|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
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
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
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
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 biosphere.” ...
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 economic activity.
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
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 culture.
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, CO.
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, 418 pp
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