Wheel of Life, The

A way of thinking about the life-cycle of complex systems (woodlands, companies, civilisations, Gaia . . .).

These can be understood as inhabiting the space defined by two variables or dimensions:

Potential: a measure of the richness of the system, in the sense of being able to make interesting things happen—the quantity and diversity of plant and animal life in an ecosystem; the friendships, trust and social capital sustained in a society; the skills and accomplishments of a political economy . . .

Connectedness: the extent and strength of the linkages between different parts of the system, which influence or govern how they respond to events.

As you can imagine, these two properties relate positively to each other: the more connected the system is, the greater its potential, and greater potential opens the way to more fully-developed connections.

But there are limits to this progress. As a system’s potential grows, so does the cost of keeping the whole thing going: for instance, it needs more inputs, it produces more waste, and it becomes a more tempting prey for enemies. And as connectedness grows, the system eventually starts to become less flexible, slower to respond, less locally inventive, more “tightly coupled”. There is now the risk that, when trouble occurs, it will ripple through the whole system.

The pioneers of resilience thinking, C.S. Holling, Lance Gunderson and colleagues, put all this together for us in a story about four phases in the life, or ‘adaptive cycle’, of a system. This story can be summarised by an illustration in the shape of skewed infinity—redrawn here as a Möbius strip—and its explanation:W16

The fore loop (the larger one in the diagram, moving up and to the right)

1. Exploitation: early entrants make use of the wealth of opportunity in their environment to multiply. Most fail, not least because they are poorly-connected individuals facing a dangerous world on their own, but some may eventually build a system with potential and connectedness. This is known as the r phase: r has for many years been used as a label for the rate of growth of the population of an ecology (example of phase: young trees).W17

2. Conservation: the system persists in its mature form, with the benefit of a complex structure of connections, strong enough now to resist challenges for a long time, but with the weakness that the connections themselves introduce an element of rigidity, slowing down its reactions and reducing its inventiveness. This is the K phase, where the ecology reaches its carrying capacity (example: mature trees).W18 In due course, however, the tight connections themselves become a decisive problem, which can only be resolved by . . .

The back loop (moving from bottom-right to top-left in the diagram)

3. . . . release: at this point, the cost and complication of maintaining the large scale—providing the resources the system needs, and disposing of its waste—becomes too great. The space and flexibility for local responsiveness had become scarce, the system itself so tightly connected that it locked: a target for predators without and within, against which it found it harder and harder to defend itself. But now the stresses join up, and the system collapses (example: dying trees). This is the omega (Ω) phase, as suggested by Holling and Gunderson, and it is placed by them in its ecological context:

The tightly bound accumulation of biomass and nutrients becomes increasingly fragile (overconnected, in systems terms) until it is suddenly released by agents such as forest fires, droughts, insect pests, or intense pulses of grazing.W19

4. Reorganisation: the remains of a system after collapse are unpromising material on which to start afresh, and yet they are an opportunity for a different kind of system to enjoy a brief flowering—decomposing the wood of a former forest, recycling the carbon after a fire, restoring the land with forgiving grass, clearing away the assumptions and grandeur of the previous regime. Reorganisation becomes a busy system in its own right (example: rotting trees). This is the alpha (α) phase.W20

In this phase, there is a persistent process of disconnecting, with the former subsidiary parts of the system (holons) being broken up. But our diagram is drawn on a graph of potential (increasing from bottom to top) and connectedness (increasing from left to right), which allows us to note a curious aspect of this back loop: the defining relationship of the fore loop—where more potential is correlated with more connectedness—is reversed. In the back loop (even) less connectedness goes with more potential. How can this be?

Well, potential can be the product of sharply-developed, well-connected structures: in the confident prime of life of Rome, with its army, its institutions, its transport networks and its wealth, who could tell what astonishing things they might produce? (That is, high connectedness goes with high potential).

However, potential is also the product of a system which is starting all over again. Where a forest has just burned, not much can grow there, but soon the charred tree trunks rot down: the land is weak on charisma, strong on potential. Grass and flowers flourish; it is now ready for anything. (That is, low connectedness goes with high potential).

And this is how Holling and Gunderson explain it from the point of view of natural systems: during the conservation phase, the system’s connectedness increases, until . . .

[t]he resources sequestered in vegetation and soil are . . . suddenly released and the tight organisation is lost . . . so that the potential for other uses re-emerges.W21

These four sequential stages take us through the life-cycle of a system, and show us two periods during which the system is particularly resilient to shocks. One of these is in the later stages of exploitation, when the system’s potential and connectedness are both well developed, but before the rigidities have set in. The other is in the reorganisation phase, when the remains of complex structures are broken down into a form that can be used in the next phase—since there is not much structure and connectedness here in the first place, little damage can be done even by large shocks. Also note the “x” indicated in the bottom left of the diagram; this is “the stage where the potential can leak away and where a flip into a less productive and organized system is most likely”.W22


What has this got to do with us?

It is the first of these two resilient stages—where a functioning complex system has a lot to lose, and needs all the resilience it can get—which is the stage that matters urgently to our society, now. The point on the diagram where we now stand is the one near the later stages of conservation, the K phase in which a mature tree lives. What is in prospect is the next stage in the cycle—release—where our tree falls to the ground, with the further prospect of break-up and reorganisation into a different system; into an utterly different world.

It is not unreasonable for us to want to postpone this development. Nor is it unreasonable to consider whether there is a way of going with the flow—that is, doing the right things in a systems-literate way to somehow extend the life of the cycle that really matters to us—the one we happen to be on. Can this be done?

Well, to answer this, let us first unpack the cycle a bit. It is helpful in fact to identify six stages in the cycle—to make this explicit, here is a simplified version of the adaptive cycle, just to clarify the point. It is drawn here as a hexagon (we lose the logic of the reorganisation but it makes this part of the sequence more intuitive and easier to follow):W23


1. Exploitation (or Renewal). Here we have the phase of pioneers, working by trial-and-error, evolving as organisms and raising their productivity, but in most cases failing to get very far, because they lack connectedness: they are not embedded in rich ecosystems which protect them, join them up in alliances and reciprocities and extend the length of their natural life-cycle from days to years. Nevertheless, some do survive and begin to join up with others into a system.

2. Reconnection and growth. This is the system’s glad confident morning. It forges connections and grows in size and complexity; complex organisms inhabit it. There is a chain of stimulus and inspiration between one success and the next, and it becomes resilient, able to duck-and-weave, to recover in response to stresses.

3. Conservation (or consolidation). The system now extends, elaborates and reinforces its connections. In the case of a civic society, there is intensification as the intermediate economy and its infrastructures develop: the burden of transport, law and order, waste management and the rest—huge commitments which nobody wants for their own sake, but which are a necessary support structure for the large-scale. There is also growing regulation, imposed in support of the institutions which emerge as civic society becomes less diverse, requiring more coordination from the centre. There is consolidation: nothing (or nothing significant) can move without a lot of other things having to move at the same time. Problems spread at speed. There is top-down control, a loss of flexibility and imagination, a loss of resilience.

And, perversely, the conventional responses to this phase seem to be devoted to the cause of making the system, in its hour of need, even less resilient. As the systems scientists Brian Walker and David Salt note, solutions are sought in standardisation and efficiency improvements, in increasingly centralised command-and-control and in tighter insistence on process, rules and procedures—that is, in stamping out any new vision, experiment and self-reliance, and in further elaborating expensive procedures standing in the way of getting things done.

The problem is the large scale, rigidity and complication; the solution is seen as even larger scale, greater rigidity and further complication—a classic case of the amplifying feedback typical of a complicated system in trouble.W24 Fortunately, these mainstream solutions do not attract a consensus. There are some harmless lunatics who think differently.

And this is where we are now—some way along the horizontal line labelled as the Conservation stage. We may wonder what lies ahead, and consider radical responses. Some people call this attitude “green”.W25

4. Release. The more rigid the system becomes in trying to postpone the shock, and the longer it is postponed, the more catastrophic it will eventually be. The system’s potential falls away; inflexible and complicated, it cannot defend itself. The big intermediate structures, still intact but not functioning, are a burden on the system, hastening its collapse.

5. Break-up. Now the connected system degenerates; its productivity falls to zero.

6. Reorganisation. This is the compost stage. The remains of the system’s connected structure finally rot down, perhaps becoming rich with potential to eventually regenerate into a new system.

Is the sequence inevitable? To answer this we need to think about time, and about the networks of parts (or holons), that make up any system. If these parts, each complete and functional in their own right—systems-within-systems—are to be useful to the larger system, they will vary in size, they will do different things in different ways; they will have the freedom to experiment, to repair and recover, to adapt and evolve. In a healthy system, each holon is able to operate at its own pace, according to its own clock. It is protected from above by the larger, slower-moving system to which it belongs; it is stimulated by, and responds to, the smaller, faster, shorter cycles of innovation and response of the holons lower down.W26

Here is an example of the faster reaction times of a subsystem relative to the large, slow-moving system to which it belongs: tropical forests have evolved such a thick canopy of leaves that it is hard for seedlings on the ground to get enough light to survive. The seed-holon has, therefore, comparatively recently, evolved a response in the form of very large seeds. These contain enough nutrients for the seed to grow despite being deprived of light and nibbled at by curious animals like tapirs, which eat the surrounding fruit and, in the process, spread the seeds around. The earlier seeding systems which depended on abundant light died, and gave way to systems that could cope with the deep gloom of the forest floor. This life-and-death flexibility—the rapid regeneration-response—of the subsystem enables the large system, the forest, to go on and on.W27

Another example of a subsystem—a village—can be flexible in its own life, economy and society. In place of the sophisticated preoccupations of the city, it may be able to hang on to the realities of life and nature even if urban civic society cannot. Subsystems (the smaller hexagons in this second diagram) can come and go, adapt quickly, or die and reinvent themselves—they can go with the flow of trial-and-error, life-and-death. These are the strategies of recovery-elastic resilience, the ability to bounce back (see sidebar).W28


The subsystem has greater flexibility to quickly explore these strategies because, in addition to the large relative surface area enjoyed by small-scale systems, it is operating on a shorter life-cycle than the overall system. And when repeated many times by many parts of the system, this series of small-scale new beginnings can provide a community or civilisation with constantly-renewing resilience. The more flexible its subsystems, the longer the expected life of the system as a whole.

Such recovery-elastic resilience depends on the system’s holons/subsystems/communities having four key properties:

They must have substantial independence (weak interdependence), so that the system as a whole is modular.

They must develop characteristics and behaviour in response to local conditions. Some of those responses will be unsuccessful—and death will follow—but the variety makes it likely that other responses by other holons (e.g., villages) will do better. This gives the system as a whole textural-diversity.

It follows, in turn, that there must be some slack in the holons, capable of being brought into play when needed, and allowing damage to be sustained at the periphery without destroying the core.

And there will need to be alert feedback—that is, the parts must be able to observe and respond quickly to events, not waiting for reassurance and permission from the centre.

A system which has this resilience, enabling its local subsystems to go into shock and live out their life-cycles on timescales shorter than that of the larger system, has a chance of enduring—of attaching an achievable meaning to “the Wheel of Life”.W29

The strategies

1. Sacrifice-and-succession: although some parts of the system fail, others take their place.
2. New phase: the system takes a different form for a time.
3. Elasticity: the system goes with the flow of change without suffering profound harm.
4. Resistance: it is robust—able to endure substantial shocks without suffering harm.
5. Opportunism: it uses the shock as an opportunity—to scavenge or to take advantage of weaknesses elsewhere in the system.
6. Elegance: the system has minimum baggage, and little to lose; it reacts quickly.


In other words, what we have here, in principle, is a way of extending the life of a large-scale system indefinitely by enabling the ravages of time (the whole life-cycle from birth to death to birth) to take place with respect to the system’s parts, or holons; the system as a whole is thereby constantly renewed. As the System Scale Rule reminds us, large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within this kind of large-scale framework.W30

And that is precisely what happens in every living creature; all its parts are in a constant state of recovery-elastic resilience, extending the life of their host system, if not indefinitely, at least for much longer than their own lives.

The problem with the large-scale civic society is that the cost of connecting itself up is a rigidity which stops a critical part of this process—the delegation of life-and-death—in its tracks, condemning the society as a whole to lumber into the death-stage, big time.

Independent local lean economies are a means of restoring the system’s immortality, or at least its longevity. But whether they actually succeed in doing this depends on how independent they are, how local, how alert, how quick, how diverse and how flexible. It may be too late to achieve a rapid transition into the modular structure of self-reliant, independent groups which is the foundation for resilience. It is not too late to try.


Related entries:

Ecology: Farmers and Hunters, Resilience, Systems Thinking, Gaia.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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