Karl-Göran Mäler

1939 - 2020

Karl-Göran Mäler

Professor emeritus Karl-Göran Mäler was one of the founders and the first director of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and a pioneering world leading environmental economist. He was an intellectual giant, mentor and dear friend to colleagues at the Beijer Institute and around the world.

Karl-Göran’s curiosity and continuous wish to understand matters at a deeper level were key ingredients for the success of the Beijer Institute’s early endeavour to build bridges between disciplines that were not used to collaborate. He understood that the way to deeper collaboration went through trust building and that this was best achieved by having a good time together in a nice location close to nature, the object of study.

Career

Karl-Göran was born 1939 in Sollefteå, a town in northern Sweden. He initially studied mathematics, statistics and economics at Stockholm University 1960-1964, followed by studies in economics at MIT, Stanford University and Stockholm University 1965-1970. 1972 he earned a PhD in economics at Stockholm University. He was professor of economics at the Stockholm School of Economics 1975-2002.

In 1981, Karl-Göran was elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences where he was a member of the Committee on the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 1981-1994 (and head of the committee between 1986-1987).

Together with fellow economist Sir Partha Dasgupta he founded the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics 1992, with funding from the Beijer Foundation. He was the institute’s director until his retirement in 2006.

Under Karl-Göran’s leadership the Beijer Institute established several regional networks of environmental economists as well as the journal Environment and Development Economics (EDE), which aims to encourage submissions from researchers in the field in both developed and developing countries. The South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE) and The Resource Accounting Network for Eastern and Southern Africa (RANESA) both started in 1999. They were followed by The Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Economics Program (LACEEP) in 2005.

The networks and the journal have had a great impact on research and policy in developing countries and have been very important to many researchers from the network regions, where the Beijer Institute also organised a series of teaching and training workshops. The goal of these workshops was to teach university teachers in economics so that they could themselves start teaching environmental economics. This work was mainly led together with Partha Dasgupta, and other world leading ecologists and economists were part of the teaching teams. Karl-Göran regarded this work as some of the most important accomplishments in his career. And it was in one of the teaching workshops, in Jamaica, where he met his beloved wife Sara.

Together, Karl-Göran and Partha Dasgupta received the Volvo Environmental Prize in 2002.

Scientific accomplishments

His PhD thesis from 1972 was published internationally in 1974 (Environmental Economics: A Theoretical Inquiry). It has been widely read and cited, probably because it was very innovative in its way to use economic theory to analyse serious environmental issues. The thesis covered an astonishingly broad set of topics such as a general equilibrium model of environmental quality, economic growth and the quality of the environment, basic consumption theory and welfare economics, and estimation of the demand for environmental services. During his career Karl-Göran continued to approach diverse issues related to economics and the environment.

He pioneered the field of international environmental agreements with the acid rain games, where he depicted strategic interactions between countries emitting and receiving pollution by sulphuric acid, painting a landscape of the problem of how to get countries to cooperate on a critical transboundary environmental problem.

He was instrumental in starting up the study of the economics of regime shifts with the shallow lake model, where the lake could flip from clear to turbid even in response to an optimal policy intervention. He also made fundamental contributions to accounting and the notion of inclusive wealth. However these were just a few topics among the wide set he engaged with.

Karl-Göran had a brilliant mind and excelled in all the essential qualities of a good researcher. He was extremely curious, which was a substantial advantage when starting discussions with the natural scientists in the early days of the Beijer Institute. He was rigorous and would often react to strange results and start questioning the assumptions they rested upon, or the methods used. He was also tenacious and wouldn’t rest until the issues were properly solved. His recommendation to students and colleagues were often “don’t read too much, think instead”.

Karl-Göran’s huge experience and knowledge was highly valued, which is reflected by his legacy in shaping the field of environmental economics, his many roles within the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and, not least, in his role as advisor to policy makers, nationally and internationally.