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Copyright © 2001 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Mathias, J. 2001. Path dependence as an example of dysfunctional panarchy. Conservation Ecology 5(2): r4. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/resp4/

Response to Henderson 2000. "Path dependence, escaping sustained yield."

Path Dependence as an Example of a Dysfunctional Panarchy

Jack Mathias

Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Published: November 1, 2001

The problem of "path dependence" as defined by Henderson (2001) illustrates the notion of "panarchy" as defined by Holling (2000), i.e., an interlinking of never-ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal.

Holling raises the notion of fast, inventive, experimental cycles nested within slower, more conservative cycles, nested again within very slow, very conservative cycles. Henderson discusses the conservatism of the [fisheries] management bureaucracy as it clings to the principle of maximum sustained yield (MSY) as a [salmon] management tool, despite the fact that MSY has been discredited as unworkable in the present social context.

Based on Hendersonís salmon management example, these four classes of adaptive cycles can be discerned:

1) the rapid, inventive adaptation by the fishing industry of methods for capturing salmon with ever-increasing technological efficiency;

2) a somewhat slower cycle represented by the scientific community as it tries to understand the responses of fish populations to exploitation (the development of an MSY paradigm);

3) growing around this MSY paradigm, an even slower stabilizing cycle involving the evolution of the institutional arrangements and bureaucracies set up to exploit and manage the salmon resource; and

4) the evolutionary-scale cycle of the salmon adapting to the west coast habitat long before the last ice age.

These cycles form a panarchy by working together on different time scales to " ... combine learning with continuity ... " (Holling 2000). In this panarchy, rapid, inventive cycles quickly adapt strategies for exploiting salmon. Slower "learning" cycles that focus on how salmon populations adapt to that exploitation lead to an even slower "continuity" cycle involving the development of a bureacracy designed to manage the salmon exploitation system.

As Henderson points out, the fact that the speed of these cycles is out of synchrony poses a problem. The "adaptive" cycle of the industry is too fast for the learning cycle of science, let alone the "management" cycle of the bureaucracy. Henderson calls this "path dependence." When the problem is viewed in this way, the solution seems to lie in designing the speed of the cycles so that they are more synchronous. Also required is more attention to feedback loops so that adaptive action between cycles takes place more rapidly.

The design of adaptive cycles can be traced back to the "structure" of our management institutions. In the salmon example, we need to examine the structural relationships between the economic, social, and natural systems that prevent the management cycle from changing more quickly. Henderson suggests that path dependence is, in fact, a failure to examine the economic and institutional framework within which the resource management regime is set, i.e., a failure to address the power relationships between the companies that benefit from sustained yield and the government that regulates the fishery. The concept of panarchy allows us to view resource management in a more structured way that illuminates the constraints, discontinuities, asynchronies, and other warts and bumps that frustrate the proper interlinking of adaptive cycles.


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Henderson, B. 2001. Path dependence, escaping sustained yield. Conservation Ecology 5(1): r3. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/Journal/vol5/iss1/resp3

Holling, C. S. 2000. Theories for sustainable futures. Conservation Ecology 4(2): 7. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol4/iss2/art7

Address of Correspondent:
Jack Mathias
Freshwater Institute Science Laboratory
501 University Crescent
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3T 2N6
Phone: (204) 983-5155

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