1.1.1 The economy and you

Learning objectives

What can we learn from ants?

Leaf-cutter ants might not be the first thing to come to mind when you think of the economy, but the ants’ relationships with each other and their ecosystem can help us understand our own economies.

Leaf-cutter ants have farmed for more than 60 million years in their tropical  ecosystems.  The ants harvest leaves from surrounding trees, bushes and grasses, cutting large pieces and carry, or transfer, the leaf material back to their nest. They break down the leaf material into smaller pieces, layer it, and fertilise it with their faeces. This chemically changes, or transforms, the leaf matter into a nutritious fungus that feeds the ants’ offspring. Like all living organisms, the ants transfer and transform energy and matter to sustain themselves. 

Figure 1. We can learn about economies by observing ants 

(Credit: Jon Pinder CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The relationship between ants and the fungus is called mutualism, where the ants and fungus benefit each other. The ants feed the fungus, protect it from pests, and remove and process its waste. In return, the fungus feeds the ant colony so the colony can reproduce and grow. The ants and the fungus need each other to survive. Leaf-cutter ant colonies also have mutualistic relationships with the surrounding ecosystem. Their decomposing waste builds the soil near their nests. The soil nourishes the forest that provides leaves for the ants' food.  

To support this ecosystem within their colonies, leaf-cutter ants have a complex social system. Ants of different types, sizes and ages do different kinds of work. Some gather leaves, others care for the fungus gardens and the ant larvae. Large worker ants protect the nest and clear transportation paths for the ants who gather leaves. Queen ants start new colonies, bringing a little fungus with them to start a new farm.

Leaf-cutter ant colonies face limits. They cannot grow the size of their colony and fungus farms forever. The ants are so efficient at leaf cutting that they can remove all the leaves of a tree in one day. Taking too many leaves from the surroundings can deplete the ants’ food sources, putting the ant colony at risk. So the ants must meet their needs within the limits, or carrying capacity, of the surrounding ecosystem if they want to survive.

The 3-minute video below describes the work of leaf-cutter ants.

The economy

There are some similarities between leaf-cutter ant colonies and human economies.

Like the leaf-cutter ants, humans transfer and transform energy and matter to meet our needs, using complex human-made systems like farms, factories and grocery stores. The words economy and ecology have the same ancient Greek root oikos which means ‘household’. So the economy is all the human-made systems, interacting with ecological systems, that we use to meet our needs and wants. Economics is the study and practice of how we organise ourselves to meet human needs and wants in the planetary ‘household.’

Another similarity between leaf-cutter ants and human beings is that we have developed complex societies to meet our many needs and wants. Like the ants, we take on multiple, different and sometimes overlapping roles in the economic system. In your lifetime, you will work for money, using it to purchase the things that you and your loved ones need such as food, clothing, housing, transportation, books, leisure experiences, etc. You will also care for family, friends and your community in a variety of ways and they will care for you. Most of this care will occur without exchanging money. This reciprocity of care between humans, like the mutualism among plants and animals, is the core of all economic systems.

Finally, like ant colonies, our human-made economies face limits. Our economies cannot grow in size forever. If we take too much from nature, and provide too little in return, we will destroy the ecosystems that we depend on to survive and thrive. Human beings are part of Earth’s complex ecosystems and we must work to sustain them.

The economy and you

Figure 2. You are already a vital part of the economy as you meet your own and others' needs (Credit: Marko Milivojevic CC0)

You may not realise it, but you are already part of the economy. 

Maybe last weekend you cooked your own meal, cared for a family member, sewed a button on a shirt, bought something that you needed in a store, travelled on public transport, or volunteered in a community project. In these and many other ways, you contribute to the economy every day. 

You also depend on other people and Earth’s ecosystems to provide the essential things you need to survive: food, water, shelter, care. Your roles in the economy will grow and change as you get older and acquire more skills, experience and responsibilities. 

Most economics courses tell us that we are simply consumers, workers or producers, but we are so much more! You can already develop your many roles in the economy in ways that care for others and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Activity - 1.1.1

Concept: Systems

Skills: Thinking skills (critical thinking)

Time: 25 minutes

Type: Individual, then in pairs if possible

On a piece of paper, list 10-15 things that you have done so far today (wake up, take a shower, make breakfast…)

What activities go together? Group those activities in a way that makes sense to you (e.g. eating).

If you can, compare your list and groupings with another student.

Think about how you used energy and matter in the activities you listed.

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Lorek, S., Power, K., and Parker, N. (2023). Economies that Dare to Care - Achieving social justice and preventing ecological breakdown by putting care at the heart of our societies. Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin.

PBS. (2015). Where Are the Ants Carrying All Those Leaves?: Deep Look. [Video]. YouTube. youtu.be/-6oKJ5FGk24.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. London: Penguin Random House.

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.1.1 The economy and you

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs and wants

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment

transfer: to move something from one place to another

transform: a change in the state, energy or chemical nature of something

matter: anything that takes up space and has mass

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

fungus: spore-producing organisms feeding on organic matter, including moulds, yeast, mushrooms

mutualism: a relationship between two species in which both species benefit

system: a set of interdependent parts that organise to create a functional whole

carrying capacity: the number of people, animals, or plants that an ecosystem can support while maintaining its function

economics: the study and practice of how we organise ourselves to meet human needs and wants in the planetary ‘household.

reciprocity: exchanging things and favours with others for mutual benefit