Robert Ayres (scientist)

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Robert Underwood Ayres
Born(1932-06-29)June 29, 1932
DiedOctober 23, 2023(2023-10-23) (aged 91)
Alma materUniversity of Chicago
University of Maryland
King's College London
Scientific career
FieldsIndustrial ecology
Environmental economics
InstitutionsHudson Institute
Carnegie-Mellon University
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Chalmers Institute of Technology

Robert Underwood Ayres (June 29, 1932 – October 23, 2023) was an American-born physicist and economist. His career focused on the application of physical ideas, especially the laws of thermodynamics, to economics; a long-standing pioneering interest in material flows and transformations (industrial ecology or industrial metabolism)—a concept which he originated.[1] His most recent work challenged the widely held economic theory of growth.

Life and career[edit]

Robert Underwood Ayres was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on June 29, 1932.[2] Trained as a physicist at the University of Chicago, University of Maryland, and King's College London (PhD in Mathematical Physics), Ayres dedicated his professional life to advancing the environment, technology and resource end of the sustainability agenda. His major research interests included technological change, environmental economics, "industrial metabolism" and "eco-restructuring". He worked at the Hudson Institute (1962–67), Resources for the Future Inc (1968) and International Research and Technology Corp (1969–76). From 1979 until 1992 he was Professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, except for two years (and six summers) on leave at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg Austria. In 1992 he moved to the international business school INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France as Sandoz (later Novartis) Professor of Environment and Management. Since his formal retirement in 2000 he was Jubilee Visiting Professor (2000–2001) and king Karl Gustav XVI professor of environmental science (2004–2005) at Chalmers Institute of Technology Gothenburg (Sweden). He was also an Institute Scholar at IIASA.

Ayres remained a life-long active researcher. He wrote or co-authored 20 books, edited or coedited another dozen books, wrote or co-authored more than 200 journal articles and book chapters not to mention many unpublished reports, on subjects ranging from environmental effects of nuclear war to theoretical economics. But most of his life-work was interdisciplinary. He was a pioneer of a new field, sometimes called Industrial Metabolism or Industrial Ecology. He contributed to futures studies, technological forecasting, transportation and energy studies, material flow studies (`dematerialization'), environmental technology, environmental economics, thermodynamics and economics, and the theory of economic growth.[3]

Here taken from one of his recent papers are two paragraphs that provide a flavor of his recent work:

Mainstream economics today is based to a large extent on bad ideas. Economic concepts, from foundational issues like markets, supply and demand and “free trade”, to money and finance, lack any systematic awareness of the physical process of production or the implications of the Laws of Thermodynamics for those processes. A corollary, almost worthy of being a separate bad idea on its own, is that energy doesn’t matter (much) because the cost share of energy in the economy is so small that it can be ignored e.g. {Denison, 1984 #6184}. The so-called “production functions” used by all schools of economic thought that build growth models omit any necessary role for energy, as if output could be produced by labor and capital alone—or as if energy is merely a form of man-made capital that can be produced (as opposed to extracted) by labor and capital.

The essential truth missing from economic education today is that energy is the stuff of the universe, that all matter is also a form of energy, and that the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services. This is a thermodynamic process, as the Rumanian economist Georgescu-Roegen said half a century ago (Georgescu-Roegen 1971). The economic process is subject to both the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of mass/energy; nothing can be created or destroyed) and the second law of thermodynamics (increasing entropy; all transformation processes are irreversible). The “first law” implies that the notion of “consumption” as applied to products is misleading: material transformation processes unavoidably generate large quantities of material wastes or residuals {Ayres, 1969 #284;{Ayres, 1989 #424}. Some of those wastes are merely inconvenient but others are harmful or toxic. The second law says that energy becomes less useful (exergy is destroyed) by every action.[citation needed]

There is much more to be said along these lines. Key publications reflecting these (and some other) important ideas are given in the bibliography below.

Robert Ayres died in France on October 23, 2023, at the age of 91.[4]


  • Allen V. Kneese; Ayres, Robert U; D'Arge, Ralph C (1970), Economics and the Environment: A Materials Balance Approach, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press
  • Ayres, Robert U (1979), Uncertain Futures: Challenges for Decision-makers, Wiley
  • Ayres, Robert U; Miller, Steven M (1983), Robotics: Applications and Social Implications, Ballinger Publishing Co
  • Ayres, Robert U (1984), The Next Industrial Revolution: Reviving Industry Through Innovation, Ballinger Publishing Co
  • Ayres, Robert U (January 1988), Self-organization in Biology and Economics (PDF), Luxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, retrieved 20 March 2024
  • Ayres, Robert U; Walter, Jörg (July 1991), The Greenhouse Effect: Damages, Costs, and Abatement (PDF), Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, ISBN 3-7045-0108-5, retrieved 22 November 2010
  • Ayres, Robert U (February 1, 1992), "Toxic heavy metals: materials cycle optimization", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 89 (3): 815–820, Bibcode:1992PNAS...89..815A, doi:10.1073/pnas.89.3.815, PMC 48332, PMID 11607259
  • Ayres, Robert U; Dobrinsky, R; Haywood, W; Uno, K; Zuscovitch, E (1992), Computer Integrated Manufacturing: Economic and Social Impacts, Chapman and Hall
  • Ayres, Robert U (1994), Information, Entropy and Progress: A New Evolutionary Paradigm, Woodbury, New York: American Institute of Physics, ISBN 0-88318-911-9, retrieved 22 November 2010
  • Ayres, Robert U; Simonis, Udo E, eds. (1994), Industrial Metabolism: Restructuring for Sustainable Development, Tokyo & New York: United Nations University Press, ISBN 92-808-0841-9, retrieved 23 November 2010
  • Ayres, Robert U (November 1997), "Metals recycling: economic and environmental implications" (PDF), Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 21 (3): 145–173, doi:10.1016/S0921-3449(97)00033-5, archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-06, retrieved 23 November 2010
  • Ayres, Robert U; Weaver, Paul M, eds. (1998), Eco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development, Tokyo, New York & Paris: United Nations University Press, ISBN 92-808-0984-9, retrieved 22 November 2010
  • Ayres, Robert U (May 1998), "The Second Law, The Fourth Law, Recycling and Limits to Growth" (PDF), INSEAD Working paper, INSEAD's Centre for the Management of Environmental Resources, retrieved 23 November 2010
  • Subsequently published (June 1999), "The Second Law, The Fourth Law, Recycling and Limits to Growth", Ecological Economics, 29 (3): 473–483, doi:10.1016/S0921-8009(98)00098-6


  1. ^ Ayres, Robert U; Ayres, Edward H (2010), "Brief biography of Robert U Ayres", Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future, New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing, p. xi, ISBN 978-0-13-701544-3, retrieved 23 November 2010.Alternative ISBN 978-0-13-701544-3
  2. ^ Who's who in the World - Marquis Who's Who, LLC. Marquis Who's Who, Incorporated. September 1976. ISBN 9780837911038. Retrieved 2013-08-19 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ "insead - faculty & research - Robert U. Ayres". 2002-01-01. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
  4. ^ "In Memory of Robert Underwood Ayres (1932–2023)". IIASA Connect. 31 October 2023. Retrieved 6 November 2023.

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