Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy on Ecosystems

What is “eco-nomics?” It is a term comprised of the prefix of “ecology” (and “economy”) and the suffix of “economics” — implying that the two fields are closely intertwined.

Environmental writers often note that “ecology” and “economics” have the same prefix, “eco,” derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “house.” The suffix of ecology, “-logy,” means “knowledge,” so ecology literally means “the knowledge of the house.” The suffix of economics, “-nomics,” means “management and measurement of,” so economics literally means the “management and measurement of the household.”

Of course “house” (eco), in both words carries the connotation of “earth” — the house we all dwell in. Both the knowledge and management of our earthly house is implied by eco-nomics.

Ecology is the study of ecosystems, and economics is the study of the production, distribution and consumption of commodities. The two subjects are generally studied separately.

Furthermore, the growth and health of  “the economy” is usually seen as unrelated to, or even in conflict with the health of the planetary ecosystem, or ecosphere. This is an artificial distinction, because the human economic system is entirely dependent upon the ecosphere to sustain it.

Designing an ecology-based economy requires a completely rethinking our current economic models. Ultimately, for the human economy to be sustainable, it must be functionally integrated with the ecosphere and obey the natural laws that govern ecosystems.

Eco-nomics is the art and science of modeling economies on the principles by which ecosystems function and sustain themselves. Although the specific organisms living on the earth during any given geological time period have changed, the basic principles by which ecosystems function and sustain all life have remained essentially the same since they evolved 3.6 billion years ago. (That’s roughly 3,600 times longer than humans have inhabited the earth.)

Ecosystems are sustainable because:

1) They use the virtually limitless renewable energy from the sun to photosynthesize molecules that function as both the basic building blocks and the energy sources for living tissue. (This “value-adding” — turning simple, non-living molecules into more complex molecules usable by living systems — is called “primary production.” )

2) Through myriad chemical reactions they cycle and recycle those basic building blocks throughout an ecosystem until all the usable energy is extracted from them and they are broken down into their original non-living molecular components; after which the remnant molecules are recycled back into the tissue of energy gathering sub systems (usually green plants) where, using more energy from the sun, they are again synthesized into biomass building blocks.

Ecosystems do not waste materials – the waste of one organism is the food of another in an endless cycle of regeneration. 

 3)  The biomass (total living tissue) of an ecosystem is limited by the resources – sunlight, water, minerals – available in its locale. Generally, resources are not concentrated in specific locales by the actions of living agents – certainly not on a scale remotely comparable to the concentration of resources by human agency. Ecosystems are sustained by maximizing the use of local resources.

4) Evolutionary mechanisms generate diverse subsystems (species) until all or most of the available niches within an ecosystem are filled. Diversity and functional overlap between species (many types of spiders eating the same insects, for example, and one type of spider eating many types of insects) assures that overall ecosystem function will continue – energy flows will not be catastrophically disrupted – in the event that a particular species is reduced in numbers or goes extinct.

These four mechanisms – reliance on renewable energy; reusing and recycling materials; limiting biomass production to locally available resources; and optimizing diversity to ensure continuity of energy flow – have underpinned ecosystems since they evolved as life’s supporting structure 3.6 billion years ago.

Modern human economies, by contrast, rely almost entirely on:

1) non-renewable energy sources

2) energy that flows in primarily linear, as opposed to circular pathways, leaving dissipated energy and degraded matter that has no possibility of timely regeneration at the end of the path

3) long-distance rather than local or bioregional resource bases

4) movement toward centralization and monopolization, as opposed to the diversification of the means of production and exchange.

Clearly our economic models are not sustainable. The planet-wide depletion of basic resources such as potable water and fertile topsoil, the inability of the ecosphere to absorb more of our atmospheric, terrestrial or aquatic waste and the rapid loss of life-supporting ecosystem services such as pollination and flood prevention have all reached critical thresholds. Those factors, combined with the incessant and accelerating growth in our demand for resources, sinks and services are clearly bringing us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented scale.

It is imperative that we rapidly restructure our economic activities so they begin to regenerate, rather than continue to debase the ecosphere. Rather than fostering the independence (and temporary dominance) of one species, homo sapiens, we must develop a sustainable economy that fosters the interdependence of all living beings and enhances rather than degrades the health of the ecosphere. We must study Eco-nomics, and create a sustainable economy modeled on the structure and function of ecosystems.

The creation of those new models will require the meeting of many minds, and open exchange of ideas from all over the planet and all walks of life. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comment section below.


Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.


One Response to “Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy on Ecosystems”

  1. Betty L Says:

    I hope I have the right Phillip in the news paper. Your article Meltdown was what we all need to hear and do. Its as simple as that focus on our areas and people. Remember victory gardens our parents were children then but I hope to see a rebirth in the concept. I also live in the Pacific Northwest with lots of water and good soil and potiental to be self sufficient if needed. It is a possibility. I worry about my family in arizona if the water dries up they will be in a Mell of a Hess. Anyway Thank you for such a clear and the right thing to do article. Blessings to and your family. BL

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