Panarchy 101: A Primer

“What makes political systems cross over the threshold into parameter transformations? Some breakpoints occur when a technological development enables individuals to engage in previously unimagined activities and collectivities to pursue previously inconceivable policy goals…. a turning point that occurs when the resources or practices of a system can no longer cope with one more increment of change and its parameters give way under the cumulative load.”
James N. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 83.

Panarchy 101, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Global Collapse is a public draft of a collection/syllabus/network that seeks to illuminate

  • not only what is collapsing (and why) but,
  • more importantly, what is emerging (and why)

Panarchy 101 explores a point of view as revealed through various lenses including complexity theory, political & social theory, economics, etc.

Panarchy 101 is a network of ideas that can be digested in any order.

Panarchy 101 is an excursion into the unknown but not unknowable global complexity that lies ahead.

On Non-Linear Processes

When an organism forms, it doesn’t form a full-sized completely-developed head, and then a full-sized completely-developed foot, etc. Rather, it develops an entire impression of its future self, and then continues to develop all of its parts in parallel over time. We might call this an embryonic process, rather than something like an academic book where each chapter is fully formed and arranged in a linear fashion. Embryonic development is non-linear (as are complex systems dynamics).

In Panarchy 101, I will attempt to give a broad “embryonic” overview of the big picture, and then continue to delve into the details over time.

What’s So Exciting About Global Collapse?

Contemporary trends seem to focus overmuch on the symptoms of global collapse: increasing inequality, global poverty, environmental crises, etc. While it is useful to understand the unraveling, it is equally important to learn to see something else.

Like air moving from one balloon into another, the collapse of an archaic system actively drives the emergence of a new system. The logic of this transformation is as follows:

  1. Failure: The existing system ceases to be effective at meeting the needs of and solving the problems of human civilization.
  2. Emergence: As systemic failures become evident, the demand for new innovative solutions increases.
  3. Coherence: As new solutions connect to each other and become interoperable, they cooperate and collectively become new infrastructures.

The fear of collapse is understandable, but it is all too often grounded in an inability to recognize that collapse per se is only a partial truth. Collapse is coupled with emergence, and we can look from one to the other to identify the dynamics of transformation.

What Is Panarchy?

“Panarchy”, in a nutshell, is a term used to describe a historically unprecedented emerging global civilization. This civilization is an ever-changing landscape of overlapping and interacting elements. Some key features it exhibits include:

  • Large ponderous infrastructures transform into dynamic networks of smaller adaptable interacting parts. These transformations can be seen in social action, industrial manufacturing, cultural creation, political access, energy systems, and food/water production.
  • Hierarchy gives way to heterarchy (or panarchy), i.e. networks of participants. These networks are primarily peer-to-peer, many-to-many, and “do it ourselves” systems.
  • The economy defined by producers and consumers transforms into economies of “makers” who innovate and provide using technologies of mass collaboration.
  • Exclusive regimes give way to cooperative commons collectively shared and managed by the cooperators themselves.
  • The politics of territory and identity give way to the politics of global multitudes.
  • As complexity becomes the norm, evolution and adaptation drive systems to the “edge of chaos” where the potential for future adaptability is maximized.

On Uncertainty

Umberto Eco provides wise words of comfort for those who would attempt this kind of exercise:

“There is only the risk of contradiction. But sometimes you have to speak because you feel the moral obligation to say something, not because you have the ‘scientific’ certainty that you are saying it in an unassailable way.”
Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, 1st ed. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. xii.

Caveat: For Those Who Come After

“A person who creates a new discipline does not have the task of enumerating all the problems connected with it. His task is to specify the subject of the discipline and its various branches and the discussions connected with it. His successors, then, may gradually add more problems, until the discipline is completely (presented).”
Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. x, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691017549

Thanks For Playing

Thanks to all of you in advance for listening, reading, commenting, sharing, highlighting, debating, and generally participating in this upcoming effort. Many people have told me for many years to get this material “out there” and with your help I intend to finally do so.

— Paul B. Hartzog