Ecosystem Principles

There is a general consensus around the world that our current ways of living are simply not sustainable and that drastic changes are needed. In order to make the right kind of changes, it is essential that we first understand why our current systems are not sustainable. Learning about ecosystem principles is essential for developing this kind of understanding and a key component of Education for Sustainability.

Human activities mediated by socio-economic exchanges (i.e. market and non-market driven) are unsustainable because socio-economic systems are not designed using the same principles as natural ecosystems. Ecosystems have a set of inherent properties such as circular economy, biotic and genetic diversity, thrives on solar energy, and ability to maintain the stock of natural capital, among others, that give rise to emergent properties (an outcome of innovation without design in nature) of self-renewal, self-organization and resilience that are characteristic of a system that can endure and renew itself over time – i.e. sustainable.

Human beings have designed social and economic systems that are dissonant with the principles of natural ecosystems. For instance, the conventional economic model is a linear model that is based on maximization and is not a solar economy. Since this socio-economic system is embedded in nature, there is a backlash that leads to the unsustainability of the socio-economic system that by degrading natural capital, directly undermines the planet’s ability to support the socio-economic system. Since the overall interactions between society, economy and environment is complex and non-linear, the causes and effects of unsustainable human activities are usually delocalized in time and space – i.e. there are delays between cause and effect, and a cause may have an effect elsewhere that is not visible to the agent of the cause (the latter is especially complex in a globalized economy).

This figure below summarizes well the key principles of ecosystems:

Ecosystem principles

Source: ELIA-Ecological Living In Action, 2012

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