The Influence of Georgescu-Roegen on my Education, Research, and Teaching

My life was fundamentally and irrevocably altered when, as a first year Masters student, I read The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in a seminar taught by Herman Daly at Louisiana State University. It was as if someone had turned a bright spotlight on the true nature of the relationship between nature and society, and on the path for my career. To a degree like no other work before it or after it, The Entropy Law revealed to me that the study of the flow of energy and materials, and the immutable physical laws that govern those flows, were central to our understanding of economic systems. Then a student of Biology, I was amazed at how The Entropy Law demonstrated the foundational similarities between ecology and economics. I was also puzzled why standard economics appeared to pay so little attention to what now was glaringly obvious to me, thanks to Georgescu-Roegen’s (G-R) insights.

Soon thereafter I read most of G-R’s other work, which showed me that my education needed to be bolstered with formal training in economics and quantitative methods. G-R was an unrelenting critic of conventional economics, but he knew conventional economics cold—this was an important lesson to me. The ultimate result of this approach to my education is an interdisciplinary approach to intellectual inquiry and practical problem solving that is rooted in a solid grasp of disciplinary concepts and methods.

The integration of the natural sciences into economics became the cornerstone of my research and teaching. My initial work formalized the connection among economic activity, energy use and energy and resource quality, as exemplified by Energy and the U.S. Economy: A Biophysical Perspective (Science 225, 890 (1984)), and how biophysical constraints were critical to understanding the essential nature of “resource scarcity.” Much of this research generated empirical results that supported the theoretical arguments laid out in the The Entropy Law. I also tried to deepen our understanding of the intellectual antecedents of ecological economics, especially early work on the energy and material drivers of economic production. G-R’s seminal, founding contribution to the field of ecological economics was a cornerstone of this research.

Another research thread involved the integration of economics into quantitative models of crude oil supply, and in particular to the models of M. King Hubbert. This body of work resulted in publication and achievement awards from the International Association of Energy Economics. I think G-R would have appreciated the irony of an ecological economist receiving an award from the penultimate neoclassical energy economics organization!

I have devoted considerable effort to my editorships of major reference works related to energy, including the award winning Encyclopedia of Energy, the Dictionary of Energy, and the forthcoming Handbook of Energy (all from Elsevier). A distinguishing feature of this work is the integration the cultural, historical, political and environmental aspects of energy systems with their economic and technological aspects.

I have attempted to communicate the biophysical foundations of human existence to a wide audience beyond academia. As founding Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Earth, I help instill the core principal that a biophysical perspective of the economic process is essential to understanding environmental problems. Hence, the Encyclopedia has substantial content on energy analysis, biophysical economics, ecological energetics, a textbook on ecological economics, and a Herman Daly Festschrift.

I have also tried to promote biophysical economics and ecological economics through my editorship of Ecological Economics (2002-07), and various contributions to that journal, including an article in the special issue dedicated to the memory of G-R (Volume 22, Issue 3, Pages 171-312 (September 1997)). That article attempted to demonstrate the profound influence G-R had on what had become known as “biophysical economics” and “ecological economics.”

Many of G-R’s important contributions are embodied in my teaching at the graduate and undergraduate levels. I am the co-author of Environmental Science , an introductory text whose distinguishing feature is a section on economic systems that uses thermodynamic analysis of energy and material flows to show the students how environmental problems arise. I teach an intermediate class on ecological economics, and a graduate class on energy, society and environment that again employs entropy, thermodynamics and energy/materials flows as core principles. I am proud to say that former advisees of mine have gone on the make important contributions to ecological economics (e.g., David Stern), as well as in the “real world.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am part of a community of scholars, many of who are close friends as well, that study some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. I owe this in large part to the trajectory established in the formative years of my education, a path that G-R was instrumental in shaping.

Cutler J. Cleveland
Boston University
September 10, 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *