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Green Building Design and Delivery

“Anarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems” is a book which has been edited by Lance H.Gunderson and C.H.Holling. The book went into press in 2002 and has a collection of articles on various topics related to sustainability by leading and exalted thinkers on the subject.

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The Island Press, which happens to be the trademark of the Center for Resource Economics in the United States, has printed and distributed this book in Washington, Covelo and London. 3 chapters of this book have been selected for critical reviewing: The Chapter One, In quest of a theory of adaptive change, by C.S. Holling, Lance H. Gunderson and D.Ludwig, Chapter 2, Resilience and adaptive cycles, by Holling and Gunderson and Chapter 14, Planning for resilience: scenarios, surprises and branch points by Gilberto C.Gallopin.

What is Panarchy?

Before starting on the real review, understanding the term ‘panarchy’ seems relevant. Panarchy consists of nature’s rules and was taken from the Greek God of nature, Pan, who has the image of unpredictable change (Bunnell, The Resilience Alliance site). The adaptive cycle and the presence of multiple connections in panarchies distinguish them from hierarchies. Panarchies have systems of humans (business, capitalism) and nature (forests) and combined human-nature systems (systems of humans for dealing with natural resources eg. Forest service).

These systems are inter-related in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal. Panarchies have integrative theories which help us to understand rapidly unfolding processes and slow changes in economic, social and ecological systems (Bunnell, The Resilience Alliance Site).

By understanding the cycles and their scales, researchers can identify the points at which a system is capable of accepting positive change, and can use those reference points to foster resilience and sustainability within the system. Holling, Gunderson and Ludwig examine panarchy and how it can be applied to humans, nature and the human-nature combination systems. They also try to identify adaptive approaches to management, fully recognizing uncertainty and encouraging innovation while remembering to foster resilience in large and small systems.

Adaptive changes are discussed in the chapter ‘In quest of a theory of adaptive change”. Policies and investments for sustainable construction are really an integration of the evolutionary theory with ecological, political and institutional ideas. Unsustainable practices abound due to the inadequacies of each field. People have world views which are not totally practical and thereby expose inadequacy due to being caricatures of reality.

The caricatures of reality or myths are five according to the authors in the “Quest for a Theory of Adaptive Change”. These myths are the nature flat, nature balanced, nature anarchic, nature resilient and nature evolving.

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Nature Evolving Theory of Adaptive Change

This complex adaptive system theory is the most promising of theories and developed by John Holland. Developmental biologists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, physicists, economists, ecologists and computer specialists are coming together to form integrative theories of adaptive changes. Mathematical, economical and social systems are now employing this new nature evolving theory to investigate, generate and select novelty. Marco Jannsen is exploring the perspectives of future behaviour using the theory.

Chapter 2 expands on the nature evolving theory of adaptive change. The organisation and dynamics of complex adaptive systems with regard to ecosystem management are discussed. Natural, disturbed and managed ecosystems have been identified here. It has been observed that change is not continuous and gradual or chaotic always. Episodes of change are accompanied by the gradual accumulation of biomass,

physical structures and nutrients. Disturbances are in the form of internal or external causes and could be natural catastrophes or human imposed ones. The changes resulting could be irreversible or slowly reversible through proper management. Sometimes even with positive management, the required change may not occur. Critical processes would

function at different rates. Episodic behaviour occurs due to interactions between the fast and slow variables. It is not just a matter of accumulation… Stochastic forces mediate the movement between the fast and slow variables.

Obviously the nature evolving theory is the most reliable among the five theories. We must think in terms of adaptability and flexibility to change. Uncertainty and surprises must be foreseen and shrewdly negotiated to buffer disturbances and create novelty for opening up opportunities for development. The system cannot exist if adaptive continuity is lost. A productive system must acquire and accumulate resources with an eye on their future potential. Stabilising and destabilizing factors must be balanced so that the internal controls and external variability are similarly balanced. The system resilience maintains a changing balance between vulnerability and persistence and so it has to be a changing quantity.

Stabilising and destabilising forces decide the change that would occur. The former maintain productivity and biogeochemical cycles while the latter are responsible for maintaining diversity, resilience and opportunity. Fixed rules are not the solution. Ecosystems are moving targets and require a flexible management system which is adaptive and experimental. The features of nature resilient and nature evolving come into play.

Engineering resilience and Ecosystem resilience

Engineering resilience is reached in a situation where stability focusses on efficiency, control, constancy and predictability, all of which are attributes to a fail-safe design and apt performance and works in systems where uncertainty is low. However the same is not the picture seen in systems where variability and novelty provide a high degree of uncertainty, causing a counterproductive outcome.

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Ecosystem resilience is achieved when the disturbances are absorbed by the system without any obvious change at first and when the disturbance is of high magnitude, changes in the system occurs and could even change variables or processes which affect behavior. It is interesting to note that issues in the environment for global change, biodiversity, ecosystem restoration and sustainable development all depend on the interplay between the stabilizing and destabilizing forces.

Engineering resilience speaks of the efficiency of the system while ecosystem resilience speaks of the existence of function. The traditional deductive mathematical theory of simplified, untouched ecosystems has made way for the engineering resilience theory. The stability domain definition of resilience or ecosystem resilience comes from applied mathematics and applied resource ecology. The dynamics and management of freshwater systems, forests, fisheries and lakes use the ecosystem resilience. The studies conducted in these ecosystems used the inductive theory rather than the deductive one. The example of the spruce-fir forests and insect outbreaks is an eye opener to the adaptive cycle.

Eco-system resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks. It is the capacity of a system to experience disturbance and still maintain ongoing functions and controls. Potential determines how far the system can go. The connectedness decides the extent to which the system controls its own destiny. Resilience decides how vulnerable the system is to unexpected disturbances and surprises that exceed or break the control.

Adaptive Cycle

The adaptive cycle therefore has 3 properties. There must be a potential for change, a degree of connectedness (which measures the flexibility) and resilience. Ecosystems are controlled by exploitation which is fast and conservation which is slow. Rapid growth occurs in the former and slow growth in the latter. In a business enterprise, the entrepreneurial market would be the exploitation and the conservation would be the bureaucratic hierarchy. To understand the ecosystem better, the functions of release and reorganization have to be considered. The release could occur due to forest fires, drought, insect pests or intense grazing. Reorganization occurs through innovation and restructuring. In a socio-economic system, the accumulating potential could be the skills of humans, the networks of relationships and mutual trust.

The adaptive cycle show 2 loops: the front one is the slow incremental phase and predictable with higher degrees of certainty while the back loop represents the rapid phase of reorganization and renewal which is highly unpredictable and uncertain. The first increases production and accumulation to the maximum and the second maximizes

invention and reassortment. A theoretical relationship between the two is not understood, however, the two may be sequentially related.

Alternative Stable States

Alternative stable states are also known. Meta-dynamic populations, shallow lakes, reefs, forest fires, sea otters and urchins in the kelp forests are all independent

factors which produce alternative stable states. Loss of an important component could eliminate a stable state which was within the system of multiple states. This explains the problem of species extinction and the evolution of new species. Advent of humans in Australia has caused the extinction of more than fifty marsupials and birds and turtles. At the same time, the grazing ground of these herbivores also showed a decreased fragmentation in the vegetation which increased the possibility of bush fires. Frequent fires could allow the evolution of fire tolerant plants.

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High resilience

When connectedness is low, novelty and creative experimentation are possible. This situation produces high resilience. A reorganization occurs to allow potential for subsequent growth, accumulation of resources and storage. This high resilience is also associated with internal regulation. However this is a ‘leaky phase’ whereby other unexpected changes can occur. In a forest where partial deforestation was done, nutrient loss was discovered in the water flowing in the area. This recovered within a few weeks and the co-system was back to normal.

Adaptive change

Adaptive change produces better ‘species’ along the way through competitiveness between entrepreneurs. This refers to business and nature. The ones fastest off the start and the most aggressive ones survive. The greatest variety of species is seen during the intermediate phases. As further adaptation occurs, the weaker ones let go. Ecological resilience also changes alongside. Surprises and disturbances are dealt with efficiently.

The potential for growth can suffer if resilience is not steady. If the process is prolonged, chaotic behaviour can result. Periodic experimentation causes diversity till resilience results. Unexpected associations and recombinations in this phase make it difficult to predict which events would finally survive to control further renewal. The skills and expertise remain for future utilization.

Is ecosystem management possible?

A successful eco-system model is not available now for eco–system management. Mathematical models and analytical tractable models have been described for various eco-systems. The limits of the adaptive cycle metaphor are tested using the 3 properties of the potential for change, connectivity and resilience. Social or cultural potential is measured using the network of relationships between people and institutions of governance. This is the culture capital. Foresight potential which depends on the unique self-awareness and cognitive abilities is the one ability which separates human systems from eco-systems. An eco-system with high connectedness is not influenced by external variability. Internal regulatory processes mediate the variability or by direct human activity. Warm blooded animals show strong connectedness.

An adaptive cycle has 4 key features. The potential marked by ecosystem structure, productivity, network of relationships, inventions and mutations; increases in steps along with increased efficiency and rigidity. As the potential enhances, slow changes expose increasing vulnerability to fire, insect outbreak, competition, opposing groups and stockholder problems. When uncertainty is great and controls are weak, innovations occur at intervals so that new combinations result. Some of the tested innovations fail and some persist leading to successful growth. The adaptive cycle has waxing and waning periods accompanied by differing predictability.

External variability

The manipulation of eternal variability involves 3 strategies. One can live passively with external variability and adapting through evolution. The next involves the active control of external variability minimizing the internal influences. The third is to anticipate, create and manipulate variability. The pelagic open water communities and the savannas represent the passively living systems while the second concept of active control is representative of large enterprises and bureaucracies.

The invention and progress of the telephone system has been described in detail to show the effects of the adaptive cycle. The various aspects of the cycle with its changes caused by repeated threats and competition, potential, connectedness and resilience have been elaborate and are a fitting example of a system.

Maladaptive consequences due to loss of resilience can cause a shift to an irreversible state or slowly recovering state. Of the resilience, even if ecological resilience subsides, engineering resilience could have matters handled. Short term success can topple matters in the long run.

Gunderson described a pathology that arose out of the inept handling of management agencies, industries and the society. Management agencies in the attempt to become efficient may end up rigid, the industries become dependent and inflexible and the society loses trust.

Some systems do not conform to the adaptive cycle: tectonic plate dynamics, arid land (where the ecosystem is influenced by unexpected external forces with little internal regulation accompanied by highly adaptive responses to opportunity), productive temperate forests (with predictable outputs, some internal regulation and some external variability), warm blooded organisms and some human systems (entrepreneurial business and some future markets).

Planning for resilience (Gilberto C.Gallopin)

Sustainable development is defined as the development that ‘seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future’ (World Commission of Environment and Development [WCED], 1987). The same goal has been adopted by the Earth Summit of 1992 and the Climate negotiations that started in Kyoto, 1997.

The question arises as to whether we are on a sustainable or an unsustainable path. A high level of uncertainty and unpredictability accompany the magnitude of rapid global change, the enhancing connectedness of the social and natural systems, rising complexities of society and their increasing influence upon the biosphere. Current trends seem to be of the unsustainable path and a decision was taken at the Earth Summit to change these.

Classical approaches of compartmentalization only worsen environmental and developmental issues. Willingness, understanding and capacity happen to be the main hurdles. The unwillingness or lack of political will to implement changes that are extremely necessary is one obstacle. Powerful lobbies, vested interests and human competition loom large over solidarity and cooperation. Even if willingness is present in political circles, there is a lack of understanding behaviour of complex systems. Insufficient capacity to execute the actions and changes is the third hurdle. So three pillars of decisions have to be made to make way for sustainable development.

Complexity of human interactions the world over is increasing due to ontological factors (the rate at which changes are occurring affects far away nations too), epidemiological changes (the modern scientific awareness of complex systems) and changes in decision making. The scenario approach helps to obtain a view of the uncertain future. Fifteen international and multi-disciplined professionals developed the Global Scenario. Possibilities and threats are envisioned by them.

A transition to sustainability is possible as new policies and values are designed keeping the threats in mind. Economic growth, social progress, environmental quality and conflicts of the future are defined and the forces influencing these like key factors, trends, focal issues, decisions which determine outcomes are considered. Some of these forces cause uncertainties.

The scenarios describe the current position, the driving forces, strategic invariants and uncertainties. The changes from time to time are then determined. ‘Population growth, economic growth, technological change, changes in governance,

Equity trends, resource depletion and environmental change’ have been described by Gallopin as basic drivers of change. Increasing life expectancies and child bearing age in developing countries are expected to cause a rapid population growth in the next 30 years. Developing countries show a higher economic growth rate than industrial countries even though the per capita income is less. Per capita consumption of raw materials and energy has reached a plateau in industrial countries while it is still rising in developing countries. Rising consumption causes more environmental degradation.

Gallopin’s Global Scenarios

The scenarios were grouped into three; the conventional worlds which are not different from the present situation, the Barbarisation worlds which showed complete deterioration and the Great Transition Worlds which incorporated solutions for sustainability. The Great Transition worlds describe 2 positive worlds, ecocommunalism and a new sustainability paradigm.

Gallopin compares his Global scenarios with the adaptive cycles of Holling, Gunderson and Ludwig. The assumptions in the adaptive cycles are as follows. Kinetic capital is the active free form for doing work and construction of buildings. The potential capital is the stored form which is not available for use till released. Total capital is finite.

Connectedness between the various parts of a system can be made strong through the negative feedback couplings. The kinetic capital can be transformed into potential capital. A few elements and relations can be increased. Efficiency can be increased by dealing with expected problems. The autonomy regarding environment or external forces can be increased. Connectedness is directly related to rigidity and fragility. Vulnerability and unexpected conditions result. The system can collapse due to overconnectedness.

Collapse is accompanied by the release of capital which is then utilized by the forces that stimulated the collapse. Strong negative feedback interactions between elements are replaced by transient strong positive feedback interactions. When kinetic capital is used up, the destructive process stops. The collapse is followed by a rapid decline in total connectedness. The couplings get untangled. Some capital

remains entangled within the remains of the old structure. Time would elapse before this potential capital is released into kinetic capital. The phase of low connectedness and capital becoming kinetic are associated with reorganisation of the system. Seeds of new organization appear. When kinetic capital is sufficient, the exploitation phase sets the system into a repeating adaptive cycle or a new one with a different adaptive cycle.

Gallopin’s scenarios are discussed with reference to the adaptive cycles. The progression from the exploitation phase to the conservation phase is similar to the Reference scenario. Overall resilience is being lost. Resources are being depleted and connectedness is increasing. The total size of the human component is increasing. Additional vulnerability is also found. The increasing inner tensions due to the inequities are probably associated with the dominant elements and relationships in the global system. It is not a matter of connectedness that exists in the scenario but a disharmony or conflict between subsystems.

The Policy Reform scenario can be considered an attempt to keep the global system at the peak of the conservation phase if interpreted according to the adaptive cycle. This is done by moderating and regulating resource consumption and utilization and reducing internal tensions caused by inequities. In a successful global system, the capital would mostly be in the potential form, efficiency of resource use would be high and connectedness would also be high. In the adaptive cycle, this scenario would be interpreted as ‘an accident waiting to happen’. The policy reforms defining the scenario, when interpreted by the adaptive cycle just postpones the risk of collapse, instead of eliminating it. Efficiency, connectedness, resource throughput are increased even if the tensions of inequities are diminished.

The barbarization scenario implies a reduction in connectedness and severe discontinuities. When the level of civilization decreases, the bounded capital becomes available to revolters in the form of vacated buildings and debris.

The Breakdown scenario is assimilated to the complete breakdown of systems. The couplings are unraveled and new ones occur. Civilisation collapses totally. Capital would be all kinetic. After the reorganization, either a new exploitation phase begins or the system goes into resilient degradation.

The Fortress world scenario is interpreted as an attempt to prevent the global system from receding into the omega phase. Capital is released and connectedness is also diminished. Internal tensions are high due to inequities. This scenario is unstable. A collapse could turn the scenario into the Breakdown type. The fortress world could arise from the reorganization of the Barbarisation scenario. It would be consistent with a repetition of the same adaptive cycle.

Ecocommunalism could arise in two ways. The present world should be completely dismantled with reduction in population and its growth. It could also arise from reorganization from a collapse seen at the end of the Barbarization scenario. Seen from the angle of the adaptive cycle paradigm, ecocommunalism could be understood to be between the exploitation and conservation phases. Overconnectedness, total use and sequestering of capital are avoided. Diversity and slack are seen.

The New Sustainability Paradigm

The most interesting scenario interpreted by the assimilation to the adaptive cycle is the New Sustainability Paradigm. This emerges out of a new understanding of sustainability challenge or as a reaction to a catastrophe or threat. It cannot occur due to a release or reorganization but can evolve from a drastic institutional reorganization and

and a recouping of basic human values. Lifestyle changes, growth stabilization of the population and dematerialisation of economy are found. Capital would be in the potential form. What is liberated would be the cultural and spiritual capital. Societal reorganization is seen here. The high connectedness would be reduced through decentralization and establishing self organizing units. The New Sustainability Paradigm starts a cycle from exploitation to conservation using cultural, spiritual, material and technological capital.

This scenario also uses a different kind of capital which is not material or exhaustible: human capital. The connectedness changes from rigid to flexible. Governance is decentralized and uses cooperative techniques. Large inequities disturb the functioning.


Meeting the challenge of sustainability appears to the most complex task in society. Despite efforts by many researchers, success is yet to materialize in the integration of several disciplines to a system of transformational, continual, adaptive cycles. The authors of the first two chapters have tried to develop and test a theory of regional sustainability which would explain transformational change in the human and natural systems.

They speak about ecological, economic and social dynamics. Holling et al (2002) used the term ‘panarchy’ to distinguish systems in ‘hierarchy’ which are different from each other in two aspects. Panarchy explains the adaptive and evolutionary nature of systems expressed as interactive adaptive cycles. Four phases are evident: exploitation, conservation, release or destruction and reorganisation. The phases become evident due to the double-loop connections between three properties of systems namely accumulation of potential, degree of connectedness of the elements and resilience. Planning for resilience is the main requirement.

The adaptive cycles provide ample openings for frequent reorganization. Ecosystems function at different levels as multiple equilibria like predation, reproduction, competition and nutrient dynamics are involved. A successful eco-system model is not yet available for sustaining ecosystem resilience.

Gallopin has highlighted the challenges of resource management and the experiences of managers of this world in the subject of sustainability and equity. He further elaborates the ‘scenarios’ that have been experienced by ecosystem managers and which have given us ideas of what the future could hold. He compares the scenarios to the adaptive cycle of Holling et al. The most promising scenario seems to be the New Sutainability Paradigm.

I am overwhelmed by the wealth of information that I received in the process of reading the chapters. Management of ecosystems has much to fall back on. The abundance of ideas and information would make way for newer theories and more feasible managements of ecosystems and better techniques for engineering resilience and eco-resilience. Resources, raw and otherwise, need to be managed well. The full impact of the information technology revolution, the biotechnology revolution

and the materials revolution is uncertain though all are still growing. Rights of individuals are being highlighted and global capital markets which could hold even strong currencies to ransom are the present trends. Inequity is the trend possible in the coming decades. Another problem is the depletion of renewable resources like fresh water, fisheries, arable land and forests. Resources are harvested faster than they can be replenished. Rising pollution and environmental changes are posing a global health problem. Increased emission of greenhouse gas is creating a change in the climate.

Literacy, income and health are improving while violence, infertility and cognitive disabilities are seen increasing. Mere theory will not help the future generations. Rapid action must be taken with a practical concept, with the scientific backing of multiple disciplines, to save the Earth and its future generations from the harmful consequences of our present inadequacies.


Bunnell, Paul; (2002), Panarchy. Web.

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