with transformation: What we can learn from natural systems 

Options Magazine, Summer 2010: 

Society is now at a stage in history in which one pulse is ending and another beginning.

 © Raphaël Thiémard | Creative Commons

Global economic crisis, biofuels tightening the link of energy to food prices, a steep ramp in energy prices, failure to reach international agreement on climate change, a euro bail-out, riots in Greece, calls for radical banking reforms....The world seems to be moving toward a major transformation. Why is it happening, and happening now? How should we cope with the upheaval that it brings? What will the outcome be?

Part, but not all, of the transformational processes taking place in the world today is the same as that seen in the inherent rhythms of natural systems that have been studied in work on resilience and adaptive management.

Complex natural systems work in rhythms, with a frontloop phase of slow, incremental growth and accumulation, and a backloop stage of rapid reorganization leading to renewal or, rarely, to collapse. The frontloop phase is more predictable, with higher degrees of certainty. In both the natural and social worlds, it maximizes production and accumulation. We have been in that mode since World War II. The consequence of this is not only an accumulation and concentration of wealth, but also the emergence of greater vulnerability because of the increasing number of interconnections that link that wealth, and those who control it, in efforts to sustain it. Little time and few resources are available for alternatives that explore different visions or opportunities. Emergence and novelty is inhibited. This growing connectedness leads to increasing rigidity in its goal to retain control, and the system becomes ever more tightly bound together. This reduces resilience and the capacity of the system to absorb change, thus increasing the threat of abrupt change. We can recognize the need for change but become politically stifled in our capacity to act effectively.

Creative destruction

When abrupt change occurs, there is a move to the backloop stage. In my opinion, this started with the fall of the Berlin Wall (see photo on top) and the collapse of communism following the earlier defeat of fascism. Both the communism and fascism of the last 70 years fell to the slow evolution of modern democratic systems of governance. Wealth itself and broadening wealth combined to lead to our present vulnerability on the world stage. We are entering the backloop of reorganization that entails the collapse of accumulated connections and the release of bound-up knowledge and capital. However, it also opens a creative potential and the opportunity for “creative destruction” as described by Schumpeter in 1942. This backloop phase is inventive, inherently unpredictable, and uncertain. This process of birth, growth, and change in frontloop/backloop cycles can be observed in all systems from a cell in the body, to an individual in his or her phases of life, to the operations of management agencies, to the function of research organizations, and to society itself. For whole societies that lack a democratic process of periodic evaluation and revision, we have seen, historically, examples of the full extreme, that is, periods of social/economic collapse so profound that the only remaining social support for the individual was the family. This can result in a poverty trap, in which the emergence and renewal generated by deep collapses and cycles usually shift elsewhere.

But now in a world of globalization, there are few elsewheres. The developed world has been in a phase of extraordinary wealth accumulation. The proportion of people in the world labeled as poor declined by a dramatic 50 percent between 1980 and 2000. Nevertheless, pockets of poverty deepen and extend in Africa. Parts of South America are on the verge of economic collapse.

A major pulse

In all situations, both good and bad, there are implicit assumptions that the critical, hidden ecological processes that sustain economic development persist. Inevitably, this has made society blind to the many signals of vulnerability and resistant to possible solutions. There is growing instability. Inequity between rich and poor and new physical and global impacts stemming from this inequity lead to global vulnerabilities such as global economic instabilities, climate change, biodiversity loss, unexpected diseases, and geopolitical instability. These are large in scale and consequence. They are new enough in extent that we lack the institutions to manage the transitions. They suggest a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major “pulse” of social transformation. The world of humans has witnessed only a few such major pulses or periods of transformation in its evolution: agricultural settlement by the first hunter-gatherers, the industrial revolution, and, now, the global interconnected communications-driven revolution.


C.S. “Buzz” Holling was IIASA Director from 1981–1984 and is founder of The Resilience Alliance. His research interests are, in his own words: “the structure, function, and history of eco- and social systems and the way they survive, evolve, and succeed or fail.”

Adventures in living

Society is now at a stage in history in which one pulse is ending and another beginning. The immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative. It raises fundamental questions about transformation. The only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living. That leads, then, to a strategic sense of how to proceed. Do not try to plan the details, but invent, experiment, and build. Although this may sound easy, at such times existing centers of local power resist larger opportunity because of the threats they perceive in the unknown. Consequently, it is essential to encourage innovation through a rich variety of experiments and transformative approaches that probe possible directions. It is important to encourage experiments that have a low cost of failure to individuals, the environment, and careers, because many of these experiments will fail. The Internet is a key. Reduce inhibitions to change, which are common when systems get so locked up. Protect and communicate the accumulated knowledge and experience needed for change. Promote discourse among all parties involved to try to understand where we are going and how to achieve it. Encourage new foundations for renewal that build and sustain the ability of people, economies, and nature to deal with change, and ensure that these new foundations consolidate and expand our understanding of change. Allow sufficient time. This pulse is a global phenomenon, and it could potentially affect all levels of the hierarchy, all the way up the chain, from the individual/family to national and global systems. The responses of the world community since 9/11 to the possibility of transformation have been at best adequate or bad. The question is how to tip the scales more toward adequately good and achieve a better balance in the world by improving the lot of poverty-stricken populations, reducing extremes of population growth and collapse, and nurturing inventive solutions. What I observe is that the good approaches are less in ascendance at the present, and narrow, powerful, military, and protectionist economic approaches are taking precedence.

Extremism and inequity

In the late economic bubble of 1999–2008, business and government combined and dangerously usurped the equilibrium normally provided by balanced government, which threatens the breadth of influence needed in a democracy. There is a tendency toward greater extremism, which ignores the broad inequities within society, or toward narrow approaches that preclude attempts to address diversity. The scale of the issues is such that they are beyond the reach of any one company, sector of the economy, or government. We need a cooperative international effort that involves a major contribution to transformation by people of vision or by groups of people thinking deeply about the nature of risk and the unknown, and finding novel and transparent ways to approach both. That is why the Internet is such a positive force at this time. It is a place for inventing the creative experiments that cover scales and that can fail safely as new possibilities are created and tested.

The Internet can be inherently international. We can act as nested sets of communities and then scale upward, trying to engage people functioning at all levels. Those are communities of citizens, really, but ones with different roots in scholarship, business, government, and nongovernmental enterprise. If Shell Oil can invent ways to open their visions of the future, and British Petroleum can begin strategic subsidy of untraditional energy supplies, then surely small groups of scholars and government and citizens can invent such experiments outside each of their own organizational constraints.

Further information: Professor C.S. “Buzz” Holling has been among the eminent scientists advising IIASA on the development of its new strategic plan: Research for a Changing World.

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Last edited: 28 August 2012

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