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Fall 1998

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A Voice for the Wild
By Judy Boylard Purdy

Sometimes, the journalist's need to summarize is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the subject matter. Such is the case with a story on Eugene Odum.

After all, how does one capture in a few words the life's work of a man who for decades has been commonly referred to, both in popular and in scientific circles, as the "Father of Modern Ecology"?

No less an authority than former U.S. President Carter, speaking in a 1996 documentary on Odum's career, declared that the UGA professor's "pioneering work in ecology has changed the way we look at the natural world and our place in it.

"Eugene Odum has had an important influence on the world," Carter said, "by his insistence on the value of a quality environment."

Well-chosen words from an august international statesman, but they still fall short of the task.

But if you still seek retrospective on the six-decade career of the world's foremost ecologist, you need not go to the source. The 85-year-old Odum is far too occupied with the future to bother relishing the past.

"I believe that we can apply what we are learning from ecology and environmental studies to increase the chances that the human race can not only survive but also continue to prosper, despite the litany of threatening problems and hazards," he said from amid the stacks of texts and journals in his crowded UGA office. "Just about everything that concerns us as humans has parallels in nature," he said. "By presenting ecological concepts this way I hope to help us avoid overpopulation, overconsumption, damage to life-support systems and other suicidal behaviors."

Since the 1920s, when his birdwatching hobby evolved into the study of zoology, Odum has fashioned a notion of ecology that harkens to the literal translation of the word, "the study of the house."

Unlike some others, Odum chose to include humans in his ecology model - and to study how this "powerful part of nature" relates to other organisms that share the globe.

"Ecology deals with the whole house," he said. "People control the house. People and microorganisms have more impact than any other species, in terms of ecological forces. We have to put people in the equation."

The big picture
Odum advocates a holistic or ecosystem approach to ecology. Instead of breaking things down and starting with individual pieces - birds, trees or soil types - Odum starts at the top, studying a whole forest, sand dune or geographic region, and then works down to individual components.

"Holism -the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - is quite a controversial concept," Odum said. "Many scientists argue against this. But the more you learn about ecology, the more you feel you have to work down from the top to the details. Science tends too much toward reductionism. That's why science and society are having trouble."

Odum's holistic approach is a powerful intellectual tool to organize one's thoughts about nature, said Betty Jean Craige, Odum's friend, colleague and biographer, who teaches comparative literature and directs the UGA Center for Humanities and Arts.

"There's an Odum way of thinking about nature that is transferable to other spheres," Craige said. "It is applicable, for example, to politics."

To see the whole picture, we must get outside the frame, Odum said, giving a nod to the poster on his office wall of the Earth as seen by an Apollo lunar landing crew.

Long before space flight, Odum was making his holistic imprint on academic circles with his book Fundamentals of Ecology, the first textbook on general ecology. Although the word ecology has been around since 1869, "when I began teaching ecology here at the University of Georgia in the 1940s, there were no textbooks on the subject," he said.

Hesitantly, he decided to write one, confiding to his father, Howard Washington Odum, a sociologist who wrote more than 20 scholarly books, that he wasn't sure he knew enough to write a textbook.

"Go ahead and publish," his father said. "You can always correct the errors in the second edition."

First published in 1953, Fundamentals became the world's most widely read ecology text. Translated into more than a dozen languages as well as Braille, the book has helped teach generations of ecologists to think in terms of whole ecosystems, not just individual plants or distinct animal populations.

It's still a definitive textbook on ecosystem ecology, 55 years later. A fifth edition of the landmark text will soon be published once Odum and Gary Barrett, a former Odum doctoral student and now the UGA Eugene Odum Professor of Ecology, finish their revisions.

"Until Gene, ecology had been just another subject in biology," Barrett said. "Gene elevated it to a discipline of its own. His book was the first to excite scientists to work at a system level, to go beyond population and/or community levels of organization. He took a larger view. It was like looking at the ecosystem from an airplane or a satellite."

Holistic research
Odum's earliest studies began informally as a teen-ager in the late 1920s when he and a friend, Coit Coker, parlayed their birdwatching hobby into a column for the local Chapel Hill, N.C., newspaper.

After earning a Ph.D. in zoology, Odum continued to study birds and other animals. His first research findings about DDT's effect on fish were published in the journal Science in 1946, nearly a generation before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, America's environmental wake-up call.

His early studies also helped shape his ideas about holistic research - that an entire ecosystem should be studied and not just its individual bird populations or other components. But how to investigate something as large as an ecosystem is a tall order.

"Studying the whole is a very difficult proposition," he said. "When the average scientist faces complex problems, the average scientist says, 'That's too complicated. Let's go down and find a common denominator and focus on some smaller unit.'"

Odum also looks for common denominators - like energy and how it moves through an ecosystem - and uses them to gain a better understanding of how entire ecosystems work.

"Energy is the basis for everything because it takes energy to run a system - to power a bird's flight, recycle water or even make money," he said. "Energy is nature's currency, much like money is ours."

Undaunted by challenges, Odum was not only among the first ecologists to study entire ecosystems but also among the first to:

  • use radioactive tracers to study food chains, nutrient cycles and animal populations;
  • recognize energy flow as an important ecological principle and apply it to valuing non-market services of nature;
  • promote a whole landscape approach to research;
  • conduct long-term ecological studies, including old-field sites at the Savannah River Site, coastal salt marshes, the headwaters of a river in the Appalachian Mountains and no-till agricultural fields at the Horseshoe Bend site in Athens, Ga.;
  • recognize the importance of wetlands to the health of rivers and streams and promote protection of beaches, marshes and floodplains;
  • conduct input management studies and look at source reduction, including ways to reduce toxic materials and other non-point pollution that goes into a system.

Ironically, in 1940 when Odum and his wife, Martha, a watercolor artist, moved to Athens, Ga., his future in research looked somewhat doubtful.

"When I came here, there wasn't much money for research," said Odum, then an assistant professor of zoology. "I came home one day and told my wife, Martha, 'Don't unpack the bags. I'm not sure we're staying.'"

But Odum did stay. Following his father's example, he turned to outside sources - the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, among others - to fund his research.

And although it didn't happen overnight, ecology courses were added to the curriculum, and eventually UGA began to award bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in ecology. Now even environmental literacy is a requirement for UGA undergraduates.

"I got a very chilly reception in 1949 for my idea that ecology be included in the core curriculum," Odum said.

The scenario is hard to comprehend nowadays, given UGA's international leadership in ecological education and research. But that leadership position was hard-won by persistence and scholarship. "There are two things a scientist might do in his lifetime - research or institution building," Odum said. Somehow, he has managed to do both.

Odum honed his pioneering research methods at places like the Atomic Energy Commission's Savannah River Site, a nuclear productions facility near Aiken, S.C. In 1951, he and three UGA graduate students began surveying fields, streams and forests near the nuclear production facility as it was being built. Their research became the foundation for ecosystem-level studies and led to many radiation ecology studies. By 1961, the research program gained a permanent facility and became the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, which 47 years later continues to do ecosystem-level research on such things as ecological stewardship, radioecology, ecotoxicology, wetlands and environmental assessment.

Two years later, in 1953, Odum began an ecosystem study of the estuaries and salt marshes on Sapelo Island, an ecologically pristine coastal barrier island five miles off the Georgia coast. His team studied how salt marsh organisms affect and contribute to the ocean and its life support systems, such as the cycling of nutrients and essential elements like carbon and nitrogen. They helped establish the importance of coastal areas as nurseries for shrimp, oysters and many other ocean organisms.

His early experiences only deepened Odum's conviction that scientists must take long-term views of environmental processes and changes. By 1961, he had established three UGA ecological research institutions to do just that: the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., the Marine Institute at Sapelo Island, Ga., and the Institute of Ecology, now a school within the university. (See sidebar on next page.)

By 1954, Odum had leapfrogged from terrestrial and coastal studies to coral reef studies of the Eniwetok Atoll in the southern Pacific Ocean with his colleague and brother, Howard T. Odum, a world-renown ecologist and now a University of Florida professor emeritus. Their study, criticized by some scientists who claimed the brothers were venturing too far afield from their expertise, showed how important the delicately balanced nutrient cycle is to coral reef survival. They won the Ecological Society of America's coveted Mercer Award for their outstanding research.

He and his brother went on to earn two of the most prestigious international awards for ecology: in 1975, they won the French government's La Institute de la Vie prize, and in 1987, they received the Swedish Craaford Prize, the equivalent to the Nobel, which is not given in ecology. Eugene Odum donated his portion of the prize monies to advance ecological research, including an endowment for the UGA Institute of Ecology, which he directed until he retired.

Eugene Odum's individual honors are many, including: the Tyler Ecology Award presented by President Carter in White House ceremonies in 1977, elected membership in the National Academy of Science and the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Wildlife Federation's Educator of the Year Award, the Ecological Society of America's Eminent Ecologist Award and the U.S. Department of Interior's Conservation Service Award.

Although he officially retired in 1984 after a 44-year career at the University of Georgia, the professor emeritus is usually in his Ecology Building office by 10 o'clock each morning, conferring with colleagues and graduate students on research projects, such as using supercomputers to manage for a healthy environment or designing ecosystem models that relate humans and nature as symbiotic partners, not predators and prey.

Having recently revised the fifth edition of his popular paperback, Ecology, he is now revising his classic text, Fundamentals of Ecology and is putting the finishing touches on two book chapters for A History of the Institute of Ecology. He also is preparing a retrospective analysis of the three long-range UGA ecology research programs he started.

He has just published a new book that is a collection of vignettes and essays titled Ecological Vignettes: Ecological Approaches to Dealing with Human Predicaments. Its premise: You can't ignore Mother Nature anymore than you can fool her.

Sounding the alarm
The ease with which he communicates his science to audiences of all ages and backgrounds may be Odum's greatest achievement.

"Odum probes with research, then broadcasts the findings and insights, not just to a tight-knit group of scholars, but to the world as a whole - to children, to regional, national and international advisory panels, to civic groups and nonscientists," said UGA ecology professor Ron Pulliam.

His research teams represent many academic disciplines. For example, the university received a large grant from the Kellogg Foundation in 1985 to form seven task forces to study the "state of the state." Odum chaired the natural resources task force and enlisted scholars from many other disciplines, including social science. The team documented many changes - good and bad - in the 50 years since Odum's father had done a similar study of the South from a sociological perspective.

The UGA team's final report, The Georgia Landscape: A Changing Resource, confirmed that a holistic, multidisciplinary approach is possible, even for comprehensive studies of areas as large as Georgia. The team documented the peach state's explosive growth. The human population doubled in those five decades, and the farm animal population increased five-fold. Georgia now has more protected natural areas and fewer acres being farmed than in the '30s, but by the mid '80s farmers were spreading 12 times more fertilizer on the landscape to get only a four-fold increase in productivity.

"It was one of our best studies of Georgia's environment," Odum said, but it also sent up red flags. "The worst threat to the Georgia landscape now is haphazard, poorly planned and managed construction."

Odum's warnings are meant for a larger audience than just Georgia.

"Almost nothing we're doing today is sustainable," he said. "Even capitalism isn't working. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and angrier," he said. "We must have everyone talking to each other. We can't have the humanists talking just to humanists and the scientists talking just to scientists. Most of all we need to develop a dual capitalism that gives equal value to human-made and natural resources."

That is why Odum talks so easily with everyone - scholars, politicians, business people and students - and why each year, from his own pocket, he funds a symposium in which humanists and scientists can share their concerns and ideas.

For half a century, Odum has championed a switch in the way we think about nature, from being her conqueror to becoming her partner. Such a partnership requires new concepts of value in our natural resources, he said. It also may be essential to sustaining the world's burgeoning human population growth with clean air, potable water and wholesome food.

"Ecology is increasing its scope, looking at bigger and bigger things all the time, large-scale things, global things," he said. "I'm trying to get a larger view of things, solve problems on a large scale rather than a small scale, one problem at a time."

Among his thought-provoking recommendations: Assign "fair market values" to nature's free services whenever we make decisions about protecting or developing large expanses of natural areas, like forests or beaches.

"Ecology is a great interface subject. One of the most important, and also one of the hardest interfaces, is the ecology-economics interface - market economics versus non-market economics," he said. "Our present economics are based on a market system, involving only things we make to the exclusion of the goods and services of nature.

"Life support needs - clean water and air for drinking and breathing - are non-market goods and services," he said. "We don't buy and sell air. We pay a little for water but we don't pay for nature's work of producing and cleaning the water. So the result is non-market goods and services aren't valued. They are taken for granted. We tend not to worry about them until they become scarce or polluted."

Odum sprinkles his conversations with familiar adages that sum up his ecological philosophy. For example, "waste not, want not" becomes a springboard to his theory of dual capitalism and how industry must help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

"Industry now needs to ask not only: 'Is there a market for this?' but also 'How can I make it with the least amount of pollution?'" he said. "The solution to pollution is not dilution but source reduction."

The mild-mannered, soft-spoken elder statesman of ecology favors a carrot approach instead of a stick approach to fixing environmental woes. "We must say to industries, 'Let government help you reduce your pollution at its source in addition to requiring you to do so,'" he said. "We must give industry incentives, not just laws."

When teaching children about the environment, he illustrates his points with cartoons like those in Sidney Harris' book There Goes the Neighborhood. An Odum favorite depicts a truck with the words hazardous waste emblazoned on its side.

"The caption goes something like, 'Didn't you know? We just drive around with this thing. It's mobile all the time.' When I show this cartoon to kids, they catch on quickly," he said. "They realize the truck has no place to put the garbage. So I ask them the hard question: 'Where do we put it?' Kids say, 'We have to stop making this stuff.'"

Despite the research and the warnings, the world is slow to acknowledge, much less fix, many problems that threaten the environment and our way of life.

"People are lulled by the quick fix," Odum said. "Most people will say, 'I'm worried about an issue such as fossil fuel, but let's wait till it gets real bad. Then we'll pass a law to take care of the decrease.'"

Odum said he thinks environmental concerns are starting to move up on the American agenda.

"By the year 2000, I predict we'll see a second awareness of ecology and the environment," he said. "The environment is not perceived as a problem yet. Being human, we'll have to have a disaster of some sort before we change. People ask me, 'Are you optimistic?' and I say, 'No, but I'm hopeful.'"

Ecology Timeline:

  • 1940 Eugene Odum starts his UGA teaching career
  • 1946 Odum publishes DDT toxicity study in Science
  • 1947 Everglades National Park established
  • 1950 Arie Hagen-Smit identifies ozone in smog
  • 1951 UGA begins ecological research program at Savannah River Site
  • 1962 Biologist Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring
    1966 New York City's Thanksgiving Day inversion contributes to 68 deaths
  • 1967 Congress passes Air Quality Act
  • 1970 First Earth Day; Congress creates Environmental Protection Agency
  • 1972 UN hosts its first environmental conference
  • 1975 GM installs auto industry's first catalytic converters on U.S.-sold cars
  • 1984 Peregrine falcon removed from endangered species list
  • 1985 British Antarctic Survey scientists report a hole in the ozone layer
  • 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident
  • 1987 Earth's population doubles since 1950
  • 1989 Exxon Valdez spills 11.2 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters
  • 1992 U.N. Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro
  • 1995 United States bans leaded gas and manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
For more information, e-mail Janice Sand at jsand@sparrow.ecology.uga.edu or access www.ecology.uga.edu.

Judy Bolyard Purdy is the UGA research communications director and Research Reporter editor. A former naturalist with the National Audubon Society, she has degrees in biology, botany and journalism.

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