The Plundered Planet: review of Paul Collier’s new book and impending personal crisis

July 1, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

plundered planetA new Paul Collier book is always a good workout in the brain gym and his latest, The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature, is no exception. You can either be seduced by his writing, conceptual acrobatics, anecdotes and soundbites (who isn’t sick of hearing ‘Bottom Billion’ in every seminar?) or you can choose the more exhausting (but more useful) path of trying to enjoy all this while spotting the gaps in his thinking. Good and bad, they are all there in abundance.

His overall thesis? ‘We are not curators of the natural world, preserving nature as an end in itself. We are not ethically obliged to preserve every tiger, or every tree. We are custodians of the value of natural assets. We are ethically obliged to pass on to future generations the equivalent value of the natural assets that we were bequeathed by the past.’

For Collier, plunder can take two forms: ‘In one, natural assets that should belong to all the citizens of a nation are expropriated by the few… In the other, natural assets that should belong to all generations are expropriated by those currently alive.’

There are two big parts to the argument. First, how to manage the non-renewable natural assets in the territories of the bottom billion (oil and gas, minerals). Collier sees them as the only chance of dragging the countries out of poverty – ‘the failure to harness natural capital is the single most important missed opportunity in economic development’.

So drill baby drill, but change the governance of the chain of decisions and spoils-sharing. That means getting every link right in a chain that includes discovery, who captures the value, of the assets, the proportion of government revenue that should be consumed, and how the rest should be invested. Collier has problem/solution analyses for each stage, building on his excellent work on the Natural Resource Charter.

Second, international renewable assets such as sea fish are likely to be plundered to extinction, while natural liabilities, such as carbon, tend to accumulate. The combination of scarcity + improved technology means that for an economist like Collier, the nature of the problem has changed. In the past, the fish supply was effectively infinite and so the value of fish was set by the investment, labour and risk of catching them – mining fish was like mining coal. Now, they have now become a scarce resource, hoovered up by giant factory ships. They have to be managed by quotas, and that means that governance becomes the key issue – mining fish has become like drilling for oil, and the issue of ‘rents’ has become central. Governance must change accordingly.

And so to climate change. Carbon emissions are a ‘renewable natural liability… the natural equivalent of a debt’. Collier is scathing about carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism, which he likens to the Catholic Church’s former tradition of selling forgiveness (indulgences) to finance the construction of St Peter’s in Rome (nice joke – ‘sins of emission’). Since the CDM finances firms for emitting less than they would otherwise have done, ‘the sale of indulgences through the CDM creates incentives not so much to reduce carbon emissions but to threaten to increase them by as much as possible.’

Instead, Collier argues that only a carbon price of say $40 a tonne will change the incentives and trigger the wave of technological innovation required to move us to a low carbon economy. That can be achieved by a combination of regulation and taxation that can be left up to national decisions, but the $40 a tonne figure has to be a ‘commonly agreed-upon world shadow price’. Here’s where he starts to lose the plot – he ridicules the ‘haggling’ of climate change negotiations, but gives no idea of how a universal $40 a tonne figure could be agreed and policed. As always, politics is his achilles’ heel.

But before I get onto the downsides, my favourite left field idea in the whole book: world government funded by fish. To solve the over-fishing problem, we should ‘assign the natural assets of the oceans to the United Nations. The UN would auction the quota rights to fish traders who would then on-sell them in each wholesale market. Analogous to a tax, a wholesale transaction of fish would be legal only if attached tot the appropriate quantity of quota rights. These quota rights would trade on the world market.’ Taxpayers would know how much of their fish bill goes to the UN and so take more interest in its workings (a fish-based social contract), and the money could fund the World Food Programme. Result.

So what’s not to like? First the lazy triangulation – Collier sees the debate polarized between romantics (opponents of GM, supporters of peasant agriculture) and ostriches (growth will solve everything, climate change isn’t a problem): ‘Run by romantics, the world would starve; run by the ostriches, it would burn.’ That’s good polemics, but a pretty feeble contribution to debate.

And he has a serious problem with ‘the middle class love affair with peasant agriculture’. He thinks agriculture should be handed over to Brazilian-style industrial farming, and the peasants should head for the cities (‘Africa needs more megacities’). The problem here is that Collier, as so often, is ahistorical, or bases his analysis purely on European history. Recent take-offs in countries such as Vietnam show just how crucial investment in peasant agriculture is in the early stages of take-off – urbanization happens after that, but the starting point is the peasantry.

His advocacy of the Brazilian model points to another blindspot – inequality. Collier cares deeply about inequality between countries, and has devoted his life to Africa, but he seems blind to the equity impact of a universal carbon tax (poor people priced out of access to fuel) or the mass joblessness that would ensue from a sudden transition to industrial megafarms.

But his biggest blindspot is undoubtedly politics, and here I detect some kind of impending personal crisis. His analysis of the obstacles to change seems to be pushing him towards a more political standpoint, calling for a ‘critical mass of ordinary citizens’ to rise up and demand good governance. But he doesn’t really do politics, has no idea about how such a critical mass might form, which organizations it might involve, what events might precipitate it etc. instead he talks vaguely about the need for ‘social pressure’ at national and global level. For him, this movement simply requires lots of economic literacy and data on oil revenues – a kind of mass movement of mini-me Paul Colliers that will storm the citadels of corrupt and incompetent rulers.

This weird gestalt shift from sophisticated economist to ingénue activist peaks in the conclusion to the book, where he thunders ‘this bottom-up approach holds out greater promise than re-engineering inter-governmental cooperation’, but fails to describe any plausible bottom-up approach. It all smacks of desperation – an atheist saying ‘trust in God’. Obviously as an NGO activist, I agree with the sentiment, but it’s analysis-free and wonderfully naïve, as in ‘citizens around the world can surely accept that their country should not be guilty of free-riding on the efforts of others’ on climate change. Oh really?

As you can see, the book certainly got me going. Anyone else read it yet or seen any good reviews? (And I don’t include John Vidal’s rant in the Guardian in that category).

See here for my past reviews of War, Guns and VotesCollier’s plan for Haitian reconstruction, how to clean up dirty elections and other stuff