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Adaptive Cycle Cheat Sheet (DRAFT) by [deleted]

This is a draft cheat sheet. It is a work in progress and is not finished yet.


The Adaptive Cycle Model was derived from the compar­ative study of the dynamics of ecosys­tems. It is meant to be a tool for thought. It focuses attention upon processes of destru­ction and reorga­niz­ation, which are often neglected in favor of growth and conser­vation. Including these processes provides a more complete view of system dynamics that links together system organi­zation, resili­ence, and dynamics.

current unders­tanding of ecological dynamics

Tradit­ionally ecology has focused on the concept of succession that describes the transition from a time when exploi­tation (i.e., the rapid coloni­zation of recently disturbed areas) is emphasized to a time when conser­vation (i.e., the slow accumu­lation and storage of energy and material) is emphas­ized.

Our current unders­tanding of ecological dynamics however indicates that two additional functions - release and reorga­niz­ation - are needed.

An adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggreg­ation and transf­orm­ation of resources and shorter periods that create opport­unities for innova­tion, is proposed as a fundam­ental unit for unders­tanding complex systems from cells to ecosystems to societies.

For ecosystem and social­-ec­olo­gical system dynamics that can be repres­ented by an adaptive cycle, four distinct phases have been identi­fied:
1. Growth or Exploi­tation (r)
2. Conser­vation (K)
3. Collapse or Release (Omega)
4. Reorga­niz­ation (Alpha)

Adaptive Cycle exhibits Two Major Phases

The adaptive cycle exhibits two major phases (or transi­tions):
1. The first, the foreloop, from r to K, is the slow, increm­ental phase of growth and accumu­lat­ion.
2. The second, the backloop, from Omega to Alpha, is the rapid phase of reorga­niz­ation leading to renewal.

Adaptive Cycle


During the slow sequence from exploi­tation to conser­vation, connec­tedness and stability increase and a capital of nutrients and biomass (in ecosys­tems) is slowly accumu­lated and seques­tered.

Compet­itive processes lead to a few species becoming dominant, with diversity retained in residual pockets preserved in a patchy landscape. While the accumu­lated capital is seques­tered for the growing, maturing ecosystem, it also represents a gradual increase in the potential for other kinds of ecosystems and futures.

For an economic or social system, the accumu­lating potential could as well be from the skills, networks of human relati­ons­hips, and mutual trust that are increm­entally developed and tested during the progre­ssion from r to K. Those also represent a potential developed and used in one setting, that could be available in transf­ormed ones.

Adaptive cycles are nested in a hierarchy

Adaptive cycles are nested in a hierarchy across time and space which helps explain how adaptive systems can, for brief moments, generate novel recomb­ina­tions that are tested during longer periods of capital accumu­lation and storage. These windows of experi­men­tation open briefly, but the results do not trigger cascading instab­ilities of the whole because of the stabil­izing nature of nested hierar­chies.

In essence, larger and slower components of the hierarchy provide the memory of the past and of the distant to allow recovery of smaller and faster adaptive cycles. A nested hierarchy of adaptive cycles represents a panarc­hy.