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Many attempts have been made to develop a general principle governing how systems develop and organize in ecology. We reviewed the historical developments that led to the conceptualization of several goal-oriented principles in ecosystem ecology. We focused on two prominent principles—the maximum power principle (MPP) and the maximum entropy production principle (MEPP)—and the literature that applies to both. Although these principles have conceptual overlap, we found considerable differences in their historical development, the disciplines that apply these principles, and their adoption in the literature. These principles were more similar than dissimilar, and the maximization of power in ecosystems occurs with maximum entropy production. These principles have great potential to explain how systems develop, organize, and function, but there are no widely agreed-on theoretical derivations for the MEPP and MPP, hindering their broader use in ecological research. We end with recommendations for how ecosystems-level studies may better use these principles.