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The Most Resilient Show on Earth: The Circus as a Model for Viewing Identity, Change, and Chaos

Philip A Loring, University of Alaska, Fairbanks


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Resilience, adaptability, and transformability are all tightly linked to the notion of change, whether in respect to coping with, adapting to, or harnessing it. But in order to understand these forces of change, we first need to recognize its counterpart: identity. Identity of a social-ecological system is not merely a static set of quantifiable feedbacks or indicators, but a more qualitative characterization of what results from the overlap of the social and the ecological. To fully articulate these ideas, I turn to a unique and enduring phenomenon: the traveling circus. Through the many forms they have taken over the last 150 yr, circuses have changed significantly while sustaining a singular identity. As a successful and enduring social system, their intriguing history exposes the nuances of sustainability theory, from resilience to pathologies, and illustrates that sustainability requires a complex dynamic between identity, tradition, and change.

Key words

adaptive management; circus; panarchy; resilience; sustainability; tribe; tribalism.
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087