Ecological economics starts with the observation that the human economy is a subsystem of the larger ecological life support system. It recognizes that humans are a part of this larger ecological system and not apart from it. Humans have shaped and modified their supporting ecosystems since the time of their appearance as a species, sometimes sustainably, sometimes not. In the past, this human presence (the economic subsystem) was relatively small in scale compared to the size of the rest of the supporting ecosystem. In the last century, due largely to the utilization of fossil fuels, the human subsystem has expanded so dramatically that it is now a major component of the overall system. Unlike the situation in the majority of human history, we now live in a relatively 'full' world. This changes everything. In a full world context, the goal ofthe economic subsystem can no longer be simply expansion and growth ofthe economic subsystem with little regard to the rest of the system. We must now consider the whole system and the goal must shift from economic growth to sustainable development. Growth implies increasing in quantity or size, while development implies improvement in quality without necessarily increasing in size. In a full world context, the goal must shift from creating 'more' to creating 'better' -to create a sustainable and desirable future.
This shift in primary goals and vision for the future has profound implications for analysis and policy, across the full range of academic disciplines and human activities. For example, ifone's goals include ecological sustainabil-ity then one cannot rely on the principle of 'consumer sovereignty' on which most conventional economic solutions are based, but must allow for coevolving preferences, technology, and ecosystems. One of the basic organizing principles of ecological economics is thus a focus on this complex interrelationship between ecological sustainability (including system carrying capacity and resilience), social sustainability (including distribution of wealth and rights, social capital, and coevolving preferences), and economic sustainability (including allocative efficiency in the presence of highly incomplete and imperfect markets). The complexity of the many interacting systems that make up the biosphere means that this involves a very high level of uncertainty. Indeed, uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of all complex systems involving irreversible processes, and ecological economics is particularly concerned with problems of uncertainty. More particularly, it is concerned with the problem of assuring sustainability under uncertainty. Instead of locking ourselves into development paths that may ultimately lead to ecological collapse, ecological economics seeks to maintain the resilience of the highly interconnected socioecological system by conserving and investing in natural and social capital assets in a balanced way with investments in human and built capital.
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