Reflecting on Holling’s theory of panarchy and the adaptive cycle of change

My personal formation in the context of political struggles springs foremost to mind in thinking about change and stability. A number of adaptive cycles as described by Holling have characterised my own experience in this regard: linear and circular, consecutive and simultaneous, periods of rapid movement through some stages and slow progression through others and often looping back mid-process- I can see that Holling’s  adaptive cycle theory has some value in understanding and describing some of these changes but only if it can be understood in a dynamic way which is not always a process of ‘first this, then that.’

I would describe the first stages of my political awakening as being my period of exploitation (in the sense in which it is used in this theory). An awareness that life as I had experienced it up to the age of about 15, was not immutable and things around me were not as they should be and could change. It was 1976. Being involved in student protests in support of the Soweto uprising, limited though my understanding of it was, felt both right and wrong at the same time: right, because I had grown up in a family where opposition to apartheid was often spoken about by the adults around me together with a sense that we must do something; wrong, because I was a very obedient and docile child, so the idea of disobeying the authority of my teachers and principal panicked me, and my inner struggle against  my intuitive way of responding to authority, nearly sent me scuttling back to class as a boycott breaker! This was my first experience of activism. The extreme nature of the circumstances make it seem to me as if there was a movement, from exploitation straight to an exhilarating release in the activist action, then settling back into a period of conservation (for at least 3 or 4 years after).

During the period of conservation I became exposed to political theory, discussions, study groups and youth movements. It was a fascinating time of discovery, of seeking out more information and building knowledge. Slow and sometimes silent and underground because of security clampdowns on political literature and education, the phrase I learnt from the Nicaraguan liberation struggle ‘the accumulation of forces in silence’ comes to mind here.

Then periods of release. Looking back, it seems like there were periods and actions that follow in rapid-fire succession: local actions, joint community actions, joining up with regional and national movements, periods of international solidarity. The movement from silent accumulation to robust release seems to be mirrored in both myself and my environment. It is not one thing; it is not one time or one action, but it does culminate in the major period which, in retrospect, all prior actions seems preconfigured towards- the end of apartheid and the movement towards reorganisation, a period and phase which seems to carry within itself a series of similar sub-cycles which are repetitive and productive.

Reflecting on where in the cycle my own strength lies

I think my strength lies in periods of reorganisation. Having had a period of my own personal formation located in a time of struggle and oppression, I am keenly aware of what life in a different socio-political context feels like. I can reference what has contributed to my own growth and consciousness and draw on it as a generative force. I have a clear imprint on my memory of the role that people played in this and the people-centred values I was schooled in. I find that being part of building and rebuilding is enriching and rewarding, and I feel privileged and blessed to be a part of this life and time.


2 comments on “Reflecting on Holling’s theory of panarchy and the adaptive cycle of change

  1. Experential learning,” the personal is the political”,” be the chnage you want to see” etc….talks to this consonance and self reflexivity that you describe here. Learning in a self conscious way is a most fascinating life pursuit and is multi-directional…I have come to understand it is I that has to chose a path, a direction… happy be your choice!

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