The Spiraling Propensities of Mind: Towards an Ecological Theory of Human Meaning Systems within a Panarchy of Adaptive Cycles of Human Consciousness


  • Lito Elio Porto University of Texas at Austin


theory of meaning, meaning systems, ecology of meaning, centripetality, emergy, panarchy


The initial conceptualization of the adaptive cycle of complex ecosystems (Holling, 1986) has led to the theory and analysis of adaptive cycles within social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions, beginning with the original panarchical considerations of these human dimensions (Holling & Gunderson, 2002; Berkes & Folke, 2002; Westley, Carpenter, Brock, Holling & Gunderson, 2002; Scheffer, Westley, Brock & Holmgren, 2002; Gunderson, Holling & Peterson, 2002). A decade later, however, the difficult inquiry into the complex systemics of human thought itself and of thought’s ostensible purpose – meaning – is still largely absent from the work done within panarchic frameworks. The need to include an ecological theory of meaning has begun to be understood as critical to the progression of socio-ecological systems theory (Varey 2010).

This paper proposes a truly ecological (i.e., non-metaphorical) definition of meaning and outlines a panarchic theory of human meaning systems (HMS) that includes a consideration of the original sources of difference in the universe, then obeys Jørgensen’s “Fundamental Laws in Ecology” (Jørgensen, 2009), as HMS emerge, develop, collapse, and demonstrate rigidity, resilience, and unpredictability in complete relation to the identification, acquisition, and degradation (i.e., the processing) of exergy. The present theory of HMS proposes three “energetic orders” – i) local, ii) medial, and iii) permeative – that emerge as irreducible propensities for human life and encompassing human ecologies. These orders span the entire spectrum of life for the human, from the first necessity of maintaining thermodynamic disequilibrium in the local order; to manifesting ecosystemic dynamics in the medial order, described variously as the thorough degradation of exergy gradients (Schneider & Kay, 1994), the principle of self-organization for maximum emergy use (Odum, 1988), the maintenance and optimization of exergy (Jørgensen, 1992; Nielsen, 1995), and “centripetality” (Ulanowicz, 1997); to that ineluctable aspect of the human experience that is not only to aspire beyond what we understand but indeed to be constantly drawn to the unknown/unknowable in the permeative order (Gunderson, Holling & Light, 2005; Kauffman, 2000; Deacon, 2012).

Some conclusions of this paper are: the individual’s or collective’s bias among the three energetic orders depends upon the perceptions of threat to survival (local), ecosystemic integrity (medial), or the need for greater interconnectivity beyond its perceptions (permeative); and that natural language emerges from a constant and fluid negotiation among the binary (local), communal/recurrent (medial), and the unknown/unknowable (permeative) orders that occurs simultaneously at multiple scales and in relation to the larger adaptive cycles, such that “meaning” phenomena – from basic logoi to the mythoi of individual and collective narratives, “histories,” and “identities” – are emergetic (Odum, 1983) products and recursive tools (to enable further emergetic processes) within human ecologies. Because there is a “bias” toward any one of the three orders at any given moment and scale – depending on the perceived position vis-à-vis the larger-scale adaptive cycle – what would otherwise seem to be a “linear” negotiation between the three “energetic orders” becomes cyclical and adaptive within the adaptive cycle. Gunderson and Holling’s adaptive cycle is partially renamed as “Adaptive Cycle of Human Consciousness” in order to emphasize the need for this new line of panarchic thinking that could unite “what we do” with “what we are,” as meaning-creating, meaning-acquiring, meaning-destroying homoiothermal organisms on planet Earth. Because inquiry into human systems of thought and meaning is relatively new to the field of panarchic systems ecology, some aspects of the theory are unavoidably novel. However, efforts have been made to ground individual aspects of the present theory in recent advances of systems ecology research. As with any such theoretical proposal, gaps and inconsistencies are anticipated, and possible solutions to these are invited and welcome.



How to Cite

Porto, L. E. (2013). The Spiraling Propensities of Mind: Towards an Ecological Theory of Human Meaning Systems within a Panarchy of Adaptive Cycles of Human Consciousness. Proceedings of the 56th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2012, San Jose, CA, USA. Retrieved from



Human Systems Inquiry