Holling and his colleagues call their ideas “panarchy theory“- after Pan, the ancient Greek god of nature. Together with anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter’s ideas on complexity and social collapse, this theory helps us see our world’s tectonic stresses as part of a long-term global process of change and adaptation. It also illustrates the way catastrophe caused by such stresses could produce a surge of creativity leading to the renewal of our global civilization. Panarchy theory had its origins in Holling’s meticulous observation of the ecology of forests. He noticed that healthy forests all have an adaptive cycle of growth, collapse, regeneration, and again growth. During the early part of the cycle’s growth phase, the number of species and of individual plants and animals quickly increases, as organisms arrive to exploit all available ecological niches. The total biomass of these plants and animals grows, as does their accumulated residue of decay – for instance, the forest’s trees get bigger, and as these trees and other plants and animals die, they rot to form an ever-thickening layer of humus in the soil. Also, the flows of energy, materials, and genetic information between the forest’s organisms become steadily more numerous and complex. If we think of the ecosystem as a network, both the number of nodes in the network and the density of links between the nodes rise.
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