Very small but potent images of American ruin I saw today: Sad little mutant in a MAGA hat. A ballerina in a black leotard and skirt twirling. When I caught sight of her face I saw that she was wearing a surgical mask. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking but there’s a sense of real ruin in America. Not just Trump or Obama or whatever nonsense, or even the state of the economy, but something deeper. It’s exciting and nauseating, like coming home after a break in and feeling the sense that some other presence has come and gone.
Father of resilience theory C.S. Holling has a useful way of thinking about a time like this. He calls it a “back loop.”28 This concept refers to the adaptive cycle, the main heuristic used by resilience ecologists to describe the four phases of life experienced by all natural systems–a human being, a city, a society, a civilization, a swamp, a forest, a company. On one hand, the adaptive cycle contains a “front loop” of early rapid “growth,” leading to a “persistence” or “stability” phase dominated by a few species and characterized by rigidity and the capture of earlier energies. Those “stable” states are not permanent. Gradual or sharp disturbance can cause systems to slip into a “back loop,” marked by a “release” phase where energies and elements previously captured in conservation phases are set free, unexpected new combinations emerge, and wild, exuberant experimentation becomes the modus operandi. The most understudied aspect of ecological systems, back loops are also one of the most exciting. As observed in ecological systems, the back loop is the phase of life in which individual organisms or small groups of individual organisms interact across previously unbridgeable divides and in doing create something fundamentally original. In contrast to life in the regimes we are leaving behind, where innovation was stifled and influence limited to a few actors with the greatest power—the stability “trap”—in the back loop beings and things are released and open to new potentials.29 Although most back loops studied by ecologists have been regional in character, in 2004 Holling penned an essay suggesting that “we are at the time of a large-scale back loop,” a global situation in which “each of us must become aware that he or she is a participant.”30 I think Holling’s challenge is important; but it is also an apt description of a phenomenon already underway.