Description - What Are the Details?

The “r” (exploitation or growth) phase is defined by rapid accumulation (or exploitation) of resources and new reorganization in a system. As the system grows and accumulates resources, its structure stabilizes and its processes form more connections between the parts of the system. To picture this phase, think of town or city in early stages of growth, when effort is often concentrated in creative ways to accumulate and exploit key natural resources based on citizen needs, what resources are locally available, and what can be obtained by trade. For this example throughout the module, let’s picture the first town that organized on the site of what would become ancient Rome in central Italy (ca. 8th century B.C.E.). This stage, with plentiful creative organization, increased structure complexity, and increased connections between the parts of the system leads to decreasing system flexibility, and moves into the “K” phase.

The “K” or conservation phase is defined by stable, rigid structures and processes that conserve energy. The system usually does not change much during this phase, because it is less flexible and adaptable than the other phases. We can visualize this by thinking of ancient Rome at the peak of its power and expanse (second century C.E.). Intensively managed systems are often held in this phase because the strong, consistent structure can be highly streamlined and productive. However, this makes the system more rigid and less likely to be adaptive to disturbances. Conservation of energy makes the system more likely to tip into the “?” or release phase.

The “?” or release phase, which follows some kind of disturbance to the system, is defined by a collapse of system structure and process. Collapse occurs when systems can’t withstand a disturbance in their present form and collapse, releasing conserved energy accumulated during the “K” phase. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. in response to multiple disturbances (corruption, far-flung extension of its borders, and foreign invasions) illustrates this.

The “α” phase is an especially critical point in the adaptive cycle, because it is defined by system reorganization. This reorganization can look similar to how it did before collapse, but it can also look so drastically different from the previous system that it is unrecognizable. Following our example of ancient Rome, the transition of the age of the Roman Empire to what we now call the Middle Ages period after the 5th century C.E. illustrates a shift in the overall structures and processes of that part of the world. These new, unrecognizable systems are called “alternative states” (“x” in Fig. 1), and are covered in the “Alternative Stable States” module.