Book Reviews

Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet; Why We Must — and How We Can — Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 271pp.Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet; Why We Must — and How We Can — Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 271pp.

           In his previous book about the world's poorest people called The Bottom Billion (2007), the Oxford economist Paul Collier cut a middle path between the left, exemplified in Jeffrey Sachs' book The End of Poverty, which argues that more aid is the way to help poor nations, and the right, exemplified in The White Man's Burden by William Easterly, which suggests that more aid is the problem. In The Plundered Planet Collier turns to environmental economics (and ethics) and continues his centrist perspective.

           Collier wants to reconcile global prosperity, which risks plunder at the hands of unfettered market economics, with an ethical approach to the natural world, which risks irrelevance due to a romantic view of nature. Principled environmental ethics and pragmatic economic self-interest "need each other," says Collier. This is especially so because natural assets like coal in the ground and fish in the oceans represent a "massive opportunity" for the poor that easily dwarf the debate about too much or too little aid. Such is the "defining challenge" of our age, to move beyond the greed of unethical economics and the guilt of nostalgic environmentalism.

          We need to see ourselves as custodians of the world's natural assets who bear a distinct responsibility to future generations, and not owners. But nor can we help people in the present or the future as well as we might if we see ourselves as mere preservationists. Collier first considers non-renewable natural assets like oil in Nigeria, diamonds in Sierra Leone, or copper in Chile, and the extent to which such environmental blessings constitute a "resource curse." He outlines four "links" in a chain to transcend their "ambiguous effect" — discovery of the natural asset, extraction, expenditure of revenues, and then balancing obligations to the present and future generations (since these assets are non-renewable). He then turns to renewable assets like fish and trees, and the liabilities of assets like carbon emissions from burning coal. In his later chapters Collier considers hunger and insists that we must move beyond three common roadblocks to helping the poor — our love affair with peasant agriculture ("a luxury lifestyle" romanticized by the rich), Europe's fear of genetically-modified foods, and America's subsidies for ethanol as a fuel.

           Collier writes for a general audience, but average readers like me will find some of his arguments rather technical (the Hotelling Rule, the common pool problem, the custody principle, etc.). Nonetheless, this made me appreciate the genuine complexity of problems that have no easy alternatives. Some of his suggestions will never happen, like assigning the natural assets of the oceans (which have no natural owner) to the United Nations (168). Collier is also unsparing about the problems of corruption, bad governments, the limits of good government, and incompetence, but I question whether the citizen's power that he proposes is really "unstoppable." In Collier's world there are no simple solutions to a sustainable environmental economics, only difficult tradeoffs that aim to combine self-interest and human compassion.