Usually, these sideways figure 8’s are seen as a type of S curve in biology, where a population starts out small, using few resources, and then grows steadily until it reaches a kind of carrying capacity and levels out. This is where classic sustainability is seen, where we try to stay at that leveled out portion of the curve without much variation for as long as possible. Holling’s model disregards this notion of keeping a society’s rate of growth steady, and acknowledges that change and even death of certain societies and ideas is inevitable. This is observed on the right side of the sideways figure 8, where the cycle goes down again. It’s a fluid model though, so he is arguing that even with these deaths, the system as a whole does not die; it’s reborn again eventually.
Upon my initial reading of C.S. Holling’s piece, “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems” I only partially understood his whole panarchy idea, I thought his models were intriguing but confusing, and it didn’t really occur to me how important his theory is to resilience. After going through the article again with Jim, it makes a lot more sense to me and there are some really interesting ideas in there that could inform my own environmental theory of resilience.
One of the most important aspects of Holling’s article is the image included above. It includes three different figure 8 symbols turned on their sides that represent different scales — the biggest scale is a huge idea or theory that governs our universe (i.e. capitalism) and that is large and slow. The second is intermediate in size and speed, and represents a more intermediate scale such as a nation or state, while the last moves fast and slow and represents a city, community, or individual level. There aren’t really set examples for the scales, and Holling even mentions that it can go from the universal to the cellular scale, so it’s applicable to a variety of situations.
Now, how is this system and all these scales connected? Holling argues that when a system dies, for example the middle system (intermediate size and speed), it’s influenced by both the large slow moving system and the small fast moving system. He argues that the small and fast systems usually contribute to the death or “revolt” point of the system, while the large and slow moving system contributes to the rebirth by reminding people about certain ideas or practices that typically govern our universe. I was thinking of it in terms of the Bernie Sanders for president movement. That reminds me of a smaller scale, fast moving system that is pushing for revolt and revolution of the current government. Their platform for the system’s rebirth is one that has been used before, the large and slow moving system of socialism. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which system influences the other, and when, but I think that makes sense because it’s a continuous system that feeds off of its own energy and the energy of the systems around it.
This sideways figure 8 is a model for resilience. It shows that we need to expect change in our communities, and that staying in one place or sustaining a certain ideal forever is not possible. It incorporates a kind of dystopian attitude, where we expect chaos, but because we’re expecting it, we’re more able to respond to it when it happens. This allows us to be more proactive in planning, and less worried when a disaster strikes.
Holling, C. S. 2001. “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems.” Ecosystems 4 (5): 390–405. doi:10.1007/s10021-001-0101-5.