Sources and Resources for Our Panarchic Future


Note: Following are the endnotes from the excerpted portions of Chapters 9 and 10 of Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down. Page numbers refer to the article as it was laid out in the March/April 2009 issue of World Watch magazine.


Page 8


"Holling and his colleagues call their ideas ‘panarchy theory'...."


The best single short summary of panarchy theory is C. S. Holling, "Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems," Ecosystems 4, no. 5 (2001): 390-405. A complete treatment is offered in Lance Gunderson and C. S. Holling, eds., Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002). Also see Lance Gunderson, C. S. Holling, and Stephen Light, eds., Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); and Fikret Berkes, Johan Colding, and Carl Folke, eds., Navigating Social- Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


Page 9


"And all these changes represent what Holling calls greater ‘potential'...."


Holling, "Understanding," 394. In thermodynamic terms, Holling's "potential" corresponds to physicists' concept of "exergy," which is an energy form's capacity to do work. See the discussion of energy quality in chapter 2 and the associated endnotes.


"It becomes, as Holling says, ‘an accident waiting to happen'...."


C. S. Holling, "Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems," Ecosystems 4, no. 5 (2001).


Page 10


"'The adaptive cycle,' Holling writes, ‘embraces two opposities....'"


Holling, "Understanding," p. 395.


"The shape looks like a distorted figure eight...."


The image of the adaptive cycle in the accompanying figure is a modification of that used in articles by Holling and other panarchy theorists. It ensures that the characteristics of the cycle particularly relevant to the present discussion can be easily seen and understood. Specifically, in this figure's back loop, potential, connectedness, and resilience are shown to collapse simultaneously almost to zero. Then potential and resilience recover first, before connectedness. In contrast, in the schemas of panarchy theorists, potential generally collapses first. Then, while potential partially recovers, connectedness and resilience decline. Once connectedness reaches zero, potential collapses a second time, while resilience falls rapidly to zero. At this point both potential and connectivity begin to grow again in the adaptive cycle's front loop.


"If they do-if they are ‘aligned at the same phase of vulnerability,' to use Holling's phrase...."


Holling, "Understanding," p. 399.


Page 11


"Its core idea-that systems naturally grow, become more brittle, collapse, and then renew themselves...."


This idea reappears in many domains of thought. For instance, "The Chinese have traditionally interpreted their past as a series of dynastic cycles in which successive dynasties repeat a boringly repetitious story: a heroic founding, a period of great power, then a long decline, and finally total collapse." See John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and Albert Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 70. In economics, the idea of regular cycles occurs in neo-Schumpeterian analyses of innovation and in Kondratieff long-wave theories of technological change. See for instance, R. U. Ayres, Technological Transformations and Long Waves (Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, 1989); and Arnulf Grubler and Nebojsa Nakicenovic, "Long Waves, Technology Diffusion, and Substitution," International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Review 14, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 313-42. A comprehensive summary of grand theories of societal change is Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah, eds., Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: Perspectives on Individual, Social, and Civilizational Change (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).


Page 12


"In the meantime, internal tectonic stresses-including worsening scarcity of our best source of high-quality energy, conventional oil...."


"Periods of success carry the seeds of subsequent downfall, because they allow stresses and rigidities to accumulate." Holling, "Understanding," p. 399.


"In 1984 the German historian Alexander Demandt listed more than 200 different explanations for Rome's fall...."


Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms: Die Auflösung des Römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt (Munich: Beck, 1984), 695. Some explanations of Rome's fall are worth special note. The historian Ramsay MacMullen argues that endemic corruption and proliferating patron-client relations eroded norms of public honor and responsibility to the commonweal, and in so doing undermined the broader conception of the empire's purpose. F. W. Walbank stresses the inability of Roman society and economy to innovate, which polarized the society between antagonistic upper and lower classes. And Michael Grant highlights three sets of "disunities" that split Roman society apart: conflict between the military and the state (exacerbated by the absence of a succession mechanism for the emperor) and between the people and the military; alienation of the productive classes from the state, especially because of excessive taxation; and the increasing corruption, inefficiency, and rigidity of an expanding bureaucracy. For the most part, contemporary scholars regard Edward Gibbon's famous treatment of Rome's decline as of merely historiographic interest; it does not provide a clear or coherent thesis on the causes of Rome's fall. See MacMullen, Corruption and the Decline of the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Walbank, The Awful Revolution; Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal (Radnor, PA: The Annenberg School of Communication Press, 1976); and David Jordan, "Gibbon and the Fall of Rome," chapter 7 in Gibbon and His Roman Empire (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 213-30.


"And, at least in the Western part of the empire, it didn't make this transition successfully."


The story in the eastern Roman empire was markedly different, involving a directed and systematic simplification of institutions, including the government and the military. See T. F. H. Allen, Joseph Tainter, and Thomas Hoekstra, Supply-Side Sustainability (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), Supply-Side Sustainability, pp. 122-36.


Page 13


"Sometime in the 1960s the United States crossed a critical threshold...."


Cutler Cleveland, "An Exploration of Alternative Measures of Natural Resource Scarcity: The Case of Petroleum Resources in the U.S.," Ecological Economics 7 (1993): pp. 123-57.


"Based on current trends, global output of goods and services will quadruple...."


The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates that world GDP (purchasing power parity) in 2005 was $60 trillion. See


Page 14


"And finally, as our EROI declines in coming decades...."


. Tainter and his coauthors write that compared with high-EROI societies, low-EROI systems "may capture even more energy, but, because they must capture it from more extensive sources, organization is required to aggregate resources. The Roman empire exemplifies this. Late in its history, the empire greatly expanded its organizational control to amass the dispersed resources needed to survive." Joseph Tainter et al., "Resource Transitions and Energy Gain: Contexts of Organization," Conservation Ecology 7, no. 3 (2003), available at


"In short, in coming decades our resource and environmental problems will become progressively harder to solve...."


The proposition that there is a positive correlation between the complexity of a problem, the complexity of actors generating solutions to the problem, and the complexity of the solutions themselves is derived from a principle that theorists call the "law of requisite variety." According to this law, a successful adaptive system must have a repertoire of behaviors at least as wide as the range of behaviors expressed by its surrounding environment. To widen its repertoire of behaviors, in turn, an adaptive system must increase its internal complexity. See Yaneer Bar-Yam, "Multiscale Variety in Complex Systems," Complexity 9, no. 4 (2004): 37-45; and Elinor Ostrom, "Designing Complexity to Govern Complexity," in Property Rights and the Environment, eds. Susan Hanna and Mohan Munasinghe (Washington, DC: Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics and the World Bank, 1995).


"One of the world's most crowded countries, Holland has a heavily industrialized, energy-intensive, high-consumption economy...."


At almost four hundred people per square kilometer, the Netherlands ranks fourth in population density, if we don't count city-states and islands. Using 2005 population estimates, and including in national land area inland water bodies (lakes, reservoirs, and rivers), the world's most densely populated countries are Bangladesh (1,002 people per square kilometer), Taiwan (636), and South Korea (491).

"These have included block-by-block urban residential communities...."


The Dutch system of pumping stations is described by Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 519-20.


"It's a small, ethnically homogeneous society with relatively low economic inequality...."


The Dutch have a term-maakbaar-that doesn't translate well into English, but means something like "moldable" or "creatable." Things that were maakbaar can be molded or shaped at will, and until the past fifteen years or so the Dutch commonly accepted that Holland's citizens and Dutch society were maakbaar. More recently, with Holland's chronic and sometimes violent friction between native Dutch and new (often Muslim) immigrants, the term has been used with a certain degree of skepticism or even irony. Still, compared with people in many other societies, the Dutch are far more receptive to intrusive social policies designed to improve or defend the common good.


Page 15

"Also, today's Holland maintains its comfortable lifestyle by importing energy, food, ...."


The historian William McNeill notes that the Dutch are "among the world's largest per capita importers of timber, most of it tropical hardwoods from Southeast Asia," and that they maintain their livestock largely with imported fodder. "They can survive handsomely and harmoniously in part because the deforestation, soil erosion, and degradation associated with cutting timber, growing cocoa, and soya happen in Indonesia, West Africa, and Brazilian Amazonia, not in the Netherlands." McNeill, "Diamond in the Rough: Is There a Genuine Environmental Threat to Security?" International Security 30, no. 1 (Summer 2005): 190. On the "Netherlands fallacy," see also Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future (Washington, DC: Island, 2004), 100.


"As energy prices rise, we'll first see cutbacks on long-distance travel and trade."


There is a direct link between energy costs and the level of international trade. Indeed, the surge in global trade in the 1960s and 1990s can be attributed as much to low energy prices as to tariff cuts. Research by economists at the World Bank and elsewhere indicates that a 25 percent increase in fuel prices leads to a 10 percent increase in freight rates, which in turn can depress international trade by about 5 percent. Even with the modest energy-price increases we've seen up to 2006, manufacturers are already rethinking their globalized production models. Some North American manufacturers are considering bringing factories closer to consumers-transferring them back from China to Mexico, for instance-  because of rising long-distance transportation costs. See Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal, "Soaring Oil Prices Will Make the World Rounder," CIBC World Markets: Occasional Report #55 (October 19, 2005), available at On likely future restrictions of travel because of energy costs and environmental considerations, see Andrew Curry, et  al., Intelligent Infrastructure Futures: The Scenarios-Towards 2055 (London: Foresight Programme, Office of Science and Technology, 2005).


"Instead of becoming increasingly ‘flat' as barriers to commerce and economic integration disappear...."


Thomas Friedman argues that the world is evolving toward a largely frictionless global economy, in which anyone anywhere can compete against anyone else. He is right that electronic barriers to entry to international commerce may continue to decline as information technology improves. Tasks that can be digitized and broken into components may continue to be distributed widely around the planet. But a truly "flat" world economy requires trade of huge quantities of raw materials and manufactured goods-and therefore abundant low-cost energy. See Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).


"Collapse in this case is so catastrophic...."


Holling calls a system's capacity for regeneration its "memory."


"'The only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large....'"


C. S. Holling, "From Complex Regions to Complex Worlds," Ecology and Society 9, No. 1 (2004), available at