Kenneth Arrow

1921 - 2017

Kenneth Arrow

Economics Laureate and long standing Beijer Fellow Kenneth Arrow passed away in 2017, at the age of 95. Kenneth (Ken) Arrow, of Stanford University, was considered by many of his peers to be the most influential economist of his generation and as such he played an immense role for the Beijer Institute, taking part in research programmes, in capacity building efforts in developing countries and as a regular participant of the Askö meetings..

Ken Arrow was an exceptional academic who was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1972 for “pioneering contributions to general economic equilibrium theory and welfare theory”. However, he made many more contributions to economics. His work on social choice theory, notably ‘Arrow’s impossibility theorem’, and on general equilibrium analysis, learning by doing, and the economics of information, are but a few examples.

Ken had a standing invitation to attend the annual Askö meetings, a unique forum for discussions between ecologists and economists, and he took part year after year. “I wouldn’t miss this”, he used to say. His last visit was in autumn 2016, when he was acknowledged with a spontaneous standing ovation at the Beijer Institute’s 25th anniversary celebrations.

He attended no less than 17 Askö meetings over the years, and he took the lead on three Askö publications. One of these, entitled ‘Economic growth carrying capacity and the environment’, which is among his most frequently cited publications, provides a nuanced picture of the links between growth, the environment and the ability of nature to produce resources and ecosystem services. The paper ‘Managing ecosystem resources’ investigates problems arising from unsustainable use of natural resources, while ‘Are we consuming too much?’ examines the links between consumption, population growth and sustainability, still a highly relevant issue. He played an active part in the latest publication from Askö, ‘Social norms as solutions’, and in January 2017, shortly before his death, he sent detailed comments on the unpublished manuscript from what would be his last Askö meeting.

Despite his great age, jet-lag and the long journey from California to Stockholm, Ken was always a highly engaged participant, making the most brilliant inputs. He had an exceptionally good memory and cited literature he had read throughout his long career, occasionally also with the correct page reference. He also had in-depth knowledge within a number of other disciplines and was able to cite highly relevant examples from biology, history and other areas.

Ken was a brilliant academic but also a friendly, humorous and considerate human being who treated everyone he met with respect, whether leading professor, newly appointed PhD student or assistant. He was incredibly curious and was always the one to ask what others were working on. “It is so far from anything I do, I must be interested” he would say, eager to learn new things. His great intellect was always evident, he was a novel thinker and was knowledgeable, interested and committed.