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In answer to the question of why Muslims were allowed to continue animal sacrifice, Muhammad is reported as having said, "This is a tradition sunna of your patriarch Abraham. Among the pre-Islamic Arab traditions that the Prophet Muhammad forbade to his followers, we find the practIce of ammal fights though camel fighting remained popular, espeCIally m Muslim India and the cutting off of camel-humps and sheep-tails for food while leaving the animal alive.
The Qur'an says, "Certainly, we have created Man in the best make,"23 and "Hast thou not seen how Allah has subjected sakhkhara to you all tbat is in the earth? Moreover, the earth was not created for the sake of humans alone: Non-human animals are explicitly included among God's miraculous signs, both in general" The beasts of all kinds that He scatters throughout the earth This she-camel of God is a sign to you; so leave her to graze in God's earth, and let her come to no harm, or you shall be seized with a grievous punishment.
Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the middle of [the air and] the sky? Nothing holds them up but [the power of] Allah. Verily in this are signs for those who believe. The parable of those who take protectors other than Allah is that of the spider, who builds [for itself] a house; but truly the flimsiest of houses is the spider's house, if they bnt knew.
And He has created cattle for yon: And they carry your loads to [many] a place which [otherwise] you would be unable to reach without great hardship to yourselves. And [it is He who creates] horses and mules and asses for you to ride, as well as for [their] beauty: Just letting them be, it would seem, is not an option. It is not only domestic creatures that are created for utilitarian ends. Marine animals, too, are said to exist so as to serve as food for humans: It is He who has made the sea subject, that you may eat the flesh thereof that is fresh and tender.
The Qur'an states in several places that all 17 creation praises God, even if this praise is not expressed in human language. Non-human animals can even receive divine revelation, as in the verse which states: There is no pope, no governing council, no universally acknowledged source of normative values - except, in a general sense, the Qur'an itself.
Bnt relying solely on the Divine Revelation as a source of guidance presents numerous practical problems for Muslims. For one thing, it is in Arabic, a language most Muslims don't understand, and moreover, its style is a lofty seventhcentury variety that most Arabs even at the time probably didn't fully grasp.
Mastering Qur'anic Arabic takes a'Jifetime of stndy; thus, in reality, the content of the Qur'an reaches most Muslims in a mediated form through the scholarly elite. Shi'ite Muslims - who are the majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and form strong communities in Lebanon, Pakistan, and elsewhere - have their own collections of hadiths, the most important of which is The Complete Al-Kiifi by Abu Ja'far Muhammad al-Kulayni d. The sayings of Muhammad's nephew and son-in-law, 'Ali, whom Shi'ites consider to be the first Imam, are collected in a work known as The Pinnacle of Eloquence Nahj al-baliigha ,47 Because of the sheer volume of available hadiths, it is possible to argue a prophetic basis for almost any position, and while the Animals in Islamic Source Texts 19 ranking of a given hadith can give it more weight in settling an argument, Muslims are not absolutely bound to accept any hadith and some even go so far as to reject all of them, Many hadiths report Muhammad as reminding his companions to take the interests of non-human animals into consideration.
The message of the following hadith seems to be that compassion for animals provides Muslims with an opportunity to gain heavenly recompense: Yahya related to me from Malik from Sumayy, the mawla client cif Abu Bakr from Abu Salih al-Samman from Abu Hurayra that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "A man was walking on a road when he became very thirsty. He found a well and went into it and drank and came out.
There was a dog panting and eating earth out of thirst. The man said, 'This dog has become as thirsty as I was. Allah thanked him for it and forgave him [for his sins]. The Prophet is reported to have said, "Who has caused this bird distress by taking the eggs from her nest? Return them to her. Muhammad is also reported to have said, "There is no man who kills [even] a sparrow or anything smaller, without its deserving it, but Allah will question him about it [on the Day of Judgment].
Muhammad disallowed the killing of frogs, because he believed their croaking was in praise of Allah.
Likewise he forbade Muslims to kill magpies, because they were said to have been the first to perform the fast. Ants and bees were to be preserved as they were mentioned as the recipients of divine. One well-known hadith has God reprimanding one of His prophets for needlessly destroying an ant colony: Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger may peace be upon him as saying: And Allah revealed to him: On the other hand, Muhammad ordered the killing of mottled crows, dogs, mice, poisonous snakes, and scorpions.
He permitted his followers to kill certain animals - including rats and mice, scorpions, crows, kites, wild dogs, lions, leopards, lynxes and wolves -even when in a state of ritual purity ihram during pilgrimage. The Prophet peace be upon him said: If anyone has sexual intercourse with an animal, kill him and kill it along with him.
I asked him Ibn Abbas: What offence can be attributed to the animal? I think he the Prophet disapproved of its flesh being eaten when such a thing had been done to it.
The apparent inconsistency between the two reports illustrates the ambiguity often present in hadith accounts. Shi'ite hadith collections differ considerably from those used by Sunnis in that Shi'ites admit different chains of transmitters, and because they include reports not only of the Prophet but also of his successors the Imams, they are more extensive.
Moreover, because many of the Imams lived and traveled outside Arabia, the contexts for Shi'ite hadith stories are more varied than in the case of Sunni hadiths, though many hadiths are also accepted by both sects albeit through different transmitters.
One notable feature found in Shi'ite hadith accounts is that Muhammad and the Imams are porttayed as being able to converse with animals. Animals are sometimes reported as speaking in Sunni hadiths as well, but this is rare and presented in a less 22 Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures direct and matter-of"fact way as in Shi'ite stories.
To give an example from the Sunni hadiths: Narrated Unais bin 'Amr: Ahban bin Aus said, "I was amongst my sheep. Suddenly a wolf caught a sheep and I shouted at it. The wolf sat on its tail and addressed me, saying, 'Who will look after it that is, the sheep when you will be busy and not able to look after it?
Do you forbid me the provision which Allah has provided me? His Excellency told him, "Your camel said, 'I've been working for all of them great and small and have always been at their service, but now they want to kill me. The camel then went round to the homes of the Ansar [the Helpers of Medina], who fed him his fill, saying "This must be the camel which the Messenger of God Peace be Upon Him set free.
The food arrived and His Excellency ordered it to be spread out. No sooner had the group begun to eat, than a deer came up alongside Imam Sajjad, Peace be Upon Him, and began conversing with the Imam.
The group asked His Excellency what the deer had spoken to him about. His Excellency replied that the deer had complained to him of hunger, saying it was three days since he had eaten.
Imam Sajjad, Peace be Upon Him, motioned to the deer and invited it to eat. The animal then came and began eating. At this time one man from the group got up and grabbed the deer around the waist; because of this, the deer took fright and ran away from the group. Imam Sajjad, Peace be Upon Him, turned to the group and said, "Didn't you promise me you were going to leave this deer alone? His Excellency Imam Sajjad, Peace be Upon Him, then spoke to the deer and invited it once again to come and eat, and promised the deer that there was nothing to be afraid of and that nobody from the group would bother it.
So the deer retnrned once again and began eating until it had bad its fill. He does so, and in exchange, the lioness prays for the Imam, as well as for "his children, his partisans literally, "shi'ites"and his friends. First, the attribution of language to non-human animals is very pronounced.
Second, the Imams - like the Prophet himself, but unlike ordinary humans - are able to speak animal languages. Animals in Islamic Source Texts 25 Third, and perhaps most important, animals pray, and their prayers are to be valued.
In the Shi'ite hadiths, at least, animals pray not only for the well-being of good humans, but also call down God's wrath on bad ones, as in a hadith attributed to the eighth Imam, Reza, who warned his followers not to eat the lark or allow children to taunt it, for this species of bird prays repeatedly to God to curse the enemies of the Prophet's family.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims eat meat; indeed, meat-eating is mentioned in the Qur'an as one of the pleasures of heaven? O The Qur'an appears to allow the eating of animal flesh, with certain exceptions: Be trne to your covenants!
Lawfnl to you is every beast that feeds on plants, save what is mentioned to you [hereinafter]: Behold, God ordains in accordance with his will. Forbidden to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God's has been invoked, and the animal that has been strangled, or beaten to death, or killed by a fall, or gored to death, or savaged by a beast of prey, save that which you [yourselves] may have slaughtered while it was still alive; and [forbidden to you] is all that has been slaughtered on idolatrous altars.
While the Qur'an prohibits this, the above verse was sometimes invoked to justify the practice as a last resort. Ritual slaughter dhabh is said to follow the principle of compassion for the animal being killed.
According to a hadith, Shaddid ibn Aws said: Two are the things which I remember Allah's Messenger may peace be upon him having said: So everyone of you should sharpen his knife, and let the slaughtered animal die comfortably. He who can afford sacrifice but he does not offer it, he shonld not come near our places of worship. On the day of sacrifice no-one does a deed more pleasing to Allah than the shedding of blood of a sacrificed animal who will come on the Day of Resurrection with its horns, its hair, its hoofs, and will make the scales of his action heavy, and verily its blood reaches acceptance of Allah before it falls upon the ground; therefore be joyful for sacrificing animals.
In conclnsion, from this survey of animal-related material from the main scriptural sources of Islam several points can be drawn. First, the tradition takes the relationship between humans and other animal species quite seriously. Second, animals are seen as having feelings and interests of their own. And third, the overriding ethos enjoined upon humans is one of compassionate consideration. Based on these sources it would seem that the Islamic ethical system extends moral considerability to non-human animals, although not on the same level as humans.
This nevertheless contrasts favorably with the Christian tradition, which has until quite recently had very little to say about the rights or importance of non-human animals, and even more so with the dominant attitudes of the Western Enlightenment which saw non-human animals as nothing more than sonlless machines whose sole function was to serve human needs.
The corpus of jurisprudence fiqh derived during this, the so-called Classical period, has come down to us through the canons of four schools of law accepted by Sunni Muslims, who represent about 80 percent of the total world Muslim population. Shi'ites follow a fifth school, based on their own hadith collections and the sayings of their Imams.
The schools accepted by Sunnis are those founded by Abu Hanifa d. The Shi'ite school of law is considered to have been founded by the sixth Shi'ite Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq d. The bodies of law formulated by those following the lines of these founding jurists are referred to by Muslims as the shari'a, an Arabic term which originally referred to the path a camel takes to reach a water source, but came to be understood as the guidelines laid down by God for every aspect of daily life.
The spirit of shari 'a law is one of acknowledgement, concession, and restraint. That is, it begins from the premise that there are certain things that humans are naturally going to do, and it is important 30 I! Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures to lay down the conditions under which they can do them.
Things that humans are not permitted to do at all constitnte a relatively small category. For example, it is taken as a given that human appetites for possessions, food, sex, and so forth, are natural and acceptable, but that to allow them free rein in seeking to satisfy these appetites would lead to unacceptable levels of social disorder. Two important underlying principles are that 1 people should not be burdened by excessive restrictions, and 2 that anything is lawful unless specifically forbidden.
A basis for these principles is found in the following Qur' anic verse: Make not unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful for you, and exceed not the limits fa ta'tadiifor Allah loves not those who overpass limits.! The same general spirit underlies discussion of animals and how to treat them according to shari'a law. It is assumed without question that humans are going to make use of animals and to eat them; the legal questions therefore center on how to define and circumscribe the limits of these behaviors.
The issues are which animals to eat, how to kill them properly in preparation for eating, and, to a lesser extent, what responsibilities humans have to the animals which serve them. Questions about whether humans have the innate right to do these things do not arise. As has been previously noted, there is no central anthority in Islam apart from, in a general sense, the Qur'an itselfso individual Muslims may follow any of a range of recognized schools of interpretation and guidance.
What this means, in terms of authority, is that the average Muslim tends to defer to the judgments of whichever living legal scholar slhe most respects, usually himself a follower of the particular school of law dominant in the region where he lives.
This role is often a lucrative one as well, since scholars are paid fees for offering their opinions fatwas - which, by the way, contrary to the impression often given in the Western press, are non-binding. Animals in Islamic Law 31 The interesting thing about this system of dispersed authority is that individual Muslims, like modern medical patients, are free to get as many "expert" opinions as they like, and these opinions often differ.
So when it comes to animal rights as with any subject in factit is actually possible to envision almost the complete range of opinions on any given question, all claiming to be "Islamic.
Still, marginal views can hold on to their claims of being genuinely Islamic, as long as they remain based. Animals in the Classical LeBal Texts The traditional law books are typically organized according to topic, including such important religious domains as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and the paying of the alms tax zakatbut also mundane categories such as marriage, business transactions, the freeing of slaves, and so on.
Laws pertaining to animals are included under categories such as their treatment, their sale, how to include them in zakat calculations, their lawfulness as food, prescriptions for slaughter, and restrictions on hunting.
Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures
Thus, animals are discussed both in terms of their use by humans and, less extensively, in terms of the obligations humans have toward them. In many cases there is little or no difference between the legal interpretations of the various schools of law.
When differences are found, they are mostly on matters of fine detail. As an example of the kind of disagreements that occurred among legal scholars in the Classical period, one may cite the question of whether a Muslim may eat the meat of an animal slaughtered by a Jew or a Christian who has not recited the name of God over it. The Hanafi school holds that such meat is not lawful for Muslims.
The Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools, meanwhile, contend that it is, unless the butcher has recited the name of any deity other than Allah over the slaughtered animal. The Hanafis opine that the meat is lawful if the butcher merely forgot to recite the formula, while the Malikis say that it is unlawful even if the omission was unintentional.
All schools placed the vast majority of animals in the first, permitted category. Some animals presented special cases; frogs, for example, which would normally meet the conditions for a halal designation, were determined to he haram on the basis of a hadith in which Muhammad forhade the eating of frogs.
Differences among the schools regarding these classifications occur mainly in cases of reasoning by analogy, such as whether or not to forbid the eating of animals that have similar names to those of forbidden animals, for example" dogfish. The Maliki and Shafi'i schools allow the eating of fish found floating dead in the water, while other schools forbid it. Various schools disagree over the lawfulness of eating crustaceans and insects.
Carnivores, which are hariim, are identified in the legal tradition by their possession of fangs or claws; thus, there is disagreement over the lawfulness of eating elephants, since, while herbivores, their tusks resemble fangs.
In Islamic law humans do have certain explicit obligations towards animals, Animals in Islamic Law 33 whereas in Western tradition laws involving animals have generally referred back to the rights of the animals' human owners. There is a subtle, if rarely explored, undertone in Islamic law that killing in general is essentially a bad thing.
Muslims are not allowed to kill any living thing while in a state of rituar purity ihramfor example while praying or on pilgrimage. This would seem to indicate that killing itself is seen as an impure act, to be avoided if possible, though such a sweeping connection has rarely been drawn by Muslims. Nevertheless, the underlying principle seems to be that Muslims should kill animals only to satisfy their hunger or to protect themselves from danger.
Even a strictly literal interpretation of the most unambiguous Islamic restrictions on killing, if universally observed, would make for much better treattnent of nonhuman animals than is often the case, whether in Muslim societies or elsewhere. Wild Animals On the basis of numerous hadiths, sport hunting, animal baiting, and the killing of wild animals for uses other than food such as for decorative purposes are "always" prohibited, though this prohihition has often been ignored in the history of Muslim societies.
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This has been especially true among ruling elites, for whom hunting has always been a favored pastime and a demonstration of class privilege. On the other hand, as mentioned in chapter one, some hadiths also call for the killing of certain animals.
Some Islamic jurists have argued that these hadiths refer to specific instances and are not meant to serve as general guidelines, but others apply them in the broadest sense. Further, some schools extend these directives through the juristic principle of analogy qiyasso that the hadiths referring to mice are understood to cover all rodents except, for some reason, the jerboa.
As a general rule, Islamic law seems to suggest that wild animals should be allowed to live their lives unmolested, provided they do not pose a threat to humans. Birds should be allowed to fly free and not kept in cages as pets. His spending should be equal to that on a similar animal useful to him. A Qur'anic basis for this can be found in the verse, "It is the she-camel of Allah, so let her drink!
Al-Shafi'i, in his Treatise on the Foundations ofJurisprudence AI-Risala ft usal al-fiqhhas little to say about animals but does include a long debate over whether the compensation for a wrongly killed slave should be calculated in the same way as for a wrongly killed cameP In any case, while the rights of non-human animals are guaranteed in the legal tradition, their interests are ultimately subordinate to those of humans.
The unbeliever who prohibits the slaughtering of an animal [for no reason bnt1to achieve the interest of the animal is incorrect because in so doing he gives preference to a lower, khasis, animal over a higher, nafis, animal.
In a similar spirit, Abu Nasr ibn Abi Imran, a leading theologian of the eleventh-century, ridiculed the poet Abu'l'Ala al-Ma'arri, an ethical vegan, whom he accused of "trying to be more compassionate than God. The BasisJor Wildlife Conservation in Islamic Law Contemporary Iraqi-British jurist Mawil Izzi Dien, commenting on al-5nlami's statement above, notes that had the medieval jurist been alive today he wonld have had to consider the question of priority due to species extinction.
It is crucial to ask: Are we allowed to eat such au eudangered animal or are we not? Would it be haram to consume it even if it has been ritually slaughtered?
The same question applies not only to eating the animal, but also to benefiting from its hide, bones, and the rest of the carcass. This is a point that Izzi Dien, one of the Muslim world's leading environmentalist thinkers, inexplicably does not address.
Though al-5ulami's insistence on the primacy of human interests is consistent with the principles of Islamic law, there does exist a basis in the legal tradition for preserving habitats, even if the interests of wildlife per se are not the overriding factor. The Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes the importance of "balance" mizan ,J1 and threatens punishment to those who disturb it: I of inter-tribal warfare - destroying the enemy's crops, trees, and livestock - but the principle can be applied by analogy to what is known about ecological balance and biodiversity today.
In Arabia the oryx was hunted to near extinction, and only recently have measures been taken to preserve the species. In Iran, species such as the lion, tiger, and cheetah were hunted into oblivion before modern times, and leopards have become exceedingly rare. Even gazelles, which were the favored game at royal hunting preserves right up until recently, are now generally found only on government lands where private individuals may not enter without special permission.
The favored method a Central Asian technique called the qamarglza was to go out into the wilderness and create a wide circle of "beaters" who would make as much noise as possible as they slowly closed the circle, forcing huge numbers of terrified creatures toward the center. When the circle was almost closed, the royal hunters would fire at will into the throng of panic-stricken animals.
So horrific was the resulting bloodbath that at one point the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great r. Akbar, however, was not a typical Muslim - in fact he eventually started his own religion - and his awakening to the horrors of mass slaughter seems to have been instigated by some vegetarian Jain advisors.
It has a lengthy section on sport hunting as well ",-- Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures Animals in Islamic Law 39 also technically forbiddeneven including a section on "hunting deer with deer. Superficial, worldly observers see in killing an animal a sort of pleasure, and in their ignorance stride about, as if senseless, on the field of their passions. But deep inquirers see in hunting a means of acquisition of knowledge, and the temple of their worship derives from it a peculiar luster.
This is the case with His Majesty. They are the hima, a "protected area" or sanctuary, and the harfm, which was a "greenbelt" or easement around settled areas intended mainly to ensure a safe water supply. A related institntion, the haram, refers to areas around the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina called the haramayn; "the two forbidden areas" where hunting is outlawed.
The haramayn were apparently established in the Prophet Muhammad's time, when, according to the hadiths, he declared Mecca "sacred by virtue ofthe sanctity conferred on it by God until the day of resurrection.
Its thorn trees shall not be cut down, its game shall not be distnrbed Akbar's son and successor, Jahangir r. His Islam, however, was as selective as his father's, and he often went out on hunts. Jahangir had his record-keepers maintain a meticulous tally of animals killed, and boasts in his memoirs that from the time he was twelve until the age of fifty: He noticed that healthy forests all have an adaptive cycle of growth, collapse, regeneration, and again growth.
During the early part of the cycle's growth phase, the number of species and of individual plants and animals quickly increases, as organisms arrive to exploit all available ecological niches.
The total biomass of these plants and animals grows, as does their accumulated residue of decay-for instance, the forest's trees get bigger, and as these trees and other plants and animals die, they rot to form an ever-thickening layer of humus in the soil.
Also, the flows of energy, materials, and genetic information between the forest's organisms become steadily more numerous and complex. If we think of the ecosystem as a network, both the number of nodes in the network and the density of links between the nodes rise. During this early phase of growth, the forest ecosystem is steadily accumulating capital.
As its total mass grows, so does its quantity of nutrients, along with the amount of information in the genes of its increasingly varied plants and animals.
Its organisms are also accumulating mutations in their genes that could be beneficial at some point in the future. And all these changes represent what Holling calls greater "potential" for novel and unexpected developments in the forest's future.
As the forest's growth continues, its components become more linked together-the ecosystem's "connectedness" goes up-and as this happens it evolves more ways of regulating itself and maintaining its stability. The forest develops, for example, a larger number of organisms that "fix" nitrogen-converting the element from its inert form in the air to forms that plants and animals can use-in the specific amounts and in the specific places needed.
It becomes home to more worms, beetles, and bacteria that break down the complex organic molecules of rotting plants into useful nutrients. And it produces more negative feedback loops among its various components that keep temperature, rainfall, and chemical concentrations within a range best suited to life in the forest.
Over time as the forest matures and passes into the late part of its growth phase, the mechanisms of self-regulation become highly diverse and finely tuned. Species and organisms are progressively more specialized and efficient in using the energy and nutrients available in their niche. Indeed, the whole forest becomes extremely efficient-in a sense, it effectively adapts to maximize the production of biomass from the flows of sunlight, water, and nutrients it gets from its environment.
In the process, redundancies in the forest's ecological network-like multiple nitrogen fixers-are pruned away. New plants and animals find fewer niches to exploit, so the steady increase in diversity of species and organisms slows and may even decline.
This growth phase can't go on indefinitely. Essentially, the ecosystem becomes less resilient. The forest's interdependent trees, worms, beetles, and the like become so well adapted to a specific range of circumstances-and so well organized as an efficient and productive system-that when a shock pushes the forest far outside that range, it can't cope. Also, the forest's high connectedness helps any shock travel faster across the ecosystem.
And finally, the forest's high efficiency makes it harder for it to realize its rising potential for novelty. For instance, the extra nutrients that the forest ecosystem has accumulated aren't easily available to new species and ecosystem processes because they're fully expropriated and controlled by existing plants and animals. Overall, then, the forest ecosystem becomes rigid and brittle.
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It becomes, as Holling says, "an accident waiting to happen. At this point in the life of a forest, a sudden event such as a windstorm, wildfire, insect outbreak, or drought can trigger the collapse of the whole ecosystem. The results, of course, can be dramatic-large tracts of beautiful forest can be obliterated. The ecosystem loses species and biomass and in the process much of its connectedness and self-regulation.
But the effects on the ecosystem's overall health may be very positive. A wildfire in a mature forest creates open spaces that allow new species to establish themselves and propagate; it destroys infestations of disease and insects; and it converts vegetation and accumulated debris into nutrients that can be used by plants and animals that reestablish themselves after the fire.
The organisms that survive become much less dependent on specific, long-established relationships with each other. Most important, collapse also liberates the ecosystem's enormous potential for creativity and allows for novel and unpredictable recombination of its elements.
It's as if somebody threw the forest's remaining plants, animals, nutrients, energy flows, and genetic information into a gigantic mixing bowl and stirred. Once-marginal species can now capture and exploit newly released nutrients, and genetic mutations that were a bane to survival can now be a boon.
And because the system is suddenly far less interconnected and rigid, it's far more resilient to sudden shock. This is a perfect setting for the forest's plants and animals to experiment with new behaviors and relationships-a pollinator species like a bee or wasp will try gathering nectar from a type of flower it hadn't previously visited, or a carnivore might try killing and eating a different kind of prey.
If such experiments fail, the damage is less likely to cascade across the entire system. In these ways the forest ecosystem reorganizes and regenerates itself, quite possibly in a very new form.
Put simply, the catastrophe of collapse allows for the birth of something new. And this cycle of growth, collapse, reorganization, and rebirth allows the forest to adapt over the long term to a constantly changing environment. Holling and his colleagues use a three-dimensional image to represent the relationship between a system's rising potential and connectedness and its declining resilience. The shape looks like a distorted figure eight or infinity symbol floating in space.
In the foreground is the growth phase-a curve that moves upward as the system's potential and connectedness increase. At the same time, the curve moves forward in three-dimensional space-toward the observer-as the system's resilience declines.
Holling and his colleagues call this part of the adaptive cycle the "front loop. At the top of this curve, the system collapses.
Things then happen fast as the system descends into the "back loop," where it undergoes a rapid process of reorganization before beginning once more the slow process of growth. Nested Cycles There's one more essential part to Holling's theory.
He argues that no given adaptive cycle exists in isolation. Rather, it's usually sandwiched between higher and lower adaptive cycles. For instance, above the forest's cycle is the larger and slower-moving cycle of the regional ecosystem, and above that, in turn, is the even slower cycle of global biogeochemical processes, where planetary flows of materials and elements-like carbon-can be measured in time spans of years, decades, or even millennia.
Below the forest's adaptive cycle, on the other hand, are the smaller and faster cycles of sub-ecosystems that encompass, for instance, particular hillsides or streams. In fact, adaptive cycles can be found all the way down to the level of bacteria in the soil, where the smallest and fastest cycles of all are found. Here things happen on a tiny scale of millimeters or even microns, and they can take place in minutes or even seconds.
So the entire hierarchy of adaptive cycles-what Holling and his colleagues call a panarchy-spans a scale in space from soil bacteria to the entire planet and a scale in time from seconds to geologic epochs.
This brings us to the most important point of all for our purposes: The higher and slower-moving cycles provide stability and resources that buffer the forest from shocks and help it recover from collapse. A forest may be hit by wildfire, for example, but as long as the climate pattern across the larger region that encompasses the forest remains constant and the rainfall adequate, the forest should regenerate.
Meanwhile, the lower and faster-moving cycles are a source of novelty, experimentation, and information. Together, the higher and lower cycles help keep the forest's collapse, when it occurs, from being truly catastrophic.
But for this healthy arrangement to work, these various adaptive cycles must be at different points along that figure-eight loop. In particular, they mustn't all peak at the top of their growth phases simultaneously. If they do-if they are "aligned at the same phase of vulnerability," to use Holling's phrase-they will together produce a much more devastating collapse, and recovery will take far longer, if it happens at all.
Should a wildfire hit a forest at the same time as the regional climate cycle enters a drought phase, the forest might never regenerate. Panarchy theory helps us understand how complex systems of all kinds, including social systems, evolve and adapt. Of course, it shares similarities with other theories of adaptation and change.
Its core idea-that systems naturally grow, become more brittle, collapse, and then renew themselves in an endless cycle-recurs repeatedly in literature, philosophy, religion, and studies of human history, as well as in the natural and social sciences.
But Holling has done much more than just restate this old idea. Holling embodies something truly rare: In a conversation with him not long ago, I encouraged him to expand on many aspects of panarchy theory, filling gaps in my understanding and giving me nuance and perspective that only he could provide. As we came to the end of our conversation, I asked him a question that had been on my mind since our first meeting a year before, when he'd been adamant that humanity is at grave risk.
I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story. That's a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.
It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It's the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth's biosphere-that's particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together.
And if this happens, they'll reinforce each other's collapse.
Akkelien Stenvert (akkie) on Pinterest
I'm not sure why megaterrorism has become more likely now. I suppose it's partly a result of technological changes and the rise of particularly virulent kinds of fundamentalism.
But I do know that in a tightly connected world where vulnerabilities are aligned, such attacks could trigger deep collapse-and that's particularly worrisome. We need urgently to do what we can to avoid deep collapse. We also need to figure out how to exploit the opportunity provided by crisis and collapse when they occur, because some kind of systemic breakdown is now almost certain.
As this grand system we've created and live within moves up the growth phase of its adaptive cycle, it's accumulating potential in the form of people's skills and economic wealth.
It's also becoming more connected, regulated, and efficient-and ultimately less resilient. And finally, it's becoming steadily more complex, which means it's moving further and further from thermodynamic equilibrium. We need ever-larger inputs of high-quality energy to maintain this complexity. In the meantime, internal tectonic stresses-including worsening scarcity of our best source of high-quality energy, conventional oil-are building slowly but steadily. So we're overextending the growth phase of our global adaptive cycle.