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: