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Sustainable Scale


Levels of Sustainable Scale 

There are many levels of sustainable throughput. Available evidence indicates that up until at least the industrial revolution the level of throughput in the global economy was sustainable. Certainly, the level of hunter-gathers' throughput was sustainable, and considerably lower than the level of the throughput in the 16th centurey, which was also sustainable.


No global ecosystems were challenged by the level of economic throughput until the 19th or 20th centure1. Some levels of throughput provide very little in terms of material goods and services and some provide considerably more. Our challenge is to provide enough material goods for human well being while remaining within sustainable scale. Two conceptual levels of sustainable throughput, or benchmarks, are of particular interest:


  • Maximum Sustainable Scale is the highest level of material throughput that remains sustainable; that is, where the rate of throughput is theoretically identical to the rate of regeneration.  Any further increase in throughput becomes unsustainable. Maximum sustainable scale is determinded by the biophysical limits of the ecosystems affected by the throughput in question. This conceptual notion of maximum sustainable scale is difficult to quantify precisely, but is nonetheless an important conceptual tool in understanding the dynamics of sustainable scale.
  • Optimal Scale is a level of material throughput within the sustainable range ( i.e. where throughput is less than regeneration), which provides the most benefits relative to costs, where the notions of benefits and costs includes ethical and social as well as economic values. Also included in optimal scale is the notion of a safety margin in terms of maximum sustainable scale. Optimal scale is therefore determined by socio-political limits, in addition to biophysical limits of ecosystems.

Dynamics of Sustainable Scale  

There are some generalizations that can be made about the various levels of sustainable scale:

  • Within the range of sustainable scale, the lower the level of economically driven material throughput, the less risk there is of inadvertently exceeding maximum sustainable scale ( i.e. of moving into the unsustainable range). The lower the throughput the higher the margin of safety regarding the maintenance of critical ecosystem functions.
  • Within the sustainable range, the higher the level of economically driven material throughput, the higher the risk of inadvertently exceeding maximum sustainable scale (i.e. of moving into the undesirable range of unsustainable scale).  The higher the level of throughput, the lower the margin of ecosystem safety.
  • Within the sustainable range, the more material throughput, the more material goods and services there are available for human use and enjoyment.
  • Within the sustainable range, the relationship between levels of throughput and safety regarding ecosystem functions is likely non-linear; that is, discontinuities will occur and safety levels will be difficult to predict.   
1 Mc Neill, J. R.  An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World: Something New Under the Sun, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2000.
Ponting, C. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, New York, 1991.

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