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Definition of terms

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)
Bioproductivity (Biological productivity) : the amount of biological material useful to humans that is generated in a given area. In agriculture, productivity is called yield (biomass x land area). Expressed in amount per hectare. Plants as prototype of sustainability and ecosystem services (productivity potential, adaptability, efficiency, recycling...).
Biomass : the total mass of living matterwithin a given unit of environmental area.
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).
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 at various organization levels.
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.
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.
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


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.

Publié ou mis à jour le 9 juin 2017