The Fundamental Elements and the Adaptive Cycle


The adaptive cycle is a model that can help to map and explore the changes and development of a system over time. As image 14 shows, this model is normally divided into the four phases of reorganization, exploitation, conservation, and release.   These phases can also be aligned with the fundamental elements of nature (earth, wind, fire and water) to provide another perspective on a natural system’s component alignment with elements of the adaptive cycle.  It is important to note that it is possible to create, view and interpret a model’s alignment with the elements in many ways.  The act of building models, however, helps catalyze discussion and facilitate a better understanding of a system’s structure.  The following is just one interpretation of the adaptive cycle, modified through the lens comprised of fundamental elements.

Image 19.Tthe Adaptive cycle in two dimension “A stylized representation of the four ecosystem functions and the flow of events among them.  The arrows show the speed of the flow in the cycle, where short, closely spaced arrows indicate a slowly changing situation and long arrows indicate a rapidly changing situation.  The cycle reflects changes in two properties: (1) Y axis-the potential that is inherent in the accumulated resources of biomass and nutrients; (2) X axis-the degree of connectedness among the controlling variables…The exit from the cycle indicated at the left of the figure suggests in a stylized way, the stage where the potential can leak away and where a flip into a less productive and organized system is most likely.” (Gunderson p.34 2002)

Reorganization phase/ Water

            In the adaptive cycle, the reorganization phase represents an ecosystem’s new beginning after a release event. This kind of transition can also represent the initial development of an ecosystem or human system.  When being modeled in terms of the fundamental elements, this phase would be seen as the water element.  Water is fluid and adaptable. In this phase of the adaptive cycle, the ecosystem or human system is interacting with the surrounding environments and systems to shape its resultant form or end state.  In looking at a base elemental comparison, water will assume the shape of the container in which it is placed.  Correspondingly, the shape is not permanent and fixed, but dynamic and changing just like the composition of the ecosystem.  In this phase many plants and organisms maybe present waiting to see what will become the dominant characteristic of this new system over time.  In terms of the water element associated with martial arts and archetypes may be compared with a scientist or observer gathering data (Russo, 2010).  This also fits with the reorganization phase due to the fact that the system in this phase does not have an established trajectory, but it is starting to experiment with how it will form.

Exploitation phase/ Wind

            Once the reorganization phase has completed, the system will enter the Exploitation phase (or wind characteristics in terms of the elements).  This systematic phase is more developed compared to the reorganization phase, and competition can occur between member organisms or components within the system.  Even with this competition the system begins to develop more of and take greater advantage of key available resources.  An analogous model of the fundamental elements would represent this phase with wind characteristics.  Wind is a process and can only be seen or felt when it is in action.  This phase of the adaptive cycle is focused on the actions of the components of the system.  Also, the wind element in connection with more human factors is associated with service and action (Russo, 2010).  This also fits into the exploitation phase.

Conservation phase/ Earth

            One the system has become more developed and stable, its development into a defined system it transpires in the conservation phase (elements Earth characteristics).  In nature, earth is stable and can often be unyielding.  One property of earth that greatly parallels the cycle is that stability. However, once too much force or pressure is exerted on a specific piece of rock or earth it will have release energy and can break (very similar to the adaptive cycle during this phase).  The system will be very stable and will be able to handle a certain amount of stress or shocks. However, once the shock or stress exceeds the system’s coping capacity, the system transitions to the release phase.  Also, the archetype associated with the earth element is that of a king, a stabilizing, ruling factor for a constituency (Russo, 2010).  This links into the conservation phase, because once a system is in this phase, the system hierarchy of organisms or processes are established.

Release phase/ Fire

            Once a system has entered the conservation phase, a shock event can trigger a release phase.  This phase is comparable to the fire element.  In natural systems, fire can actually act as the release event bringing about this phase.  A forest fire could cause a release of the stored nutrients and energy within the plants of the ecosystems, but also clear the path for the reorganization phase to begin again.  These events are often classified as natural disasters if they are major.  Even if these events are small they are normally seen as an aggressive process.  This is the same way these movements and qualities would be described in both human beings and the practice of martial arts.

Elemental Opposites

            An additional similarity between these phases exists, when they are combined with their elemental opposites.    For example, wind would be the opposite of earth.  While in the practice of martial arts wind would be very evasive and mobile, earth would be very stable and unyielding.  This kind of juxtaposition also applies to phases of the adaptive cycle.  Where the conservation phase (Earth) would be stable and well developed from and ecosystem standpoint it’s the exploitation phase (wind) would be in a competitive phase from an ecosystem standpoint.  This phase would have the system in development and it would not be considered stable.  This is the first pair of opposites based on the elements and adaptive cycle phases.   The second pair is fire and water representing the reorganization and release phases.  The release phase (fire) would be the event that allows for the reorganization phase (water) to begin again.  While the release event (fire) would be focused on some aspect of the system breaking down or being removed the reorganization event (wind) is focused on the reconstruction of the ecosystem.   This comparison shows the similarity of the opposing phases in the adaptive cycle similarity to the opposing elements.

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