The Loss of Bob Ayres: Contribute your condolences, memories, reflections and photos

Simron Singh

A personal memorial by Marina Fischer-Kowalski


Robert U. Ayres died on October 23, at the age of 91 years. He has been, I claim, one of the eminent “universal scientists” of the 20th century.

I first met Bob at a conference on environmental accounting in Baden (Austria), in May 1991, where he presented a speech on “Materials and energy flows and balances as a component of environmental statistics”. For our proposals to reorganize Austrian socio-environmental statistics, this was extremely encouraging. I was deeply impressed by his basic approach, which then also provided guidance for what we proposed for Austria.

I then immediately read his foundational article from 1969, co-authored by A. Kneese, in the American Economic review the only time he was published by a major economics journal, he later complained to me. From then on evolved a close intellectual relationship. Bob invited our Baden paper as a final chapter to the Book “Industrial Metabolism”, finally published together with Udo E.Simonis by the United Nations University Press in 1994. The title of this book, slightly modified to “social metabolism”, became the marker of our work at Social Ecology in Vienna.

We increasingly understood Ayres’ conviction that the problem of unsustainability of human society was not a problem of inadequate technologies, but a problem of the contradiction between basic physics and economic growth.

Ayres thinking was more fundamental (and faster) than the thinking of most of us. He claimed basic principles of physics, like thermodynamics and the irreversibility of energy conversion, to apply also to human economies. He grounded this claim by basic laws of thermodynamics, and by historical analysis, and warned that the industrial economy was systematically about to threaten the balances of the Earth needed for human survival. This he did not always express in a friendly way when speaking up at conferences and meetings, but he had really something to say.

Bob was very close to Leslie, his wife; they married in 1954 and had a daughter who gave birth to three boys, but died in her early Fifties, a big loss for Leslie and Bob (I remember him in tears). Leslie managed Bob’s everyday life (which certainly was not an easy job, as stubborn as he used to be). She also co-edited the Handbook of Industrial Ecology (2002). At their house in Mallorca, with a beautiful view on the bay, we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with Bob’s brothers and family in 2004. They then sold this house and bought a flat in Paris, where Leslie died in 2018.

In 2004, as chair of a Gordon Research Conference of Industrial Ecology, I was supposed to endow Bob Ayres with the first “Society Prize for outstanding contributions to Industrial Ecology”. The event was scheduled at Queens College in Oxford, in the afternoon. At noon, Bob and me were still sitting nervously in an airplane in Vienna that would not take off. In the end, the scheduled session was almost over when we arrived in Oxford – but there was just time enough for us to perform, and Bob received his award.

I gladly joined a group of scientists from all over the world in 2011 that nominated Bob Ayres as candidate for the Nobel prize in economics, initiated by Skip Laitner, Jeroen van den Bergh and Ludo van der Heyden, for linking economics to physics and technology, as an early warner of a fundamental sustainability crisis. This effort, though, did not succeed.

In an interview, a month before his death (, Bob talks about the majority of expert people currently being pessimistic about the future. “Most think there is no future, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. The technological solutions are (or will shortly be) there; it’s only that we need to come to an agreement, solve the problem of how to collaborate, create global answers.” On the interviewer’s question, when he thinks this could happen, he says: “On the 1st January of 2050, the headline of New York Times, in bold letters, will read ‘we did!’”.

(Anthony) Shun Fung Chiu

Sharing memory .... a pic of Bob in our early Gordon gatherings at Queen's College    and his most recent one at Leiden with Ming