Life Cycle of Ecological Systems

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By Nafeez Ahmed:

“As defined pre-eminently by the late ecologist CS Holling — who identified four stages in the growth and decline of a system, which we can apply to industrial civilization.

The first stage is growth. Industrial civilization has experienced its most rapid period of growth over around 200 years or so from the nineteenth century until the late twentieth century. But this growth stage did not begin in the nineteenth century. If we use the data put forward by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, the crucial moment began in the 1600s, coinciding with the colonization of the Americas, and the emergence of trans-Atlantic slavery.

The second stage of conservation — during which a system self-consolidates reaching a phase of stability — appeared shortly after the Second World War. It reached its strongest point of stasis between 1970 and the early 2000s, but even within this period, the seeds of decline began to be detectable in the slow-down in growth rates and many other trends.

During this conservation stage, the structural racism of the preceding centuries experienced degrees of rehabilitation and reconfiguration, as the system’s expansion generated new arenas of conflict. The pressures and demands of industrial capitalist growth played key roles in the transition away from slavery toward new forms of wage-labour organization, with a need to absorb Black people and minorities into the circuits of fossil fuel-dependent capital accumulation in new ways. The combination of mass struggles with internal socio-economic and cultural changes helped drive the concessional legislative victories of the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

By the 1990s, the ‘Otherizing’ dynamics of the expanding system were focused increasingly on external rather than internal ‘enemies’. The system shifted from the exaggerated threat of external Communists, toward making ‘sense’ of the increasing geopolitical fractures across key areas in the Muslim world from the Middle East to Central Asia where the world’s largest reserves of fossil fuels can be found.

At some point in the twenty-first century, we began to enter Holling’s third stage, the release phase — a period of uncertainty and chaos as the system begins to decline. The weakening of the global system is visible most clearly in the mounting evidence of Earth system disruption, but is particularly conspicuous in the system’s inability to sustain the material growth rates that brought its current structures into existence.

As Earth system crisis has accelerated, it has increasingly destabilized the human systems we have taken for granted in recent decades during the previous relatively stable conservation phase.

One of the most obvious dynamics we are seeing in this release phase is the heightening of ‘Otherization’ through the stale, broken lens of ‘national security’: instead of recognizing the sequence of crises as a global systemic crisis, our institutions — built from the sinews of slavery and empire — are focused instead on symptoms, on the upheaval of peoples, on the unravelling of nations, on the weakening of the liberal order, and how these threaten the power relations that enable business-as-usual; so the locus of response is not system change, but escalating violence to crush those visible surface symptoms, those peoples, those nations, that liberal order, to defend the business-as-usual that seemed to be working so wonderfully a few decades ago.

As we are entering deeper into the release phase, human system destabilization is accelerating these ‘Otherizing’ dynamics. One of its outcomes is the eruption, the laying bare, of: the structural racism at the heart of this system; the increasing unbearableness of the consequences of this racism; and the tremendous, latent violence on which this system is premised.

Yet there is another dimension of the release stage that is crucial to recall. As the prevailing system declines, breaks down, weakens, elicits the unleashing of rage and angst, this very process of weakening creates a clearing of systemic uncertainty. That systemic uncertainty opens up new possibilities for change, where small perturbations in the system can have deep impacts in a way they could not do during the first and second phases of growth and conservation.

This is what I call the global phase shift. This is the transition point where small, local actions can have wider, accumulative, system-wide effects. This is the moment where each of our choices has a momentous, history-forging potential.

Because we are at the cusp of what Holling saw as a fourth stage in the life cycle of a system: reorganization.

As we move toward this fourth stage in the last stages of the life cycle of industrial civilization, the choices each of us make during the global phase shift play an integral role in determining the structures, values, behavioural patterns, and relationships of an emergent system, which will then form the basis of a new systemic life cycle for human civilization.

The decisions we make right now will plant the seeds for the task of rebuilding, redesigning, and recreating the next life cycle for our species.

This has quite profound implications.

It means that many structures we see around us at this moment are destined to disappear, one way or another. Many of them are already experiencing interlocking, cascading failures. We need to accept the demise of those systems which, through their own brittleness, stubbornness, and narcissism, are incapable of change. There will be terrible fallout from this process and we need to do all we can to mitigate the impacts.

Simultaneously, we need to also cast our gaze ahead, toward what we need to create, toward the new life-patterns we are being called to bring into being, the new relationships, the new values.

We will need to bring forth all our creativity and wisdom; we will need to do our best to stop thinking in silos, and to see the world in its complex intersectionality; we will need to integrate our struggles in unfamiliar ways, not just through public statements, but through new institution-changing actions; we will need to reflect really deeply on how changing and upgrading our perceptions translates into changing and upgrading who we are and how we are, across all our relationships; and we will need to roll up our sleeves and work together across multiple sectors and systems to scale up how we can leverage that process to create transformative conditions for the flourishing of life, by challenging ourselves as well as challenging prevailing unequal, destructive, narcissistic power structures, especially those within our reach.” (