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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Adaptive rationality : government policy towards ecological effects of salmon farming in British Columbia Kelton, Andrew John


The rapid 1980's development of the salmon farming industry in British Columbia has been called "a poorly defined experiment in a poorly understood coastal environment", and the main impetus behind it described as "the chaotic, bottom-line orientation" not only of the industry itself but also of relevant government policy. The purpose of this thesis is to elaborate on these themes by identifying and delineating the most significant reasoning models underlying government development policy; and to offer an evaluation of the policy's 'rationality'. Throughout the development of the industry, but particularly in the early stages, two major areas of uncertainty have been prevalent. First, detailed government policy towards salmon farming has been far from clear - an inarticulation that is characteristic of the philosophy of laissez faire, which was particularly influential in Canadian government policy in the early 1980's. Secondly, a variety of possible ecological impacts have been suspected from the outset. A heuristic approach, both for the basic method employed in the thesis and for the normative model set up to evaluate government policy, is advanced for addressing these different uncertainties. In order to identify relevant policy, it is hypothesized that systems of ideas expressed formally in 'core' models of neoconservative and neoclassical economics were particularly important policy influences. It is argued that the core concept of neoconservative theory (as defined) is the adaptive efficiency of the autonomous market. The theory's fundamental adaptive ideas - economic information 'discovery' by competitive trial-and-error selection, and consumer 'regulation' via the price system - are to be found in representative federal and provincial economic policy documents from the early 1980's, as well as in the occasional government elucidations of B.C. salmon farming policy (scattered in heterogeneous historical sources). An examination of (inferred) specific decisions relevant to ecological aspects of salmon farming reveals the influence of trial-and-error - deliberate omission of government planning - on early salmon farm siting policy; and the influence of the presumption of consumer 'sovereignty', which was assumed to obviate the need for government ecological regulation. The relevant core concept of neoclassical economics (as defined) is the rational model derived from the conception of homo economicus. The model and its derivations are visible in the same early 1980's economic policy documents, which outline public sector 'restraint' criteria, as well as in salmon farming policy elucidations. It is argued that the maximizing 'solution' prescribed by the model is without operational significance in complex, uncertain situations, where ostensible use of the formal technique may be to legitimate decisions taken on other grounds. The normative model set up to evaluate government policy is drawn from three sources: Friedrich Hayek's rationalization of the adaptive market process, C.S. Holling's prescriptions for "adaptive environmental assessment and management", and Herbert Simon's development of "procedural rationality". These models support the conclusion that acquisition of information by the agency that mediates actions and goals - which, in the case of ecological regulation, must be government - has major value as the basis of more rational decisions. But acquiring conclusive evidence by trial-and-error learning involves risk of serious error, particularly irreversible ecological harm, and it is rational to utilize the inconclusive evidence that is always available for making general predictions, in order to guide search and select lesser risks. Incorporating the important constraint of search costs - particularly significant in the economic recession of the early 1980's - the requirements for rational adaptation become minimal, procedural ones of 'reasonableness': lack of bias towards any class of information relevant to social welfare; lack of denial of uncertainties, and thus of development risks, in the complex and little-known salmon farming environment; and timely response to uncertainties subsequently, adequately resolved by experience. It is suggested that all three requirements were infringed by government policy towards salmon farming development.

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