How energy and information flows shape civilizations

Cycle of adaptive change

Adaptive cycle from Resilience Alliance modified based on Van der Leeuw (2012)
In systems ecology there is a useful heuristic model - The Adaptive Cycle - that attempts to map out cyclical change in social-ecological systems. The concept builds on observations of ecosystem and social change over time. In the original picture the y-axis stood for potential (or capital) and the x-axis said connectedness. But in this figure I have swapped out those for energy and information as the constraints of the system. This is not my idea but based on Sander E. van der Leeuw (2012) article "Global systems dynamics and policy: Lessons from the distant past" where he applies resilience thinking to social change over time, drawing on knowledge from the past.

As depicted above, in the first phase of the adaptive cycle, exploitation, society and its environment grow based on a particular form of organization that permits an increase in energy flow in exchange for an increasingly coherent institutional structure, that in turn increases its impact on the environment over time. In this phase, when resources are abundant, every individual has a chance to make something of her/his situation, and so the culture is one of individualism. However, during this time the system suppresses structural innovation and institutional change because the dominant paradigm is thought to be so effective that there is no reason for innovation.

Eventually, however, the growth curve levels off and the system’s effectiveness and growth ceases. Enter the conservation phase. The limits of expansion become apparent and society “defends itself” (state of denial) by becoming more fixated on rules and hierarchies as a consequence of the need to deal with increasing levels of conflict over resources. Bottom-up change is slowly replaced by “top-down” power over people. Fundamental change is not implemented because the system as a whole is still aligned on the pre-existing dynamics.

In the next phase, release, resources are suddenly freed up once the system reaches a tipping point and the existing structure collapses. The immediate result of that is a complete lack of institutional structure, true chaos in which the system can transform in many different ways, but none of the potentials are clear enough to give a sense of direction. People turn against how the system was structured but also show an inability to understand. Which in turn lead to a ‘fatalist’ attitude, like during the Dark Ages in Europe. 

The fourth phase is that of reorganization, a time of experiments with different forms of organization on a very local scale. Real innovation becomes possible and necessary, and small communities flourish and gather support based on an egalitarian perspective. Eventually smaller communities organize into larger structures and growth starts again. And so the cycle repeats, according to theory. 

A time of crisis

I believe that we are currently in the very last stages of the conservation phase, passed the tipping point, and now headed towards the release phase. In terms of resource depletion, it is clear we have reached our peak of extraction and we are now left with huge increases in costs of providing basic services, like freshwater, food and energy. We see an increase in conflict over limited resources, state failure and attempts to regulate and control ordinary people. The massive global debt bubble is unpayable but governments are unwilling to implement structural reform. Short term political considerations trump the long-term viability of society. Most people do not understand the full complexity of the processes going on around us. The fragmented worldview has been institutionalized through academia working in silos and only focusing on one narrow subject at a time. And don't get me started on neoliberal economics, which is simply unscientific. In society in general we have witnessed an explosion of trade in material goods and services that are utterly useless. The need is no longer for innovation to meet existing challenges, but simply to create ‘value’ to maintain the growth of the world economy (like a cancer). This is a time of crisis, when people lose faith in the system and it collapses. At the same time, people do not understand why things are getting worse and instead look for someone to blame. But the problem is not religion, ethnicity, or gender, its structural. The entire system is flawed, and will collapse.


Out of the ashes into the fire

1 comment:

  1. Hi Fenixor,

    I visit your site from time to time to get a young "INFORMED" persons take on the current state of affairs.As usual, I was not disappointed. The tragedy unfolding before us is truly breathtaking. I deem this to be "The Time In Between." Shortly, a massive amount of pent up negative energy is going to be unleashed where even the most moronic will be unable to deny it.
    I generally don't recommend books for two reasons, one most people don't/can't read in the first place (not in your case) and two, everyone has different tastes and interests. However, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's latest "Antifragile" is a real gem and a major extension of his book "THe Black Swan." The work is extremely insightful, out of the box and in my estimation, thee most important work regarding risk and probabilities. It dovetails wonderfully with your latest article. Check it out if you have a chance.
    Perhaps a future blog may be derived from thoughts on this work.
    Keep up the great work!
    Bill Sodomsky