Few economists – love for scientific rigor notwithstanding – understand how concepts like chaos theory and the laws of thermodynamics could possibly impact their work. For Howard Odum, however, scientific principles were central to both the study of economics and life in general. As he saw it, “The struggle between order and disorder, between the angels and devils, is still with us.”
Odum was a prominent figure in the vanguard of the ecological economics revolution. Throughout his long career, Odum wrote extensively about the biological limits to economic activity, the role fossil fuels play in international relations, and net energy analysis. He applied the laws of thermodynamics to demonstrate that energy use has to be measured not only in terms of usage but also of waste. Generating nuclear power, for example, requires a massive amount of energy. By Odum’s measures, more energy is consumed in its creation than produced. So why, he asked, would we do it? Odum was among the first to conceptualize energy as currency, demonstrating the differences between the ecological impact of natural versus manufactured processes. He also pioneered the field of “ecological engineering,” the management and restoration of ecosystems to account for the demands of both human activity and the natural environment.
Late in life, Odum and his wife Elizabeth devoted their time to warning of an imminent ecological collapse if our patterns of consumption remained unchanged. In their 2001 book, A Prosperous Way Down, they argued that humans must wean themselves off fossil fuels in light of rapidly shrinking reserves. Among other things, the pair suggested redistributing the world’s wealth more equitably, curbing population growth, streamlining energy use, promoting lower intensity agriculture and modifying capitalism to make it less focused on growth. Doing so gradually, they claimed, would allow a “soft path down” that would make the world more prosperous after a global economic descent.
When he died in 2002, Odum ended his career as he began it – as a sentinel at the very forefront of revolutionary economic thought.