I think it’s safe to assume that things are not going very well on this planet. In fact, things have not gone very well for a large number of people in several different regions for quite some time.
Despite the benefits of industrial civilization it has also created numerous problems and incredible challenges: massive disparities in heath and wealth, devastating losses in biodiversity, ongoing diminishment of cultural sovereignty, environmental toxicity, a climate crisis, widely acknowledged planetary overshoot, as well as an increasingly out of control global infrastructure of surveillance and control. Our news feeds provide a running testimony of just how much has gone, and is going wrong in so many different places. Most importantly, there are far too many people actually living these dark realities on a daily basis.
(Bleak, I know. But there is an upside, kinda, as I’ll explain…)
Scholars, pundits, and scientists from different nations have attempted to characterize these various combined and uneven crises with a number of labels: “the anthropocene”, “the capitalocene”, “globalization”, etc. — but more and more people are now simply talking about collapse.
“Collapse is a broad term that can cover many kinds of processes. It means different things to different people…” — Joseph Tainter (1988)
I have spent the last two decades researching these complex and unequally distributed processes, trying to understand their causes and effects and how they interrelate. From this, I now think of these various “wicked problems” as symptoms of a faltering globalized civilization.
What many people seem to be experiencing now is an era dominated by declining political and economic systems that continue to be driven by destructive forms of extraction, industrial production and capitalist accumulation. As a result, degeneration and nonlinear conflicts are proliferating, initiating a series of phase shifts away from dominant and expansive international industrialized systems, towards modes life that are increasingly defined by the dissolution, fragmentation, and contraction of those systems and subsystems.
In his work on the *adaptive cycles* of living systems, Celebrated ecologist C.S Holling has described such shifts as a process of moving from a “front loop” phase of growth and accumulation, to a “back loop” phase of disorganization and dissipation. Holling and colleagues have demonstrated how such front loop and back loop cycles are themselves made up of four more specific sub-phases that all living systems move through: exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization.
The following diagram illustrates the dynamism of the process:
The front loop is comprised of the first two phases where “exploitation” and early rapid growth leads to the “conservation” and the persistence, or stability, of a system. Such stable states, Holling argued, are never permanent. Gradual or sharp disturbances caused by internal or external forces — or a combination of these — then cause systems to shift into their back loop phase, marked by a “release” of energies and elements previously captured in front loop growth and conservation phases. The release and distribution of elements can then lead to “reorganization”, either by an adaptive adjustment and reestablishment of the previous systems, albeit in a new way, or by a radical transformation and novel recombination within different systems.
Through years of research among various systems in multiple ecosystems, Holling found this pattern of adaptive cycling to exist in forests, swamps, deserts, animal populations, plant successions, and even with cities, capitalist markets, and nation-states. The process of growth, adaptation, and decline seems to be ubiquitous among interlocking dynamical systems.
So what are we to do with this knowledge? What, exactly, is the back loop — and how does this pertain to people’s daily lives?
“The back loop is the time of the ‘Long Now,’ when each of us must become aware that he or she is a participant.” — C.S Holling
Without a doubt, living in a time of back loops can be frightening and often quite disorienting, to say the least. When the systems and institutions people rely on no longer function, and our ability to comfortably provide for ourselves and our families diminishes, people’s lives become precarious as vulnerabilities increase. This can be a time of much uncertainty and unease.
Yet, life in the back loop can also be understood as a time of great potential for change and reconfiguration. The release of control by and dependence on lifeways and social habits that no longer work can afford opportunities for alternative adaptations, and possible exits from previously rigid and non-viable systems. Wild experimentation can become the modus operandi, and unexpected combinations can emerge. Individuals and/or groups, as well as ideologies and technics, begin to interact and cross-pollinate across previously unbridgeable divides, and in doing so can create and establish fundamentally new relations. And, despite the fear and reactionary impulses, such novelties can generate increased agency and the resurgence of previously suppressed or excluded ways of adaptively inhabiting the planet.
In her book, Anthropocene Back Loop: Experimentation in Unsafe Operating Space (2020) Stephanie Wakefield details a number of ways people, from all walks of life, are already embracing and adapting to the collapses of previously dominant modes, and are now radically changing their modes of being in the world. Wakefield suggests that the most resilient people and communities are beginning to let go of previously established norms, frameworks, habits, technologies, and modes of subsistence, and now “hubristically” experimenting with alternative pathways for adaptation and thriving. Therefore, given the progressive dissolution characteristic of life in the back loop, people will continue to explore new alliances and collectivity that cultivate allowances for unknown futures. What is needed in this time of crises and degeneration, Wakefield argues, are a multitude of alternative autonomous modes of living.
From the book:
“If we accept being in a back loop, the question becomes, how do we respond? Do we try desperately to maintain the old “safe operating space,” freeze a process already in motion? Or could we let go, allow a time of exploration and experimentation, see what becomes of the pieces of us and the world?”
In my own life I want to explore what is entailed if we answer a definitive “yes” to Wakefield’s second question. I believe it is imperative to start sharing and applying insights gleaned from multiple case studies on complex adaptive systems and their cycles to learn how to live and thrive among the various ecological, political, and cultural crises of our time.
My goal is to work towards more adaptive discussions, designs, practices, prototypes and strategies that generate alternatives to many toxic and unsustainable modes of living currently available. And to do so from the premise that the back loop offers not only problems to be solved, but also a multitude of exhilarating opportunities to explore.
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