Knowledge for Development

Ecological sustainability in times of change – how to measure success?

Author: Paul Geerders, Consultant

Date: 10/12/2013


Agricultural production is being impacted by changes in climate, ecology and the environment. At the same time, agricultural intensification, population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation also impact upon the ecology and environment. In this context, achieving ecological sustainability is often seen as a desirable goal. But what is ecological sustainability? The meaning appears to be different when viewed through the lenses of various experts e.g. environmentalists, sociologists or economists. Nevertheless it is essential to have a clear understanding of what is meant in a specific situation or context. This goal may be as elusive as the goal of “sustainable development” for which several, sometimes contradicting definitions exist, and for which consensus on how to attain it, still has not been reached. 


Ecological sustainability in times of change – how to measure success?
Paul Geerders, Consultant

Agricultural production is being impacted by changes in climate, ecology and the environment. At the same time, agricultural intensification, population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation also impact upon the ecology and environment. In this context, achieving ecological sustainability is often seen as a desirable goal. But what is ecological sustainability? The meaning appears to be different when viewed through the lenses of various experts e.g. environmentalists, sociologists or economists. Nevertheless it is essential to have a clear understanding of what is meant in a specific situation or context. This goal may be as elusive as the goal of “sustainable development” for which several, sometimes contradicting definitions exist, and for which consensus on how to attain it, still has not been reached.  

Ecological Sustainability
A common definition of ecological sustainability refers to the capacity of ecosystems to maintain their essential functions and processes, and retain their biodiversity in full measure over the long-term [1]. This is supposed to include the ability of an ecosystem to maintain productivity for a prolonged period [2]. However, noting the essential dynamics of, and interactions between, ecosystems, environment, socio-economy and society, these definitions appear to be too restrictive on the one hand, and on the other, too vague.

An alternative, probably more appropriate way to define ecological sustainability is: "the maintenance of life support systems and the achievement of a 'natural' extinction rate” [3]. In this context, life support systems refer to the climate system, nutrient cycling, etc. in order to achieve a healthy geo-physiological state. The ‘natural’ extinction rate is understood as the background extinction rate that applies between major extinction events triggered by large meteor strikes, climate change and the actions of human beings who are unable to maintain ecological sustainability in their local context. 

It is important for a country as a whole to develop a national strategy on how ecological sustainability can be achieved within a desirable time frame, and how it can be maintained while the society and the environment continue to evolve. A complicating factor is that ecosystems and environments, including human dominated systems, are considered to be ‘complex adaptive systems’ due to their inherent dynamics. Such systems are evolutionary rather than mechanistic and exhibit only a limited degree of predictability. Understanding the problems and constraints resulting from these evolutionary dynamics is a key issue for the sustainable management of ecosystems and environment. Research therefore plays an important role in generating the necessary knowledge to enhance understanding of these processes and interactions, as a basis for forecasting future changes. 

A number of common principles are embedded in most definitions of ecological sustainability, including:

  • Conservation of biodiversity and ecological integrity (including halting the non-evolutionary loss of biodiversity)
  • Natural capital and sustainable income
  • Intra-generational (within generations) and inter-generational (across generations) equity
  • The global dimension
  • Dealing cautiously with risk, uncertainty and irreversibility (UN Precautionary Principle)
  • Appropriate economic valuation of ecosystem-based goods and services
  • Integration of environmental and economic goals in policies and actions.
  • Social equity and community participation.

Achieving Ecological Sustainability

There are various approaches to achieve ecological sustainability. The following two core requirements, as developed by the NGO, Natural Step [4], are common to all of them:

  • The diversity of life and the basis of its productivity must be maintained.
  • Society must organise itself so that the approach is easy to achieve and sustain.

The diversity of life and the basis of its productivity, must not be systematically diminished, and where it has been diminished, must be restored to ‘natural’ levels. In the first place, this implies the need for detailed knowledge of the current status of ecosystems and environments relevant for agricultural production as a reference and baseline for integrated management and decision-making. Furthermore, it needs the systematic monitoring of ecosystems and environments, in order to determine the results of actions and interventions, and to identify possible changes (trends) due to other impacts such as climate change, urbanisation and industrialisation.  

Healthy ecosystems provide vital goods and services to humans and other organisms [5]. A common way of reducing negative human impact and enhancing ecosystem services is through ecosystem-based management, usually based upon information gained from earth science, environmental science and conservation biology. However, this is management at the end of a long series of indirect causal factors initiated by human consumption.  

Society as a whole (public and private) should re-organise itself and develop and adopt national strategies and policies for facilitating the maintenance of the diversity of life as the basis for sustained (and where possible increased) agricultural productivity. This implies that society must develop the capability and resilience to detect, solve and preferably prevent major problems related to environment and ecosystems in a timely fashion. This in turn requires political will and financial resources to be invested in the future. 

A national strategy to achieve these goals should include: setting of clear objectives and achievable targets, and implementing concrete actions. A vital issue in this context is the imposition of unambiguous limits upon ‘development’, based upon scientific understanding and accompanied by the creation of awareness at all levels, besides rigorous surveillance and control. Equally, the following factors that undermine ecological sustainability should be avoided:

  • Systematic increases in concentrations in nature of substances that come from the earth's crust (mining) or are produced by society (waste).
  • Increases in the manipulation or harvesting of nature.
  • Failure to restore the ecological basis for healthy ecosystems, biodiversity and ecological, agricultural productivity.

Daly [6] has suggested three broad criteria for ecological sustainability:

  • Renewable resources should provide a sustainable yield (the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration).
  • For non-renewable resources there should be equivalent development of renewable substitutes.
  • Waste generation should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.

These criteria should be included in government strategies and policies, and be supported by a platform of visionary leaders drawn from wider society, including private industry and the population as a whole, in order to ensure their sustainability.

Role of Society
The key issue for society is to reduce its ‘footprint’ on ecosystems and the environment as much as possible, restoring damage done where possible, and reserving a considerable part of its territory for ‘nature’. This encompasses the need to strive for a closed-cycle economy and to use renewable resources as much as possible, to protect the population from environmental threats as well as to strive for a sustainable population.

Role of Industry
If society is to achieve sustainability (ecological, social and economic) then there will need to be a proliferation of sustainability-promoting firms. To date, most firms, when they become active on the environment issue, aim to reduce their own negative impacts (show a ‘green face’). But even if every firm adopted this approach, society would not be able to achieve sustainability, because the firms' actions would be focused solely on existing production processes and existing products thereby locking in an inadequate (even though improved) status quo. 

Nevertheless, the contribution of sustainability-promoting firms, working in concert with the government and the community, is essential to help society become sustainable. This change of focus moves sustainability-promoting firms into a new management paradigm. At a minimum, these firms should consider taking the following five key actions: 

  • Be committed to the goal of effectively helping society to become and remain sustainable.
  • Use their full product range as a major driver of society's move towards sustainability.
  • Take action to help society (locally and globally) to reach a condition of ‘sustainability take-off’.
  • Urge governments to be proactive in shaping the economy to promote the achievement of sustainability.
  • Make sure their actions match the scale and pace of change needed if society is to achieve sustainability (i.e. promote large scale, urgent action).  

Indicators of Ecological Sustainability 
In order to achieve ecological sustainability, management and decision-making processes require information, usually in the form of indicators, based on three main categories [7]:

  • Indicators that relate to a process, usually at organisational level, such as the reorganisation of a Ministry or the establishment of an inter-sectoral committee. In this case the value of the indicator is a simple yes or no; whether the required process was implemented and completed. Sometimes the process is subdivided in phases and the indicator indicates in which phase the process is.
  • Indicators of stress reduction, usually relating to measures taken, for example in the form of the number of nature reserves established or the number of square km’s of mangroves planted for coastal stabilisation and protection. The appropriate use of these indicators requires the definition of the measures to be monitored and the value to be represented by the indicator (number, square km).
  • Indicators of the actual state of ecosystems and environment, such as the condition of drinking water and ground water resources, and the state of the biodiversity. In this case the value of the indicator can be represented as sort of a traffic light: red for bad and green for good; obviously this requires criteria to be identified under what conditions the indicator should be either green or red. Moreover, in many situations a third and fourth colour is used to facilitate the identification of trends: orange for improving and yellow for deteriorating; in these cases, comparable historical data needs to be available in order to determine the corresponding changes over time. Indicators of the actual state of ecosystems and environment need to be based upon data and information: updated, complete and reliable. Such data and information can be obtained from a well-defined monitoring process using periodic measurements and observations carried out with the same technology and methodology at the same spot for a longer time. In addition, scientific knowledge and understanding of relevant processes and interactions are required to define the conditions for good or bad.  

The main requirement of the decision-making process relates to the future: what changes are to be expected in the (near) future? What could be the impact of a specific decision or measure? This implies the need for forecasts and simulations, based upon models of the ecosystem and the environment. These models as tools for management need to be based upon new understanding of system dynamics and predictability, and emerge from studies of ‘complex systems’. A range of relevant modelling techniques has become available through advances in computer speed and accessibility, and by implementing a broad, interdisciplinary, ‘holistic’ systems view [8]. 

Indicators for ecosystem sustainability will always include the three categories mentioned above, and their specific definition will differ from country to country, depending upon local situations, conditions, policies and priorities. However, at the generic level, indicators should always be part of a national strategy that clearly defines objectives, criteria and priorities on the road to ecosystem sustainability. Furthermore, to be successful it is essential that such a strategy is not only supported by government entities, but also has a strong platform in private industry, the scientific community and amongst the population.  

Composite Indicators
In the field of environmental sustainability several composite indicators have been proposed for international usage, of which several are presented below [9]:

  • The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) is published by the World Economic Forum. It is a measure of the overall progress towards environmental sustainability, developed for 142 countries. ESI scores are based upon a set of 20 core indicators each of which combines two to eight variables for a total of 68 underlying variables. ESI permits cross-national comparisons of environmental progress in a systematic and quantitative fashion. It represents a first step towards a more analytically driven approach to environmental decision-making.
  • The European Union’s Joint Research Center in Ispra developed the Dashboard of Sustainability (DS) as a software programme which allows users to present complex relationships between economic, social and environmental issues in a highly communicative format. DS is aimed at decision-makers and citizens interested in sustainable development. For the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the CGSDI (Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators) published the ‘From Rio to Jo’burg’ Dashboard, with over 60 indicators for more than 200 countries – a tool for elaborating assessment of the 10 year period since the Rio Summit.
  • The Wellbeing index (WI) combines 36 indicators of health, population, wealth, education, communication, freedom, peace, crime, and equity into the Human Wellbeing index, and 51 indicators of land, biodiversity, water quality and supply, air quality and global atmosphere, and energy and resource use pressures into an Ecosystem Wellbeing index. The two indexes are then combined into the Wellbeing/Stress Index.
  • The Ecological footprint (EF) of a specified population can be defined as the area of ecologically productive land needed to maintain its current consumption patterns and absorb its wastes with prevailing technology. People consume resources from all over the world, so their footprint can be thought of as a sum of these areas, wherever on the planet they are located.
  • The Living planet index (LPI) is an indicator promoted by the World Wildlife Fund. It tries to assess the overall state of the Earth’s natural ecosystems, which includes national and global data on human pressures on natural ecosystems arising from the consumption of natural resources and the effects of pollution.
  • Eurostat’s Material Flow Indicators are based on economy-wide material flow analysis, which quantifies physical exchange between the national economy, the environment and foreign economies on the basis of total material mass flowing across the boundaries of national economies. Material inputs into an economy consist primarily of extracted raw materials and produced biomass that have entered the economic system (this biomass is composed of, for example, harvested crops and wood). Material outputs consist primarily of emissions to air and water, land filled wastes and dissipative uses of materials (e.g. fertilisers, pesticides and solvents).
  • The Direct Material Consumption (DMC) indicator is defined as a sum of all domestic extraction flows (extracted raw material, harvested biomass, etc.) including imported and excluding exported material flows (raw materials, biomass and semi-manufactured/manufactured products).  

Ecological sustainability requires wise governance, based upon clear objectives, criteria and priorities, and should be supported by a solid basis of updated, complete and reliable (objective) data and information on ecosystems, environment and related issues such as socio-economy. Governance needs appropriate indicators of various kinds: process, stress reduction and state indicators, which are generated from data and information, obtained from dedicated monitoring of ecosystems, environment and related issues.  

Therefore, the following three essential elements need to be in place to implement an effective system for working toward achieving the goal of ecological sustainability:

  • The identification of objectives, criteria and priorities for the national governance process concerning ecological sustainability, agreed between all stakeholders: government, private industry and population.
  • The identification of a baseline on ecosystems, environment and related issues such as socio-economy and demography, as a reference to assess the impacts of measures and actions resulting from the governance process.
  • The continuous monitoring of ecosystems, environment and related issues in order to identify the effectiveness of the governance process through indicators, and to adjust the process in case of any unforeseen changes.

[1] – - a concise definition 
[2] - - an extended description of the term ecological sustainability from an ecosystem perspective 
[3] -  - various research projects related to sustainability 
[4] -  - an NGO dedicated to education, advisory work and research in sustainable development 
[5] - - extended definition of sustainability with many additional links 
[6] - Daly, H.E. (2008). Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly (Advances in Ecological Economics) [Paperback] 
[7] - Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators for GEF International Waters Projects by Alfred Duda; Monitoring and Evaluation Working Paper 10, November 2002 
[8] - Composite Indicators of Environmental Sustainability: Bedřich Moldan , Tomáš Hák, Jan Kovanda, Miroslav Havránek, Petra Kušková; Charles University Environment Center, Prague; OECD World Forum on Key Indicators, 2004 
[9] - Ecological sustainability, indicators and climate change; Robert Costanza 

Additional literature:
Leal Filho, W (2000), “Dealing with the misconceptions on the concept of sustainability”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 9-19. 

Adams, W.M. (2001). Green Development: environment and sustainability in the Third World. London: Routledge. 

Daly, H. E. (1992). Allocation, Distribution and Scale: Towards an Economics which is Efficient, Just and Sustainable. Ecol. Econ., 6(3), 185–193. 

Holmberg, J. and Karlsson, S. (1992). On Designing Socio-Ecological Indicators, In: Svedin, U. and Hägerhäll Aniansson, B. (eds.), Society and Environment: A Swedish Research Perspective, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.  

IUCN (1980). World conservation strategy: Living resource conservation for sustainable development. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 

Wackernagel, M. and Rees, W.E. (1996). Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. 

An ecologically sustainable approach to agricultural production intensification: Global perspectives and developments; Amir Kassam and Theodor Friedrich. 

Olson, Robert L. and David Rejeski. 2005. Environmentalism and the technologies of tomorrow: Shaping the next industrial revolution. Washington: Island Press. 

The Principle of Sustainability, Transforming Law and Governance; Klaus Bosselmann, University of Auckland, New Zealand.