Our Panarchic Future
by Thomas Homer-Dixon
Buzz Holling, one of the world's great ecologists, is a kind and gracious man, with a shock of white hair and a warm smile. Born in Toronto and educated at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, he worked for many years as a research scientist for the government of Canada, where he pioneered the study of budworm infestations in the great spruce forests of New Brunswick. Later, as an academic researcher and eventually as director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, he created powerful mathematical models to explain the ecological phenomena he saw in the field. Using these models, he achieved major breakthroughs in understanding what makes complex systems of all kinds-from ecosystems to economic markets-adaptive and resilient.
Since the early 1970s, Holling's research has attracted attention in disciplines ranging from anthropology to economics. His papers have been distributed like samizdat through the Internet, and Holling himself has become something of a guru for an astonishing number of very smart people studying complex adaptive systems. Some of these researchers have coalesced into an international scientific community called the Resilience Alliance, with over a dozen participating institutions around the world. Although Holling is now retired from his last academic position at the University of Florida, he's still terrifically vigorous and focused on furthering the Resilience Alliance's work.
Holling and his colleagues call their ideas "panarchy theory"-after Pan, the ancient Greek god of nature. Together with anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter's ideas on complexity and social collapse, this theory helps us see our world's tectonic stresses as part of a long-term global process of change and adaptation. It also illustrates the way catastrophe caused by such stresses could produce a surge of creativity leading to the renewal of our global civilization.
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THOMAS HOMER-DIXON holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada. He received Ph.D. from MIT in international relations and defense and arms control policy. Dixson's research focuses on threats to global security and on how societies adapt to complex economic, ecological, and technological change. His books include The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, The Ingenuity Gap, and Environment, Scarcity, and Violence.