Ecological Principles of Sustainability

Sustainable economies must be guided by the fundamental principles or laws of nature. Since economies are subsets of societies and societies are subsets of nature, the principles by which economies and societies function are subsets of the laws of nature. Human nature is but one aspect of nature as a whole. Economies reflect the individual aspect of human nature and societies reflect the relational or communal aspect of human nature.


We tend to think of the principles of nature as physical laws, such as the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics. These principles apply to the physical functions of societies and economies—regardless of whether they are acknowledged or respected. Additional principles of nature relate specifically to societies and economies. These social and economic principles are just as real and inviolable as the basic laws of physics—just less appreciated and respected. The essential principles of sustainability may be more readily understood if they are addressed individually as ecological principles, social principles, or economic principles. However, the same basic principles permeate and apply to economies, societies, and natural ecosystems.


Sustainable natural ecosystems are diverse, individualistic, and interdependent. This certainly is not an exhaustive list, but these three principles are critical to sustainability and are easy to explain. As I have explained previously, sustainable ecosystems must be resilient, regenerative, and resourceful. For example, diversity among the various species within healthy natural ecosystems gives ecosystems the ability to withstand and recover from adversity and to adjust to long-term changes in their environments. The wastes from each species become food for others, and each species performs specific functions in the cycling of water and minerals, the flow of energy, and the successional processes of renewal and regeneration. Nature is also diverse with respect to geography, topography, climate, and other physical characteristics of specific places. Thus, sustainable natural ecosystems are site-specific and evolve to accommodate changes in their unique biophysical niches within nature.


These same basic principles characterize sustainable societies and economies. Societies that value racial, gender, and ethnic diversity are able to withstand shocks and adversity and accommodate changes in their physical, political, and economic environments. Societies that value diversity are also more peaceful and pleasant places to live than those characterized by discrimination and exploitation. Diverse societies are also more creative, innovative, and dynamic. Relationships among the diverse individuals in sustainable societies are complementary, collaborative, and cooperative. Each member of society has a innate, unique ability to contribute to the common good of society and humanity. In sustainable societies, individuals are afforded the opportunity and given the responsibility to develop and use this capability. A sustainable global society depends on mutually beneficial relationships among a diversity of societies that have evolved to fit their specific geographic and cultural niches.


Sustainable economies must also be diverse, individualistic, and interdependent. Economically diverse business organizations are better able to cope with the volatility of market economies and adjust to changes in their long-term economic environments. Diverse national economies are better able to survive and thrive during times of turbulence in the global economy. Diverse economies are also more innovative, creative, and dynamic. Sustainable economies must also accommodate the unique natural and human resources of the specific places where they function and serve the needs of the unique societies for which they function. Sustainable national economies must maintain interdependent or mutually-beneficial relationships with other national economies. Economic dependency invariably leads to economic extraction and exploitation. A sustainable global economy requires mutually beneficial relationships among a diversity of sovereign national economies.


Today’s dominant societies and economies are not sustainable because they are not guided by the ecological principles essential for sustainability. Rather than valuing diversity, they are characterized by racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination, domination, and exploitation. Economic and political power is concentrated among a few incredibly wealthy individuals and far wealthier multinational corporations. Individuals are neither afforded the opportunity nor given the responsibility of developing their unique capabilities to contribute to the greater good of society and humanity. Economically and politically powerful societies impose their economic systems and ways of life on weaker societies. Global natural and human resources are homogenized in the pursuit of perpetual economic growth and concentration of wealth.


The principles guiding the dominant societies and economies today are specialization, homogenization, and exploitation—rather than diversity, individuality, and interdependence. Sustainability is not only a matter of rethinking the purpose of societies and economies, it is also a matter of rethinking the principles by which societies and economies must function. Sustainability is about being guided by the basic principles of nature as we strive to help meet the needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for the future.


The only power great enough to wrest political and economic power from the super-wealthy individuals and multinational corporations is the power of the people. While we individually cannot change our societies, economies, or even our communities, we can strive to develop our capabilities and fulfill our responsibilities in our individual spheres of influence or little pieces of the world. We can value diversity, respect the need for individuality, and strive to develop mutually beneficial relationships with each other and with the other living and nonliving things on the earth.


As we develop relationships with other like-minded people, we begin to develop sustainable communities, and as we change communities, we begin to develop sustainable societies, as we change societies, we move toward the sustainability of humanity. That’s the way change happens—always has and always will. One person, one community, one society, at a time.


John Ikerd