NEWS • 2020-05-31
Karl-Göran Mäler 1939-2020
Professor emeritus Karl-Göran Mäler passed away 20 May 2020, at the age of 81. He 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. After a day of hard work and intensive scientific discussions, it was time for good food, jokes and songs and more relaxed discussions, most often still about deep scientific matters.
The journey of the Beijer Institute with Karl-Göran was truly inspiring, searching for new understandings and always with the problems in focus, exploring, investigating with an open mind and deep commitment. Frontier research programmes and exciting workshops with internationally leading researchers provided new insights and generated an extended Beijer family of scholars still devoted to the activities of the Institute.
Karl-Göran Mäler leaves behind his wife Sara Aniyar and two daughters, Lena and Kicki Mäler.
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.
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.
Teacher, mentor and friend
Many of Karl-Göran’s former students, be it his PhD-students or workshop attendees, testify of his genuine interest in sharing his knowledge but also to learn from his pupils. The institute’s current deputy director Anne-Sophie Crépin is among them:
“Writing a thesis with Karl-Göran as a supervisor was a unique privilege. Those of us who had the chance to work at Beijer during our thesis experienced a curious supervisor who could pop in sometimes every day to ask how it was going. He would set everything aside to spend a couple of hours helping out with a problem that had emerged. He did so in a relaxed way, often joking, but also generously sharing his huge experience and knowledge of the field and methods. He was rarely wrong, but if that sometimes happened he would always become very excited to see what new interesting knowledge would emerge from these new insights.”
Christina Leijonhufvud, office manager at the Beijer Institute, organised the teaching workshops and many other courses and events and often travelled with Karl-Göran:
“Karl-Göran was very much appreciated among the participants with his straightforwardness, patience and support. He showed such interest in people and ideas and loved to discuss things from different angles. He shared his wisdom and encouraged everyone to think, dig deeper and never give up.
Travelling with Karl-Göran could be a challenge. He frequently forgot his passport or his ticket, arrived the very last minute or had no idea of which hotel he was going to. But he never worried about anything! He made sure to surround himself with people who took care of him.
His broad and deep knowledge about the most diverse things was impressive. Sometimes it felt like he was a living encyclopedia. His love for nature was remarkable. Birds, wildlife, sea creatures. He went birdwatching, diving and horseriding. He embarked on safaris, climbed mountains and walked in the wilderness. He was an enjoyer of life; he loved to travel, he loved to be creative with close friends and colleagues, he loved opera music, good food and wine.”
Above all Karl-Göran was kind, which he showed many times in difficult moments. Karl-Göran was an inspiring role model and father figure and he will be deeply missed, not least by us who had the privilege to work under his leadership for many years.
Anne-Sophie Crépin, Carl Folke and Christina Leijonhufvud
The Beijer Institute has received numerous condolences reflecting the deep appreciation for Karl-Göran. Below we have collected some quotes from these which express his unique and diverse qualities as a scientist and a human being.
“We all know Karl Göran’s contribution to environmental economics. We all know his devotion to making science truly a global enterprise. LACEEP, SANDEE and other networks are a testimony to his work. He was passionate in his defence of high-quality economics, no matter the colour of the skin or the accent, Karl-Göran was a mentor and a source of inspiration. In my case, there is a before and after KGM.”
Francisco Alpizar, professor, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands (former director of LACEEP)
“Karl-Göran was a great man and a giant. He was a pioneer in environmental economics. His book, Environmental Economics: A Theoretical Inquiry, remains a foundational contribution to the field–which, at the time the book was published (1974) was just being born. What astonishes me most about the book is its range, covering topics from the environment in general equilibrium theory to valuation.
His biggest achievement, and the one that brought all of us together, was to establish the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, with a mission to integrate ecology and economics. At the time he took over in the early nineties, ecology had pretty much left humans out of the picture, just as economics had pretty much ignored Nature. The Beijer’s mission was to change this, and it succeeded. Another mission was to spread knowledge of environmental economics to all corners of the world, and to turn the attention of environmental economists to environmental problems in developing countries. Here again, the Beijer succeeded.
For Karl-Göran, it was collaboration that mattered. Relationships. Friendships. That’s why the Beijer feels like a family. It has been one for me.”
Scott Barrett, professor, Columbia University, USA.
“During a part of my life, Karl-Göran was inestimable as a source of inspiration, mentor and friend. I and many with me regard him as the father of environmental economics.”
Lars Bergman, professor emeritus, Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden
“The passing away of Karl-Göran is indeed an irreparable loss.
I first met him at a research workshop in 1995. What impressed me most then was the manner in which he spent hours with students and young researchers, patiently explaining the minutest of details. Our interactions continued in the series of research cum training workshops held by SANDEE. These were to become the training ground for scores of environmental economics experts in South Asia. The easy bon-homie with which learning was shared became an example to emulate for other institutions in South Asia.
Karl-Göran was also a very caring human. Always willing to extend hospitality to students lost in the unfamiliarity of new cultural milieus.
We shall indeed miss his warm and erudite presence.”
Kanchan Chopra, professor, formerly Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, India
“Professor Karl-Göran has turned around many careers and has touched so many lives that it’s difficult to find words to pay tribute to him.
We consider him the father of capacity building initiatives in environmental economics for the global south and this has been an incredible program helping hundreds of early career researchers including me. The global growth of environmental economics as a discipline is also partly because of this pioneering effort. We have learnt a new way of doing research because of his initiatives.
In South Asia, every researcher in the field of environment including bureaucrats in the Ministry of Environment feel his loss. He was truly global!”
Saudamini Das, professor, Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, India
“His contributions were crucial to building capacity in this field in sub Saharan Africa (SSA) since the early times of RANESA, to the present works of CEEPA. So many of us from several academic, research and policy institutions across all countries in SSA, benefited tremendously from his deep knowledge, and superb intellectual mentorship and guidance. He has been a powerful source of encouragement and inspiration in shaping the career path of all those who now have become shining stars in the regional and international community of professionals in this field. His admirable ability to seed confidence and nurture excellence among young aspiring Africans was unmatched and will have a long-lasting impact.”
Rashid Hassan, Secretary General, Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources, Sudan, and Professor Emeritus, University of Pretoria (former director of RANESA).
“Karl-Göran Mäler was not only one of the giants to bring environment and natural resources at the centre of economic thinking, he was also among the few that dedicated their life to building the capacity of young scholars in developing countries. We will greatly miss him!”
Albert Honlonkou, professor, Université d’Abomey-Calavi, Benin.
“We (the Beijer Fellows) are, in a huge way, a large part of his legacy. He brought us together, he made us a family, with wonderful colleagues whom I likely would never have even met, were it not for him. He pushed us to do more, to reach outside our comfort zones.”
Simon Levin, professor, Princeton University, USA.
“As a lost grad student, I came to Sweden in 1984, knocked on his door at Handels (Stockholm School of Economics), and introduced myself. He took me under his wing immediately in the K-G way, asking: “what are you doing and why does it matter?” He treated me like an economist, not a student. Like for many others, K-G’s straightforward and rigorous perspective shaped my career from that day forward. He will be missed.”
Jason Shogren, professor, University of Wyoming, USA.
“Karl Göran loved SANDEE. He was always present for us — willing to teach, ready to answer questions – but always pushing us hard to think carefully about the complex interconnections between people and earth systems. I am deeply grateful for knowing him, the pride he took in our work as SANDEE evolved, and for his friendship.”
Priya Shyamsundar, lead economist, The Nature Conservancy (former director of SANDEE).
“It was such a privilege knowing Karl-Göran. And so much fun! As a birdwatcher, I loved walking around the AIT grounds with him, talking about birds, economics, and everything in between. I so much appreciated the fact that he had high expectations of everyone and didn’t patronize anyone.
He was a bright light to so many people around in South Asia, and around the world. We shall miss him.”
E. Somanathan, professor, Economics and Planning Unit, Indian Statistical Institute.
“He was a towering intellect and a compassionate humanitarian, and his vision laid the foundation for the wonderful organization that the Beijer has become. We will all carry memories of the twinkle in his eyes, his lightening quick mind, and the broad scope of his interests and knowledge. Another giant has passed.”
Jim Wilen, professor emeritus, University of California, Davis, USA.
“A very good friend and a great scientist. His mark on the field will remain for the coming generations and his mentorship to us will be remembered.”
Tasos Xepapadeas, professor, Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece.