School of Geography - Theses

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    Environmental policy and orthodox economics: a case study of Victorian solid waste
    Pickin, Joseph ( 2007)
    In this thesis I use the idea of 'rational ideologies' to investigate the value and role of orthodox economics in solid waste policy in Victoria, and its relationship with a dominant set of policy ideas that I call industrial ecology. I show that many orthodox economists criticise industrial ecology and prescribe alternative policies based principally on market-based instruments (MBIs) and cost-benefit analysis (CBA) with environmental valuation. They largely ignore the economic underpinnings of industrial ecology. I report on four empirical research projects. Firstly, I investigate the influence of unit-based pricing of domestic garbage in Melbourne on garbage quantities. I find its effects trivial except where rates were set at levels higher than orthodox economic theory would suggest is appropriate. Home owners have reduced garbage for non-economic reasons. Secondly, I compare 37 cost-benefit studies of recycling, revealing enormously varied approaches and results that are often apparently infused by analyst ideology or sponsor interests. Rather than the hard rationality it seems to promise, CBA with environmental externality valuation diverts debate into complexities that are the preserve of experts. The ideological foundations of some orthodox economic interpretations of environmental issues are shown to be weakly supported by theory or logic. Thirdly, I review the history of Victorian solid waste policy since 1970. As an early pollution crisis was overcome, the agenda shifted to waste minimisation. Regulation, corporatist agreements, targets and strategies have helped to level off the quantity of waste to landfill and grow post-consumption recycling into a major industrial operation. Costs have risen substantially but public support remains strong. Industry, local government and environment groups have competed for influence in the policy arena. While waste management has been transformed into a competitive market structure, orthodox economics has played only a small role in the policy history. Where CBAs have not be desultory they have failed to resolve policy disputes. Use of MBIs has been beset by administrative and sunk-cost concerns. Finally, I report on a survey of 46 members of the solid waste policy community on the economics of solid waste. There is a surprisingly high degree of in-principle acceptance of orthodox economics conceptions of the environment, such as CBA, environmental valuation and MBIs. There is more disagreement over resource efficiency,, recycling targets and interpretation of the value of economic tools in practice. Variation in views is linked with professional grouping more than economics education. There is strong support for the economic underpinnings of industrial ecology. I suggest that environmentalists' simultaneous acceptance of orthodox economists' intellectual framework yet rejection of their prescriptions demonstrates the practical weakness of that framework but also represents a latent danger to environmentalism. In concluding, I interpret orthodox economics as a rational ideology that is blind to its ideological content. I argue that this blindness has led to overconfidence, inflexibility and overambition, and that these characteristics have marginalised orthodox economics in Victorian solid waste policy. I argue for analytical plurality and the supremacy of political judgement.