I was desperately tired when I was trying to write my Year of Guys post last night, and I ran out of steam explaining the concept of panarchy.  So today, on the cusp of my 60th birthday, feeling slightly fatalistic about my survival, I want to leave my 50s with a clear statement of what’s important to me.

Buzz Holling, the Canadian ecologist and systems thinker, is a real hero of mine.  It was he, along with some colleagues, who in 2002, came up with the word “panarchy” to describe the complex interactions of various ecological and social phenomena.  From the Resilience Alliance website (http://www.resalliance.org) comes this useful explanation of panarchy :

“The term was created as an antithesis to the word hierarchy in its original meaning of a set of sacred rules.  Panarchy is a framework of nature’s rules, hinted at by the name of the Greek god of nature – Pan – whose persona also evokes an image of unpredictable change.   Since the essential focus of  Panarchy is to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable,  Holling et al. (2002) draw on the notion of hierarchies of influences between embedded scales, that is pan-archies, to represent structures that sustain experiments, test its results and allow adaptive evolution.

Two features distinguish a panarchic representation from traditional hierarchical ones. The first is the importance of the adaptive cycle and, in particular the a phase as the engine of variety and the generator of new experiments within each level.  The second is the connections between levels. There are potentially multiple connections between phases at one level and phases at another level, but two are most significant in our search for the meaning of sustainability.  Those are the connections labeled as Revolt and Remember (figure 1).

The fast levels invent, experiment and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful, surviving experiments. The whole panarchy is both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combines learning with continuity.”

To me, this is a persuasive model of natural transfiguration – of how accumulated information, over time, gets recombined in new ways.  Such transfigurations can be apocalyptic (see yesterday’s post about the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse), or they can be stunningly beautiful.

Of the many examples of beautiful transfigurations that occur in nature, none is more awesome and mysterious than the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  It is one of the most easily observed natural transfigurations we know, and it may be one of the best metaphors for the present state of the human condition we have.

Let’s imagine humankind as the caterpillar.  Now in this metaphorical transfiguration, the caterpillar does not represent a single human being, but rather all of humanity.  And this caterpillar’s habitat is not just a few milkweed plants, but the entire Planet Earth.  Caterpillars have one dominant activity: they eat.  They consume.  They consume up to three hundred times their weight in a single day, bloating themselves through several molts.  Eventually they go to sleep with their final skin hardening into a chrysalis.

What happens next is simultaneously horrifying, mysterious and beautiful: inside the chrysalis, groups of cells set aside early in the caterpillar’s embryonic development called imaginal disks, start to link with each other. When these imaginal disks mature, they take over the body of the caterpillar, overwhelming its immune system, and making it dissolve into a nutritive soup that feeds the developing butterfly.  The transfigured caterpillar – now a butterfly – is unrecognizable by sight as having any relationship whatsoever to its first incarnation.  It can only be recognized at the cellular level.

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I am an optimist by temperament, but what one would probably call a pragmatist by intellectual orientation.  I do not have a prediction for how quickly and in exactly what manner industrial civilization will change over the coming decades, though I am sure it will change.  As I contemplate my capacities at age 60, the maturity and productivity of my wife and daughters, the potential of my grandson Silas,


I am drawn to the words of the great Donella Meadows, written very near the end of her life in 2001:

“If we believe that it’s effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUVs while they last — well, then yes, it’s over. That’s the one way of believing and behaving that gives us a guaranteed outcome.”

“Personally, I don’t believe that stuff at all. I don’t see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants polar bears and three-year-olds in our world. We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there’s something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls.”

I, and the rest of the world, have miles to go before we sleep.