The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature

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Introduction and Summary:

The Plundered Planet by Paul Collier focuses to the bottom billions (people) of the poorest countries to reconcile nature with prosperity. The book tries to build mix claims on two sides; Environmentalist and Economist.

Collier states that nature is valuable and vulnerable. Nature is riches and wealth especially to the poorest people as he refers to it as ‘The bottom billion’ in his earlier book. He argues that nature has no ownership and its ownership is not made. He points out that those natural assets are exposed to huge plunder in two forms; first through the mindset of economist-few expropriatedfor their private benefits and second environmentalist referring it to our obligations and rights about the future. He also argues that with the very fact of people living in future, we must preserve today’s natural asset and pass on to next generation without exploiting the values of the natural asset. However, the critical question is on how and what value of natural asset can be converted to future. According to author, we are custodian of nature and its value. Collier claims that we are not curator to merely take care about the nature without maximizing its utility through sustainability.

Why nature is plundered. To collier it is due to the lack of good governance creating two loopholes. Firstly, the usual weakness of governance in societies of bottom billion. Secondly, lack of strong transnational governance on transnational asset such as natural resources (fish) in ocean. Blaming to each other like ‘we/I should do it because other did it’ cannot work in sustaining the globe for future. He cites the example of China’s emission and fisherman that one should be citizenry informed through structured society to society to conserve the globe. The ethical principle of ownership must solve the issue because the globe can’t hold the more than the natural level of carbons referred to as natural liabilities.

Collier also talks about the twin challenge of poverty and climate change that is caused by weak governance which turned into violence. He points the natural resource curse and long run harmful effects caused from resource booms in resource rich poor countries which undermine checks and balances and sustainable development. He provides an example of Nigeria where politicians took the patronage powers, set aside the public education and health services. Author in chapter 4,5, 6 and 7 also suggest various policies to resource management such as extracting maximum revenue from resources through exploration, taxation and ownership and utilizing the revenue effectively on when to spend (selling) and how to spend (investing to invest). Overall, the crux of the book can be noted in its sub heading as ‘reconciling the prosperity with nature’.

Methodology:

Although author is an economist, I found his well thought interpretation of moral and ethical values for caring the mother earth and poor people. He wrote like a researcher while he fails to cite the various empirical sources to prove it scientific. For example, author referred only some webpages, his own friends (prof. Michael Ross, Lord Nicolas), some cases and his own previous books and research. It does not statistically prove the evidence of rigorous research findings. Instead the book is presented through two ethical systems; utilitarianism and propinquity to analyses the natural resources. For instance, he mentions about how best we care to people who are closer to us. Collier cites the romanticism of nature with people which can be best taken cared by governments. On other hand, nature’s free ownership makes it asset to benefit everyone. In this regards, collier ends to approach more of constructionist view to make his own claim through self-interpretations of theory and knowledge.

In other words, his research is more based on qualitative data which did not draw any hypothesis or expected result from it. It is neither based on existing theory due to which was more intended to follow more of inductive approach than deductive analysis of naturalistic view. The book also took a greater significance of scholarly discourse through case studies referred to different resource rich countries. It tracks the role of developed countries like US and China in solving the free ride carbon emission problem. The emphasis of analysis was based exclusively on simple understanding of basic economics such as supply and demand. For example, in chapter 10, collier analysis to keep the global food price low he advices the role of state regulations on just meeting good supply of food while we cannot do anything with the demand of food.However, on other hand, author seems to take the positivist approach simply because the interpretations are merely based on tautological research. It was much of repetition from his earlier book ‘bottom billion’ and Al Gore view on Global warming and James Cameron in his 2009 film ‘Avatar’ where humans in mid-22nd century are extracting and exploiting natural resource in Pandora. Collier least assumed of any expected results rather it seems to turn with old factual information.

Evaluation:

The book has more implications on policy solutions than just reading for academic purposes. Politicians, policy makers and leaders of the government today need to best learn from collier’s solutionnotwithstanding the consideration of some additional analysis. Collier intends to suggest every authentic and reliable solution for resource boom through rich natural resources. One of the policy solutions is specifically mentioned as domestic investment for the poor countries. He argues that sooner or later, saved off-shore or not, smoothed or not, for all but the most ultra-well-endowed, resource proceeds have to be spent domestically and focus on investing to invest policy.Collier strongly supports the use of resource boom funds for domestic investment (i.e. infrastructure). He supports this policy solution through domestic government intervention to replace one asset by another, earn high returns and sought easier cutback on the uncertain events of booms. However, collier was much optimistic with solution and fails to analyse the challenges of policy given the political and economic dimensions of poor people and governance in poor countries. He forgot to mention about how physical investment is often the most susceptible to corruption and capacity constraints (direct competition with the booming sectors) especially in poor countries where there are deficiency in technology and foreign transfer. While collier gives good examples on Malaysia’s individual leader’s impact on effective macroeconomic management he fails to cite the examples of backdrop in Cameroon which has create the legacy of deterioration of all social components through resource boom and extraction. One of the major drawbacks in investment can also be seen in excess expenditure incurred in maintenance and low level of checks and balances on invested projects or activities. This will be huge burden for poor countries which collier failed to mention.

I felt that the author has more of ethical ground than being purely economist. His optimistic approach has middle path in ground when he tries to differentiate half right views between romantic and ostriches in part one. His propose for a moral ethics of custody through informed citizens for conserving nature for futurewas brilliant and bold step to alert and remind the flaws of foreign investment in resource rich countries but I fear if he was bias and ignorant about recognizing international aid and grants which are also aimed for socio-economic development and wellbeing of the recipient country. Citing the example of China on making a consortium of $7 billion with Guinea in West Africa government for resource instruction, he points out that China is fostering the resource exploitation, clienteles, theft and corruption because china needs the commodities for their growth policies. Further he impedes china being unaccountable to un- informed citizens for such deployments. Colliers’ argument on China sounds annoying and undermined towards the years of trust, hard work, strategies and commitment of almost all international developers such UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank, ADB and Britain’s Department of International Development. Although there are challenges and draw back from international bilateral, multilateral and private relationships for development, the book fails to specifically mention and acknowledge the years of development brought by international organization. On other hand he was biased by explicitly citing the China’s example without analyzing the benefits. Even if such disappointment does not harm the author himself, I find both international and domestic policy makers can be influenced which could have risk on destructive and not trustworthy development policy relationships and implementation in future.

Collier was too optimistic about stability of natural resources for generations. Collier was too exaggerating about his confidence on saving the globe from natural resources depletion. I strongly doubt if we can really pass on same value of resources (oil on oil) to future generations where liberalization, globalization and privatization is already on its shore. Furthermore, given the scarcity of resources, climate change and increased populations with increased desires and consumptions especially in LDCs cannot hold same or unchanged value of natural resources.

Overall, as a lover to a nature and wholly interested in community services to poor people[1], I am astonished by author’s concern on nature and bottom billion which I feel is the ultimate concern that one must look from both heart and brain. His genuine concern about poverty for bottom billion and natural crisis brought by very existence of human being has driven me emotionally and this I felt is how our heart can look at the world, more lovingly and compassionately. On other side, his brain based as an economist (who are always thought to be complicated), has his presentation very analytical, authentic and simple to understand by any lay person. For instance, in chapter 10, just within a short paragraph, he explains the rise in Asian food prices and relates with hunger in simple rule of thumb. This was very clear. Sometimes, I feel collier is a man disguised as bodhisattva[2] economist or a leader.

[1]I refer to as ‘invisibles’ because they are ignored by most societies and individual rich people (blind few).

[2]One who concerns more about liberating and befitting others than self.

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Ugyen Lhendup
Reviewed by on July 11th, 2018