Elizabeth Wainwright questions the view of an influential economist. The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature by Paul Collier. Allen Lane, 2010. ISBN: 9781846142239
In his most recent book, Paul Collier sets out to explore our changing relationship with planet Earth in light of the increasingly political and economic implications of climate change and resource depletion.
Collier commands respect. He was Director of Development Research at the World Bank, and his previous book The Bottom Billion was well received. He analyses the desperate underbelly of the world’s population, suggesting that international aid is not the way to pull people out of poverty, instead favouring natural assets as the way to do it.
The Bottom Billion made some important points, but I wonder whether the topic that Collier grapples with in The Plundered Planet – essentially, how to reconcile the needs of the ever-growing population with a sustainable environmental future – would have been better approached in conjunction with an environmental economist like Partha Dasgupta, or the author of the Stern Review on the economics of climate change, Nicholas Stern.
Collier divides people involved in the Planet vs. Economy debate into two groups: the romantic, backward-looking environmentalists, and the mercenary ostriches with their heads in the sand. Admittedly, Collier says he is trying to close up the middle ground, proclaiming that environmentalists and economists “need each other”. This then, is the premise of The Plundered Planet.
Collier explains: “As an economist I have been reared to use the ethical framework of Utilitarianism”, with the benchmark for this being “to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Though in places “the greatest happiness of the private enterprises” seemed more appropriate.
For me the book highlighted a gaping hole in the debate – where is the voice of the global South, whose residents account for 5/6 of the world’s population? There is an implication that both environmentalists and economists are Western.
“Ordinary people” can take responsibility for Nature, Collier says. But, he states, we need to slay “our middle-class love affair with peasant agriculture”. One could agree that the result of small-scale idyllic organic agriculture is often luxury goods, but Collier extrapolates his point to conclude that subsistence agriculture is “the romantic vision taken to its reductio ad absurdum”. Large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies are where we should head. There is no need to over-romanticise local self-sufficiency – we seem to have a tendency to do so, and it is not going to change the world – but Collier concludes this seemingly without consulting the planet’s bottom billion.
Collier gives practical and well-informed arguments – which also include evangelical trumpeting of GM foods, and slating of biofuels. But again, the lack of voice to the global South is evident. In criticising the GM ban in Europe, Collier argues how African governments followed suit so as not to be shut out of the European markets, concluding, “Africa needs all the help it can get”, and that the ban will ultimately damage Africa’s ability to feed herself. What he doesn’t mention is that African scientists in countries where the ban was recently lifted, including Kenya, are now carrying out their own context-specific GM research. Africa may need help – but that does not necessarily mean from speculating Western economists.
Collier suggests that resources do not need to be a burden if they are properly managed, for example with aid money funding ‘prospecting’ for resources, and then rights to resources being auctioned, the profits set aside for the future and to fund infrastructure. Auctioning rights to natural assets seems problematic, if not dangerous. He goes back to arguments from The Bottom Billion – that governance and corruption are a barrier to this sort of development. In The Plundered Planet, he adds environmentalists to the list of barriers.
Green is, in Collier’s view, GM crops and nuclear power. He would like the world to invest in the emerging markets rather than worrying about food miles – he explains that it uses less carbon to grow crops in the most favourable climate and then fly them where needed. I’m not sure – I’m not an economist.
But I am a resident of the planet, and for me the book highlighted the need for global dialogue, not more conventional neo-liberal economic debate. It may be a detailed handbook for the likes of economists in the West – and for them I hope it might question business as usual – but it is not a bottom-up guide to reconciling economic prosperity with the limits of Nature.