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The Three Ecological Principles of Economic Sustainability

The principles that govern living systems are no less true or inviolable than those that govern non-living systems.

Submitted by: John Ikerd

Posted: Feb 11, 2013 – 09:00 AM EST

Series: The Essentials of Economic Sustainability

Tags: nature, sustainability, ecology, ecosystem, environment, economy, diversity


The recent global financial crisis has raised widespread concern for the sustainability of the global economy and much has been written concerning the negative impacts of economic development on natural ecosystems and civil societies. Unfortunately, few viable alternatives to the prevailing economic paradigms have been suggested for consideration. Those that have been are typically little more than suggestions for fine tuning capitalist or socialist economies.

In his new book The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, John Ikerd addresses the basic principles and concepts essential to economic sustainability. Some of these concepts are capitalist, some are socialistic, and others are general principles validated by philosophy or common sense. What results is a synthesis: something that is neither capitalist nor socialist but fundamentally different. In part three, he explains the ecological principles of sustainability.


A healthy, productive natural ecosystem is essential for economic sustainability. The sustainability of an economy is ultimately dependent on the ability of natural ecosystems to capture and store sufficient quantities of solar energy, particularly biological energy, to sustain human life on earth. Humans are capable of capturing and storing solar energy by various means and in various forms. However, humans rely uniquely on the biological energy that is captured and stored by the other living organisms that co-populate the earth’s natural ecosystems.

Science Rules

The basic principles or laws that both empower and restrain human life on earth are the same principles that define the functions of all other living and nonliving elements of the universe. The laws of science, such as laws of gravity, motion, and energy, are examples of scientists’ attempts to define the basic principles by which nature functions.

Such laws exist, regardless of whether they are understood or accepted by science or within human earthcultures. If a person drops a heavy object on their toe, they will feel the pain, no matter how vehemently he or she may deny the law of gravity. If energy is used and reused, its usefulness eventually will be lost, even if the users of energy fail to understand or respect the law of entropy, as explained in The Essentials of Economic Sustainability.

Living organisms differ from nonliving mechanisms in that the living world does not function with the mechanical precision of the nonliving world. The principles of living systems can’t be captured in mathematical equations or precise formulas such as those that define mechanical, chemical, and electrical processes.

The principles that govern living systems are no less true or inviolable than those that govern non-living systems; although they are less well known and appreciated. The laws of nature that guide the functioning of natural ecosystems are commonly known as the principles of ecology.

1. Holism and The Perils of Ignoring It

The first principle of ecological sustainability is holism – meaning everything is interconnected.

The principle of holism can be summarized by the simple statement, “a whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The essence of the whole of living systems – biological or social – is not fully embodied in their individual parts or members. Wholes have properties that emerge only when the parts come together to form a coherent organism, organization, or whole. Parts have properties when they are connected within the whole that disappear when they are separated or isolated from the whole. The relationships among the parts of wholes matter; when the relationships change, the whole is changed.

Where interconnections are weak or simple – as in mechanical, chemical, and electrical systems – nature ecosystemignoring holism doesn’t appear to be a critical concern. Mechanistic paradigms seem to work very well in matters related to physics, chemistry, engineering, and the industrial arts. The greatest advances during the modern era of science and industry have been in these areas.

Where relationships are strong and systems are complex – as in ecological, social, or economic systems – ignoring holism has critical consequences. In these areas of application, mechanical paradigms have often created more problems than they have solved. The most important challenges of economic sustainability are not mechanical or industrial, but instead are ecological, social, and economic, where relationships matter.

2. Diversity: Foundation of Resilience

A second essential principle of ecological sustainability is diversity. The whole of a thing is said to be diverse if it has a variety of different or dissimilar elements or parts.

Nature is inherently diverse, as can be readily observable.

If nature were not diverse, it would not be capable of sustaining life. Entropy can be defined as the process of degrading or using up the usefulness of energy and matter. The ultimate state of entropy is characterized by inert uniformity of component elements; the absence of form, pattern, structure, or differentiation. Barren deserts receive an abundance of solar energy but are capable of supporting relatively little life because they are lacking in ecological diversity. Ecosystems completely lacking in diversity are incapable of supporting life.

Diversity gives living systems their capacities to renew and regenerate – to live, grow, mature, produce, reproduce, and evolve. Diversity provides the resilience needed to endure and recover from unexpected threats to health or life, such as physical attacks and diseases. Diversity allows living systems to adapt and evolve to accommodate their ever changing environment. Even if the specific nature of a threat is not fully understood, people can readily understand that loss of diversity in general represents a growing threat to the future of human life on earth.

3. Interdependence: The Win-Win Principle

A third essential ecological principle of sustainability is interdependence. Dependent relationships are exploitative, independence is limiting, but interdependent relationships are mutually beneficial; there are no losers.

Interdependence is the reward or payoff for respecting the principles of holism and diversity.

Within interdependent systems, the output of one process becomes input for others. The wastes of one species provide resources for other species. For example, each species in a diverse natural ecosystem provides the food or energy needed by other species. Interdependence allows the control of natural ecosystems to be decentralized or dispersed rather than centralized or consolidated.

citizen evolutionThe mutually-beneficial nature of interdependent relationships makes the whole of diverse living systems something more than the sums of their parts, rather than something less.

Interdependent relationships involving humans are matters of choice rather than necessity. People have a choice between continuing to exploit and extract from nature or instead renewing and regenerating nature – working in harmony with nature.

Throughout most of human history, humans were far more dependent on nature than was nature on humans. Nature often seemed to deny humans their basic necessities of life. The dominant society of today – the modern industrial society – has been very “successful” in winning its battles with nature. We have dammed streams, irrigated fields, poisoned pests, and vaccinated against plagues. But nature has always fought back with bigger floods, longer droughts, more resistant pests, and more complex plagues.

If our society and economy are to be sustainable, we must choose interdependent relationships with nature.


Part 2: The Hierarchy of Economic Sustainability: Getting The Principles Right

Part 1: Ethics & The Challenge of Economic Sustainability

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