A century of studies in ecology, and in many other fields from molecules to stars, shows that systems don’t level off for long. They pulse. Apparently the pattern that maximizes power on each scale in the long run is a pulsed consumption of mature structures that resets succession to repeat again. There are many mechanisms, such as epidemic insects eating a forest, regular fires in grasslands, locusts in the desert, volcanic eruptions in geologic succession, oscillating chemical reactions, and exploding stars in the cosmos. Systems that develop pulsing mechanisms prevail. The figure above includes the downturn for reset that follows ecological climax. In the long run there is no steady state
(Odum, 2007, p. 54).
The aspect of resilience and panarchy that is most novel and significant concerns the “back-loop” phase when resisting structures and institutions start to break down or transform, releasing the chance for a renewed system to emerge. The many ecosystem examples are matched by many business examples where technology shapes products from sneakers, to automobiles, to electrical appliances. At that moment, novelty that had been simmering in the background can emerge and be stimulated. And new associations begin to develop among previously separate innovations. The big influence comes from discoveries that, at that time, emerge from people’s local experiments at small scales, discoveries that can emerge at times of big change, to trigger bigger changes at large scales. That process highlights the keys for the future
As a follow up to Dave Tilley’s article on renewable rhythms, and in celebration of summer solstice, I would like to discuss the idea that fossil fuels have allowed us to suppress or even ignore pulses of Nature and our own biorhythms. We have adopted artificial pulses of industrial production and consumption with attempts to create continuous growth. Fossil fuels allow us to create a seamlessly, climate-controlled, homogenous monoculture that blurs night into day, and summer into winter. It even homogenizes trends, with everything always improving and going up without a break in the action. This separates us from Nature and creates the impression of invincibility. How does this invisibility present in our dominant culture, and what does it mean as our culture transitions into descent?
Up here in Alaska, the annual pulses are so great that it is hard to escape the reminders. Summer solstice is a special time in Alaska. In Anchorage, the number of daylight hours at solstice peaks at 18 ½ hours. Solstice is a reminder that the days are now getting shorter, and that we need to get a move on with things we plan to accomplish during the summer. We begin to get 70 degree + days. The vegetables start to produce in the garden. Local markets are full of produce. It is a time of plenty, and comfort, and celebration. Picnics and
potlucks abound. After solstice, the urge to go-go-go accelerates for some. Alaskans catch and put away salmon, and by late August the smell of high bush cranberry gives me a sense of restless urgency reflected in outings of berry picking and restless hikes in the high country. The Alaska State Fair in late August demonstrates the power of our summer sun and the prowess of our farmers. Brief fall colors, fall rut, and waning daylight bring the promise of winter. Seasonal pulses in Alaska are big, and there is no steady state. Excess light switches to not enough light very quickly, at a rate of over 5 minutes a day, and moods shift and behaviors change with the seasons.
Historically, seasonal pulses have been symbols of growth, fertility of death in multiple cultures. Older medieval cultures connected melancholy with a complex set of moral, religious, and emotional symbols and associations that created cultural order out of the seasons, and was even treated as a mark of distinction in 16th century Europe (Harrison, 2004). The seasons were connected to human behavior, moods, and rich symbolism regarding life and death in a number of cultures. Winter was a season for rest, regeneration, and reflection. In the arctic and subarctic, Scandinavians and Alaska Native peoples have a much longer culture of adaptation to long winters than the dominant American culture, and they are much better adapted to the changes in light and the long winters. Diet adaptations to physical changes due to inadequate light include cod liver oil for Scandinavians and a diet of fish and muktuk for Alaska Natives. Calendars were oriented towards harvest, and seasonal harvest celebrations such as Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrated and honored seasonal changes with feasts, candlelight and storytelling. Stuhlmiller (1998) tried to explore Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Norway, and found that Norwegians did not medicalize their seasons, and considered the behavioral changes that come with the seasons as normal.
Norwegians’ seasonal experiences are embedded in a tradition of specific activities and attitudes, which precluded viewing seasonal change as a potential disorder as some Americans do. Scandinavians accept a certain amount of moodiness and insomnia as a normal seasonal adaptation, for example, and treat it with the cultural adaptation of exercising outdoors in the winter. The joke that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet is accompanied by a “palpable peer pressure to go out in the woods fairly frequently otherwise one is not really Norwegian . . . . If you go on a skiing trip through Norwegian nature, you are a good person. The moral undertone is there and cannot be ignored” (Reed & Rothenberg, 1993, p. 21, in Stuhlmiller (1998)).
Some of that expectation can be seen in Alaska, as some cultural exchange with Scandinavia has occurred. Some of my friends nod in approval when I describe skiing activities outdoors in the winter. Our American fossil-fuel based culture not only smooths out the pulses using fossil fuel means, it medicalizes natural conditions such as seasonal adaptation, demanding that we SAD light our behavioral changes, or medicate them with antidepressants. Is it prosperity to burn the midnight oil to finish work late into the night, in opposition to our nature? Do we then burn SAD lights or take pills in order to medicate our lack of adaptation to the seasons? Is sadness adaptive in some way, or must we always be happy? I have friends who can’t sleep in our sunlit summers without special darkening shades, eye-shades, and sleep medications. The sleep medications become addicting and can cause rebound phenomena, creating worse insomnia than originally experienced. And shift work is known to cause a number of physical disorders due to the alteration in biorhythms. Our industrial society creates unnatural patterns requiring unnatural treatment with strong medications. On our recent bike trip, headlamps were unnecessary. We naturally fell into rhythms of day and night without watches, alarms, or other digital reminders of sleep/wake aids (oh, except for the coffee).
Fossil fuels allow us to ignore in part the natural lunar, solar, and water driven pulses. Schedules shift from solar/lunar to corporate/quarterly or business weekly/commercial or even political/every four years. In the winter, we light up the night, and create many large heated spaces to carry on activities such as indoor tennis that are perhaps better suited to summer. We ship summer fruits and vegetables from the other hemisphere, or we grow them with the assistance of fossil fuels. We go to great lengths to clear roads of snow, and cart off the excess to large snow dumps so that we don’t have to modify our winter behaviors in any way. School is morphing into a year-round schedule, without attention to the seasonal calendar. Hot climates are made cool, and cold climates are heated to a homogenous, standard 70 degrees. We control floods and we irrigate droughts. Advanced weather forecasting allows us to safely flee hurricanes and hunker down in tornados or blizzards. We create ski slopes and water parks in the desert, and transmit a mall-oriented homogenous consumer culture to just about everywhere, at least in America. Music, language, food, and culture become uniform to the point of blandness.
The general pace of life is different, too. Just in time supply chains supply our every need whenever we want, quickly and efficiently. Behaviors are transmitted globally via the Internet, causing loss of languages and globalization of corporate culture. The internet also smooths diurnal pulses, creating a never-ending stream of information, extended work days due to connectivity, and no down time/rest/leisure from information streams and digital excess. Speech patterns are rapid and courtesies may be dispensed with in crowded urban settings in comparison to slower, rural cultures.
We escape winter by vacationing thousands of miles away from home, avoiding hardships that might build relationships that could foster community cohesion. We rejoice in uniformity in cruise and jet travel. Fossil fuels have allowed us to live in large populations in places like Phoenix, Dubai and Anchorage using adaptations that allow us to exert high tech control over Nature. Historically, small populations of Alaska Native peoples migrated seasonally in order to adapt to low energy ecosystems with extreme pulses of weather. Now we just apply a dose of fossil fuels to our pulses and smooth them out. One can even wonder at our obsessive focus on climate as a symbolic failure in being able to control the weather.
So what does the importance of pulsing mean in adaptation to descent? Relocalization will mean reinvigoration of regional differences. Alaska will lose its box stores and malls, and will re-acquire local markets, diversified zoning, and better adaptations to winter that are not based on fossil fuels. Places will start to look different economically, socially, culturally, and perhaps also biologically. People who cannot adapt will migrate away or suffer or perhaps die. Areas that were historically sparsely populated due to low resources may lose their populations. For example, the aged and the young in some of our extreme urban environments such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Anchorage who are dependent on electricity for cooling and heating will need to adapt in one way or another. As fossil fuels wane, we can adapt by recognizing and following natural pulses and responding to periods of growth, harvest, and regeneration appropriately.
Pulsing does not mean “end to growth” or “steady state” which is what is most often proposed as the alternative to growth. If our pulses stop, we are dead. What goes up must come down. Looking at a pulse and seeing only steady state is either optimistic cognitive dissonance or a bargaining stance of viewing the pulse through a narrow time window where Wile E. Coyote never has to fall. Natural ecosystems are organized around pulses of sun, rain, tides, wind, and storms. Pulses help to mediate predator-prey and host-parasite relationships, and may prevent overgrowth in systems by resetting feedback loops. These paired pulsing populations help to keep populations healthy. Pulsing maximizes power and is adaptive.
With the smoothing of nature’s pulses in industrial society comes complex bureaucratic structure that resists change. Forest fire tinder is allowed to accumulate for fear of fires, and we suppress wildfires because of overpopulated landscapes and the loss of natural ecosystems that would have absorbed these larger pulses from nature. We combat natural cycles such as spruce bark beetles. We channelize rivers to control for flood, and support unsustainable building of houses in floodplains and on barrier islands. We create just-in-time round the clock systems of operation that lack resilience. We are intolerant of hardship and increasingly resistant to change, which creates more pressure on the existing system. Steady states are not adaptive—all systems pulse. Attempting to circumvent pulsing from systems prevents regeneration, lowers productivity, and creates rigidity and a lack of system responsiveness. We have incrementally added so much complexity while suppressing nature’s rhythms that we are vulnerable at all scales to the impact of large disorganizing societal pulses. Every move that we make towards more centralized, corporate control eliminates competitors and diversity. A system that promotes more and more growth creates overshoot that will be hard to dismantle without collapse.
Perhaps the most important meaning of the change that is required is the emotional acceptance of our renewed loss of control over Nature as complexity wanes in a lower-energy world. The control we have over our culture and the complexity that comes with it has created an obsessive fear of loss of control along with increasing intolerance for change. Our industrial society denies ecological and cultural roots of our behaviors, assigning biochemical causes alone to our behaviors, thus medicalizing what may be normal adaptive behaviors. Since we are separate from Nature, ecological connections and causation are denied. Many previous cultures used the image of the ouroboros snake to represent the cycle of life and the renewal that is necessary to sustain it. The All is One. The end is the beginning–here is our chance for cultural evolution in our rebirth as we shed our old skins and rise anew. We’ve slid a long
way from old cultural values that helped us to live sustainably within nature. We need a new compass to steer by for the dislocation that is to come. Chaucer was right, time and tides wait for no man. We need to regain and honor the rhythm of time and tides in new relocalized agrarian systems. Living in Nature’s pulsing paradigm will be messier, more diverse, less uniform, and more exciting. Bring it on.
Header: Martha Odum watercolor, Fall Marsh Scene, Sea Island, GA, 1968