Panarchy 101, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Global Collapse


The following are the key “lenses” through which I view and discuss the ongoing transformation to panarchy. Each of these lenses provide crucial understandings and insights into facets of panarchy, but panarchy itself emerges only as a result of the interactions between all of these elements. Like all complex systems, panarchy itself is an emergent property.

  • Commons
  • Complex Systems & Networks
  • From the Bell Curve to the Long Tail
  • Plurality & Diversity
  • Cooperation
  • Peer Production
  • Open Design


Commons are systems of shared resources. A lifetime of work by Economics Nobel Prize Recipient Elinor Ostrom reveals a plethora of case-studies with insights and strategies for governing our commons. There are many kinds of commons — ecological, social, information, and technological — but the one thing they all have in common is the need for thoughtful management in order to insure sustainability for future generations.

Complex Systems & Networks

Complex systems and networks are systems that are more than the sum of their parts. Because the parts are interconnected, dynamic relationships between the parts result in emergent properties at the system level. In complex systems “more is different.” Complex systems and networks can range from too rigid to too fluid, but the most interesting of them have mechanisms of self-organization that move them towards a robust and resilient balancing act at the “edge of chaos.”

From the Bell Curve to the Long Tail

The bell curve defines systems with normal distributions where averages are meaningful (because populations are homogenous) and “mass” dynamics are the norm. The long tail, or power law, distribution makes averages meaningless and replaces the “mass” with a plural multitude of diverse members. The transition from the bell curve to the long tail is as relevant in philosophy and culture as it is in economics and politics.

Plurality & Diversity

Plurality refers to the fact that new dynamic systems consist of many interacting parts, whereas diversity refers to the condition that exists when those parts are different. Neither plurality nor diversity is itself sufficient for panarchy, but together they provide an accurate description of the new landscape. This new “multitude” is unlike any civil polity that has existed before, and it will demand infrastructures for governance and economics that are equally unique.

Moreover, governance itself has to exhibit authority, legitimacy, and continuity. We are on the cusp of a “Greek moment” wherein we are faced with the challenge of creating new forms of governance that can be responsive to the needs and demands of a diverse and mobile “global civil society.”


Cooperation is responsible for everything you see around you. Civilization itself would not exist if humanity had not overcome the challenges to cooperation. Much is known about the conditions necessary for cooperation to emerge and succeed, and recently we have seen an explosion of technologies that allow for new forms of cooperation. Much of that cooperation manifests in the new economy where community currencies, smart contracts, and peer production exist in a zone of experimentation and innovation.

Peer Production

Peer production (or as Yochai Benkler terms it “commons-based peer production”) is a new form of bottom-up collaboration to fulfill economic needs and wants. The emergence of “maker” culture is predicated on the consequences of technologies of cooperation. Peer production does not have to be merely economic however. The world of peers produces information at an ever-increasing rate, and also produces new shared understandings, cultural norms, social movements, and political pressures. The new infrastructure that connects people catalyzes peer production in a feedback loop with crucial consequences for our world.

Open Design

Open design refers to the challenge of planning for an unpredictable system what futurist Rick Smyre calls “Preparing for a World that Doesn’t Exist — Yet.” But we can design for adaptability if we follow the insights from Stuart Kauffman’s investigations into evolution and biology. Namely, evolutionary process result in complex systems that maximize their own evolvability. In other words, they evolve to evolve better.

Consequently, Michel Bauwens has claimed that what we need is “an infrastructure for open everything.” This means crafting social and technological systems that are based on a diversity of open standards and are easily extensible. Such an approach insures continuous innovation as landscapes shape their inhabitants and in turn those inhabitants shape new landscapes.

Panarchy: A Multifaceted View

So, how then do these lenses combine to give us a better view of panarchy as a whole?

  1. Technologies of cooperation allow human beings to collaborate in ways never before possible, i.e. 1) faster, 2) mobile, and 3) global.
  2. A heightened awareness of the climate crisis and the earth as a literal ecological commons compels people to do more with less, i.e. to “make less more” to reduce the combined footprint of 7 billion people by sharing physical as well as information resources. Because technologies of cooperation are ideally suited to building global sharing mechanisms, the result is the emergence of new global commons.
  3. Because these new networks are complex systems, they behave ecologically, with similar dynamics, except at faster time scales with larger global reach. In addition, understanding them requires understanding the shift from the bell curve to the long tail.
  4. If we are to embrace these changes rather than retreat into an imagined idyllic past, we must embrace both plurality and diversity as core elements of a healthy future civilization. The only structure that can do so is one that operates on what I have called “The Difference Engine” and it embodies principles of open design in social, economic, technical, and political spheres.
  5. That system of overlapping, interwoven, interpenetrated, diverse, cooperative networks is panarchy.


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7 thoughts on “Panarchy 101, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Global Collapse

  1. I have to agree with Alysa, it seems too “academia” and loses its impact. I read it twice and still don’t really know what the point is.

    • Hi Bryan

      The point here is that higher interconnectedness, synergy and coordination between several points in a given system causes the collapse of a given system which does not support those features.

      After the collapse of that outdated system a new system with higher synergy arises to support the new needs and evolve again to a new point of collapse when it will be replaced again by a higher synergy system, and so on…

      This is how nature works. For some people that information may not come intuitively and therefore the need for a more rational explanation may be required.

  2. That’s a very clear and succinct explanation, Colaborama. Thank you, I totally resonate with that point of view.
    Here’s maybe, for some in need of understanding, a helpful, or otherwise comforting view on the energies of September 2016:

  3. Normally when something doesn’t make any sense it’s usually a lie.I agree with some of the comments that I’ve read.that article doesn’t make sense.either this Web site is testing our intelligence or the one(s)who wrote the article is lacking there of.

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