Resources – the need of an interactive glossary

Resources – the need of an interactive glossary

Most political / institutional documents in circulation offer a range of terms with unclear meaning and relationship.

A small sample:

Growth (economic): sustainable, smart, inclusive

European agriculture: economically competitive, environmentally competitive and environmentally sustainable.

Relationship of terms (explains Figure)

An exercise is proposed below in an attempt to make the glossary interactive and explicit at the same time. We need to agree not only on definitions, but also on the relationship of terms.

The current state is characterized by a laissez-faire market capitalism: an economic efficiency essentially based on marketed goods and services, the privatization of social services, large environmental and social externalities, increased corporate access to countries’ resources, governance disengagement at various scales etc.

Society currently assumes a model of competition. As this changes to a model of efficiency, biological and work productivity can be optimized according to local potential and community management practices, leading to sustainability and social equity.

The competition model is profit-driven, increasing work productivity differentials between groups, increasing monopolies, leading to a conversion of public goods to private goods, and resulting in scarcity of basic resources for at least some communities in the present, with additional scarcity of resources coming in the future.

Understanding the ways ecosystems (and all ecosystems together, the biosphere) function permits good management of common pool resources. This constitutes good stewardship of earth’s natural capital.

Under bad management (or no management), over-utilization increases the human ecological footprint, and an ecological deficit results, leading to scarcity of resources and social inequity.

Good management of common pool resources results in increased/optimized productivity and sustainability.

Under good management, biocapacity and ecological reserves increase, and the ecosystem services remain adequate to manage human needs.

The desired state implies the evolution of adapted property rights regimes and social norms to adequately manage the full range of resources. Access and allocation of common / public asset resources implies increased individual and collective responsibility and appropriate scales of governance. Efficiency and responsibility are linked, together with the adoption of a single integrated approach, the socio-ecosystem.

Definitions (glossary)

Biocapacity (Biological capacity): The capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb waste materials generated by humans, using current management schemes and extraction technologies. The capacity of a given territory reflects its specific natural potential in terms of available resources under given management skills. Expressed in hectares. Expressed per capita. Degradation of biocapacity : high level of social and environmental vulnerability (also see carrying capacity and resilience).

BC per capita : There were 13.4 billion hectares of biologically productive land and

water on this planet in 2005. Dividing by the number of people alive in that year, 6.5 billion, gives 2.1 global hectares per person .

This assumes that no land is set aside for other species that consume the same biological material as humans.

Bioproductivity (Biological productivity): the amount of biological material useful to humans that is generated in a given area. In agriculture, productivity is called yield. Expressed in amount per hectare. Plants as prototype of sustainability and ecosystem services (productivity potential, adaptability, efficiency, recycling…).

Biosphere: Living organisms and the environment necessary to keep them alive. All the Earth’s ecosystems considered as a single, self-sustaining unit.

Carrying capacity: refers to the number of individuals who can be supported in a given area within natural resource limits, and without degrading the natural social, cultural and economic environment for present and future generations. The carrying capacity for any given area is not fixed. It can be altered by improved technology, but mostly it is changed for the worse by pressures which accompany a population increase (

Competition: Rivalry for the same resources; the opposite of cooperation. In economic contexts, competitiveness (competitivity) is being used (concurence, Fr.). Ex.: European agriculture – becoming economically and environmentally competitive and fulfilling broader public goods to society (

Common pool resources: resources that are rival (when one is using the resource, it is possible to use up) but not excludable (it is impossible to stop others from using the same resource).

Ecological deficit: The difference between the biocapacity and ecological footprint of a region or country. An ecological deficit occurs when the Footprint of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the area available to that population.

Ecological footprint: A measure of how much biologically productive land and water an individual, population or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates using prevailing technology and resource management practices.

Ecological reserve: an ecological reserve exists when the biocapacity of a region exceeds its population’s Footprint. Also consider terms as biodiversity buffer / ecosystem buffer: the amount of biocapacity set aside to maintain representative ecosystem types and viable populations of species (related to resilience of ecosystems).


goals of – improve human well being and quality of life in an ecologically sustainable, economically efficient and socially fair manner. Substantial contributions from natural and social capital.

– supported by 5 forms of  capital / resources: built (infrastructures), human (health, knowledge), natural (ecosystems, services), social (family, networks, social institutions, NGOs), time.

– sustainable economic efficiency requires the inclusion in the allocation system of all resources, marketed and non-marketed goods, effects, services.

Ecosystem: A system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their physical environment.

Ecosystem services: « The benefits people obtain from ecosystems » (MEA, 2005). Resources and processes supplied by natural ecosystems (including clean drinking  water, decomposition of wastes). Synonym: Life support systems. Divided into 4 types: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

Efficiency: The capacity of a system to meet all requirements. In biology, the ratio of productivity of an organism to its supply of energy. For the biosystem, efficiency thus means the ability of the planet to effectively maintain life and be resilient. Implies adaptations and optimizations according to available resources and their phasing.

Monopoly: When a resource is excludable (meaning one person can keep others out), but not rival (multiple people can use the resource simultaneously).

Over-utilization: Exploitation to the point of diminishing returns, creating scarcity of resources.

Natural Capital: Stock of natural ecosystems yielding a flow of valuable ecosystem goods or  services into the future; the key is the function of the whole system.

Private goods: Goods which are both excludable (one person can stop others from acquiring access) and rival (when one person uses it, others cannot).

Productivity (Biological): See Bioproductivity.

Productivity (Work): Work produced by unit of time.

Profit-driven: Placing financial profit ahead of all other values, wants or needs.

Public goods: Commodities, services or resources with shared benefits that are impossible to prevent everyone from enjoying. Consumption by one individual does not detract from that of another; for example, clean air. Goods and services that the market cannot provide (education, public health, infrastructure…). Most natural and social capital assets are recognized public goods, many of which are degraded by the production of market goods.

Resources: Available supply; any physical or virtual entity of limited availability that needs to be consumed to obtain a benefit from it; typically divided into categories: natural/human, tangible/intangible. Biological resources are sustainable, renewable and recyclable (efficiency constantly optimized).

Scarcity: Insufficient quantity of resources in proportion to wants or needs.

Social equity: The just, fair and equitable distribution of resources across populations.

The socio-ecosystem: a system of people and nature, associating social sciences to the resilience concept.

Stewardship: Long-term responsibility to take good care of something that belongs to someone else.

Sustainability: When current needs can be met without compromising future needs; the capacity to endure. Sustainability implies therefore the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them.


Most definitions from

and Living Planet report 2010


R. Costanza, Stewardship for a “full” world. Current history, Jan 2008, 30-35

Beddoe et al (2009) Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: the evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions and technologies. PNAS 106, 2483-89

ICSU (2010). Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: The Grand Challenges. International Council for Science, Paris.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an international synthesis by over 1000 of the world’s

leading biological scientists that analyses the state of the Earth’s ecosystems and provides summaries and guidelines for decision-makers. It concludes that human activity is having a significant and escalating impact on the biodiversity of world ecosystems, reducing both their resilience and biocapacity.

The report refers to natural systems as humanity’s « life-support system », providing essential « ecosystem services ». The assessment measures 24 ecosystem services concluding that only four have shown improvement over the last 50 years, 15 are in serious decline, and five are in a precarious condition.

the socio-ecosystem:      

Harvard president on the essence of a university

Universities are indeed accountable. But we in higher education need to seize the initiative in defining what we are accountable for. We are asked to report graduation rates, graduate school admission statistics, scores on standardized tests intended to assess the “value added” of years in college, research dollars, numbers of faculty publications. But such measures cannot themselves capture the achievements, let alone the aspirations of universities. Many of these metrics are important to know, and they shed light on particular parts of our undertaking. But our purposes are far more ambitious and our accountability thus far more difficult to explain.
Let me venture a definition. The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. Universities are stewards of living tradition – in Widener and Houghton and our 88 other libraries, in the Fogg and the Peabody, in our departments of classics, of history and of literature. We are uncomfortable with efforts to justify these endeavors by defining them as instrumental, as measurably useful to particular contemporary needs. Instead we pursue them in part “for their own sake,” because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness.
We pursue them because they offer us as individuals and as societies a depth and breadth of vision we cannot find in the inevitably myopic present. We pursue them too because just as we need food and shelter to survive, just as we need jobs and seek education to better our lot, so too we as human beings search for meaning. We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why. For many people, the four years of undergraduate life offer the only interlude permitted for unfettered exploration of such fundamental questions. But the search for meaning is a never-ending quest that is always interpreting, always interrupting and redefining the status quo, always looking, never content with what is found. An answer simply yields the next question. This is in fact true of all learning, of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities, and thus of the very core of what universities are about.
By their nature, universities nurture a culture of restlessness and even unruliness. This lies at the heart of their accountability to the future. Education, research, teaching are always about change – transforming individuals as they learn, transforming the world as our inquiries alter our understanding of it, transforming societies as we see our knowledge translated into policies – policies like those being developed at Harvard to prevent unfair lending practices, or to increase affordable housing or avert nuclear proliferation – or translated into therapies, like those our researchers have designed to treat macular degeneration or to combat anthrax. The expansion of knowledge means change. But change is often uncomfortable, for it always encompasses loss as well as gain, disorientation as well as discovery. It has, as Machiavelli once wrote, no constituency. Yet in facing the future, universities must embrace the unsettling change that is fundamental to every advance in understanding.

« Les universités sont en vérité responsables.

Mais nous, dans l’enseignement supérieur, nous avons besoin d’avoir l’initiative de la définition de ce dont nous sommes responsables. […]

L’essence de l’université est qu’elle est responsible envers le passé et l’avenir d’une manière qui peut (doit) entrer en conflit avec les demandes du moment.

Nos engagements sont intemporels et nous sommes mal à l’aise pour les justifier en termes instrumentaux. Nous les poursuivons “pour eux-mêmes” parce qu’ils définissent ce qui au cours des siècles nous a fait humains, non parce qu’ils peuvent accroître notre compétitivité internationale, et ces investissements ont des rendements que nous ne pouvons ni prédire ni mesurer.

Les universités, par nature, nourrissent une culture de turbulence et même d’indiscipline. »

Drew Gilpin Faust, 12/10/2007

Blog open now

Contributions in either French or English are welcome.

Objectives and issues

To take stock of the current understanding of the problematic of the material and immaterial resources of our societies: definition, state, mode of production, access, distribution and use.

The blog and the conference are a first open academic inter- and trans-disciplinary exercise on the resource problematic.

(Note : Transdisciplinary is used by researchers in Germany or Switzerland to mean the inclusion of community members, so expanding the group of stakeholders.)

The term – resources – is a common denominator for the whole range of academic disciplines. The IUF Anniversary Conference represents the first initiative to involve every subject area in the debate on the issue of resources. The main aim of this debate is to provoke a collective desire within the academic community to seize this problematic at a moment when the worlds of politics and economics dispose of a body of poorly exploited or used resources. It should also lead the academic community to ask whether, at the intersection of subject areas and there alone, this problematic does not provide the key to several important issues, namely poverty, climate disturbance, biodiversity, access to water, etc. All of these are issues included in the concept of resources, and, in turn, the concept of resources provides an essential foundation for all of these issues.

In other words, most if not all of our activities seem to be resource-based. We are all resource-minded and resource-framed.

Call for contributions

A good staring point for the resource debate could be Lakoff’s thoughts on “framing the environment” and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s views on the essence of a university (with thanks to our colleagues Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz and Gilles Escarguel for the texts).

In doing so, several questions emerge:
Does this conference arrive on a fertile academic and societal ground?

Two surveys (one for academics, the other for non-academics) and a glossary have been designed to investigate these aspects. We need to clearly understand the meaning of the resource concept in diverse research fields and in society. This has not been done before.

The surveys attempt to define resources according to the views and interests of various stakeholders.

Please play the game and take the survey.

In addition, understanding the role resources play in the society requires linking the resource concept with other concepts.

For that purpose, we need to clarify the corresponding terminology in order to understand our current (economic) developmental models.

The Glossary, associated with an interactive graphic,(coming soon),  is a working draft to that end.

Bring your toolbox and help finish the job. But make sure we can have it SHORT and SIMPLE.

Once this has been done, the scientific community can join forces to evaluate how central resources could be in the long term. In that perspective, the Institute for Resources and Public Good becomes a full-scale test in rethinking our problems and solutions through the rational and integrated management of vast bodies of optimized resources.

Looking for examples to fuel the debate? Nuclear power, shale oil reserves and investments (Fr. gaz de schiste) are in the news. Financial resources too. Not to forget the long-lasting problems of agriculture, and in particular the unacceptable social condition of a billion of farmers. Isn’t that a cruel paradox that those supposed to feed us are unable to feed themselves? The conference program highlights many others.