Catagenesis and panarchy (Thomas Homer-Dixon)

The 2006 book The Upside of Down was written by Thomas Homer-Dixon (known as Tad) when he was a Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Toronto. This chair was formerly held by Anatol Rapoport, president of the ISSS in 1965.

So it’s fitting that Tad should be writing a readable version explaining panarchy, in a way that is different from the usual discussion of collapse. The term catagenesis is introducted in Chapter 1.

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From Crash to Creativity

At some time or other in our lives, most of us have been humbled by a professional or personal crisis—say the bankruptcy of a business, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one. In response we’ve examined our basic assumptions, gathered together our remaining resources, and rebuilt our lives—surprisingly, often in a new and better ways. [pp. 21-22]

Surprisingly too, there’s no term in English for this commonplace occurrence of renewal through breakdown. So I found a label for it. I call it catagenesis, a word that combines the prefix cata, which means “down” in ancient Greek, with the root genesis, which means “birth.” The word is used in some scientific fields—for instance, ecologists use catagenesis to refer to the evolution of a species toward a simpler, less-specialized form. 19 In my use of the term here, I retain the idea of a collapse or breakdown to a simpler form, but I especially emphasize the “genesis”—the birth of something new, unexpected, and potentially good. In my view of it, whether the breakdown in question is psychological, technological, economic, political, or ecological – or some combination of these forms – catagenesis is, in essence, the everyday reinvention of our future.

I developed this idea of catagenesis after much study of how some systems adapt very well to changes in their surrounding environments. All systems—whether a windup clock, the Earth’s climate, or a country’s government—are made up of interacting components that stay together, as a set, over time. [20] But not all systems adapt well to new challenges or stresses. I learned that that those that do adapt well are generally called “complex adaptive systems,” and they include things like tropical forests, private corporations, human societies, and even individual people. Each one of us is actually a complex adaptive system.

  • [20]. For a thorough survey of the history of systems thinking, see Charles François,
    “Systemics and Cybernetics in a Historical Perspective,” Systems Research and
    Behavioral Science, Syst. Res. 16 (1999): 203–19.

But what, exactly, makes a system complex? Partly it’s the fact that it has lots of bits and pieces—in the case of a society, a lot of people, organizations, machines, and flows of material and energy. But that’s not the only factor. If it were, a complex system would merely be complicated. Complex systems have other characteristics that we’ll discover later. [21] At this point let’s just say that they generally have a wider range of potential behaviors than simple systems. So machines like windup clocks or car engines aren’t complex. They may be extremely complicated – they may have thousands of parts – but all their parts work together to produce a system with a relatively narrow and predictable range of behaviors. [p. 22]

  • [21] 21. We’ll learn in chapter 2 that complex adaptive systems are orderly, thermodynamically open, and far from thermodynamic equilibrium, that their parts are
    diverse and specialized, and that they exhibit self-organization. In chapter 5, we’ll
    learn that the parts of complex systems are often connected together in dense, scale-free networks that produce feedbacks and synergies. A serviceable indicator
    of a system’s complexity is its “algorithmic complexity,” which is the length of a
    computer program, or algorithm, that can reproduce the system’s behavior (the
    longer the algorithm, the more complex the system). On measures of complexity,
    see Homer-Dixon, The Ingenuity Gap, 115–16.

Also, we can take machines apart to find out why they behave the way they do. We can, for instance, dismantle a windup clock to discover its various cogwheels, bushings, and springs; and then, by examining each of these parts and how they fit together, we can figure out how the clock works. Its behavior is the direct result of the characteristics of its component parts, and if the clock doesn’t work, or if it does something weird – such as go backward – we can attribute its unfortunate conduct to the failure of particular parts. [pp. 22-23]

Complex systems, on the other hand, have properties and behaviors that can’t be attributed to any particular part but only to the system as a whole. A stock market is a complex system, and its overall behavior – whether it’s a bull market going up or a bear market going down, for example – is the result of the buying and selling of thousands, maybe even millions, of individual investors. A person is a complex system too. Let’s take an average male adult – call him John. There are aspects of John’s physiology, personality, and actions that we can’t understand no matter how well we understand his discrete bits and pieces, like his spleen, his right big toe, or even his brain’s frontal lobes. Like all complex systems, John has emergent properties: he is more than, and different from, the sum of his parts. Once all those parts are linked together and operating in their right places, we get characteristics and behaviors – perhaps his body’s ability to regulate its temperature or his whimsical fascination with butterflies – that we couldn’t have anticipated or understood beforehand, even with complete knowledge of all his separate parts.

Now recent research – which we’ll get to know in later chapters – shows that some kinds of complex systems adapt to their changing environment by going through a four-stage cycle of growth, breakdown, reorganization, and renewal (the last three of these stages are what I call catagenesis).[22] There’s an important caveat to this general idea of a four-stage cycle, though: while breakdown is essential to long-run adaptation and renewal, it must not be too severe. In other words, breakdown must be constrained – just as the great San Francisco fire was constrained when it was stopped at Van Ness Avenue – for catagenesis to happen.[23] [p. 23]

  • [22]. A good overview of this research is C. S. Holling, “Understanding the Complexity
    of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems,” Ecosystems 4 (2001): 390–405. See
    also Lance Gunderson and C. S. Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations
    in Human and Natural Systems (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002).

  • [23]. The notion of constrained breakdown may seem odd because most of us assume
    that breakdown has to be—almost by definition—sudden, thoroughgoing, and
    catastrophic. But in reality there are lots of gradations along a continuum between
    catastrophic collapse at one extreme and straight-line stability at the other.

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The next session is on thresholds (that might also be called regime shifts)

Chapter 11 explicates catagenesis


Homer-Dixon, Thomas. 2006. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington, DC: Island Press.