Resilience, Panarchy, and World-Systems Analysis

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

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"The paper compares two ambitious conceptual structures. The first is the understanding of social-ecological systems developed around the term resilience, and more recently the term panarchy, in the work of Holling, Gunderson, and others. The second is Wallersteins world-systems approach to analyzing hierarchical relationships between societies within global capitalism as developed and applied across a broader historical range by Chase-Dunn and others. The two structures have important common features, notably their multiscale explanatory framework, links with ideas concerning complex systems, and interest in cyclical phenomena. They also have important differences. It is argued that there are gaps in both sets of ideas that the other might remedy. Their greatest strengths lie at different spatiotemporal scales and in different disciplinary areas, but each also has weaknesses the other does not address, particularly with regard to the mechanisms underlying proposed cyclic patterns of events. The paper ends with a sketch for a research program within which panarchical and world-systems insights might be synthesised in the study of the Great European Land-Grab, i.e., the expansion of European capitalism and its distinctive social-ecological systems over the past five centuries." (

Excerpts on Panarchy

"“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.”

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." (