A Legend on the Move


Tom Tietenberg, groundbreaking environmental economist, retires, after establishing a global legacy

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Jeff Earickson

Tom TeitenbergAs he prepared to retire from a long and distinguished career in academe, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics Tom Tietenberg—one of the intellectual fathers of using tradable permits to reduce pollution, consultant to the United Nations and the World Bank, author of the world’s leading college textbook on environmental economics—had his to-do list. On his agenda: service on a National Academy of Sciences panel studying choices for national climate-change policies and pushing his condominium asssociation to install solar water heaters.

A member of Colby’s faculty since 1977, Tietenberg faced retirement planning not so much to slow down but to pick his projects. He’s a hobbyist photographer who likes to focus on Maine’s coastal harbors. He and his wife, Gretchen, share a getaway home (sans computer) on Prospect Harbor.
“I play golf,” he said. “Not well, but enthusiastically.”

And, yes, there is still real work to do.

"I’m going to keep my hand in intellectually, but the pace will differ considerably,” he said, looking forward to working with some of the top minds in the country on the National Academy of Sciences investigation, to sharing authors’ credits on future editions of his definitive textbooks, and to working on policy issues in Maine. “I’ll be easing off the throttle.”

And that’s a seismic event in environmental economics, a sub-discipline in which Teitenberg was a pioneer. In fact Colby’s search for his replacement brought this response last year on the Web site Environmental Economics: “If you are bold enough to attempt to replace a legend,” the Web site announced, “the ad is below.”

Robert Stavins, Harvard’s Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government and director of Harvard’s environmental economics program, confirmed the legendary status. “There is a direct intellectual connection between Tom Tietenberg and the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 and the SO2 allowance trading program, which is the most important market-based instrument for environmental protection in the United States.”

Stavins, who helped implement some of Tietenberg’s concepts into Environmental Protection Agency policies in the late 1980s, said Tietenberg’s textbook, Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, “was the first book of excellence in environmental economics.”

“I actually used it when I was a student,” said Stavins. And he still assigns it to students in his classes at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, including to Fei Yu, who just earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and was hired this spring to replace Tietenberg.

Tietenberg’s work centered on the use of markets to reduce pollution where taxes and regulations (“command and control”) had seen only limited success. “My dissertation had what is called a general equilibrium theoretical approach to emissions trading, and that had never been done before.”

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