Building on his book The Bottom Billion Paul Collier explores the economics and ethics of using natural resources while protecting future generations.
With The Plundered Planet Paul Collier is contributing to new thinking on the economics of sustainability on an increasingly crowded planet. With the increasing affluence of the major populations of India, China and Brazil joining the developed nations in exploiting natural resources that new thinking is needed. Without it future generations will be impoverished and standards of living of the major economies, including the newly affluent, could suffer.
Professor Collier breaks his analysis and argument out across five headings.
The first part of the book describes what is meant by plunder in the context of the book’s title: The Plundered Planet and the nature of poverty especially for the bottom billion. The author examines the value put on natural resources by current economic theory and starts to explore the options.
Professor Collier examines the lottery that is the distribution of discovered natural assets and the consequent political challenges it creates. There is an argument that discovery of natural assets can have major negative consequences for countries. This is particular true for those states that do not have well established and transparent checks and balances in the conduct of public life.
This part then moves on to the economics and politics of discovering, capturing and natural assets. Finally, Paul Collier looks at investment challenges around those stages and beyond.
While the previous parts have focused on non-renewable natural assets Part III considers the renewable resources such as fish and how they might be exploited sustainability. Many of these resources are not geographically constrained and are not controlled by individual nations. This makes it much more a political and diplomatic challenge than an economic or development matter.
Paul Collier stresses the need for ordinary citizens to take the trouble to understand the scientific and economic issues. Without their concern, the bottom billion will continue to have their natural assets plundered whilst still going hungry.
Professor Collier makes a strong for the need to slay some of the popular romantic myths, giants as he calls them, such as the middle class romantic view of peasant agriculture which is not idyllic but inefficient and back-breaking. He goes further and addresses genetic modification, scientific agriculture and the belief in America that it can replace oil from the Middle East by growing its own fuel. He shows why this is not possible.
In the final Part Professor Collier pulls it all together to argue how it might be if there is the will and action to make the changes necessary. He makes a strong case that whilst there will be some localized economic consequences overall there will be benefit. That is the problem; there is no body which has global authority so local needs will continue to take precedence.
There is a growing body of work on sustainable development which seeks to reconcile the aspirations of the developing world with the needs of future generations without the need to go back in time. Paul Collier developed the concept of the bottom billion who cannot rely on having the basics of life; he gives them further attention in The Plundered Planet.
It is a thoughtful and thought provoking analysis of the options for continued development. Like many of the new generation of thinkers on sustainability Professor Collier does not propose the hair shirt approach or a return to a bucolic idyll that never existed. He accepts the status quo, the aspirations of populations around the world and shows how a new approach to sustainable development can be good economics.
One criticism is that this is a book about economics and discusses trends and numbers but there is not a chart or table to be seen. At times this makes the argument unnecessarily difficult to follow and that there is evidence has to be somewhat taken on trust. However there are links to Professor Collier’s website with the research papers referenced in The Plundered Planet.
Above all The Plundered Planet provides hope that development and sustainability can be reconciled without the pain that many argue is necessary. But changes in the way natural resources are valued, managed and used is essential.
Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and a Director of Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of African Economics. He is a former director of development at the World Bank and award winning author.
The Plundered Planet, How to Reconcile Prosperity With Nature (2010, ISBN: 978-1-846-14223-9) by Professor Paul Collier is published in hard back at £20 by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin.
First appeared on Suite101