Howard Odum

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= energy economist


John Thackara:

"Howard T. Odum was an American ecologist who explained human economics using ecology and energy fundamentals. His 1974 “Energy, Ecology, & Economics” helps explain why consumption and expanding technologies have limits. A Prosperous Way Down, (2001, with his wife Elisabeth), proposes solutions. Odum’s energy economics begins with an understanding that energy provides the foundation for all life processes – but that all energy is not equal. As energy is transformed through an ecosystem, quantity decreases as concentration increases. Odum coined the word “emergy” to account for the variations of energy quality." (


John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark:

"Odum, who spent the last two decades of his life perfecting a devastating ecological critique of neoclassical economics in which he repeatedly emphasized the overlap between his views and Marx, provided perhaps the clearest and most comprehensive analysis of what needs to be done in the face of the planetary crisis. He argued that it was possible to find a social resolution to conditions of climax accumulation represented by ecological overshoot by altering the structure of production and consumption on a global scale and reorienting the economic system to real wealth. This meant recognizing that “a principal waste in our society is using fuels in nonproductive activity. We drive more cars than necessary, drive them too often, and drive cars with too much horsepower. We use cars for commuting because cities are not organized with alternative transportation. Because higher costs of energy do cause people to eliminate some stupid wastes, higher fuel taxes may be needed in the United States for these wasteful uses.”

Crucial to the development of sustainable economic conditions, Odum insisted, was the elimination of unequal ecological exchange. He demonstrated that in the late 1990s the United States was gaining 2.5 times more real wealth (i.e., embodied energy) than it exported, mainly to the disadvantage of underdeveloped countries. Needed social change also required “controlling global capitalism’s inherent tendency for short-term exploitation of resources,” which could undermine the national/international “resource basis…causing collapse.” Capitalist growth was “identified,” in his conception, “as a large-scale analog of weed overgrowth.” Globally, “the exclusive dominance of large-scale capitalism” should be “replaced with an emphasis on cooperation with the environment and among nations.”62

In order to transcend what he called a “cancerous capitalism” that overdrafted resources and energy, Odum insisted that it would be essential to eliminate the economic and ecological “waste and luxury” that did not support jobs, real productivity, and real wealth.

Hence, it would be necessary, among other things, he suggested, to:

(1) change industry from a focus on “construction” (i.e., net investment) to “maintenance” (i.e., replacement investment);

(2) “place an upper limit on individual incomes”;

(3) reduce “unearned income from interest and dividends”;

(4) “downsize by reducing [upper-level] salaries rather than discharging employees”;

(5) “provide public work programs for the unemployed”;

(6) “decentralize organizational hierarchy”;

(7) “limit the power of private cars”;

(8) eliminate “plastic discard packaging”;

(9) prioritize “ecological net production over consumption”;

(10) promote an optimal economy through “high diversity, efficient cooperation”;

(11) “share information without profit”;

(12) promote “equity between nations” in ecological exchange; and

(13) “use agricultural varieties that need less input.”

Odum was clear that this transition required a break with “imperial capitalism.” “Socialistic ideals about distribution,” he observed, “are more consistent with [a] steady state than growth,” while for capitalism it was exactly the opposite.


Ecological footprint analysis tells us that the world is in overshoot, currently using resources at a rate that would be sustainable for one and a half planet Earths. The main source of this environmental overdraft is to be found in the excesses of the rich countries, which are now, however, being duplicated throughout the globe. Indeed, if the whole world were to have the ecological footprint per capita of the United States, five Earths would be needed. The very size of the ecological footprint of a rich economy such as the United States is an indication of its heavy reliance on unequal ecological exchange, extracting resources from the rest of the globe, particularly underdeveloped countries, in order to enhance its own growth and power.

Odum was able to demonstrate concretely that while the United States received more than twice as much embodied energy from trade as it exported, Ecuador was exporting five times the embodied energy that it received. Trade between the two was thus enormously disadvantageous to Ecuador in real wealth terms, while providing a massive ecological benefit to the U.S. economy.

It follows that the downsizing of ecological footprints to get the world back in accord with environmental limits must necessarily fall very disproportionately on the rich capitalist countries. The only just and sustainable solution is one of contraction and convergence, whereby global per capita carbon emissions and ecological footprints are equalized, along with the elimination of unequal ecological exchange.


Odum insisted that increasing constraints on fossil-fuel use would spell the end of today’s petrofarming system. “The high yields from industrial agriculture generated a very cruel illusion because the citizens, the teachers, and the leaders did not understand the energetics involved…. A whole generation of citizens thought that higher efficiencies in using the energy of the sun had arrived. This was a sad hoax, for people of the developed world no longer eat potatoes made from solar energy…. People are really eating potatoes made partly of oil.”79

Without the subsidy provided by the fossil fuels, today’s agribusiness system will simply collapse. As a result it will be necessary to return to more ecologically efficient forms of traditional agriculture. In this way, the knowledge system will be inverted. Rather than agribusiness corporations providing knowledge to traditional peasant farmers, it will be the latter who will be the inspiration for the most appropriate agriculture, rooted in thousands of years of cumulative knowledge of soil cultivation, supplemented by the advancements associated with modern agroecology. “Policies about population and development appropriate to low-energy restoration,” Odum wrote, “may be like those formerly found in low-energy cultures like the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela.”" (

More Information

Check the following entries:

  1. Emergy Theory
  2. Biophysical Economics
  3. Biophysical Economic Theory
  4. Energetics


  1. Prosperous Way Down
  2. Hierarchy of Energy
  3. Environment, Power, and Society, Howard T. Odum : book on Biophysical Economics