Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Evolution of Georgescu-Roegen's Bioeconomics

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Evolution of Georgescu-Roegen's Bioeconomics

Article excerpt

Only economists still put the cart before the horse by claiming that the growing turmoil of mankind can be eliminated if prices are right. The truth is that only if our values are right will prices also be so.

(Georgescu-Roegen 1976a: xix)


Georgescu-Roegen's contribution to social economics was his development of a comprehensive theory of economy, society, and biophysical constraints. He called this new approach "bioeconomics" and published his most accessible statement of it in this Review (Georgescu-Roegen 1977). In that important paper he argued that the subject matter of economics was much broader than a description of market exchange and that the policy recommendations of economists were doomed to failure unless they were based upon an understanding of the biophysical and social context of consumption and production. The realization that resource constraints, social instability, and the social organization of economic activity are interrelated is now increasingly accepted (Dasgupta 1995; Gowdy and McDaniel 1995; Gurr 1985; Homer-Dixon 1991; Homer-Dixon, Bouthwell, and Rathjens 1993; Norgaard 1994), and it seems appropriate to revisit Georgescu-Roegen's neglected contribution to the debate.

Georgescu-Roegen's work is usually divided into two categories, his earlier work on consumer and production theory, and his concern with entropy and bioeconomics beginning with his 1966 introductory essay to a collection of his theoretical papers published in the volume Analytical Economics (Georgescu-Roegen 1966). Neoclassical economists praise his earlier work in utility and production theory but usually ignore his later contributions.(1) Those economists sympathetic to Georgescu-Roegen usually see his early work as being more or less mainstream, and claim that he turned away from standard theory some time in the 1960s (Seifert 1994; Zamagni 1987a). Although Georgescu-Roegen's research interests changed over time, we argue here that an unbroken path runs from Georgescu-Roegen's work in pure theory in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, through his writings on peasant economies in the 1960s, leading to his preoccupation with entropy and bioeconomics in the last 25 years of his life. The theme that unites his early work on utility theory and production theory, his rejection of mechanistic economics in favor of one based on thermodynamics, and finally his return to social economics in his later years, is his lifelong preoccupation with the nature of economic value. From his earliest published work in the 1930s until his death in 1994, Georgescu-Roegen insisted that descriptions of economic phenomena, especially mathematical descriptions, must go beyond relative market prices. They must be grounded in reality, that is, in the physical and social universe of which humans are embedded.


Georgescu-Roegen was born in Constanta, Romania, in February, 1906. His mother came from a humble family and taught needlework in a trade school for girls. His father was an army officer who died when Nicholas was only seven years old. As a promising student in Romania, Georgescu-Roegen received an outstanding education in mathematics that paved the way for his later contributions in economic theory. Indeed, he points to a seminar on the singularities of differential equations at Bucharest University in 1926 as giving him the basis for one of his most important papers, "The Pure Theory of Consumer's Behavior" (Georgescu-Roegen 1936b), published ten years later (Georgescu-Roegen 1989a: 105).

Between 1927 and 1930 Georgescu-Roegen studied at the Institut de Statistique in Pads. His award-winning dissertation was "On the problem of finding out the cyclical components of a phenomenon" (Georgescu-Roegen 1930). His work in periodical phenomena in Pads convinced him that social phenomena could never be described by the mechanical methods of classical statistics. …

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