Through the MACROSCOPE:
the legacy of H.T. Odum
In the world of science that we live in there are two kinds of people: Odumites and others. This is not simply an observation by us or the others whom we believe would universally agree, but also a statement often made by many other ecologists and scientists with only an indirect connection to Odum. We might add, even our own students would agree with the observation. It is usually followed with the explanatory statement that “ ... almost everyone who has been touched by the ideas and especially the presence of H.T. Odum was never quite the same again”. His classes were often so intellectually exciting that we could think of almost nothing else.
Where even his simplest statements would ripple through our intellect causing waves of excitement and discussions that would carry us well into the night. Many of us felt that we were standing next to some huge dynamo, with our hair standing on end from the induced currents. Somehow, after being immersed in HT's ideas, theories, and philosophies we felt as if we stood on a taller hill, looking farther with a broader overview of the surrounding landscape. Most of us still feel that way. So we often used the term "Odumite" to describe those of us who had been touched by what we saw as the genius of H.T. Odum.
On the other hand, those who have expressed almost open hostility to the ideas and theories of HT often used the term, "Odumite" in a derogatory manner. In fact, HT disliked the term, because it made him, instead of his ideas, the center. As he stated on numerous occasions, ideas are bigger than an individual and when they are identified with an individual they can easily be dismissed ... not because the ideas are wrong, but because the individual is not well liked. When people focus on the individual instead of the idea, it becomes an issue of personalities and egos, instead of discussion and collegial discourse. So it was often easy to brand those of us who were "followers" of H.T. Odum as Odumites, and the belief in Odum’s ideas as "Odumania" (see for example Månsson and McGlade, 1993). In somewhat of a reverse sting, some ecologists have identified "systems ecology" as the culprit that has moved ecology away from an organismal orientation and therefore its underpinnings in the dual realities of natural history and community ecology. Since H.T. Odum was one of the main proponents of systems ecology, his ideas were blasphemous to them and those of us that believed them were Odumites, not to be trusted in a world where reductionism and small scale biology held rein. To most of us however, systems ecology was not the problem, but the solution. In the words of HT... "If the bewildering complexity of human knowledge developed in the twentieth century is to be retained and well used, unifying concepts are needed to consolidate the understanding of systems of many kinds and to simplify the teaching of general principles." (Odum, 1994).
Ecology should be, at least in our view, not just about species and populations but about systems and about synthesis, about how systems of different scales operate along common principles and are constrained by common energetics, and about how plant and animal populations are largely determined over space and time by environmental factors. It is through ecology and an understanding of the systems, hierarchies, and dynamic behavior of the natural world that we might gain an understanding of our place within it. Nature is about all levels of organization and to us it is problematic that ecology is often taught within biology departments, where species-or population-oriented biologists represent the highest level of complexity. Odum was a systems ecologist, no doubt. He worked tirelessly throughout his career to firmly establish it as a science, but more than that, to expand and advance the science. Believing that diversity begets innovation, he embraced the approaches of others (more so in his later life) suggesting that the field was stronger as a result of the diversity of approaches and systems languages of others.
Peculiarly, some ecologists said that he was not a believer in Darwin’s theories. In fact Odum believed in natural selection operating at every level all the time and relentlessly. He was perhaps the strongest Darwinian we knew.
His Darwinian perspective even extended to his own ideas, for he said on more than one occasion “let the future sort out my good ideas from those that are not so good”. He, more than most, worked throughout his career orchestrating several interests into a complex symphony of field ecology, experimental measurement, theory, and policy. Over the span of 50 plus years, this symphony resulted in hundreds of publications that did not always fit neatly into academic departments or disciplines. Beginning with ecological studies of Silver Springs and the coral reefs of Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific, and continuing with the Bays of Texas’ Gulf coast, the Luquillo Forest of Puerto Rico, the saltmarshes of North Carolina’s coast and finally the cypress wetlands of Florida, Odum’s ecology was always big scale, experimental, and measurement oriented. These studies yielded however, theory, and a macroscopic, systems approach oriented toward understanding the “whole” and placing humanity smack in the middle. There was no question in his mind that humans were part of these systems or that humans ultimately controlled them...the only question was, could Odum convince the rest of humanity (especially ecologists) that this was so.
In many respects the division of H.T. Odum’s life work into several sections having different subject content is artificial at best, and in fact might be the antitheses of what he would have wished. Throughout his life, there was a continuum of thought, research, scientific inquiry, and generation of theory along several threads that were never abandoned or left behind. His life’s work was a tapestry of projects, both large and small, woven together into a collective whole that was far greater than the sum of its individual parts. At times Odum worked with whole ecosystems taking measurements and developing new techniques for measuring production, respiration and the transfer of energy through trophic networks. Even so, as Scott Nixon has noted, his knowledge of the taxonomy of individual species was often profound. At other times he worked with microcosms and simulation models, trying to emulate the larger world in aggregate. He was an engineer, when necessary, devising his own instruments when need arose. At times he was an artist, conjuring up diagrams and pictures to get his points across when words were not enough. In all cases, Odum was striving for clarity out of the “the bewildering complexity of human knowledge developed in the twentieth century...,” trying to ‘see’ the essence of nature and man-nature interactions, the pervasiveness of energy relations, and to develop understanding.
He had a single-minded drive for understanding. It is impossible to recall a time when he was at a loss for a “systems” observation as to why something was as it was nor a time when he could not find something positive to say to a junior colleague or caught without an encouraging word for one of his students These are the things that most shaped our image of H.T. Odum, as scientist and teacher. These represent the legacy that he left us.
Howard Thomas Odum was born in 1923 to Howard Washington and Anna Louise Odum in Chapel Hill North Carolina. He was the third child of the elder Odums following his Brother Eugene (b. 1913) and sister Mary Francis (b. 1919). Their father was a forward thinking and creative sociologist who in many ways defined and redefined the science of sociology in the South. Their mother was a very intelligent and cultured woman. Their house was often full of the intense conversation of other intellectuals visiting the Odums, and it is clear that the intellectual environment for the young Odums must have been extremely interesting.
Without detracting from the accomplishments of Eugene Odum, perhaps the more well known of the two remarkable brothers, Mary Frances, their sister, often referred to HT as “the gifted one”, but went on to say “his habit of very rapid speech sometimes meant that his ideas were lost on others”. HT commented, on occasion, that his most important early influences were “The boy electrician,” a love of birds inherited from his brother Gene, and the influence of the University of North Carolina biologist Robert Coker. A warm and wonderful rendering of Gene and HT’s early years can be found in Betty Jean Craige’s “Eugene Odum, Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist” (University of Georgia Press, 2002) A number of personal perspectives on HT from former students, his wife, Betty, and colleagues can be found in the last section of “Maximum Power” (Hall, 1996).
Howard T. Odum was essentially an academician throughout his life. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1946 majoring in biology. He served in the Air Force during World War II as a tropical meteorologist, where undoubtedly he gained his basic interest in large systems and the energetics behind them. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University under the distinguished ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson in 1951 (and where he was also influenced by Gordon Riley). He taught at the University of Florida (1950–1954), Duke (1954–1956), University of Texas (where he directed the Marine Station from 1956 to 1963), and was Chief Scientist at the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center (1963–1966). He returned to teaching at the University of North Carolina (1966–1970) and finally at the University of Florida (1970–2002).
Following Texas, Odum turned his attention to the rainforests of Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Experimental Forest. As Chief Scientist at the University of Puerto Rico’s Puerto Rican Nuclear Center, he conducted experimental irradiation of the rain forest and once again engaged in the massive undertaking of measuring whole ecosystem metabolism. In this case Odum constructed an enclosure out of plastic sheets to enclose and thus measure CO2 concentrations in inflow and outflow air streams to calculate production and respiration. Odum’s work there, was far more than mere metabolism measurements, as it was manifested in his edited volume “A Tropical Rainforest”, a gigantic book of 1667 pages that is chocked full of data, pictures, diagrams and Odum insights.
Next Odum turned his attention to the cypress swamps of the Florida flatwoods. With a million dollars from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Science Foundation, he assembled more than a dozen scientists and even more graduate students to study the use of cypress wetlands for waste water recycle. Every aspect of the ecosystems was studied from soil microbiota to insects, to birds and mammals. Measurements were made of whole ecosystem primary production, evapotranspiration and respiration, as well as complete nutrient and hydrological budgets. The book that resulted was “Cypress Swamps”, edited by Kathy Ewel and Odum. While the book gives details of “... technical aspects of nutrient cycling mechanisms, productivity rates, producer and consumer diversity patterns and distribution of microorganisms ..., Cypress Swamps also describes the role of cypress wetlands within the larger landscape and underscores the usefulness of wetlands as an interface ecosystem.”
“Ecological Microcosms”, by Beyers and Odum, is“a big book about small worlds.”
It encapsulates in an unselfconscious way the entire spectrum of H.T. Odum’s dynamic and diverse professional life, from its roots in basic ecology to the application of emergy to world-scale social and environmental problems.”
To say Odum was a systems scientist is an understatement. Viewing his life’s work as a body of information, theory and application, it is easy to see that his passion was systems ... any scale, any size, any type. Odum’s book, Systems Ecology (Odum, 1983) and later renamed Ecological and General Systems (1994) was a tour-de-force of 644 pages describing the physical, kinetic, energetic, cybernetic, and mathematical underpinnings of his approach and drawing comparisons with over 50 other systems languages.
Odum felt strongly that the broadest spectrum of the population as possible needed to understand systems, not only their organization, but more importantly how they behaved. People needed to understand how systems changed...how they grew, died, reacted to impulses, or reorganized to accommodate new conditions if they were to transform policy making driven by qualitative guesses about outcomes, to quantitative predictions based on system energetics. Odum worked throughout his career to develop a systems language that would make the abstract equations of the mathematical modelers concrete, a symbol language that would allow comparison between systems so that commonalties were evident. While President of the International Society for Systems Sciences, he called for a project to translate models of all scales into systems diagrams so that everyone could better understand them. Odum’s symbol language was also a simulation tool. Diagrams drawn with the symbols were directly translated into mathematical equations, programmed in one of several programming languages and simulated. There exists today a plethora of papers and books that describe the language and the hundreds (probably thousands) of models that were developed.
Odum’s systems theory was grounded in thermodynamics. Yet he was quick to point out where thermodynamics got off the track because of its lack of recognition that all energy is NOT the same form and utility and thus not all forms can be compared directly. Odum was convinced that open systems thermodynamics required a concept of energy quality that took into account the differences in energy form. A major aspect of Odum’s open systems thermodynamics was the Maximum Power principle (later renamed the Maximum Empower Principle). As he stated in his 1994 book, Ecological and General Systems... “Maximization of useful power may be the most general design principle of self-organizing systems.” Odum proposed the maximum empower principle as a fourth law of thermodynamics and later, three other systems principles as the 5th, 6th and 7th laws, which may also be seen as corollaries of the 4th law.
Craige, B.J., 2002. Eugene Odum, Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist. University of Georgia Press, Athens.
Odum, H.T., Odum, E.C. 2001. A Prosperous Way Down. University Press of Colorado. Boulder.
Månsson, B.Å., McGlade, J.M., 1993. Ecology thermodynamics and Odum’s conjectures. Oecologia 93, 582–596.
Odum, H.T. 1994. Ecological and General Systems. University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO. Hall, C.A.S. (Ed.), 1996. Maximum Power: the Ideas and Applications of H.T. Odum. University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO.
Odum, H.T., Wojcik, W., Pritchard Jr., L., Ton, S., Delfino, J.J., Wojcik, M., Leszczynski, S., Patel, J.D., Doherty, S.J., Stasik, J. (Eds.) 2000. Heavy Metals in the Environment, Using Wetlands for Their Removal. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 326 pp.
Odum, H.T. 1953. Environment Power and Society. Wiley, New York.
Odum, H.T. 1983. Systems Ecology: An Introduction. Wiley, 644 pp
Odum, H.T. 1996. Environmental Accounting. Wiley, New York.
Odum, H.T. 2007. Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-first Century. Columbia University Press. New York, 418 pp
Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences Box 116350, University of Florida, Gainesville FL 32611-6350, USA