Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Ecology and Sustainable Development

  • Bila-Isia InogwabiniEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_422-1


The irruption of ecology in the last part of the twentieth century is a major shift in scientific paradigms, particularly on how humans view, understand, and interact with nature. In fact, despite being quoted back in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, ecology became an important scientific endeavor only after the defining publication The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. (1972) went out of press. Indeed, The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. (1972) predicted a gloomy future for humankind, prompted by our overextraction of natural resources. Globally, humankind has gained an increasing interest in exploring the role that our species has played in shaping the ecosystems in which they live (Des Jardins 2001). Since then, interconnectivity of different forms of life and the environments in which they happen to occur as well as relationship between living organisms (including species) have become a persistent theme in wider debates over human development and well-being (Ghimire and Pimbert 2000). Studying interconnectivities of different forms of life, the environments, and all living organs globally and in a systemic paradigm is, in essence, what modern ecological sciences strive to achieve. Viewed from this angle, ecology can be better understood as sensitivity to care about these relationships and interlinkages in any action humans may want to take to improve their own conditions. For the lay public, and shortly stated, ecology has become an imperative to care for environment. Numerous international, national, and local multilateral, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations and conventions have been established and provide evidence of an emerging consensus and a more active willingness by societies around the world to care for their environment (Inogwabini and Leader-Williams 2013). The prediction by Meadows et al. (1972) that overextraction of natural resources by humans was detrimental not only to the material basis of development but also to the human lives clearly established the linkages between ecology and human development. This essay is about these linkages; it is an argument that sustainable development, regardless of how it is defined, is much less of a technical issue. The entry is rather of the view that sustainable development is more about how communities envision their lives, how they view their relationships with nature, including physical environments within which they dwell, and what political and cultural means they employ to preserve the interlinkages between their own actions and the nature and the other human communities.

From Development to Sustainable Development

The development paradigm that started with the emergence of industry in the Western world came through with the euphoria about the power of economics to limitlessly transform human lives through an ever-increasing economic growth. The general ideas behind the economics were those promoted in the Wealth of Nations, which can be simplistically expressed as equating material well-being with living happily. Hence, most communities, societies, and countries had invested efforts over centuries to increase the material well-being of their members. From this perspective, increasing material well-being heavily relied on extracting natural materials, which are the base of life as it is known on earth. The report of the Club of Rome, which preceded the publication of the work by Meadows et al. (1972), was a milestone in the movement from development defined as an “ever-increasing growth” to a much reflected usage of natural assets, which are in large part biological. Moving from the economic model that promoted an “ever-increasing growth” to a reflected usage of natural assets presided over the notion of sustainable development. This came about when scientists noticed that, as the title of the work of Meadows et al. (1972) suggests, there are limits to growth, which limits are simply attributable to the fact that nature is finite in itself. Additionally and along the same lines, the work that James Lovelock began with his colleague Sydney Epton in 1975, and was continued beyond the twentieth century (e.g., Lovelock 2000, 2006, 2014), had come to show that the nature of the earth itself was functionally similar to a living organism and needed care if humans would have to continue their existence on earth. Combining both the finite nature of resources and the idea of earth functioning like a living organism tied, once and for all, economic development and ecology. It can be genuinely argued that sustainable development, in essence, is the inclusion of ecological knowledge into the development activities in general. Hence, ecology is the scientific matrixes on which sustainable development is built. But, ecology has to be discussed beyond the narrow conceptions that are confined within visions that can seem sometimes to be rather extreme. Indeed, ecology is not just demonstrations whereby political or ideological biceps are shown to impose one’s views on discussions that pertain the whole globe.

Sustainable Development: But What Does Ecology Has to Do in All This?

Arguing that sustainable development is the inclusion of ecological knowledge into the development activities in general remains a sensible point to start with characterizing sustainable development. However, this condensed assertion needs to be, at least, provided with some details to show how sustainable development is inextricably tied to ecology. To do so, one has to go back to the basics. The first of the basics is to elucidate the concept of sustainable development as it has evolved through its short history. Historically, and even though the concept can be said to be lurking above the heads, it was on 27 April 1987 that the World Commission on Environment and Development started to use “sustainable development” in its current understanding. The most popular version of the definition of sustainable development is the one found in the report of the Brundtland Commission, as the World Commission on Environment and Development has come to be most popularly known. For the Brundtland Commission, sustainable development is a development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Heated philosophical discussions ensued about this way of defining sustainable development; only very brief sketch of it is provided here to ensure that a broad overview of the concept is gained. Principally, there were three main arguments against the idea of caring for future generations. As Des Jardins (2001) puts them, these arguments are (1) ignorance argument, (2) disappearing beneficiaries’ argument, and (3) temporal location argument. Summarily, ignorance argument stresses the fact that current humans know little about people of the future and what their needs and desires will be; so they should not feel liable to them. The “disappearing beneficiaries” argument claims that, if alternative decisions were to be taken, different people with demands that might differ from our own may emerge in the future; so there is no way one could prejudge what next generations would be like to care about them presently. Finally, temporal location argument says that future generations do not exist presently; since one has responsibilities only toward what is there, there should be no reason to hassle oneself for none existing subjects. All the three arguments punch against the idea of sustainable development were plausibly demoted by Des Jardins (2001). Against the ignorance argument, Des Jardins (2001) introduced a parallelism between civil law and reasons why current populations have responsibilities to future generations. Civil laws are designed not to deal with the immediate breaches of commonly agreed social codes of conduct but to prevent potential future law breakers to account for acts that will happen in the future. The responsibility of present humans is engaged for future harms to people and the extent of harms that are presently unknown. Additionally, “the ignorance argument” could also have been pushed back by simple use of the precautionary principle. Indeed, when the opponents of sustainable development use the ignorance argument, they stress that present humans know little about people of the future and what their needs will be. The ignorance of present humans should be the very reason present generations should be precautious about dilapidating resources and destroying the environment. Against the argument of disappearing beneficiaries, Des Jardins (2001) argues that although any potential beneficiary may disappear under alternative decisions, the relative amount of suffering or happiness is not for those who would alternatively come to exist. Current humans, therefore, have obligations which are to recognize a certain minimal requirement of moral responsibility. Finally, against temporal location, Des Jardins (2001)’s point that if current humans react the way they do against unknown people that create products that threaten to destroy the basis of their lives, it is sensible to infer that future generations would have the same reaction to the mess current humans are likely to leave behind them. It is a truism to say that Des Jardins (2001)’s arguments to counter the disparaging attacks on the concept of sustainable development seem well-fitted. Nevertheless, argument stemming from both opponents (e.g., Heilig 1997) and proponents (e.g., Des Jardins 2001) of sustainability can be all said to be western-centered epistemologically. Indeed, questions about future generations (whether they will exist, who they will be, how they would like to live their lives, etc.) are almost irrelevant for communities with a different ontology. This can be said of the African context, which is by no means unique. The African ontology is construed around the idea of a living network of past-present-future. Africans hold that their ancestors are still alive, and the present generation strives to procreate for the future. Procreation is something valued not for the immediate but for the future of one’s group (tribe, ethnic group, village, etc.). The continuation of the group is seen as the very reason for living groups to ensure that the blood of their ascendants is transmitted to the future. In contexts as this one, asking a question such as who the future generations are, what they would look like, or what their needs and desires would be is simply out of question. For these ontological contexts, the responsibilities to future generations are embedded in ways in which people perceive their lives. If the present cannot be dissociated of the past and the future, responsibilities to each of the points of the timeline are rather compulsory. If sustainability is all about caring for future generations, this is part of the human culture in the south, and there is no debate over why sustainability should be pursued.

The above short discussion on ideas for and against sustainability in development was necessary to set the records straight; it was necessary because as Mebratu (1998) argued, the seeming vagueness of the concept of sustainable development led to large political battles. Viewed from this statement, issues conflicting over sustainable development are issues of struggle for influence, which cross through economy, public policies, the idea of society, and what type of civilization one wants to live in. Hence, as indicated above, sustainability is much more a question of defining what type of the world current generations and the future ones would like to live in. A major criticism levelled against the idea of sustainable development is, as Heilig (1997) puts it, that of being seen as essentially biologistic. Indeed, ecology is taught in departments of biology across the world. However, that argument narrows down the idea of ecology to biological sciences only. In the current acceptation of the term, ecology is at the juncture of many branches of science, including among others biology, physics, economics, anthropology, and philosophy. That is why ecology has been described as an interdisciplinary science both in its contents and its approaches. It relates these branches to describe what makes life be what it is biologically, physically, socially, economically, and (why not) philosophically. Taken from this understanding, ecology bridges different natural components with human and social activities. Ecology does so in a thoughtful and thought-through manner with the aim to ensure the persistence of life on earth. Ecology, as a scientific paradigm, then boils down to helping communities across the world to manage scarcity in natural resource supply as well as in identifying limits of the absorptive capacity of the natural sinks (Mebratu 1998). So, Heilig (1997)’s argument does not necessarily sound right here.

Ensuring persistence of life on earth is the function of biodiversity. Hence ecology would also mean to bring in concerns over biological diversity in the development equation. The definition of the concept biodiversity has changed over time and the ethical implications and responsibilities toward biodiversity change depending on the understanding of the word (Bosworth et al. 2011). Narrowly defined, biodiversity is equated with the number of species or what is called the “species richness” found in a given location (Morgan 2009). However, during the past decades, this definition has moved from this narrow understanding to include living organisms and the complex interactions between living organisms and their abiotic environments. In this essay, accounting for the last evolution of the debate about what biodiversity is, biodiversity is defined as the totality of living organisms and functions that ensure that species and life are maintained on earth. This definition decomposes biodiversity in three main components such as composition, structure, and function (Neem et al. 2008) and implies that biodiversity should not be viewed only as the total number species; it has to be expanded to include functions that interrelate different organisms and sustain life on earth. Hence, people care about biodiversity when implementing sustainable development activities because by doing so, they are also prolonging the lives of their own species. Once more, if Heilig (1997)’s argument was based on the fact that ecology, at least in its early days, was felt to focus on wildlife species, it does not seem right here too. Caring about wild habitats and wild species is essential for humans whether presently or in the future. This is so because wild habitats and wild species play functions that will ultimately maintain life on earth, including the life of humans. Beyond managing scarcity, ecology ensures the sustainability of life on earth, which is essential for us as human beings.

Having clarified the concepts above and having linked ecology and sustainable development, discussing how that operates remains the objective of the essay. In a sense, this can be done in two ways with hybrid methods in the middle. At the first end, it would require deploying an argument that shows how ecology is or rather should be used to inform activities of sustainable development. At the other end, one would be wise to use the ongoing discussion about global sustainable development objectives and analyze them looking at how ecology can play a role in their respective realizations. The first option seems to be rather theoretical and remote from concerns of the everyday development practitioners, whereas the second way would benefit from anchoring theoretical ideas on what is being pursued by governments, communities, and even private sector investments. For this reason, this essay discusses the links between ecology and sustainable development using the 17 sustainable development goals, which were adopted by the United Nations on 25 September 2015. Doing so is sensible because the 2030 Agenda, as these sustainable development goals are also known, provides a collective thinking effort to bring ecology and development together.

To start with looking at the links between ecology and sustainable development goals, it is worth stating that these goals can be sensible analyzed using the conventional demand and supply approach. In addition to using this approach, it appears that some of the goals were inserted to act as mediating factors; the final objective being that of seeing positive feedback loops established between the demand and the supply sides. With this in perspectives, objectives falling on the demand side are (1) end poverty in all its forms everywhere; (2) end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture; (3) ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all; and (4) ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

Objectives that should mediate between the demand side and the supply side include (1) ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; (2) achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; (3) ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; (4) promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all; (5) build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation; (6) reduce inequality within and among countries; (7) make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable; (8) ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns; and (10) take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. As the term mediation implies, these are objectives that should ensure that the satisfaction of the demands does not deplete the material base of resources current humans live on. The material base of life is constitutive of biological and physical environmental elements. These mediating goals are, indeed, what should ensure the sustainability in the development action. The mediating objectives are, as indicated above, to ensure that positive feedback loops are maintained between demands and supply. This means that the above mediating objectives have the role of helping to avoid breaking the thresholds of what is actually bearable by the natural systems. In essence, these are at the core ecological demands to avoid breaking the life system through human action. Paraphrasing Kant, development should be viewed as human action on nature. However, ecology helps identify the threshold up to which that action can be carried out without breaking the life system; it sets the limits of the human action on nature for life to continue being sustained. To take just some examples from the above goals, (1) ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all will help educate men and women of all ages in ways to behave vis-à-vis the world that is around them, how to serve themselves from natural assets without jeopardizing the possibilities for themselves and their descendants to continue using the same resources. Hence, one can see that the objective on education will sustain the objective on sustainable consumption, which is stipulated above as aiming at ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.

A more specific type of mediating goals is the one made by the following two objectives: (1) promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels and (2) strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. While remaining mediating objectives that should be viewed as enabling factors, they are of a specific sort because they are touching upon governance structures. They, in fact, are saying how the human action should be governed if we are to achieve sustainability. This falls under what can be genuinely called political ecology, which deals with how the political power can be used to ensure that global resources are distributed across entire communities. Promoting inclusive societies across the world will be the prerequisite for promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all. Finally, it should be stated that all the above mediating objectives require a significant shift in ways in which social life and economic successes have been defined so far. Truly, they demand defining a new civilization whereby new models of how to generate and accumulate riches are defined while caring about nature.

That new civilization would be workable only with a look on the supply side, which has only the following objectives: (1) conserve and sustainably use ocean, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development and (2) protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. It is no surprising that these are the only two objectives clearly talking about natural assets; this shows the finiteness of earth’s nature. We only have one planet, which can offer only its oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems to fulfil all human demands on both goods and sinks. For natural goods and sinks to be maintained in order to continue maintaining life on earth, they would have to be solicited within the limits of their carrying capacities. The essence of ecology is to help development actors to understand these carrying capacities and identify resilience mechanisms within natural ecosystems.

Stating the above has been a point contention between those who, e.g., Heilig (1997), felt that bringing ecology, with its associate biodiversity conservation, in the development was to halt human development, or at least slowing human development, and those who believe the contrary being true. Rather than being stuck on arguments about who is right and who is not right on this debate, suffice it here to indicate that most of the demand-side objective cannot be answered without usage of raw materials that only nature, as depicted in the two supply-side objectives, can provide. In the regular jargons of sustainability, these nature supply-side objectives are called natural capital (Constanza and Daly 1992). In that very vein, the concept sustainability is defined as having a minimum necessary condition for it to be said being followed through with action. That condition is that current natural capital is maintained constant or increases over time (Constanza and Daly 1992). With this condition in mind, justification can be attributed to the pessimism of those that do not see why and how ecology would help a long-lived development. For pessimists, long-lived development or a steady-state economy (Daly 1980) is a complete opposition of preserving natural assets. The idea here is that there will always be a price that nature has to pay when people work. Development, viewed from this angle, is philosophically incommensurable with conserving natural assets (Robinson 2004).

That steady-state development is philosophically incommensurable with the condition that current natural capital is maintained constant or increases over time (Constanza and Daly 1992) is the most vexing issue of conceptualizing and implementing sustainable development. Protecting nature, through several existing paradigms would, therefore, play a critical role here. Against the steady-state development being philosophically incommensurable with the idea of maintaining (at minimum) or increasing current natural capital over time, my pledge here is that enabling sustainable development goals above are a way to bridge the two sides (demand objectives and natural capital objectives). I also claim that to ensure that natural capital is at least maintained, the way to go is via ecology, particularly in trying to conserve both marine and terrestrial biodiversity. This is an important claim because so often many people do not see the link between conserving biodiversity (whether marine, oceanic, riverine, or terrestrial) and development objectives (Dudley et al. 2017).

So, the question comes down to can ecology help development continue while maintaining the natural resources at (least) their current levels? If so, then how? Without trying to square the circle (Robinson 2004), bringing ecology into economic thinking is part of the process of bridging the incommensurable lines, and this is what sustainable development mean practically and beyond the focus placed on inter-generational equity. Ecological studies and biodiversity conservation can unravel new knowledge about nature that can foster innovation, which would then help provide sufficient resources to communities worldwide. For example, and relying on the work of Dudley et al. (2017), ecological knowledge on basic ecological services of soil production, functioning, and cycles can be used to ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production while keeping soil types resilient themselves. Another interesting example from Dudley et al. (2017) is about knowledge and mastering of how to stabilize water supplies and cycles which can contribute to both sustainable agriculture and provide clean drinking water to immense numbers of people; that knowledge can help buffer communities and people against climate-related shocks. This capacity can be decupled if additional knowledge of interlinkages between water sources and forests are brought to play their partition in how humans manage water sources. Practically, active ecology, by which implementation of action is to be understood to preserve biodiversity, would work toward ensuring forests that serve as large water storages that are managed soundly to ensure that water supplies remain constant over millennia. There are many more examples of this type to help understand the role that ecology can play on implementing sustainable development activities.

Clearly, the links between ecology and sustainable development should not be viewed solely from the angle of basic economic physical principles. The new paradigm is how to use ecological knowledge to ensure sustainability principles. The knowledge that ecological perspectives bring to economics and, subsequently to development, is essential; and ecological perspectives are in essence multidisciplinary. Despite the obvious incommensurability between maintaining, a steady-state economic development and the persistence of a stable natural capital, the two can be brought to “talk” together via enabling factors (sustainable development mediating objectives), which were described above. These mechanisms are means to establish positive feedback loops between human demands and needs for natural resilience of the supply side. For human demands to avoid breaking the resilience of the natural capital, ecological knowledge (primarily) and ecological work are essential part of the gamble. In this perspective, there is no sustainable development without ecology.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Research and Communication in Sustainable Development (CERED), Faculty of Agricultural and Veterinary SciencesThe Jesuit Loyola University of CongoKinshasaCongo
  2. 2.Swedish University of Agricultural SciencesUppsalaSweden

Section editors and affiliations

  • Markus Will
  • Isabel Novo-Corti
    • 1
  • Bernd Delakowitz
    • 2
  1. 1.University of A Coruna Constantin Brancusi UniversityA CoruñaTargu-JiuRomania
  2. 2.University of Applied Sciences Zittau-GörlitzZittau-GörlitzGermany