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Herman Daly, professor who introduced ecology to economics, dies at 84

He envisioned a new practice of economics, one in which the environmental impact of commerce matters as much as the flow of money

Herman Daly, second from left, receives a Right Livelihood Award, sometimes described as an “alternative Nobel,” in 1996. (Eric Roxfelt/AP)

Herman E. Daly, an economist who envisioned a new practice of his field, a discipline known as ecological economics in which growth is not an unquestioned good and the impact of commerce on the environment and society matters as much as the flow of money, died Oct. 28 at a hospital in Richmond. He was 84.

His death was announced by the University of Maryland, where Dr. Daly was a professor in the School of Public Policy from 1994 to 2010 before taking emeritus status. The cause was a brain hemorrhage, said his daughter Karen Daly Junker.

Dr. Daly was widely regarded as a founder of ecological economics, a field that stood on the margins of economic study when he entered academia five decades ago but in recent years has attracted increasing notice around the world.

He argued for a fundamental shift in the way the economy is understood — not as an independent system, but rather one that exists within the ecosystem of the Earth and is constrained by the resources available on the planet.

For generations, the economy had been viewed, broadly speaking, as a circular flow of money. But “as the economy expands, it takes in more energy, more matter,” Dr. Daly noted. “It takes it from where? From the biosphere. And as we consume more, we throw out more waste. Where do we throw it? Back to the biosphere. That’s depletion, and that’s pollution.”

Although it took years to catch on, Dr. Daly’s model has became increasingly influential in recent years.

“Herman Daly’s deceptively simple act of drawing a circle — representing the living world — around the diagrammatic box of the economy is, I believe, the most radical act in rewriting economics, because it changes everything that follows,” Kate Raworth, author of “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist,” said in an email.

“This is precisely why so many economists resist it: because it dethrones their outdated tools and analyses,” she continued. “But the social and ecological crises of this century compel us to begin all economics this way. Indeed I believe that today’s economics students deserve it and should demand it.”

Dr. Daly outlined his ideas in dozens of academic articles and in books including “Steady-State Economics” (first published in 1977 and republished in 1991), “Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development” (1996) and “For the Common Good,” co-written with theologian John B. Cobb Jr. (first published in 1989 and republished in 1994).

He saw the concept of “sustainable growth” as an oxymoron — more achievable, in his view, was “sustainable development” — and argued that measures such as gross domestic product were insufficient to quantify the direction of an economy. Even the most robust manufacture of products and increase in wealth did not equate to economic growth, as he saw it, if the resources of the Earth were depleted in the process. Resources depletion was, rather, what he called uneconomic growth.

Growth “can cost more than it’s worth,” he said, “and that’s the new era that we’re moving into, and we have to come to recognize that.”

Instead of the GDP, he promoted measures such as the “index of sustainable economic welfare” and “genuine progress indicator,” which took into account factors such as pollution and the destruction of farm or marshland in addition to the value of goods and services produced.

“If there is an oil spill that we have to clean up, that adds to GDP,” but “this is not a very good measure of progress,” Dan O’Neill, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds in England, said in an interview. “He really got us to question why are we pursuing certain economic goals. Is growth just a means to an end instead of an end itself?”

As Dr. Daly put it, economists should “care about what counts, not about what is merely countable.”

Herman Edward Daly was born in Houston on July 21, 1938. His father owned a hardware store, and his mother was a bookkeeper.

Dr. Daly studied economics at Rice University in Houston, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1960. He completed a PhD in economics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1967.

He chose economics “because he thought it was grounded in the humanities and the sciences and didn’t want to choose between them,” Peter A. Victor, the author of the 2021 book “Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas,” said in an email. “He discovered it was grounded in neither and made it his life’s ambition to remedy this.”

His work was also deeply grounded in his Methodist faith, his daughter said, and his hope for the survival of what he saw as God’s creation.

Dr. Daly taught economics for two decades at Louisiana State University, in addition to lecturing around the world. He was a senior economist at the World Bank from 1988 to 1994 before joining the University of Maryland.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Marcia Damasceno, of Midlothian, Va.; two daughters, Terri Daly Stewart of Suwanee, Ga., and Karen Daly Junker of North Chesterfield, Va.; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Dr. Daly was a 1996 recipient of a Right Livelihood Award, sometimes described as an “alternative Nobel,” recognizing his “significant contributions to increase the understanding of the relationship between economy, ecology and ethics.” He continued working until the week before he died, his daughter said.

My duty is to do the best I can and put out some ideas,” Dr. Daly told the New York Times earlier this year. “Whether the seed that I plant is going to grow is not up to me. It’s just up to me to plant it and water it.”

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