Example - Federal Systems

Figure 5. An illustration of the federal systems panarchy. Figure compiled by the Council For Resilience Education

Adapted from Map of Lincoln, Nebraska streets and features, 2014, by the Government of Lincoln, Nebraska. In the public domain. Official Map - Nebraska State Highway System (2011 - front), 2011, by the State of Nebraska Department of Roads. In the public domain. US map - geographic, 2015, by the US Department of the Interior. In the public domain.

While much of the work surrounding panarchy and the adaptive cycle has focused on ecology and natural systems, these concepts are just as applicable to social systems (Figure 5). Take governments as an example. A federal government system is one that divides power among institutions at different scales, unlike a unitary system, which concentrates power in one central government. In North America alone, Canada, Mexico, and the United States are all examples of federal systems. Each of these countries has a national government with a regular election cycle that makes decisions affecting the country as a whole. National governments allow the country to address issues with broad spatial and temporal scales, from acid rain to cross-country transportation. Each country also has regional governments in the form of provinces or states. These regional governments operate quasi-independently of the national government, as they have their own separately elected representatives who pass laws reflecting regional issues and citizen concerns. Finally, at small scales there are local governments such as cities, counties, towns, and villages. These local governments are elected from the surrounding community and are focused on the small-scale issues of the immediate area.

Critical to panarchy theory is the idea that nested adaptive cycles can exert influence on each other. Like any panarchy, in federal systems the fast-and-small governments at the local scale can exert pressure at the regional or even national scale if the changing needs of their citizens demands it. Similarly, policies set at the national scale will influence decisions at the regional and local scale, and regional policies will influence decisions at the local scale. These are examples of both bottom-up and top-down control, concepts that are explored in the panarchy module.

As we have just mentioned, panarchy is a series of nested adaptive cycles. National, regional, and local governments conform to these cyclic patterns in many ways, including through their elections. Government systems may also collapse, or proceed through the the “Ω” (release or collapse) phase due to a variety of perturbations, including protests and other forms of civil unrest. Depending at what scale at which these perturbations occur, bottom-up or top-down ripple effects may occur. In this way, small forms of civil unrest at the scale of a local government may have the potential to influence the stability of a national government. This is one application of panarchy theory in real life, influencing everything from national policies on conservation or trade all the way to coup d'etats.