26 August 2019

Crawford Stanley "Buzz" Holling, 1930-2019

It is with profound sadness that IIASA marks the death of C.S. Holling, who was a researcher at IIASA from 1973-1975 and director from 1981-1984. His work founded the field of Adaptive Ecosystem Policy and Management at IIASA, and he led the institute as director during a time of great uncertainty.

Buzz Holling at IIASA in the 1970s

Buzz Holling at IIASA in the 1970s

Holling, a Canadian ecologist, first came to IIASA in 1973 to led the Ecology and Environment Project. His work lead to a ground-breaking book, Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management, which illustrated how systems must take uncertainty into account, rather than eliminate it.

In 2018, Holling's project was revisited in Ecosystems Research and Policy Planning: Revisting the Budworm Project (1972-1980) at IIASA and states: "Holling's budworm approach was counterintuitive and provocative at the time, which underpinned a significant change in using scientific analysis as a guideline for policy making and management in the 1970s."

Holling returned to IIASA from 1981-1984 to serve as the 3rd director. In his interview below, Holling states "It was a turbulent time, which is great. It was an exciting time, and I was glad to be there to help."

The current Director General of IIASA Albert van Jaarsveld expressed his sorrow at the news, saying: "Holling was not only a pioneer in his field, he pioneered the institute during his time as director. He inspired many and will be sorely missed by IIASA colleagues, past and present.”  

In his memoir Bubbles and Spirals, Holling writes: "With inevitably incomplete knowledge come surprises and mistakes. But the mistakes become possibilities for new learning, not routes to failure".

Alumni share their memories of Buzz: 

"Buzz was a man of towering intellect; yet, he remained a caring, modest and fun loving man. 

We met at IIASA more than 40 years ago and the institute remained an important part in our lives. He served as director from 1981-1984 navigating IIASA through its first major funding challenges. 

He was a maverick in many ways; his novel ideas and his fundamental contributions to our understanding of the world will continue to deeply influence generations to come.  

Above all, he was an incredibly generous and caring human being.

He will be deeply and forever missed by his family and everyone he touched around the world." - Ilse Holling

"Numerous individuals can provide more detail about Buzz Holling's scientific contributions. In addition to being a significant contributor to IIASA from its beginning and the third Director, Buzz certainly contributed to IIASA being an interesting and enjoyable place from the beginning. He had key roles on the Annual Canada Day breakfast, the production of the Ralf Yorque Newsletter, and the personal distribution of a red rose to IIASA visitors at heurigers associated with various meetings." - Ralph Keeney

"Although I was at IIASA part of the time when Buzz was director, I was a research assistant and didn’t have any real personal interaction. I do remember the genuine enthusiasm for science that he brought to IIASA, which was truly inspiring and motivating for me as a young researcher. I also remember that Buzz had a weekly coffee round where anyone could go and talk science – it was in the coffee area between the Gvishiani and Wodak rooms. His openness to new ideas was refreshing. Although I never worked directly with or for Buzz, his legacy has been present during my long-time collaboration with Mike Thompson, who often tells the story of how he and Buzz realized their notions of complexity and resilience were quite similar, with Buzz focusing on ecosystems and Mike focusing on people. As an economist, I’ve been deeply influenced by Buzz’s theories of complex systems, resilience and adaptive management. He will be missed." - JoAnne Linnerooth-Bayer

"Having had the privilege and honor of assisting Buzz during his 3,5 years of tenure at IIASA, I really cherish the memories of a unique scientist who did his utmost best to manage IIASA at its most challenging and difficult period of its history. The Ralf Yorque Society has lost one more of its founding members. My wife joins me in expressing our heartfelt sympathy and deepest condolences to Ilse and the other family members." - Sebouh Baghdoyan

I got to know Buzz as a great provocateur des idees from many workshops and presentations. Expect the Unexpected - can one imagine how visionary that insight was when it was carried into the world at the end of the 70s? I am aware how fortunate I am to have crossed Buzz' paths multiple times. Bowing before a great thinker and scientist," - Matthias Jonas

"The strain of seeing giants like Buzz pass on is somewhat eased by seeing by all the good work being done by his heirs and the cohorts of bright young scientists that his heirs are training. Buzz's ideas resonate very much here in Central Europe, so his legacy lives on.

While his intellectual impact is felt globally, we are among the lucky few to have shared his rich and irascible sense of humor (he was delighted to learn that the new millennium's first decade was referred to as "the naugthties") and gracious wisdom as well as his deep love for this world. There was a huge heart under that great brain, and it informed the passion with which we all carry on trying both to understand and to conserve this lovely world - which his finer sensibilities captured in art as well. He loved to inspire with ideas that were as simple and elegant as modern sculpture, which he practiced for decades.

We are all fortunate to have known him, as well as the very fine people he attracted to him." - Jan Sendzimir

An image that reminds me greatly of Buzz and his appreciation for elegant designs of deceptive simplicity.

As Time goes by - a song written and performed live by the IIASA Council when we said goodbye to Buzz as the IIASA Director

You must remember this, systems analysis, it must be done with style
The fundamental thing applied as Buzz goes by.
When UK IIASA woos, Maxwell says I love you, on that you can rely,
No matter waht the future brings as Buzz goes by.
Draft plan and dues always out of date, staff full of passion, jealousy and hate, Canada needs
Buzz and Ilse needs her mate, that no one can deny
It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die!
IIASA always welcomes directors, as Buzz goes by.

- a memory from Anders Karlqvist

One afternoon, back in 1982 (I think), I wandered along to the room outside the Wodak Room in the hope of finding some free coffee left over from an earlier meeting. The coffee was indeed there, and so too was Buzz, escaping, for an hour or so, from his directorial duties. We ended up speculating as to whether there was any connection between his four "myths of nature" and the four "ideas of nature" that had been identified by Mary Douglas: the British anthropologist who had supervised my PhD. Taking advantage of a flip-chart that happened to be there, we played around with the two typologies, trying to fit them onto his now-famous figure-of-eight diagram. To our delight they mapped onto one another perfectly, thereby establishing a remarkable link between ecology and anthropology that I see as a key insight for applied systems analysis and have relied on ever since. Just goes to show the value of coffee breaks!

- Michael Thompson

Some Memories and an Appreciation

My Appreciation 

I do not recall exactly when I began to try and hunt down what might be at the heart of ecological resilience, thus to work away at seeing such a notion realised in engineering systems, notably in cities and their infrastructures. It may have been somewhere in the mid 1990s. But I do know how Buzz’s legacy has fuelled my sustained pursuit of this marvellously inspiring idea over the past decade and more, and seemingly ever more doggedly so. A recent offshoot is a thought piece on “Ecology, Anthropology, and Keynes’ ‘Animal Spirits.’” It was originally posted at the blog of the newly launched (2020) Financial Systems Thinking Innovation Centre (FinSTIC; www.finstic.org. FinSTIC is associated with the (UK) Institute and Faculty of Actuaries; IFoA). 

In respect of IIASA, the thought piece is an enquiry into the nature, even the procedure, of what I refer to as cross-disciplinary Systems Thinking. It surely reflects how my career was defined by my time at IIASA (1977-82), which time was marked indelibly by Buzz’s work. 

Some Memories 

It would have been 1973 or thereabouts. My PhD supervisor in Cambridge announced he was off to a meeting somewhere and that some chap called Holling would be there. At the time, I would have been quite unaware of that seminal Holling paper on “Stability and Resilience”. But control engineering knows a thing or two about stability, and adaptive control, for that matter. 

When duly I arrived myself at IIASA (in the autumn of 1977), it would have been shortly thereafter that I heard Bill Clark present a seminar in which he referred to a “pulling of the levers” of environmental policy. It was the first time I’d encountered such a use of the mechanical metaphor. I mention this because it is hard now to credit its strangeness then. But it came from the impressive cross-disciplinary Systems Thinking that I have since come to associate with Buzz. 

Indeed, let me not proceed further without first succumbing to the temptation to observe two further quintessentially IIASA “strangenesses”. Sometime around 1981 I would have become aware of “surprise” as a subject for legitimate research (Buzz was integral to it). “Surprise?”, I thought, “Can one study that?”. And then, one day, I saw this man walking towards the Director’s office. He was said to have written a (1979) book on Rubbish Theory. “Good grief”, I thought to myself, “who could ever develop a theory of ‘rubbish’ for goodness sake!”. Little did I know I would come to work with both surprise and rubbish theory 30 years later. (That “man”, by the way, is Michael Thompson.)  

I was surely aware of having seen or met Buzz at IIASA before he became its Director in 1981. By that time, the IIASA book Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management had been published. Holling understood adaptive control as control engineers do (in his case, as a form of marvellously elegant “dual control”). But in general, I fancy he did not greatly appreciate engineers (with one exception I shall mention shortly). I think he saw the engineering mindset — the control engineering mindset — in the way forest managers sought to manipulate the boreal forests of Canada such that they would deliver a constant output of timber, year in, year out, come what may. Later, in a 1996 contribution to a US National Academy book on Engineering Within Ecological Constraints, he wrote of the significant distinction between the (inferior) systemic property of engineering resilience and the (superior) property of ecological resilience. Now that — when one conceives of infusing the behaviour of infrastructure for cities with ecological resilience — is surely the subject of an unending quest (for me at least). 

A second instance of seminal cross-disciplinary Systems Thinking came in what I guestimate must have been one afternoon in 1981 (perhaps 1982). I would still have been at IIASA. But I was not present in the exchange. How do I know of this event? Because Michael Thompson, Buzz’s partner in the exchange, has recalled it for me. And I am more than happy to record it here. The coffee break arrived during a meeting in the Wodak Room. Mike and Buzz sat down at a coffee table in the reception area between the Wodak Room and Seminar Room and took advantage of a nearby flip chart. In the minutes of that break they drew on the chart the one-to-one mapping between Buzz’s Myths of Nature from Ecology and the four (if not all five) social solidarities of what later became known as Mike’s (1990) Cultural Theory in Anthropology. Buzz, as Mike insists, had come up with the five social constructions of Nature, which endure and continue to be productively elaborated to this day. Each of the four phases of Buzz’s adaptive eco-cycle (of 1986 vintage, I judge) equates to what has become known as one of the four seasons of risk in business-insurance decision-making and enterprise risk management (ERM). 

So when and how does Buzz credit engineers, in just that single instance? I refer once more to the same 1996 contribution of Buzz’s cited above. Indeed, in order to get my facts straight, I have re-read the relevant part of the chapter, yet again. (It is the defining nature of outstanding pieces of work that they continue to yield insights and thought-provoking stimuli again and again, no matter how mature they have become.) There is in this chapter even more supreme cross-disciplinary Systems Thinking. Buzz takes the evolved physiology of endotherms to put his finger on the very essence of something — and something I wager that is still hugely productive. Warm-blooded species (ourselves included) evolved to operate at a body temperature perilously close to that which is lethal. This enabled them to succeed so handsomely in exploiting habitats and life niches not open to ectotherms — and oh how very much so! Buzz likens such tight internal control — at the edge of chaos or instability (with its accompanying release of astounding performative behaviour in the world about us) — to what control engineers have achieved for high-performance aircraft. Bravo, let’s hear it for engineers, not least of my control variety! (Buzz goes on to conclude that the result of such control is “opportunity”, the “release of human opportunity”, which surely is “at the heart of sustainable development”. So I will stick to my conclusion that he is complimenting engineers here.) 

In 1981-2, however, as my (defining) time at IIASA came to a close, Buzz was still over a decade away from when he might laud engineers. People, very close friends, used to worry about whether they were “in” or “out” with him. But I can now reassure this friend (W Brian Arthur) that he must have been “in” with Buzz. Brian’s 1990 paper on “Positive Feedback in the Economy” (it appeared in Scientific American) is cited favourably in Buzz’s 1996 chapter. 

After I left IIASA I only saw Buzz but the once subsequently, when he gave the memorial address at the (then) Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia in 2002, on the occasion of the death of Eugene P Odum. 

Yet his work continues to inform and inspire me. As do the works of Mike Thompson and Brian Arthur, both of whom have starring roles in my FinSTIC blogpost.

- M. Bruce Beck

Book of Condolences:

Please share your memories of C.S. Holling in the space below.

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Last edited: 22 April 2021


Monika Bauer

IIASA Network and Alumni Officer Communications and External Relations Department


International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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