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= Governance concept; Book

Panarchy is a governance concept with 3 different origins and interpretations. The first one is individualistic panarchy, that would allow any individual in the world to freely choose his/her own community. Then there is a relational version, on the interconnection of governance levels, and a ecological version. It is also the title of an important book on the logic of ecological systems. To avoid confusion we will divide the material between 1) individualist panarcy 2) relational panarchy 3) ecological panarchy


Individualist Panarchy

Panarchy/panarchism has an older meaning, referring to a system of multiple extraterritorial governments, see here and our entry on Multigovernment for background.


T. Collins Logan comments:

"Panarchy as a model for governance — conceived in the mid-1800s — where each individual can choose the form of governance they prefer, without having to physically relocate.

My response to this is that, although my own left-anarchist leanings resonate with the intent of increased autonomy and self-determination, the reality is that panarchy suffers from the same flaw that all individualist anarchist proposals do: it doesn’t appreciate a) the actual mechanisms of liberty as a collectively agreed-upon construct and praxis, rather than an individual choice; and b) the interdependence and complexity (which has been exponentially increasing) of all systems, processes, rules, infrastructures and institutions within any political economy, conditions which preclude the maverick “go it alone” mentality from bearing constructive fruit in any society. Essentially, this flavor of “panarchy” has the flaw of being overly simplistic and atomistic, but nevertheless may be alluring as part of what we might call “appeals to freedom” persuasion for the average person." ( )



"The idea of panarchy has been studied for a long time, however only recent technological advances have made it feasible to implement it as an organisational structure. What is required for the emergence of such a structure is direct communication amongst widely distributed participants. ...

Panarchies are scale-independent, which means they are directly applicable to single individuals for the purpose of personal organisation, or personal mastery,[10] but also apply at the level of large-scale industrial and governmental structures. At each distinct scale we will find repeating patterns that arise as a result of dynamic self-organisation.

We believe that the most effective and attainable solution to the current global problems is for the people to unite into a global self-governing panarchy. The global panarchy would be formed from many global-scale panarchies operating together like the departments of a large organisation. These "departments" would represent the great mechanisms of society such as spirituality/religion, education, politics, sanctions, industry, administration and the financial system. These great mechanisms operating as panarchies are defined by, and work in the service of the people from the bottom up, but yet form a framework of order and economy of scale, these being the benefits of the hierarchical approach. The mechanisms are fluidly adaptable so that they can deal with the changing requirements of the people and the inescapable momentum of change." (

Fuller explanation at

Relational/Networked Panarchy

From Wikipedia: Panarchy:

'Panarchy is a conceptual term first coined by the Belgian philosopher, economist, and botanist Paul Emile de Puydt in 1860, referring to a specific form of governance (-archy) that would encompass (pan-) all others. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the noun as "chiefly poetic" with the meaning "a universal realm," citing a 1848 attestation by Philip James Bailey, "the starry panarchy of space". The adjective panarchic "all-ruling" has earlier attestations. In the twentieth century the term was re-coined separately by scholars in international relations to describe the notion of global governance and then by systems theorists to describe non-hierarchical organizing theories." (


Panarchy is the pattern of relations that characterizes and defines the next era in human civilization. The totality of these relations - political, economic, social - is what constitutes global governance in the next cycle of civilization. Mark Salter offers this definition: "Panarchy means an inclusive, universal system of governance in which all may participate meaningfully". (

"Panarchy, and by extension this website, is not a normative model; it is a descriptive one. Panarchy is not a utopian vision, or an attempt to describe a rational or just world order. Panarchy may not be good or bad, but it is coherent and consistent. Like the Industrial Era, Panarchy demonstrates certain ways of perceiving and interacting with the world throughout its breadth and depth. Panarchy emerges from the analysis of broad patterns of change in the world, which leads to an understanding the dynamics of systems and holarchies. By applying those understandings across all strata of society, we arrive at a description of where civilization is heading -- thus, Panarchy.

Panarchy as Political Governance

Paul B. Hartzog at

"Governance in Panarchy is characterized by the primacy of relational behaviors among governance organizations. Some of these organizations may be traditional nation-states, at least for a while. It is likely that nation-states will be replaced by numerous other governance organizations that demonstrate a better "fit" with their constituents' needs than do today's national governments. Numerous political scholars (Rosenau, et al) have noted trends towards micro- and macro- governance. In addition, governance is becoming increasingly transnational. Through these trends, the distinction between "governmental" and "non-governmental" organizations, particularly in international politics, will become increasingly less apparent, and probably will ultimately be reduced to the possession of military might on the part of "governments". As this function, too, becomes internationalized into a global peace force, even that distinction will fade." (

"What is governance without government? How does it work? Government is enforcement by coercion backed up by force or the threat of force. Governance involves voluntary compliance by the governed because of shared norms and values. Governance without government only becomes possible in an Information Age, because it relies entirely on accurate information and transparency. The key feature of the following examples is that there is no higher authority enforcing compliance. Rather, the benefits of participation themselves enforce compliance." (

Discussion on Proposed Criteria

"We have discussed the values panarchical organisations should work in accord with and the kind of structure they need to have, now we will discuss some specific attributes such organisations should have. These attributes can also be thought of as criteria because they will always be present, and eventually we will be able to use them to test an organisation's compliance with the values, and other specific practices and conventions defined in its ontology. We do not have such tests currently but we know what kind of tests are required and will develop these as the concept, and models of, panarchist organisations are developed. Taken together, the goal of the criteria and the ability to test for their adherence, is to have an objective measurement of how harmonious an organisation is and whether this is increasing. We believe that if organisations are to compete with each other, it should be about which can be most harmonious!


In an organisation openness refers to the knowledge and information about the organisation and its state being made accessible and usable by the stakeholders. In terms of the values, it relates to awareness because an organisation's awareness comes from it's members comprehension of the organisation. Generally one should strive for increasing awareness because most problems only persist due to lack of insight, once the problem is known, something can be done about it. It's only through openness and accessibility that knowledge can undergo refinement and improve, hence the saying, "Good science is open science".

There is a large movement which has successfully applied the principle of openness, it is the open source software development movement. This movement has brought us the Linux operating system, the Firefox web browser and the Apache web server software amongst many other things. An advantage of the open source approach is that people can use each others work and extend and refine what is already there rather than having to reinvent the wheel. We apply the notion of open source development to the system description of organisations, this is a more general application, therefore we use the word "openness".

Some scholars have defined various kinds of freedoms in relation to openness\ however we feel that it would be preferable to define and strive to follow an organisational criterion that enshrines the value of openness. This is because it applies more generally than something like the four freedoms of free software. Apart from that, it seems preferable to pro actively define openness rather than defending freedoms from those who would take them away.

Striving for openness does not imply giving up privacy. The openness doesn't necessarily apply universally, but rather is there to ensure that the decisions making processes are accessible to all those that are affected by them. An organisation that upholds the value of increasing awareness should have a general tendency towards openness concerning all general information which can be of use to other organisations performing similar operations.

An organisation that strives for openness will make increasing amounts of its description available for assessment by stakeholders and the public. These efforts include making sure that usage information like manuals or procedures or how to set similar organisations up are available to an increasing audience. An organisation fails the openness test if it does not declare what it is keeping secret and why, or is making no effort to help people access and use the operational knowledge it uses itself. If information is to be withheld, it should be done under consideration of the spiritual values outlined previously.


An organisation should strive toward ever-increasing completeness of its self-description. This criterion is also related to the value of awareness. Activities the organisation engages in, which have not been mapped or defined, will result in unexpected effects and other problems such as lack of accountability - literally! Having undefined activities means it is difficult to assess the impact of the organisation on peers and the environment in general. This obviously makes it difficult to decide whether a specific decision will increase or decrease harmony within and around the organisation.

We distinguish between functional completeness and ontological completeness. Functional completeness will result in the members of the organisation being able to use the description to go about the daily business of the organisation. This is a natural starting point and can be achieved with simple tools, even on paper if need be. The key issue is that an up-to-date description is easily accessible by the stakeholders. This can be developed in a very organic way, whereby every time someone needs to stop and think about what to do because the activity is not described anywhere, the activity is recorded as a procedure and added to the functional description of the organisation, to be developed further within it. Ontological completeness is the ultimate goal however, this being a dynamic structure representing the actual organisation which can be viewed and dissected from a number of perspectives for decision-making.

There are simple and common-sense ways to deal with this issue, which can potentially be somewhat daunting to solve. After all, how can we know about what we don't know? Fortunately, the concept of feedback offers a solution: A stakeholder can test for the degree of completeness by simply asking to be shown where a specific resource, activity or policy is described and how that specific thing relates to the organisation as a whole. In an organisation striving for completeness, the inability to answer to such a question would trigger procedures designed to capture and integrate new items into the ontology (or description) of the organisation.

Think Global, Act Local

The criterion of Think Global, Act Local (TGAL) must be fulfilled if an organisation is to apply the golden rule. It implies the ability for all stakeholders in an organisation to assess the situation of the whole in terms of an objective accounting system, so that it can immediately be obvious when parts are trying to take resources from the whole, or when they are trying to change the whole in their favour. This addresses issues such as corporations internalising profits while externalising costs, as well as the tendency for powerful corporations or conglomerates to bend the law in their favour.

It can be deduced from what was said previously, but it should also be stated explicitly: TGAL is only possible within a shared system. A shared system is necessary so that accounting can take place across organisational boundaries and give a clear picture of the whole. As we discussed previously, such a shared system will have the structure of a panarchy, within which organisations (these also being panarchies) are being developed. Given that there will be data collected across various scales of organisation and numerous, interconnected hierarchies, this could get very complicated indeed without robust organisational infrastructure in place.

Does implementing TGAL imply that people wade through enormous amounts of financial spreadsheets and reports? The question is valid, how does one interpret such masses of data? Current attempts at solving this challenge revolve around creating virtual representations of the world, over which various kinds of data may be overlaid. Buckminster Fuller proposed the Geoscope concept in the 1960s to bring about shared vision at the level of nations and the whole world. Using such a device, all citizens of the world would be able assess the actual state of resources and partake in decision-making and management, via debates and voting, rather than just a select few at the top of the decision chain.[18]

The acting locally means that the actual decision making takes place locally and is carried out by those that the decision directly affects. It also refers to the idea that organisations or individuals should not attempt to force change onto others. Rather, they can apply changes to themselves to set an example for others to follow if they choose. Having the means of objective accounting system that gives rise to awareness, the stakeholders can then use such awareness to apply the golden rule, to increase harmony between the whole and parts, i.e. the organisation and the stakeholders, as well as between the organisation and the environment.

An organisation striving to implement the criterion of TGAL has a multi-dimensional accounting mechanism in place and provides access to the data gathered with such mechanism for the stakeholders. It changes itself in accordance with the golden rule, based on the information supplied by the accounting mechanism, so that decisions can be linked back to the basic values, and stakeholders can see how and when those values were adhered to or violated by the organisation.

Aspects Changeable

This criterion requires that any aspect of an organisation can be changed if necessary. In order to incorporate feedback and respond to change we require the organisational will and ability to change any aspect of self. Further, this needs to be possible for all stakeholders from the bottom up, via the collaboration tools provided by the web2 movement. All aspects changeable (AAC) is required for an organisation follow the value of self-improvement and to further the implementation of all the other criteria discussed.

An organisation striving to implement the criterion of AAC will be able to present a clear path to changing any of the aspects of the organisation, even though there may be some safeguards or vetting processes the stakeholders have agreed upon which must be adhered to before the change takes place. In some cases (that is, when the proposed change does not affect others) AAC can be fulfilled by allowing the stakeholder to change personal preferences for a specific part of the organisation, in accord with TGAL.


An organisation must dedicate time to the specific task of ensuring that operations are being carried out in accord with the values, criteria and also to the best practices defined for each specific role. If an organisation is truly serious about upholding its values, then it must exhibit procedures to regularly evaluate its performance in regard to them." (

Ecological Panarchy

T. Collins Logan writes that:

"Panarchy as a theory of social-ecological systems — conceived in about 2000 — where nested, adaptive cycles of “growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal” interact both locally and on a massive scale, and where the ideal insertion points for change agency, sustainability implementations, policy shifts and the like can be (ostensibly/ideally) more precisely and effectively calculated.

My response here is that this is actually a compelling model, which has — albeit very slowly — gained traction and supportive evidence since its conception about twenty years ago. In terms of application, however, it seems to have a long way to go (more study, more data, more experimentation, etc.). However, as part of any array of “complex systems” theories (see…..) this approach to “panarchy” seems more promising. However, we could easily say that this theory of panarchy has the flaw of being extremely complex and inaccessible to the average person." (


Panarchy as the next cycle of civilisation

Summary by Paul B. Hartzog at

"Imagine an island in a wide sea. On this island lives a tribe. While the tribe is small it lives in a world of abundant resources. Its health is limited only by its immediate surroundings. It has a frontier, namely, the unexplored regions of the island. However, as the tribe expands to occupy more and more of the island, it eventually reaches a point where it reaches the finite limits of its environment. When this happens the tribe will begin to experience "closeness". At this stage, the tribe must undergo a fundamental shift in behavior, from one of growth to one of sustainability.

The tribe must remain stable and in harmony with its finite context until it achieves a technological advance, in their case, the construction of a boat that can reach nearby islands. The new technology expands and redefines the tribe's context, in effect, altering the relationship between tribe and environment. With a new frontier, the tribe can go into growth mode again, expanding to occupy other islands in its archipelago.

This process continues from archipelago to region to continent to planet to solar system to galaxy to galactic cluster to.... This alternating cycle of growth and stability characterized by punctuated equilibrium and driven by technological advance is the cycle of civilization.

This cycle can be illustrated as follows:

  • Growth
  • Paradigm Shift
  • Sustainability
  • Paradigm Shift

Growth occurs until the civilization reaches the boundary of its particular context. At this point, either the civilization reconceptualizes its relationship to its context, or the context will do it for them. This often happens in ecology as groups over-occupy their bioregion, over-consume their food supply, and suffer subsequent loss of their own population to reach sustainable levels. Civilizations of human beings do not have to suffer these shocks if they choose to enact a Paradigm Shift. The period of Sustainability which follows is characterized by the absence of a frontier and the establisment of a harmonious relationship with the context. Once a civilization achieves the technological breakthrough necessary to open a new frontier, then growth becomes possible again. However, initially only a brave few will attempt such pioneering, as did the American frontiersmen and the hardy navigators of the European age of discovery. As the frontier becomes more known, then another Paradigm Shift can occur.

The key difference between Growth and Sustainability is the underlying paradigm. During growth, because interactions among sub-systems are distant and/or infrequent the primary ontology is atomistic, individualistic, and object-oriented. By contrast, during sustainability, the members of the system are tied together in a web of interdependence and so the key features of that paradigm are based on systems theory, cybernetics, and relationality.

To return to our example, it does not matter if there are multiple tribes on the initial island (or multiple nation-states on a single planet). While they are distant from one another and interactions are few, their development follows the same rules as a single tribe. As they grow they begin to experience "closeness". Once they reach the limits of the island, they can effectively be treated as a single system, albeit one with multiple parts. At this point, reaching sustainability for all will require a focus on cooperation instead of competition. Since the system as a whole is threatened, all of the sub-systems are threatened.

Panarchy is the stage into which civilization is now transitioning. Having reached the limits of growth in a finite planetary environment, we must now shift to a sustainability paradigm, until such time as we are able to expand into the solar system, our next frontier." (

The Book

Gunderson and Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature .

"“Panarchy” refers here to the framework for conceptualizing the type of coupled human-environment systems described in Gunderson and Holling (2002) and more briefly, with some changes, in Walker et al. (2006). This framework may be divided into two parts, referred to here as “the resilience conceptual framework” and “the adaptive cycle metaphor.”


Excerpts below are from:

Article: Gotts, Nicholas M. 2007. "Resilience, Panarchy, and World-Systems Analysis." Ecology and Society 12(1).

Full text available as:

The resilience conceptual framework

Nicholas Gotts:

"Characteristics of the resilience conceptual framework include:

1. multiple metastable regimes.

Rather than a single equilibrium point, such systems generally have multiple metastable regimes. Within each regime, change may occur, but the set of dynamically important variables and interactions remains fixed.

2. the importance of episodic change.

Systems with multiple metastable regimes may switch rapidly between them as critical thresholds are passed. Furthermore, hysteresis is common.

3. Resilience.

Holling and Gunderson (2002:28) define ecosystem resilience as “ ... the magnitude of disturbance that can be absorbed before the system changes its structure by changing the variables and processes that control behavior.” Resilience in this sense is central to the resilience conceptual framework.

4. multiple distinctive scales with cross-scale interactions.

Holling et al. (2002c:72) argue that ecological and social-ecological systems form a multilevel hierarchical structure, but that the different levels are of distinct kinds, i.e., the structure is not scale-free.

The resilience conceptual framework underlies a broad body of work, including a considerable number of detailed studies of regional socialecological systems (see any issue of Ecology and Society, and most of the chapters in Gunderson and Holling 2002 and Berkes et al. 2003). This body of work has now reached a state in which systematic comparisons can be made, particularly with regard to thresholds and regime shifts (Walker and Meyers 2004, Groffman et al. 2006). A significant subset of recent work within the resilience conceptual framework explores or makes use of the adaptive cycle metaphor to varying degrees, and this paper focuses primarily on these, but also draws on the broader resilience literature." (

The adaptive cycle metaphor

Nicholas Gotts:

"The characteristics of the adaptive cycle metaphor include:

1. a four-phase adaptive cycle.

Holling and Gunderson (2002:32) suggest that most, although not all, such systems follow a fourphase cycle of

  1. “exploitation” (r);
  2. “conservation” (K);
  3. “release” (W) or “creative destruction,” a term derived from Schumpeter (1943); and
  4. “reorganization” (a).

The first two stem from standard ecological theory, in which an ecosystem’s r phase is dominated by colonizing species tolerant of environmental variation and the K phase, by species adapted to modulate such variation. However, Holling and Gunderson (2002) say that “ ...two additional functions are needed.” The corresponding phases, especially W, are typically much briefer: in a forest, W might be a fire or insect outbreak that frees nutrients from biomass, whereas the a phase involves soil processes limiting nutrient loss. The adaptive cycle involves changes in three main variables: resilience; potential in the form of accumulated resources in biomass or in physical, human, and social capital; and connectedness, meaning the tightness of coupling among the controlling variables that determine the system’s ability to modulate external variability. In the r phase, potential and connectedness are low but resilience is high; in K, resilience decreases while the other values increase. Eventually, some internal or external event triggers the W phase, in which potential crashes; finally, in a, resilience and potential grow, connectedness falls, unpredictability peaks, and new system entrants can establish themselves. Holling and Gunderson (2002) stress that the adaptive cycle is a metaphor that can be used to generate specific hypotheses; exact interpretations of resilience, potential, and connectedness are system dependent.

2. Panarchy.

Ecological and social-ecological systems form nested sets of adaptive cycles. The larger, slower cycles generally constrain the smaller, faster ones and maintain system integrity, but, during the W and a phases, critical cross-scale interactions can operate, particularly “Revolt” connections, in which an W phase collapse on one level triggers a crisis one level up, and “Remember” connections, in which the a phase of a cycle is organized by a higher-level K phase. The Revolt and Remember forms of cross-scale interaction, and panarchy itself as described in Holling et al. (2002c), assume that the hierarchically related systems are following adaptive cycles.

3. three distinct kinds of change.

Holling et al. (2002a) identify three types of change within panarchies: incremental change in the r and K phases, which are smooth and fairly predictable; abrupt change in the transitions from K through W and a; and transformational learning, meaning change involving several panarchical levels, and interaction between different sets of labile variables." (

More Information

  • Holling, C. S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4:1-24.
  • Holling, C. S. 2003. The backloop to sustainability. Pages xv-xxi in F. Berkes, J. Colding and C. Folke, editors. Navigating social-ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Holling, C. S. 2004. From complex regions to complex worlds. Ecology and Society 9(1):11. [online] URL: iss1/art11.
  • Holling, C. S., S. R. Carpenter, W. A. Brock, and L. H. Gunderson. 2002a. Discoveries for sustainable futures. Pages 395-417 in L. H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, editors. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.
  • Holling, C. S., and L. H. Gunderson. 2002. Resilience and adaptive cycles. Pages 25-62 in L. H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, editors. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.
  • Holling, C. S., L. H. Gunderson, and D. Ludwig. 2002b. In quest of a theory of adaptive change. Pages 3-22 in L. H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, editors. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D. C., USA.
  • Holling, C. S., L. H. Gunderson, and G. D. Peterson. 2002c. Sustainability and panarchies. Pages 63-102 in L. H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, editors. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.