Paul Collier’s newest book, “The Plundered Planet: Why We Must — and How We Can — Manage Nature for Global Prosperity,” picks up where the previous one left off. The award-winning “Bottom Billion” gave prosperous readers (read: folks from industrialized nations) a hard look at the billion or so people on the planet who are living at the bottom, economically speaking. It does not seem necessary to have read the previous book, however, to grasp the idea that this population is the one being hardest and most immediately hit by climate change.
Collier’s continued concern with the world’s poorest people drives his work. It is his belief that global prosperity and climate change are intricately linked. The premise of “Plundered Planet” is that we must appropriately “manage” natural resources so we can all prosper; else we shall all perish.
In describing the current problem, Collier breaks the world into two groups. There are romantics, the so-called crunchy people, who believe we must “radically alter our relationship to nature and scale back consumption.” He pits these folks against the “ostriches,” who want to “scramble” for the natural resources and gobble them up, ignoring environmental ramifications. Collier writes, “run by romantics, the world would starve; run by the ostriches, it would burn.”
So it seems Collier’s audience falls somewhere in between, people who are impatient with being told how to live more “green,” but also recognize that we must adjust how we approach nature. We must learn, he implies, to think of natural resources as currency for those nations without industrial revolution. Focusing largely on Africa, where much of the bottom billion live, he uses examples of agricultural societies and natural resources like copper to demonstrate the economic problems associated with nature.
This is a thinking book, certainly not a beach read — and deliberately so. While the author occasionally breaks up heavy passages with first-person asides (breaking “fancy language” into laymen’s terms), he is careful to emphasize how his theories rely on an educated population. A critical mass of educated people is essential, sharing information from the bottom up and appreciating the intelligence behind economic principles that might not sound “good in headlines.” But what exactly are these solutions we’re supposed to support via grassroots efforts?
Collier spends a lot of time explaining economic concepts, referencing folks like Peter Singer in order to explain the notion that what benefits the group (which must come to include these “bottom billion”) benefits the individual. For those nations where resources (like diamonds) are their currency, the trick is to figure out how to acquire, sell and then manage the profits from those resources in a way that can “sustain the unsustainable,” or lift the bottom billion.
Since, as he points out, natural resources have no “natural” owners, the resulting scramble for ownership and sale of a resource (think: oil) can turn ugly, and certainly has turned ugly. National boundaries shift. Corrupt governments and greedy scramblers squander resources, like America’s bison or Haiti’s tree cover. Using many references to plunder and bringing a mental image of entrepreneur-as-pirate, Collier describes how the mismanagement of Africa’s natural resources has turned a boom into a missed opportunity.
As he works readers through a better way of managing assets, Collier discusses some fascinating ideas, and is quick to suggest economists and scholars who hold different opinions. For instance, Collier discusses the benefits of “food miles” for agrarian communities. Yes, we increase carbon emissions when we ship tofu from Brazil, but we also provide much-needed income for the rural poor who work to grow and produce it.
Such decisions about exporting and importing goods and resources are complex and, Collier asserts, crucial. But what are the right decisions and who even decides what is “right”? Throughout the text, Collier points out that a huge problem with government and the current treatment of the environment is that “ordinary people can sometimes be misled into beliefs that may seem comforting but ultimately are destructive.” The global sense of activism Collier calls for depends on the masses realizing “the importance of getting the key decisions right.” If the plunderers prevail, the whole thing falls apart. In the end, Collier is an optimistic author who still believes we as a global society can do the right thing. His book provides an interesting glimpse into what the right thing might look like.
Thumbnail photo: ZUMA Press