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21 Sep 2020 | SANDEE

Remembering Karl-Göran Mäler(1939–2020)

Dr Priya Shyamsundar

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Karl-Göran Mäler
Photo credit: A. Sundin


Karl-Göran Mäler helped create and mould SANDEE. In the 1990s, as Director of the Beijer Institute, Prof. Mäler, along with Sir Partha Dasgupta, who was the Institute’s Board Chair, envisioned the growth of a new type of scholarship in environment and development economics. This would be a discipline that would be grounded in economic theory but built on a lived understanding of the synergies and tradeoffs between economic development and environmental change. They rightly saw the need for research and a body of evidence driven by scholars from low- and middle-income countries, so that problems were correctly identified, and solutions were home grown.

This belief, his confidence in the usefulness of economic thinking for solving global problems, and his passion for the environment led Prof. Mäler to contribute to a deep scholarship on linked human and environmental systems. It also led to the creation of a number of environmental economics networks around the world: SANDEE in South Asia, LACEEP in Latin America, and CEPA and RANESA in Africa, and the launch of the journal Environment and Development Economics.

Karl-Göran Mäler loved being an economist. His PhD thesis became Environmental Economics – A Theoretical Inquiry, a much-cited book that examines and builds the conceptual underpinnings for studying a range of environmental problems. He continued to focus on solving complex problems and is best known for his work on acid rain, inclusive wealth accounts, and pollution in small lakes. Many of us have fond memories of Prof. Mäler drawing graphs to show us how lakes could switch from being just polluted to plain dead. For many years, he was also part of the committee that selected recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics. His love for knowledge, however, far exceeded the bounds of economics. He could possibly surpass Google with his ability to present minute historical facts on all sorts of topics! His was an utterly curious mind, wherein perhaps lies the explanation for his wealth of knowledge.

Biodiversity mattered to Karl-Göran Mäler. As Director of the Beijer Institute, he brought many ecologists and economists together to address environmental problems. He was also an avid birdwatcher and carried his binoculars everywhere he travelled. In fact, the very first time I met him, he convinced all the conference participants at a meeting in Malta to climb up a steep cliff and lie down at the top to look over the edge for birds. This was how persuasive he could be when it came to birds. I also vividly remember many stories of his safaris and the wildlife he encountered in Africa. This reverence for biodiversity extended to all of life. The many regional dances that we watched on our trips to Nepal simply reinforced for Prof. Mäler the importance of diversity.

Prof. Mäler spent many years teaching and nurturing SANDEE. It meant a great deal to him to see SANDEE grow and its members publish and thrive. He was always interested in the economic problems presented to him by various SANDEE participants. Perhaps his single most important contribution was to push all of us to think carefully about the complexities underlying these problems. His mantra was “think harder”, the key that would open all doors.

Prof. Mäler lived a good life. Building trust and creating institutions was important and having fun along the way was essential for him. His wonderful sense of humour helped. He thrived off his social capital; this was his secret sauce. And he built the Beijer Institute with this ingredient, making it easier for all of us from SANDEE to follow in his footsteps.

Thank you, Prof. Mäler – for being our mentor, our guru, and our friend.

Dr Priya Shyamsundar was the founding director of SANDEE. She now works as the Lead Economist at The Nature Conservancy.

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