> Conceptual Framework > Understanding Scale > Scale Levels > Introduction
 Under Construction

Introduction to Scale Levels                              


Scale Terminology

The term “scale” has many different meanings.  As used in the phrase “sustainable scale” it refers to the physical size of the economy relative to the ecosystems which contain and sustain the economy.  As such it is a relational term, describing the relationship or proportionality between two entities – in this case, between the economy and ecosystems. 


Another important use of “scale” has to do with spatial relationships and their extension in time or duration.  This is how the term is used in the phrase “scale levels.”  Scale levels are about the spatial and temporal extension of economic and ecosystem activities.  Considerations of sustainable scale require us to consider scale levels; unsustainable scale can occur at different scale levels.


Choosing Scale Levels

There are a variety of ways of categorizing scale levels – from the molecular to the global.  The criterion might be a social construct such as a national or city boundary, or a biological construct such as a bioregion or a watershed1.  Whatever criteria are used to categorize scale levels have a political impact with respect to what gets studied and whose priorities are reflected. Toxic leachate from a local dumpsite is a different level from greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere; different parties caused or contributed to the problem, different parties are affected, and different parties are responsible for implementing solutions. Different scale levels also involve different temporal cycles, and the types and comprehensiveness of empirical information available.


Scale Level Interactions

Regardless of what criteria are used to categorize scale levels, a key issue involves the relationships between different levels; are the underlying principles and dynamics which characterize one level the same or different from those in other levels? How do activities in one level affect activities in other levels? Are sustainability criteria the same across levels? When our areas of interest are economics and ecosystem functioning, there are clearly effects across levels that are important from the perspective of ecological sustainability (see Panarchy2).


Scale Level Categories

The focus of this website is the global level.  Global issues of sustainable scale are arguably the most challenging and serious issues human civilization faces. Consequently, little information will be found in this website regarding subglobal scale levels. However, this is not to suggest that subglobal scale issues are unimportant. We have unprecedented challenges to global ecosystems because economic activities at local levels have cumulative impacts at local and regional levels, as well as globally. Consequently, solutions to global issues of sustainable scale are needed at local and regional levels, but with a global perspective (see Attractive Solutions). 



1 The Conceptual Framework Working Group of the Milennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being, Chapter 5: Dealing with Scale.  Island Press, Washington, D.C., 2003.


2 Gunderson, Lance and C. S. Holding. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington: Island Press, 2002.



"Resilience Alliance Home page." Resilience Alliance. http://www.resalliance.org/ev_en.php

<< Scale Levels << >> Local >>
© 2003 Santa-Barbara Family Foundation