In my first blog post a couple weeks back I explored how the meaning of apocalypse has changed over its long journey into modern English. It was originally a synonym for the word revelation, and referred to instances when surprising truths were revealed in dramatic ways. Today we use the word to refer to events marked by cataclysm or catastrophe.
These meanings are not unrelated; the uncovering of certain truths can have a profoundly destabilizing force in people’s lives. The same can be true for societies writ large. We live in just such a time, where truths being revealed about ideological divisions, social inequalities, resource scarcity, and climate change, among other issues, are destabilizing political systems around the globe.
Years ago, while working on my doctorate, I immersed myself in the study of systems. I was studying energy systems in particular, my curiosity focused on the impacts that fossil fuel depletion might have on the trajectory of industrial nations. One pattern I learned about during that immersion was the adaptive cycle. This model, first proposed by ecologist C.S. Holling, posits that system organization is a cyclical process with four predictable phases: growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. These phases are worth looking at in greater detail.
The adaptive cycle’s growth phase represents a stretch of time when agents within the system build relationships with one another and use abundant resources to build infrastructure and increase their system’s complexity. This happens in human social systems, as when people build a city or a town and organize its governance. It also happens in non-human systems, such as coral reefs and forests. Competition and cooperation are both present, but because resources are relatively abundant cooperation is the dominant — and more efficient — relational strategy.
Eventually resources grow scarce relative to demand and the system enters its conservation phase. Though this is neither necessary nor ideal, it is often the case that competition becomes the dominant relational strategy due to scarcity-induced tensions. Managers of city departments might undermine one another’s efficacy to win the favor of higher government officials when budget cuts loom, for example. When trees in a forest produce fewer nuts than normal, animals that depend on them might compete more fiercely for a dwindling food resource. Most functions of a system are maintained through its conservation phase, though this may come at the cost of its resiliency.
Eventually demand for scarce resources outstrips supply enough that agents can no longer maintain the relationships and infrastructure that hold the system together. This marks the beginning of the release phase, where the system starts to fall apart. The onset of a release phase may come quietly, or its initiation may be catalyzed by a black swan event such as political turmoil, a natural disaster, or a pandemic. The unraveling may happen suddenly, or it may show up as a long, agonizing decline. To those who experience it, the system’s breakdown could well feel apocalyptic, in both senses of this word.
A system’s reorganization phase begins when it breaks down enough that available resources can again maintain it. Agents experiment with new relationships, new resources, and new infrastructure as they set the stage for a new growth phase. From the ruins of the previous system a new, perhaps quite different system readies itself to emerge. From here the cycle continues.
Those who study human history have seen this cycle play out in many ancient civilizations. The Roman Empire represents a common example. Its growth phase lasted several hundred years during which its territories expanded and its society, government, and built infrastructure grew steadily more complex. This growth phase was followed by a conservation phase that lasted a few hundred years, up through 400 AD or so. By this point the empire had overextended itself; it struggled to marshal the resources needed to maintain its armies and protect its central cities. The release phase began after a series of pivotal military defeats that eventually resulted in political fracture and the sacking of Rome by Germanic tribes. From this disarray the modern European country of Italy eventually emerged.
I live in the United States, a country that, viewed systemically, enjoyed a long growth phase that began with the European conquest and colonization of North America. It is hard to pinpoint when the country’s growth phase ended — I would wager around the time of the OPEC Oil Embargo or shortly thereafter — but the prevailing social, economic, and political tensions suggest to me we are well into a conservation phase, perhaps even near its end. Acknowledging this, we all know what comes next.
This revelation inspires some people in the USA to worry about “collapse” and its many consequences. While this worry is not unfounded, we must acknowledge that for many people it is not something that might arrive in the future. For some living in North America today the collapse started with the onset of Turtle Island’s colonization. It started when their ancestors suffered from the wave of disease that spread across the continent following Christopher Columbus’ arrival, or when their ancestors were first pushed off ancestral lands. For others, it started when their ancestors were kidnapped to be sold into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. The very idea that “collapse” represents a future event bespeaks a profound, and often unacknowledged, privilege. Over time, fewer and fewer people will enjoy this privilege.
This predicament is not unique to the United States. Political and economic systems around the world are so closely intertwined, depend so heavily on the same legal and physical infrastructure, and rely on the same resources, that if one economically significant country were to slip into its release phase, it may well drag others with it. That elevates the consequences of such a destabilization to a whole new level, one I admit I cannot wrap my head around.
All of this leaves me to ponder several questions: What must we do, as individuals and as collectives, to ride the waves of the adaptive cycle over the coming years, decades, and generations? What inner and outer work must we do so that we can embrace the change, the apocalypse, this cycle portends? And what can we do within our local communities to build solidarity even as ideological divides widen?
These are worthy questions to end on. I ponder them most every day. I hope they serve you as well as they serve me.
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