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On the Adaptive Cycle of Transformational Change: A Proposal for a Panarchical Expansion of Escalation Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2017

Gregory P. Dietl*
Paleontological Research Institution 1259 Trumansburg Road Ithaca, NY 14850
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An outstanding challenge with broad implications for an ecologically sustainable future is to understand how living systems—whether natural or social—balance opportunity and constraint in a given environment. In this paper, I compare the proposed mechanics of a heuristic developed to explain transformational change in systems ecology with various paleontological patterns and hypotheses for its conceptual homology and thus explanatory power in causal terms. The adaptive cycle heuristic, which has potential to influence current environmental and natural resources law and policy, has two components: 1) cycles that alternate between long periods of growth and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation (new structures or conditions that become economically successful), and 2) the interaction of nested sets of such cycles (panarchies) across space and time scales. I critically evaluate three basic underlying tenets of the adaptive cycle related to the circumstances of innovation—empty niche space, competition and availability of resources—because of their importance to the development of a theoretical framework for understanding the ecological dimension of opportunity in biological evolution. I conclude that not all of the proposed mechanics and observed phenomenology of the adaptive cycle are appropriate in biological evolution. I draw insight, however, from the hierarchical nature of the heuristic to outline a “panarchical” conceptualization of the escalation hypothesis; I identify self-organization, emergence, selection and adaptation, and feedback as phenomena that are held in common across systems and scales, which influence how entities in the economic hierarchy of life arise, interact and evolve.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. Robert Frost.

Every system either finds a way to develop or else collapses. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

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