Current Economic Growth Cannot Last Forever -- Ecological Economics & Sustainability

November 01, 1996

Throughout the 1996 election year, politicians have overwhelmingly campaigned on platforms touting economic growth as the main source of a healthy economy. Now, however, many well-known economists and ecologists argue that policies focused mainly on growth will undermine the well-being of both economic and ecological systems.

A special feature in the November issue of Ecological Applications, "Ecological Economics and Sustainability," addresses the fundamental interdependence of economic and ecological systems through the bold new trans-disciplinary field of ecological economics.

Robert Costanza of the Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Maryland believes the entire concept of economic growth must be re-thought as society moves closer to the limits of the earth's ability to support the human population.

"It is essential that humans realize the enormous impact they have on the environment and learn to live sustainably and well within the finite limits of our planet", declares Costanza. Ecological economics strives to help people reach the goal of minimized growth while improving the quality of life.

Costanza argues that, "When focusing on the sustainability of human activity as a goal, some of the basic assumptions of both conventional economics and ecology are ineffective". Ecology, he claims, has become "the study of the economy of that part of nature that does not include humans" while economics largely ignores the dependence of economic systems on the earth's ecosystems. By transcending the traditional confines of each discipline, new strategies to reach sustainable and viable social and economic systems can be explored.

Human needs are given priority by Carl Folke of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, et al. who assert that the maintenance of biological diversity is crucial to the ability of an ecosystem to provide necessary life-support. However, they contend that species diversity should be maintained with the goal of improving the resilience of a natural system against change; a shift in management strategies toward a focus on diversity as a means of sustaining the human impact on an ecosystem.

Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University focus their attention on the relationship between the equity of resource allocation and the earth's carrying capacity - the ability to sustain the world's population. They contend that "increasing the equality of opportunity can help to increase food production and lower fertility rates", thus transitioning toward a sustainable society.

The feature includes other scientific papers which address other equally complex questions posed by this emerging field.

Despite the immediate and celebrated benefits of economic growth, ecological economists have found that infinite, conventional economic growth is not compatible with the finite resources of the earth. A better quality of life and sustainability will come from qualitative improvement, not continued growth.

Reprints of, "Ecological Economics and Sustainability" will be provided free-of-charge to members of the press by contacting the Ecological Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 833-8773;

The Ecological Society of America is the nation's leading professional society of ecologists, representing over 7,000 ecological researchers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and 62 other nations. Founded in 1915, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems through ESA reports, journals, research, and expert testimony to Congress. Visit ESA's Homepage at:

Ecological Society of America

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