Over the last years I have had the privilege to work with Prof. Ayres at the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre. It has been an exciting experience, Prof. Ayres is a distinguished independent thinker who is able to apply the method of natural science to major economic questions of our time.
Prof. Ayres was born in 1932 in Plainfield New Jersey USA. He trained as a physicist at the University of Chicago, University of Maryland, and King’s College London (PhD in Mathematical Physics in 1958) leading already to five journal publications.
In 1962, during atmospheric nuclear test series in the Pacific, Prof. Ayres took some instrument readings. According to Bob Ayres himself, this experience changed his life. After returning from the Pacific he took a job at the Hudson Institute to study the environmental consequences of a (hypothetical) nuclear war: a three year study, which encompassed biology, ecology, atmospheric physics and climate science, as well as some economic analysis. One of the most interesting results was the possibility of “nuclear winter” – analogous to what happened after the Indonesian volcano Tomboro exploded in 1815.
In 1992 Bob became the Novartis Professor of Environment and Management at the international business school INSEAD in France, where he is now Emeritus Professor. Since his formal retirement in 2000 he has been Jubilee Visiting Professor (2000–2001) and King Karl Gustav XVII professor of environmental science (2004–2005) at Chalmers Institute of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Prof. Ayres worked closely with resource economist Alan Kneese. Together they wrote a series of papers. In 1969 a paper “Production, Consumption and Externalities” was published by the American Economic Review. This paper has changed the status of externalities in economic theory. Whilst seen in those days as peripheral, the paper took the position that externalities (like pollution) are pervasive and essential consequences of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
This view is now taken for granted in the “ecological economics” community, but it was not obvious to economists in 1969. Bob Ayres applied his deep knowledge of physics/thermodynamics in the field of economics which lead him to ground breaking insights. Very early he pointed to the limits of resource consuming growth. In fact, his work precededthe publication of Georgescu-Roegen’s famous book on the entropy law in economics (Georgescu-Roegen 1971).
After this significant scientific contribution, Robert Ayres continued on this path and from 1971-1973 he developed together with Cummings-Saxton and Stern a formal “materials-process-product model (MPPM)”. The purpose of the MPPM was to compare material-process “chains” leading to a common product, or to a category of products, a new concept which can be seen today as the first approach to what is known today as life-cycle analysis. Prof. Ayres was clearly a pioneer in this field.
Very early on, Prof. Ayres became interested in the field of energy efficiency. Inspired by a report of a summer study at Princeton University in 1974 entitled “Efficient use of energy: A physics perspective” (Carnahan et al. 1975), Prof Ayres together with Mark Narkus-Kramer wrote a paper applying the second-law (exergy) concept to the US, concluding that the real (second-law) efficiency of the nation was of the order of 10 %, far less than the 50 + % implied by official government statistics (Ayres and Narkus-Kramer 1976). Prof. Ayres published many more articles and two books refining the theory and thus contributing to the solution of a very real and current problem:
Ayres, Robert U; Warr, Benjamin (2009), The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity.Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing
Ayres, Robert U; Ayres, Edward H (2010), Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing
When Robert Ayres turned 80 I started organising a seminar energy and economics, which I will report on in another contribution to this blog.