Adaptive Cycle

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Daniel Christian Wahl:

"The adaptive cycle is a model of natural patterns of change in ecosystems and eco-social systems. It consists of four distinct phases: ‘growth or exploitation’ (r); ‘conservation’ (K) of established patterns and resource distribution; ‘collapse or release’ (Ω); and reorganization (α). The adaptive cycle is often drawn like an infinity symbol or Möbius loop that joins these four phases.

The journey from exploitation (growth in the diagram above) to conservation is referred to as the ‘fore-loop’ (blue and green part of the loop). It describes the slow and often longer phase of growth and accumulation of resources in the system. Eventually, too much rigid structure, fixed connections and accumulation of resources in the system make it brittle and poised for release or collapse.

The transition from release to reorganization is referred to as the ‘back-loop’ of the adaptive cycle (red and orange part of the loop). This phase is often fast moving and relatively short. In this phase the opportunity for redesign, reorganization and renewal is high, due to the release of rigid structures, established patterns and the redistribution of resources throughout the system. In the adaptive cycle, the creative ‘edge of chaos’ is reached during the beginning of the ‘release’ phase and left at the end of the ‘reorganization’ phase.

During the α-phase the opportunities for and likelihood of creative change is highest. In the r-phase these opportunities for change are tested against each other and one or a few innovations begin to define the characteristics of the transformed system. This structure is conserved and then begins itself to rigidify during the K-phase, until the often rapid and sometimes catastrophic release (collapse) in the Ω-phase takes us back to the creative ‘edge of chaos’ conditions. This offers renewed opportunities for reorganization in a new α-phase and a new adaptive cycle." (


Nafeez Ahmed:

“The “adaptive cycle” framework is one such way. Developed by the late ecologist C.S. Holling, it provides powerful insights when applied to the rise and fall of human social systems. Systems tend to grow, decline, and renew themselves over four phases: growth—defining the 200 or so years of rapid industrial growth since the 19th century; conservation—encompassing a period of consolidation in which the system stabilizes; release—a period of uncertainty and chaos as the system begins to weaken and decline; and finally reorganization, when the system undergoes a fundamental re-ordering which can pave the way for a new systemic life cycle.

Industrial civilization appears to have entered the last stages of its systemic life cycle long before the pandemic. While this “release” stage reveals the alarming results of previously entrenched social, political, economic, and cultural structures collapsing under the weight of their own incoherence, it also opens up unprecedented opportunities for radical change. At this point in a system’s life cycle, the weakening of top-down structures allows small perturbations to have wider re-ordering impacts across structures within the system.” (