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Academic Anthony Scott challenged idea of inexhaustible seas and forests

Anthony Scott and his son Nicholas. Courtesy of the Family.

Margot Scott

Anthony Scott, the Canadian thinker who explored the intersection of economics and conservation, suffered hearing loss in his later years but never let that deter his love of vigorous conversation. On vacation in Mexico with friends and extended family a decade ago, he grew exasperated one night after having to ask several people to repeat what they had just said.

Standing up, he surveyed the table. "Louder," he told them. "Louder and funnier!"

Prof. Scott, who died on Feb. 17 in Vancouver at the age of 91, was a commanding presence not just at family gatherings but throughout the economics profession. Decades before environmental awareness and green movements went mainstream, he pioneered the study of resource economics, helping the world to think about how it should best manage its fisheries and forests.

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He also blazed a trail for other Canadian economists by remaining loyal to Canada and, even more so, to his hometown of Vancouver. Other Canadian-born thinkers also played leading roles in economics from the 1950s through the 1970s, but most of them – people such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Harry Johnson and Robert Mundell – built their careers in the United States.

Prof. Scott was a great exception. He worked as a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia from 1953 to 1989 and served as the founding president of the Canadian Economics Association in 1966-67 while producing research that demanded global attention. "He was one of the very first Canadian economists to prove you could have a career of international stature but still be based in Canada," says Thomas Lemieux, director of the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

Tony, as he was universally known, possessed a prodigious work ethic. In addition to writing research papers, editing academic journals and serving on government commissions, he chaired UBC's department of economics from 1967 to 1971 and helped to advance it to international prominence. He also collaborated with Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson on an enormously popular university textbook, titled Economics but known widely as "Samuelson and Scott," that introduced a generation of Canadian students to the field.

His outpouring of nearly 150 academic papers spanned more than a half century. A 1955 paper on sole ownership in fisheries was immediately recognized as a major breakthrough, while his sweeping final work, The Evolution of Resource Property Rights, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008, when he was 84.

"He was fascinated by fisheries, the environment and conservation long before most people gave those topics much of a thought," says Albert Breton, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. "He was a pioneer."

Prof. Scott's best-known insight was that we should view fisheries – or, for that matter, any natural resource – as a capital asset, similar to machines or buildings. Like those man-made capital assets, a natural endowment is a long-lived piece of property that can produce returns for a considerable time. And just like man-made assets, natural resources require clear property rights and good management to produce the best long-term results.

In the mid-1950s, at a time when renewable resources such as fisheries and forests were often regarded as practically inexhaustible, this was not a generally accepted notion. The risk that common ownership of a resource might lead people to seriously deplete the resource or even exhaust it – the so-called tragedy of the commons – had yet to raise widespread alarm. In the case of fisheries that were owned in common, it was easy to assume that competition among privately owned fishing fleets would lead to efficient outcomes.

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Prof. Scott's 1955 article helped to change people's understanding by showing that the scale of ownership, and its time span, mattered. In particular, a sole owner of a fishery who had permanent rights to the resource would have a strong incentive to manage the resource to maximize its value, not just now but in future periods. The 1955 paper opened the door to a new way of thinking about renewable resources as assets to be managed rather than just as a store of wealth to be exploited.

"His paper is widely recognized as the beginning of modern fisheries economics," says Gordon Munro, a professor emeritus at UBC. "It embodies what everyone regards as obvious in 2015, but hardly anyone realized back in 1955."

The resource sector was a topic of natural interest for Prof. Scott, who argued that Canadian economists should focus on the issues that emerge from their own experience. For someone raised in British Columbia, few economic questions loomed larger than those raised by fisheries and forests.

Anthony Dalton Scott was born in Vancouver on Aug. 2, 1923, to Edith (née Dalton) and Sydney Scott. His father was an editor at the Vancouver Province newspaper, and his mother was the daughter of Annie Dalton, a local poet.

He was educated in public schools and served in the army during the Second World War, before completing degrees in commerce and arts at the University of British Columbia. He followed that with a master's degree in economics at Harvard University and a PhD from the London School of Economics in 1953.

Prof. Scott met his wife, Barbara Wilson, while both were studying at UBC, and courted her while completing his doctorate in London. They married in 1952 and in 1953 returned to Vancouver, where he began teaching at UBC. The arrival of a son, Nicholas, and daughter, Margot, soon expanded their family.

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His book Natural Resources: The Economics of Conservation was published in 1955. Together with his fisheries article, it signalled the start of a new era in the economic analysis of natural resources. But Prof. Scott also did important work in other areas.

For instance, he and Prof. Breton co-wrote The Economic Constitution of Federal States, a 1978 work that probed the nature of federalism, which had long been regarded by many political scientists as a compromise system of government lacking the efficiency of a centralized state.

Prof. Breton and Prof. Scott argued for a more nuanced understanding that stressed the potential advantages of federalism. Compared with a centralized system, a federal system gives citizens more ways to signal their preferences, both at the ballot box and through other forms of action. A federal system can also act as a check on government inefficiency because citizens can easily move from a badly run jurisdiction to a better managed alternative.

Prof. Scott's copious research and writing were just part of an enormous workload that also included stints as a visiting professor at Harvard and as an adviser to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. He relaxed by listening to opera and growing roses – preferably at the same time, with the kitchen radio turned to the highest volume and perched on the window sill overlooking his garden.

At Christmas, he loved to organize charades – which, he always insisted, was to be pronounced "sharawds." Players would be split into teams and wear costumes, acting out phrases or words according to complex and not always immediately transparent rules. Tony Scott-style charades were "less of a competitive game and more of a dramatic cryptic exercise," his daughter, Margot Scott, recalls.

Sailing was another of his passions, as was maintaining and improving the family's cabin on Bowyer Island in Howe Sound off Vancouver. Wherever he was, Prof. Scott's curiosity was boundless and so was his willingness to put forward explanations.

"He always had a theory about why something was the way it was," writes his son, Nicholas Scott. "It was usually a passionately held theory and often based on very little actual data. (I have to say I'm sure that this was not the case in his professional life.) He loved nothing better than to debate, with anyone available, the merits of his theory. In this he had a tenacity and determination to win that was often alarming to those uninitiated."

For all his love of debate, Prof. Scott is widely remembered for his gracious treatment of others. Georgina Coustalin, a lawyer who worked with him for 20 years researching the topic of water rights for his final book, says she first met him while she was still a law student and was struck immediately by his kindness even to a junior research associate, his willingness to give credit to others and his enthusiasm for learning, even in his last years. "His interest in everything was infectious," she says.

He never truly retired, working on his final book and travelling on his own to conferences while well into his 80s. As his health weakened over the past couple of years, he moved into Blenheim Lodge, a retirement home in Vancouver, where he passed away after a heart attack. He leaves behind his wife, children and two grandchildren, Tlell Davidson and Jack Davidson.

Colleagues praised his selflessness in the service of Canadian economics and his emphasis on professional collaboration rather than competition. "He did an unusual and impressive number of things, but you noticed the way he did them as much as what he did," recalls John Helliwell, his long-time colleague in UBC's economics department. "He never put himself first, but looked to quietly find ways to help advance the field."

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About the Author

Ian McGugan is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and has been writing about investing, economics and business for more than 20 years. He joined the Globe and Mail in 2010. He has been executive editor of Canadian Business magazine and founding editor of MoneySense magazine. More


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