senses and faculties of psychological interpretation perceive a threat, and this provokes a release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and shifts activity in the brain from the prefrontal cortex, areas of which govern language production, and reasoning, among other things.

In a panarchic model of human psychological health and resilience in the sense of the human psychological and experiential system being able to maintain consistent adequate function to stay healthy within one’s life, events which stimulate a stress response present disturbances to resilience in the sense that they disrupt or change function, catalyzing both immediate and protracted processes of adaptation to the stressor. If the human psychological and experiential system does not have the resources (material, external resources which may support problem solving, and internal resources of skills, learning, and psychological-emotional-spiritual factors such as hope, motivation, and positive creativity) to support adaptation, the resilience of the system breaks down in the form of reduced self-directed functionality in the actions and relationships which maintain and contribute to continued functionality of the existing ecosystems of our lives and realities.

The stress response is variable, depending on the stressor and the individual experiencing stress. Biological stress responses are both innate and learned - meaning that we are all born equipped with mechanisms of perception and response that arose within our human species to help us to stay alive, to recognize threat and to respond in ways that may keep us from experiencing harm. We learn, throughout our lives, what fear is and what to be afraid of and what to do when we’re afraid. There is increasing evidence that we may hold fears that our ancestors felt, that fearful knowledge is encoded in our DNA, a whispered message of what to be scared of from those who came before us.

Stress responses in our body are also stimulated by our instinct to seek the things that are beneficial to our continued living and reproduction - food, sex, opportunities to increase access to food and sex within our social ecological systems. Positive stress - like excitement, desire, motivation, and reward - are sometimes referred to as Eustress, from the Greek prefix Eu - meaning good.

However, depending on the social ecological system we are a part of, excessive eustress may be as disruptive to our lives as excessive distress in generating pleasure-seeking as a dominant motivator in ways that undermine the functionality of life ecosystems.

Poverty is a panarchic cycle, and the conditions of poverty exist as part of a complex adaptive system that connects individuals, families, and local communities to structures that determine global economies.

Psychologically, as we interpret and make meaning of our lives and how we feel within them, we may observe the rise and fall of subjective experiences of hope, motivation, fear, and overwhelm.

This post was created as a means to help the author continue to learn about panarchy and to explore the different ways that this framework of understanding the life and death of states within systems may apply to different domains of the material and experiential worlds we live in.

Humans have experiences both individual and collective.
Forests have experiences, as does every living thing within them.
Cities and governments and economies have experiences.

The variables and conditions that define those experiences have an impact on what happens in constituent complex adaptive systems existing within a larger, interconnected  ecosystem, and inform what happens next in an ecosystem’s  growth and evolution.
                                         Sometimes ecosystems collapse.

Knowing this to be true, it may be important to develop a popular, collective understanding of why collapse occurs within ecosystems, individual human lives, economies, species, and social, institutional structures. When one system collapses, this collapse affects all interconnected complex adaptive systems in some way or another. When one system collapses, other systems inevitably emerge to take its place.  

As the world we live in evolves and responds to new conditions within social ecological system, it is increasingly important that all humans consider the ways that the complex adaptive systems operate and function in processes of growth, adaptation, and collapse. Everything rises toward growth, and when the system cannot sustain itself, the tendency is toward collapse and re-organization. Most people are probably aware of this, at least dimly.

In this stage of our development as a species on planet earth, knowing what we know about how the world works and the errors of our history, it is important that we all - as human beings - evolve in our ability to see our lives and experiences as complex adaptive systems - because that is what our lives and experiences are. Learning about complex adaptive systems is important because doing so allows us to be more active participants in the unfolding of our lives and in making decisions that promote health and well-being within our ecosystemic world.

The science of complex adaptive systems and the framework of panarchy is not only for those who research social ecological systems. The lessons and teachings of change and collapse in complex systems in nature, by nature, extends to all facets of our lives in some way or another because this is how the world works.

As inhabitants of our lives and of our world, we have a right and a responsibility to understand these workings and to consider why the conditions that define our lives are as they are, and to make skillful, informed decisions about how to best approach making change within those conditions, how to ease the transformation that will inevitably emerge, that is emerging right now.


Ecosystems(2001) 4: 390-405 DOI:10.1007/s10021-00 -0101-5
ECOSYSTEM 02001 Springer-Verlag
Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems
C. S. Holling
Department of Zoology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

Hierarchies and adaptive cycles comprise the basis of ecosystems and social-ecological systems across scales.Together they form a panarchy.The panarchy describes how a healthy system can invent and experiment, benefiting from inventions that create opportunity while being kept safe from those that destabilize because of their nature or excessive ex- uberance.Each level is allowed to operate at its own pace,  protected from above by slower, larger levels but invigorated from below by faster,smaller cycles of innovation.

- the evolving nature of complex adaptive systems. Panarchy is the hierarchical structure in which systems of nature (for example,forests, grasslands, lakes, rivers, and seas), and humans (for example, structures of governance, set- tlements, and cultures), as well as combined human-nature systems (for example, agencies that control natural resource use) (Gunderson and others 1995) and social-ecological systems (for in- stance, co-evolved systems of management) (Folke and others 1998), are interlinked in never-ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal. These transformational cycles take place in nested sets at scales ranging from a leaf to the biosphere over periods from days to geologic epochs, and from the scales of a family to a socio- political region over periods from years to centuries.

394 C. S. Holling
There are three properties that shape the adaptive cycle and the future state of a system:
*The inherent potential of a system that is avail- able for change, since that potential determines
the range of future options possible. This prop- erty can be thought of, loosely, as the "wealth" of a system.

  • The internal controllability of a system; that is, the degree of connectedness between internal
    controlling variables and processes, a measure that reflects the degree of flexibility or rigidity of such controls, such as their sensitivity or not to
  • The adaptive capacity;that is, the resilience of the system, a measure of its vulnerability to unexpected or unpredictable shocks.

Copyright © 2010 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.
Allen, C. R. and C. Holling 2010. Novelty, adaptive capacity, and resilience. Ecology and Society 15(3): 24. [online] URL:
Insight, part of a Special Feature on Catastrophic Thresholds, Perspectives, Definitions, and Applications
Novelty, Adaptive Capacity, and Resilience
Craig R. Allen 1 and C. S. Holling 2

Allen, C.R., Angeler, D.G., Garmestani, A.S. et al. Ecosystems (2014) 17: 578.

June 2014, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 578–589 | Cite as
Panarchy: Theory and Application
Authors and affiliations
Craig R. AllenEmail authorDavid G. AngelerAhjond S. GarmestaniLance H. GundersonC. S. Holling

Will Varey
Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Faculty of Sustainability, Environmental and Life Sciences, Murdoch University, Western Australia
Annals of Family Medicine
American Academy of Family Physicians
Making Sense of Health Care Transformation as Adaptive-Renewal Cycles

Kurt C. Stange, MD, PhD, Editor, Robert L. Ferrer, MD, MPH, Associate Editor, and William L. Miller, MD, MA