At the onset of the 2007 Great Recession, professor Simon Johnson of MIT revealed a powerful metaphor at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. Highlighting the failure of existing economic models, Johnson noted that sustained progress in health and sanitation came only after society had discovered how the body worked, and the nature of diseases that threaten it—known as the germ theory of disease. Economics, Johnson professed, has failed to make meaningful progress, for it has yet to discover its own “germ theory.” 

The model of global market capitalism, while growing unprecedented levels of wealth for some, is built upon a faulty structure. This faulty structure is akin to a disease, placing every human at risk of supply chain disruptions, turbulent energy markets, political uncertainty among trading partners, and a litany of social and environmental maladies. Hanging in the balance is the security, health, and prosperity of people across the world, the wholeness of our communities, and the ecosystems upon which we rely.

It is no surprise that protests against globalization have intensified over the last half century. A deeper wave of concern arose in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, as an increasing mass of humanity began questioning the logic of an economy built on eternal global market expansion. Of course, the virus did not cause the subsequent economic calamity. The virus merely highlighted the cracks in our economic foundations. More cracks were illuminated by the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict, and resulting spikes in the cost of energy, fertilizer, and other essential goods for communities across the globe. 


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Such moments remind us not only that the structure of our economy is deeply flawed, but that at our core we are social beings. We thrive by nourishing the interpersonal bonds between us, and yearn for purpose within our community. The structure of our economy determines whether or not such purpose may be fulfilled, and governs the richness of our relationships. This includes the amount of time we spend with smartphones rather than with those we love; how motivated we are to work, pay taxes, or feed and clothe our neighbors; or whether we will ever know the people responsible for feeding and clothing us. Trite as it may seem, the structure of our economy determines not only how well our needs of today are met, but how well our needs will be met in the age of economic turmoil lying ahead. 

“Ecosystems As Models for Restoring Our Economies”


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Ecosystems as Models for Restoring our Economies peels back those layers of the economy that are the focus of policy, traditional theory, and social science to reveal the structure around which the system is built. That structure has been misunderstood—or completely ignored—by economists, politicians, and activists alike since the founding of capitalism. As capitalism has grown into a truly global system, monumental efforts have been waged by dozens of nations and untold numbers of individuals and organizations over the past century, aimed at resolving our most important social, environmental, and economic challenges. Painful as it may seem, we must question if our most critical problems can be resolved without first resolving the economic flaws responsible for their creation. 

My efforts to synthesize the principles of ecology and economics grew out of a passion for preserving the integrity of earth’s ecosystems, and the health of our communities. I was studying business and ecology at San Diego State University in the early ’90s when the relationship between ecosystems and economies first began to materialize in my thoughts. Yet the strength of the relationship, and where the overlap existed between these seemingly disparate systems, remained only questions in my mind. I had no clue what the foundational components of an ecosystem were, let alone of an economy. 

It was the era of exploding consumerism when I, like so many conservationists, activists, politicians, and economists, began questioning how our economies could thrive without undermining the ecosystems and social systems on which they depend. I was working in the recycling and composting industry, and began volunteering to restore riverside forests and wetlands in the Seattle area. That experience inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in restoration ecology in Colorado. 

I spent the next two decades restoring highly disturbed landscapes across the arid west while expanding my search for the relationships between ecosystems and economies. Nudged by the Great Recession, I broadened the research for this book, including an exploration of those foundational (i.e., governing) components responsible for sustaining the productivity, health, and resilience of ecosystems and economies. 

Part I of this book explores the history of capitalism, and the complex structure and properties of ecosystems and economies, through the lens of systems thinking. These two global systems are not only governed by the same foundational components, but they are tightly interwoven within the same space—earth—to a degree that the health of one has profound impacts on the health of the other. Part II outlines three foundational components of economies and ecosystems, key drivers of their resilience and sustained productivity. These components have been grossly mismanaged since the birth of capitalism. 

My career has been built on the knowledge of restoring damaged ecosystems, which provides the framework for Part III—a roadmap for restoring our economies. The science behind ecological restoration indicates that economic restoration should begin with key industries, while basic theories such as evolution and ecological succession provide guidance for the process of economic restoration. The natural distribution and functioning of ecosystems across the earth also offer answers to questions such as: What is the right scale for an economy to be functioning? How local is too local? How big is too big?

I have witnessed, countless times, how the simple act of digging in the soil and planting plants to restore an ecosystem nurtures a vibrant connection between humans, their community, and the natural landscapes surrounding us. Those connections form essential bonds for the fabric of life. So too may humans heal from the practice of economic restoration. In the process of restoring our economies, a more resilient economy is born, enriching our communities while at the same time arming them against a future of global and national economic turmoil. An economy that delivers produce, toilet paper, semiconductor chips, fertilizer, and medicine regardless of international politics, the price of oil, or the availability of government bailouts. 

The public will to restore our economies is here, along with the necessary human, financial, and natural resources to achieve meaningful restoration. What humanity has lacked for centuries is a full understanding of the actual structure of a sustainable economy, and the knowledge of how to restore such a complex self-regulating system. It is my hope that this book provides a portion of that knowledge, while stimulating meaningful dialogue and, of course, action. 

John H. Giordanengo was drawn to Colorado in ’96 to study ecological restoration at Colorado State University, and never left. His business and nonprofit work in Colorado, economics research and investigative interviews across the globe, and three decades of ecological experience are interwoven in “Ecosystems as Models for Restoring our Economies.” This book serves as a foundation for his lecture series at universities and public venues across the U.S.