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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.


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What does panarchy even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

In these tumultuous times, it is hard not to wonder how we will ever recover. Well, when a dear friend recently reached out for my recommendations on self care, I shared something that helps me sleep at night: the panarchy theory. But what does panarchy even mean?

Panarchy is a term coopted by systems theorists from political scientists, who used it in the late 1800s to describe global governance patterns. As Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling state in their book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Human and Nature,  “the term [panarchy] was coined as an antithesis to the word hierarchy (literally, sacred rules). Our view is that panarchy is a framework of nature's rules, hinted at by the name of the Greek god of nature, Pan.”

Panarchy, in the systems context, emerged from environmental resource management as a way to represent the dual, and seemingly contradictory, characteristics of all complex (ecological, economic, and social) systems—stability and change. And is best described by this visual model of a continual adaptive cycle of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal. 


All systems, from the cellular to the global level, are said to go through these four stages of a dynamic adaptive cycle, as articulated by The Sustainable Scale Project:

  1. The exploitation stage is one of rapid expansion, as when a population finds a fertile niche in which to grow.
  2. The conservation stage is one in which slow accumulation and storage of energy and material are emphasized, as when a population reaches carrying capacity and stabilizes for a time.
  3. The release occurs rapidly, as when a population declines due to a competitor or changed conditions.
  4. Reorganization can also occur rapidly, as when certain members of the population are selected for their ability to survive despite the competitor or changed conditions that triggered the release.

My takeaway is that while chaos and destruction are a part of every system, periods of tumult are followed by fast growth and recovery, and, at some point, stability. Hang in there everybody!