The Plundered Planet

The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature, By Paul Collier, Allen Lane RRP£20, 247 pages

The question of how to harness the resources of the planet without destroying the biosphere that gives us life has become urgent. To give the developing world the standard of living of rich countries – if we continued our current patterns of resource use – would require another three or four planets. There will be more than 9bn people on the earth by 2050, most of whom will be living in dire poverty unless our patterns are changed. Something must be done.

Paul Collier believes he has the answers – and he has a better claim than most as author of The Bottom Billion, the seminal work that showed why the poorest countries are failing and what could be done about it. The Plundered Planet is a continuation of Collier’s thinking.

A good portion of the book is given over to setting out the problems. This is not as dry as it sounds; Collier has a good line in the wry anecdote, the telling statistic and judicious use of research studies. He makes complex economic theories accessible to the lay reader in a briskly chatty style.

Early on, Collier tells us he is breaking fresh ground. He faces two opposing armies: the environmentalists, characterised as deluded romantics, and the traditional economists, or ostriches as he calls them, who bury their heads in their theories without paying heed to the plunder of the real world around them.

Collier is right to portray aspects of the green movement as foolishly romantic, and many mainstream economists as too doctrinaire. But the “no-man’s land” he tells us he is boldly venturing into is already well-populated with luminaries such as Lord Nicholas Stern as well as economists, think-tanks, government officials, aid agencies among others. Many of Collier’s suggested solutions have been common currency in development/environment circles for several years.

Towards the end, Collier turns to the central question of how to tackle climate change. The threat of rising temperatures is a global problem, which we all have an interest in solving, but governments, companies and individuals also have an incentive not to act first, as they will bear the cost and others can play the free rider. Collier’s answer is that “everywhere in the world, firms and people should be faced by common incentives, or their regulatory equivalent, to curb carbon emissions.” Well, yes. And, as Collier notes, there are instruments to achieve this – a global carbon tax or a global cap-and-trade system in emissions would both do it. Governments and economists have been trying for 20 years to agree on something like this.

His final call is for a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. If governments are not serving the interests of their people, then people themselves can get together and “rally round” the principles of fair treatment and how to treat carbon emissions, natural resources and the remaining biodiversity of the planet. It’s a nice idea, but it does seem a little, well, romantic.

Fiona Harvey is the FT’s environment correspondent

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