Headlines: March 31st, 2008

Relying on technology and the free market will not deliver higher rates of recycling, according to a study which shows that in a democratic society it is almost always necessary to control the market to ensure good environmental outcomes. The study, presented by Tim Cooper to the Economic History Society, argues that historical experience shows government and wider society have a role to play.

In his study Tim Cooper argued that recycling was not new and it looks at the debate that took place in the Victorian era to illustrate what he sees as the limits on what can be achieved by the free market. Some Victorian writers, he told delegates, ‘talked big’ in the press and professional journals about the achievements of industrial recycling but in fact Victorian recycling industries did not tackle smoke pollution or industrial effluents effectively.

He added, “The Victorian waste debate offers lessons not just on how to approach our waste crisis. It also suggests that both government and society at large have an important role to play in achieving environmental sustainability. We cannot leave it all to either the economists or the scientists.”

He said reliance on the idea that science and economic progress would eventually deal with all environmental challenges persisted to the present day. It could, for example, be seen in the debate on climate change where some people argued there was no need to take the foot off the economic accelerator because a combination of technologists and the free market would sort out the problem. Eventually, Mr. Copper said, the Victorians learned that such attitudes meant issues of public health and environmental well-being were not addressed and in time this led to local and national government being given the power to regulate polluting industries.