Dissertation - Capitalist Development and Water Management: A Case STudy of the Colorado River Basin

The UN predicts that by 2030, 40% of people will struggle with water consistent water availability. The urgency for sustainable water management is one of the fundamental dilemmas of the 21st century. Unfortunately, contemporary economic theory cannot analyze how our economic system of production, capitalism, which depends on capital accumulation and economic growth, impacts water management. Therefore, to analyze the impact of capital accumulation on water management that emerges in market-centric economies, I use a case study of the Southwest US, focusing on the Colorado River. My dissertation, “Capitalist Development and Water Management: A Case Study of Southwest,”  achieves two fundamental advances in the ecological and political economy literature. The dissertation 1) analyzes and critiques how economic thought currently deals with water management and 2) presents an alternative framework rooted in the classical political economy tradition with greater theoretical explanatory power and, thus, stronger guidelines for policymakers. Finally, I use a three-paper approach that completes the purpose of the dissertation, and next, I outline the structure of each chapter.  

My first chapter, “A Tragedy of a Water Commons: A Case Study of the United States,” reviews and critiques current economic theories' approach to water management. The chapter highlights the new institutionalist frameworks' inability to effectively advise policymakers on managing the Colorado River because of three limiting key assumptions: 1.) Scaling, 2.) Power dynamics amongst stakeholders 3.) The relatively predictable flow of resource units. If economists want to advise policymakers better to avoid the tragedy of the commons of the Colorado River, then the paper suggests an alternative analytical frameworks to overcome the limitations of new institutionalist thought. 

The second chapter, applies the classical political economy theory of rents to water management in the Southwest United States to develop a theoretical analysis of how a social system dependent on capital accumulation, capitalism, impacts water management and mediates individuals’ interactions with water. It radically shifts the history of economic thought surrounding water management by redefining water scarcity as a geological distinction and a social relation to production. Further, it introduces the concept of legal coding of property and water rights as capital, as defined by Katharina Pistor, within the classical political economy tradition. After constructing a theoretical model of rents and applying it to the case study of the Southwest US, the research highlights how the classical political and economic theory of rent has greater explanatory power than traditional neoclassical or new institutionalist theories of water management. Thus, allowing political economists to provide better guidelines to policymakers as they make water management decisions. 

Finally, the third chapter will provide a quantitative analysis of water use through an environmental input-output (EIO) to show the value added and total demand of water in US industries. Agriculture, in particular the meat industry and dairy production, dominate water use and my research helps policymakers understand the impacts capitalist production has on how our culture manages water, thus highlighting the outcome of the historical process explained in the second chapter and the inability of contemporary water economic theory detailed in the first chapter.

A Tragedy of A Water Commons


How Economics Rents Destroy Freshwater Resources

How Economic Rents Destroy Freshwater Resources (1).docx

Chapter 3