|HT Odum: History and Legacy
Howard T. Odum: History and Legacy
By M.T. Brown, C.A.S. Hall, S.E. Jorgensen and other colleagues of HT’s
Edited and condensed by E. C. Odum
In this section we share the history and legacy of HT Odum. He is the virtual originator of the International Society for the
Advancement of Emergy Research (the Emergy Society). He was an individual who had a larger than life presence and
impact on so many of us. Howard T. Odum (or HT as he wished to be called) was a very special scientist and teacher who
often walked alone but with several hundred of us following along behind as best we could. He left an incredible legacy: a
massive set of ideas, theories, and teachings, as well as a suite of accomplishments that few can begin to approach in
volume, let alone originality. His approach to science and teaching and his more than ethical conduct (which was probably
the result of his upbringing ) provide us a standard to which we can aspire, even if they are most difficult to emulate.
Following his Doctorate from Yale in 1951, H.T. Odum’s 52-year academic career was
punctuated by six moves that carried him from Yale to Florida, to North Carolina, to Texas, to
Puerto Rico, back to North Carolina and finally back to Florida where in 1971 he settled down as
Graduate Research Professor. With each move from one academic institution to another, the
opportunities for research and teaching that presented themselves shaped his work and provided a
rich and fertile ground for development of his theories and philosophies. He encountered new
ecosystems and new environmental issues, at each new institution, to which he seemed infinitely
adaptable. Even though the systems and issues were very different, his “top-down, systems
approach” and his focus on the similarities of adaptation of ecosystems and components reduced
their complexity to manageable dimensions. Through his energetics approach he found similar
components and similar processes in all systems at all levels of organization.
H.T. Odum was the recipient of numerous awards, among them:
Phi Beta Kappa
George Mercer Award, Ecological Society of America
Prize Institute de la Vie, Paris 1976
Distinguished Service, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Distinguished Service, American Institute of Biological Sciences
The Crafoord Prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1987
University of Florida Presidential Medal, 1976
Distinguished Service, University of Puerto Rico
Honorary Doctor of Science, Ohio State University, 1995.
Elected Member Swedish Royal Academy of Science
Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Florida, 2003
H.T. Odum was an extraordinary individual. His love of teaching, his creative and imaginative way of viewing the
biosphere, his grasp of so many different fields of science, and his drive and unbounded energy have left many students,
colleagues, and associates awestruck. His unique way of understanding the biosphere and human’s place within it, his gift
to us all, will endure and expand as it is more fully understood by this and succeeding generations. He has left us a legacy
of many hundreds of books and scientific publications, over 100 masters and PhD students, and even a movie or two. But,
far beyond these tangible remnants of his scientific inquiry is the devotion to his students, close associates, family and to
human kind. In his own words (in the Prosperous Way Down Odum and Odum, 2001, the last book published while he was
alive written with his wife Betty), “As sometimes attributed to past cultures, people may again find glory in being an agent
of the earth.” H.T. Odum was an agent of the earth, striving always to teach good stewardship and a profound
understanding and respect for the cycles, hierarchies and especially energetics of the biosphere.
Through the MACROSCOPE: the legacy of H.T. Odum
In the world of science that we live in there are two kinds of people: Odumites and others. This is not simply an observation
by us or the others whom we believe would universally agree, but also a statement often made by many other ecologists and
scientists with only an indirect
connection to Odum. We might add, even our own students would agree with the observation. It is
usually followed with the explanatory statement that “ ... almost everyone who has been touched by the ideas and especially
the presence of H.T. Odum was never quite the same again”. His classes were often so intellectually exciting that we could
think of almost nothing else. Where even his simplest statements would ripple through our intellect causing waves of
excitement and discussions that would carry us well into the night. Many of us felt that we were standing next to some huge
dynamo, with our hair standing on end from the induced currents. Somehow, after being immersed in HT’s ideas, theories,
and philosophies we felt as if we stood on a taller hill, looking farther with a broader overview of the surrounding landscape.
Most of us still feel that way. So we often used the term “Odumite” to describe those of us who had been touched by what we
saw as the genius of H.T. Odum.
On the other hand, those who have expressed almost open hostility to the ideas and theories of HT often used the term,
“Odumite” in a derogatory manner. In fact, HT disliked the term, because it made him, instead of his ideas, the center. As
he stated on numerous occasions, ideas are bigger than an individual and when they are identified with an individual they
can easily be dismissed ... not because the ideas are wrong, but because the individual is not well liked. When people focus
on the individual instead of the idea, it becomes an issue of personalities and egos, instead of discussion and collegial
discourse. So it was often easy to brand those of us who were ‘’followers” of H.T. Odum as Odumites, and the belief in Odum’s
ideas as “Odumania” (see for example Månsson and McGlade, 1993). In somewhat of a reverse sting, some ecologists have
identified “systems ecology” as the culprit that has moved ecology away from an organismal orientation and therefore its
underpinnings in the dual realities of natural history and community ecology. Since H.T. Odum was one of the main
proponents of systems ecology, his ideas were blasphemous to them and those of us that believed them were Odumites, not
to be trusted in a world where reductionism and small scale biology held rein. To most of us however, systems ecology was
not the problem, but the solution. In the words of HT ... “If the bewildering complexity of human knowledge developed in
the twentieth century is to be retained and well used, unifying concepts are needed to consolidate the understanding of
systems of many kinds and to simplify the teaching of general principles.” (Odum, 1994)
Ecology should be, at least in our view, not just about species and populations but about systems and about synthesis,
about how systems of different scales operate along common principles and are constrained by common energetics, and
about how plant and animal populations are largely determined over space and time by environmental factors. It is
through ecology and an understanding of the systems, hierarchies, and dynamic behavior of the natural world that we
might gain an understanding of our place within it. Nature is about all levels of organization and to us it is problematic
that ecology is often taught within biology departments, where species-or population-oriented biologists represent the
highest level of complexity.
Odum was a systems ecologist, no doubt. He worked tirelessly throughout his career to firmly establish it as a science, but
more than that, to expand and advance the science. Believing that diversity begets innovation, he embraced the
approaches of others (more so in his later life) suggesting that the field was stronger as a result of the diversity of
approaches and systems languages of others.
Peculiarly, some ecologists said that he was not a believer in Darwin’s theories. In fact Odum believed in natural selection
operating at every level all the time and relentlessly. He was perhaps the strongest Darwinian we knew.
His Darwinian perspective even extended to his own ideas, for he said on more than one occasion “let the future sort out my
good ideas from those that are not so good”. He, more than most, worked throughout his career orchestrating several
interests into a complex symphony of field ecology, experimental measurement, theory, and policy. Over the span of 50 plus
years, this symphony resulted in hundreds of publications that did not always fit neatly into academic departments or
disciplines. Beginning with ecological studies of Silver Springs and the coral reefs of Eniwetok
Atoll in the Pacific, and continuing with the Bays of Texas’ Gulf coast, the Luquillo Forest of Puerto Rico, the saltmarshes
of North Carolina’s coast and finally the cypress wetlands of Florida, Odum’s ecology was always big scale, experimental,
and measurement oriented. These studies yielded however, theory, and a macroscopic, systems approach oriented toward
understanding the “whole” and placing humanity smack in the middle. There was no question in his mind that humans
were part of these systems or that humans ultimately controlled them...the only question was, could Odum convince the rest
of humanity (especially ecologists) that this was so.
In many respects the division of H.T. Odum’s life work into several sections having different subject content is artificial at
best, and in fact might be the antitheses of what he would have wished. Throughout his life, there was a continuum of
thought, research, scientific inquiry, and generation of theory along several threads that were never abandoned or left
behind. His life’s work was a tapestry of projects, both large and small, woven together into a collective whole that was far
greater than the sum of its individual parts. At times Odum worked with whole ecosystems taking measurements and
developing new techniques for measuring production, respiration and the transfer of energy through trophic networks.
Even so, as Scott Nixon has noted, his knowledge of the taxonomy of individual species was often profound. At other times
he worked with microcosms and simulation models, trying to emulate the larger world in aggregate. He was an engineer,
when necessary, devising his own instruments when need arose. At times he was an artist, conjuring up diagrams and
pictures to get his points across when words were not enough. In all cases, Odum was striving for clarity out of the “the
bewildering complexity of human knowledge developed in the twentieth century...,” trying to ‘see’ the essence of nature and
man-nature interactions, the pervasiveness of energy relations, and to develop understanding.
He had a single-minded drive for understanding. It is impossible to recall a time when he was at a loss for a “systems”
observation as to why something was as it was nor a time when he could not find something positive to say to a junior
colleague or caught without an encouraging word for one of his students These are the things that most shaped our image
of H.T. Odum, as scientist and teacher. These represent the legacy that he left us.
In the sections that follow are captured some of the history and brilliance that was H.T. Odum, and to show the diversity
and yet single mindedness that occupied his life.
1. What we know about the young Howard Odum
Howard Thomas Odum was born in 1923 to Howard Washington and Anna Louise Odum in Chapel Hill North Carolina. He
was the third child of the elder Odums following his Brother Eugene (b. 1913) and sister Mary Francis (b. 1919). Their
father was a forward thinking and creative sociologist who in many ways defined and redefined the science of sociology in
the South. Their mother was a very intelligent and cultured woman. Their house was often full of the intense conversation
of other intellectuals visiting the Odums, and it is clear that the intellectual environment for the young Odums must have
been extremely interesting.
Without detracting from the accomplishments of Eugene Odum, perhaps the more well known of the two remarkable
brothers, Mary Frances, their sister, often referred to HT as “the gifted one”, but went on to say “his habit of very rapid
speech sometimes meant that his ideas were lost on others”. HT commented, on occasion, that his most important early
influences were “The boy electrician,” a love of birds inherited from his brother Gene, and the influence of the University of
North Carolina biologist Robert Coker. A warm and wonderful rendering of Gene and HT’s early years can be found in
Betty Jean Craige’s “Eugene Odum, Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist” (University of Georgia Press, 2002) A
number of personal perspectives on HT from former students, his wife, Betty, and colleagues can be found in the last section
of “Maximum Power” (Hall, 1996).
Howard T. Odum was essentially an academician throughout his life. He graduated from the University of North Carolina
in 1946 majoring in biology. He served in the Air Force during World War II as a tropical meteorologist, where
undoubtedly he gained his basic interest in large systems and the energetics behind them. He received his Ph.D. from Yale
University under the distinguished ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson in 1951 (and where he was also influenced by Gordon
Riley). He taught at the University of Florida (1950–1954), Duke (1954–1956 ), University of Texas (where he directed the
Marine Station from 1956 to 1963), and was Chief Scientist at the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center (1963–1966). He returned to
teaching at the University of North Carolina (1966–1970) and finally at the University of Florida (1970–2002).
2. Early and continuing interests: Biogeochemistry
H.T. Odum’s Ph.D. dissertation under G.Evelyn Hutchensen at Yale University dealt with the global strontium cycle. In
letters home to his parents and brother Gene (unpublished) he at first showed tremendous excitement about the research
possibilities and the fact that his work was related to important “happenings” of the time. Later under the drudgery of
analysis after analysis of samples, he wrote that it had lost some of its excitement, but that once the measurements were
finished, he was sure it would once again stimulate his interests. In the end, it is obvious that HT never lost his interest for
global cycles. These early measurements and the insights they provided seemed to incubate over the years and surfaced
again with his interests in lead cycles in the environment and in his most interesting work in the late 1990’s and early part
of this century, relating biogeochemical cycles to energy hierarchies and economic cycles.
3. Ecosystems and metabolism
Throughout Odum’s career he returned again and again to ecosystem level studies. His first
ecosystem studies were conducted on the Silver Springs in the early 1950s. Kemp and Boynton
describe how he devised a means of measuring total ecosystem primary production and respiration
and quantitatively evaluate energy flow through the ecosystem. Following closely on the heels of
the Silver Springs study, Odum teamed up with his brother Gene to measure productivity and
estimate trophic structure of a coral reef community in the Pacific. From the coral reefs of the
Pacific, HT descended on the Texas Coast where he was director of the University of Texas’
Institute of Marine Sciences at Port Aransas (1956–1964). Here, he undertook the daunting task of
measuring the Texas Bay ecosystems to determine whole ecosystem metabolism while
administering and supporting a faculty that was undertaking many traditional studies
in biology and fisheries. While it is hard to pinpoint exactly when Odum struck on ideas (for they
often crop up in very early writings as almost random musings), it was during his years at Texas
that several threads of his career appeared, including: Ecological Economics, Ecological
Engineering and the use of microcosms for ecosystem emulation. In addition, his use of the
symbolic systems language he sometimes called “energetics” blossomed with the “invention” of
the “storage tank” that Robert Byers attributed to the water storage tanks that dotted the landscape of North Carolina
during Odum's childhood and that rural Texas communities used for public water supply.
Following Texas, Odum turned his attention to the rainforests of Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Experimental Forest. As Chief
Scientist at the University of Puerto Rico’s Puerto Rican Nuclear Center, he conducted experimental irradiation of the rain
forest and once again engaged in the massive undertaking of measuring whole ecosystem metabolism. In this case Odum
constructed an enclosure out of plastic sheets to enclose and thus measure CO2 concentrations in inflow and outflow air
streams to calculate production and respiration. Odum’s work there, was far more than mere metabolism measurements, as
it was manifested in his edited volume “A Tropical Rainforest”, a gigantic book of 1667 pages that is chocked full of data,
pictures, diagrams and Odum insights.
Next Odum turned his attention to the cypress swamps of the Florida flatwoods. With a million dollars from the Rockefeller
Foundation and the National Science Foundation, he assembled more than a dozen scientists and even more graduate
students to study the use of cypress wetlands for waste water recycle. Every aspect of the ecosystems was studied from soil
microbiota to insects, to birds and mammals. Measurements were made of whole ecosystem primary production,
evapotranspiration and respiration, as well as complete nutrient and hydrological budgets. The book that resulted was
“Cypress Swamps”, edited by Kathy Ewel and Odum. While the book gives details of “... technical aspects of nutrient
cycling mechanisms, productivity rates, producer and consumer diversity patterns and distribution of microorganisms ...,
Cypress Swamps also describes the role of cypress wetlands within the larger landscape and underscores the usefulness of
wetlands as an interface ecosystem.”
“Ecological Microcosms”, by Beyers and Odum, is“a big book about small worlds.”
It encapsulates in an unselfconscious way the entire spectrum of H.T. Odum’s dynamic and diverse
professional life, from its roots in basic ecology to the application of emergy to world-scale social
and environmental problems.”
To say Odum was a systems scientist is an understatement. Viewing his life’s work as a body of information, theory and
application, it is easy to see that his passion was systems ... any scale, any size, any type. Odum’s book, Systems Ecology
(Odum, 1983) and later renamed Ecological and General Systems (1994) was a tour-de-force of 644 pages describing the
physical, kinetic, energetic, cybernetic, and mathematical underpinnings of his approach and drawing comparisons with
over 50 other systems languages.
Odum felt strongly that the broadest spectrum of the population as possible needed to understand systems, not only their
organization, but more importantly how they behaved. People needed to understand how systems changed...how they grew,
died, reacted to impulses, or reorganized to accommodate new conditions if they were to transform policy making driven by
qualitative guesses about outcomes, to quantitative predictions based on system energetics. Odum worked through out his
career to develop a systems language that would make the abstract equations of the mathematical modelers concrete, a
symbol language that would allow comparison between systems so that commonalties were evident. While President of the
International Society for Systems Sciences, he called for a project to translate models of all scales into systems diagrams so
that everyone could better understand them. Odum’s symbol language was also a simulation tool. Diagrams drawn with the
symbols were directly translated into mathematical equations, programmed in one of several programming languages and
simulated. There exists today a plethora of papers and books that describe the language and the hundreds (probably
thousands) of models that were developed.
Odum’s systems theory was grounded in thermodynamics. Yet he was quick to point out where thermodynamics got off the
track because of its lack of recognition that all energy is NOT the same form and utility and thus not all forms can be
compared directly. Odum was convinced that open systems thermodynamics required a concept of energy quality that took
into account the differences in energy form. A major aspect of Odum’s open systems thermodynamics was the Maximum
Power principle (later renamed the Maximum Empower Principle). As he stated in his 1994 book, Ecological and General
Systems... “Maximization of useful power may be the most general design principle of self-organizing systems.” Odum
proposed the maximum empower principle as a fourth law of thermodynamics and later, two other systems properties as the
5th and 6th laws
5. Ecological engineering
Engineering is generally perceived and presented as a “hard” field. The term hard has several meanings in this context.
Most engineering, is in fact “hard” in that it uses concrete, steel and energy intensive procedures to solve problems. Some
say engineering is hard because it uses mathematics and physics that are often difficult to comprehend. But the real sense
of engineering is not that it is about concrete or about mathematics but instead about problem solving. Since the 1950s,
and even today, one of the largest single engineering problems has been waste treatment. The engineering solution to
waste treatment has typically been “hard” ... concrete, steel and energy intensive technology. Yet there was, and is, a softer
approach. From the early 1950s Odum envisioned a partnership of humanity and nature and since he was keenly aware
that nature had no wastes, but instead recycled everything, he was quick to propose a new engineering paradigm
“Ecological Engineering” that capitalized on the recycle potential of natural ecosystems.
6. Environment and society
One of the most important insights that H.T. Odum had was simply to consider humans as a legitimate object of ecological
inquiry. This caused him to run into two academic bramble patches simultaneously. Many ecologists, focused on the
sanctity of their beloved nature, were used to (and still do) view humans as something outside of nature, rather than as a
legitimate part of a new, evolving nature. On the other hand the study of humanity, in the view of many, is properly done
only under the aegis of social scientists, who trumpet “free-will” and thus no causality and especially no determinism. In
contradiction to both of these world views Odum believed... “Much of the earth is occupied by humanity, either as part of
ecosystems or interfacing as users and controllers. Where humans comprise a major part, new kinds of systems evolve with
human culture at the hierarchical center. Information processing, social structure, symbolism, money, political power, and
war become important components along with the vegetation, consumer organisms, and the inanimate work of the
7. Ecology and economics
Of all the social sciences, economics affects us the most. Odum made some very explicit initial observations that are the
essence of two principles of economics that are missed by virtually all economists. These are that money is not a measure of
value, but rather simply a means of exchange. Another important insight from Odum is that the flow of energy in properly
functioning ecosystems was critical to economic activity. He did not believe that the ways that pollutants impacted nature
were “externalities” but rather an erosion of the necessary capital machinery provided by nature that was necessary for all
8. Emergy analysis
Emergy is probably the least understood and the most widely criticized of Odum’s ideas and concepts. The concept
developed over a 30 odd year period of time beginning in the early 1970’s and culminated in the publication of his book,
Environmental Accounting. (Odum, 1996). Odum defined emergy as the energy required to make something. Since it takes
resources to make resources, it was not difficult to suggest that the true value of something was the resources required to
make it, instead of the utility one might get from using it. Central to the concept of emergy was the concept of energy
quality...all energy is not the same. A joule of sunlight is not the same as a joule of oil. Thus a significant contribution of the
emergy theory is its revelation of the comparative qualities of energy.
Emergy evolved throughout the three decades of its development. For a brief period it was called embodied energy until it
was realized that others in the field were using the term to describe a different concept. David Scienceman, a visiting
Australian physicist, contributed the concept of energy memory and the word emergy was born in the late 1970s. Soon to
follow was the word transformity which replaced “energy transformation ratio” and the concept of empower which was
emergy per time. At first emergy was expressed as coal emergy but this soon gave way to solar emergy when it was noted
that energies with lower qualities than coal had magnitudes less than one.
It was a natural to use emergy to evaluate all sorts of systems. When first developed, the concept was applied to energy
systems, but soon Odum and colleagues were evaluating ecosystems agricultural systems, and human dominated systems.
Transformities (ratio of emergy required to make something to the energy of the product) for products of every sort were
calculated and tables of transformities compiled. By the turn of the century Odum and colleagues had begun producing a
series of folios where emergy transformities were compiled and published for use by others.
9. A prosperous way down
If indeed the oil-gas world is a one shot deal, if humanity has built up far more infrastructure and human numbers than
can be supported without the influx of this very special stuff petroleum, what kind of a future is in store for us? The
response of most is to say “OK, we need to figure out some other energy source, solar panels, windmills, nuclear or
whatever”. Howard Odum thought that oil was special, that he was living through a one shot run of history when fuel would
be cheap. Odum always thought that if a full, comprehensive analysis was made of all the necessary inputs then there
would be few if any other energy sources that could match petroleum, which after all is the net production of some ancient
ecosystems. Some thirty years after the “energy crunches” of the 1970s, despite a great deal of effort, there is no obvious
competition for petroleum (or coal) on the horizon, at least at the scale required. Some alternatives, such as nuclear, look
even less immediately promising. We do not know exactly when we will “run out of cheap oil” but it is almost certainly
within a generation and maybe much sooner So the last best thing Odum left us was a plan for dealing with what he
believed to be an inevitable future in the book “A Prosperous Way Down”
10. Philosophical overview of the contributions of H.T. Odum
It is certainly much too early to understand the full contribution of Howard Odum’s science to the long haul, but this is a
good place to start this effort.
Hall, C.A.S., Tharakan, P.J., Hallock, J., Cleveland, C., Jefferson, M., in press. Hydrocarbons and the evolution of human
Craige, B.J., 2002. Eugene Odum, Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist. University of Georgia Press, Athens.
Odum, Odum, 2001. A Prosperous Way Down. University Press of Colorado. Boulder.
Månsson, B.Å., McGlade, J.M., 1993. Ecology thermodynamics and Odum’s conjectures. Oecologia 93, 582–596.
Odum, H.T., 1994. Ecological and General Systems. University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO.
Hall, C.A.S. (Ed.), 1996. Maximum Power: the Ideas and Applications of H.T. Odum. University Press of Colorado, Niwot,
Odum, H.T., Wojcik, W., Pritchard Jr., L., Ton, S., Delfino, J.J., Wojcik, M., Leszczynski, S., Patel, J.D., Doherty, S.J., Stasik,
J. (Eds.), 2000. Heavy Metals in the Environment, Using Wetlands for Their Removal. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 326 pp.
Odum, H.T., 1953. Environment Power and Society. Wiley, New York.
Odum, H.T., 1983. Systems Ecology: An Introduction. Wiley, 644 pp
Odum, H.T., 1996. Environmental Accounting. Wiley, New York.
Odum, H.T. , 2007. Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-first Century. Columbia University Press. New York,
Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences
Box 116350, University of Florida, Gainesville
FL 32611-6350, USA
|Pictures of H.T. Odum over his career presented during the
Opening Reception to the Howard T. Odum Papers Collection at
the Smather's Library, University of Florida
H.T. Odum picture slideshow
International Society for the Advancement of Emergy Research
The Emergy Society