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Sustainable Ecosystems: Self-Sustaining, Adapting and Thriving

What Are Sustainable Ecosystems and how do they work?

Maintaining sustainable ecosystems depends on multi-faceted components and their ability to interact in unity (Chapin, Torn, and Tateno, 1996); Like many small pieces of a puzzle, fitting together to form a larger picture. Many natural ecosystems are self-sustaining, consisting of complex layers that operate on multiple spatial and temporal scales, for example, the microclimate provided by a mature tree to support a sapling’s growth, also contributes to the whole forest’s climatic condition (Tielbörger and Kadmon, 2000).

During their cycle, sustainable ecosystems are capable of maintaining their own characteristic diversity and productivity, even during natural disturbance events (Chapin, Torn and Tateno, 1996). Like the Australian Banksia, that has adapted its seeds to utilize events of recurrent fire, opening only after they are exposed to heat or smoke. Therefore, ensuring the new generation will fall on well-cleared, recently fertilized soil and continuing its survival in the ecosystem (He, Lamont and Downes,  2011). In this way, an ecosystem’s normal cycle anticipates change and therefore is much more resilient and flexible, allowing it to survive.

Although it is normal for ecosystems to fluctuate in species composition, nutrient cycling, resource production and efficiency, the difference between sustainable and unsustainable ecosystems is that sustainable ecosystems only fluctuate within its natural bounds (Chapin, Torn and Tateno, 1996).  Therefore, they maintain a feedback loop that keeps their factors in check, whether that be erosion, waste production or predator-prey interactions (Rietkerk and Van de Koppel, 2008).

sustainable ecosystem vs unsustainable ecosystem fluctuations over time
Figure 1: Sustainable and unsustainable ecosystem fluctuations over a temporal scale (May, 1973; Holling, 1986).

Ecosystems Change Over Time

However, it is naïve to think of ecosystems as static. No specific ecosystem is sustainable indefinitely, this is because the internal and external factors that shape ecosystems fluctuate over long periods of time, like climate or species genetic diversity (Chapin, Torn, and Tateno, 1996). Every ecosystem around you is transitioning and changing into another on a time scale usually too slow for humans to see, this is what makes nature truly sustainable, its ability to change with the conditions rather than attempt to change the conditions around them.

What is Carrying Capacity?

Carrying Capacity within an ecosystem is the largest population size that an ecosystem can cope with before it starts to be degraded (Del Monte‐Luna et al., 2004). Population size is regulated by an equilibrium between births and deaths within the ecosystem; therefore a population’s growth rate at carrying capacity is equal to zero, it stops fluctuating. Carrying Capacity demands that resource limitation in an ecosystem will eventually constrain the growth of a population (Del Monte‐Luna et al., 2004). Considering this, humanity as part of a global ecosystem is undeniably exceeding its sustainable population growth rate (Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971).

Society as Resilient Ecosystems

Viewing cities and urban areas as socio-ecological systems that are in ecological balance with each other is a vital component of achieving a sustainable world. The concept of industrial ecology encourages this, by using ecosystems as a model to transform industrial systems into an interrelated, efficient process that is compatible with all surrounding systems (Jelinski et al., 1992). Using the principles of ecosystem sustainability in the management of human systems inspires an alternative way of living, one that fosters growth and success within the bounds of humanities own sustainable ecosystem. To learn more about sustainability please visit THRIVE Project.

Written in collaboration with THRIVE Tribe member Isabelle Coster.


Chapin III, F.S., Torn, M.S. and Tateno, M., 1996. Principles of ecosystem sustainability. The American Naturalist148(6), pp.1016-1037.

Del Monte‐Luna, P., Brook, B.W., Zetina‐Rejón, M.J. and Cruz‐Escalona, V.H., 2004. The carrying capacity of ecosystems. Global ecology and biogeography13(6), pp.485-495.

Ehrlich, P.R. and Holdren, J.P., 1971. Impact of population growth. Science171(3977), pp.1212-1217.

He, T., Lamont, B.B. and Downes, K.S., 2011. Banksia born to burn. New Phytologist191(1), pp.184-196.

Holling, C. S. 1986. Resilience of ecosystems: local surprise and global change. Pages 292-317 in W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn, eds. Sustainable development and the biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Jelinski, L.W., Graedel, T.E., Laudise, R.A., McCall, D.W. and Patel, C.K., 1992. Industrial ecology: concepts and approaches. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences89(3), pp.793-797.

May, R. M. 1973. Stability and complexity in model ecosystems. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Rietkerk, M. and Van de Koppel, J., 2008. Regular pattern formation in real ecosystems. Trends in ecology & evolution23(3), pp.169-175.

Tielbörger, K. and Kadmon, R., 2000. Temporal environmental variation tips the balance between facilitation and interference in desert plants. Ecology81(6), pp.1544-1553.


  • Morris Fedeli

    Morris D Fedeli is a semi-retired practitioner and doctoral researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, with three decades of industry experience in helping organizations achieve success through the application of new emerging innovative business models and technologies. As a pracademic, he offers a unique Australasian perspective, with experience across three continents and degrees in science, business and project management. His research interest and passion lie in sustainable business innovation strategies for a prosperous society and thrivable future.


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