“The Plundered Planet” by Paul Collier

ISBN 978-0-1410-4214-5. “The Plundered Planet – How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature” by Paul Collier was published in 2010 by Allen Lane (although the review copy was the 2011 imprint by Penguin Books). With a title like that this sounds like a really useful and interesting book. Collier is an Economics Professor at Oxford University and once held a position at the World Bank. He is best known for his book “The Bottom Billion” and his field of expertise is third world development. “The Plundered Planet” covers such development through resource exploitation. What caught our eye was the provocative header note “forget everything you’ve ever been told about how to solve the World’s problems”. The problem is that Collier just repeats “everything you’ve been told” with bells on.

This work is complicated and somewhat difficult to review as the author seems to have looked at the problem from every angle and concluded that he should supply as many contradictory conclusions as possible. For some of this book you might find his work dull-but-agreeable & common-sense, but for a small proportion you will find Collier’s words inflammatory and offensive. Now we like a bit of hippy-bashing ourselves but this took the biscuit. It is at those points you naturally flick to the back of the book to start checking citations. Did he REALLY write that? Where is his evidence? You will be shocked. There are no citations. In the section marked “A Note on Sources” on page 245 it simply says “There is an enormous academic literature on the themes covered in this book”. That’s it. The arrogance! He gives a web site address for his own research and lists his own papers on the matter. He is only citing himself. This is not an academic piece of work worthy of Oxford University. It is an opinion piece.

Now that hasn’t lead us to conclude that this is a fact-free zone. Most of this work is so expected. If you engaged any economics professor in a conversation about international development it would be this self-evident, this unsurprising and this dull. Certainly with Collier’s credentials and endless stream of relevant anecdotes this seems worthy. But the insertion on the front cover of a sentence that implies that Paul Collier is going to tell you something you have NEVER been told before is absurd. A case in point: the resource curse. Collier devotes many, many pages to the resource curse in order to conclude that it does, indeed, exist. To his credit he goes onto give his view on how to solve the resource curse but it ain’t no page-turner. Guess what? If third world countries want to profit from their resources then they will need better governance, more transparency and less corruption. Hardly a revelation…

So what should have been printed on the front cover that would correctly reflect the true nature of this work? Well the phrase “reasons to hate Prince Charles” is our favourite. Boy does Collier hate the Prince of Wales. We checked the index and found no less than six pages where the future British monarch is referenced (and this might not be every mention). Collier is nothing if not conservative and is a prime example of his dismal profession. Collier assumes, naturally that as finite resources run out that they will be replaced by other resources. If there are no new resources then they are substituted by lots and lots of money to buy replacement assets of equal value. Collier praises the good work of the likes of Norway who took their oil revenues and squirreled it away for the rainy day when the oil runs out. But what happens when the oil really runs out? To what extent can money help you? Can it really compensate you?

The extent to which our modern wealth-creating economy and food system is utterly addicted to oil does not factor in to this book. Another way to see the problem is this: it is wise to save money from oil extraction but it must be invested in the technologies that will fuel our cars, heat our homes and put food on our plates. Collier naturally assumes that the free-market will makes these problems go away so that it doesn’t matter how you invest your money. He assumes (without saying it) that your money will always be able to buy the same amount of utility (“assets”) that fossil fuels supplies to our lives. But what if it doesn’t? What if the generation that comes next is poorer than now? And the generation after that are even poorer because of resource depletion and climate change? What if the Financial Markets and Pension Funds simply cannot buy enough assets to compensate you for the lack of fossil fuels simply because it was cheap energy that made those markets profitable? What if those assets do not exist at any price?

In short, in Collier’s world there is a disconnect between resource-depletion and the real world economy. Collier is an economist not a geologist. This work needed an injection of something else. It comes across as an ivory tower attempt to tell us that “everything will be alright” as long as we invest our money wisely. It is a world where market failures are absent. This, sadly, is not the world we live in today. There is nothing more clear in this disconnect than the complete lack of joined up thinking between oil & gas depletion and agriculture. Colliers makes no linkage between the two whatsoever. The assumption must be that some other resource (such as money) will replace oil and gas in industrial agriculture. Collier actually recommends MORE large-scale agriculture as a solution to hunger. But what will it run on in an oil-depleted world? What kind of fertiliser will it use?

Instead of grasping at these fundamental issues Collier decides to rant and rave against his pet hates. Enter Price Charles and his environmentalist “romantic” buddies who conjure up a sense of forthcoming Armageddon:

“For the romantics, those who believe we must radically alter our relationship to nature and scale back consumption, this is music: global industrial capitalism is finally getting its comeuppance, drowning in its own contradictions. From Prince Charles to street protesters they advocate a future in which mankind returns to harmony with nature, The lifestyle of the future will be organic, holistic, self-sufficient, local and small-scale.”

Of course this is a grotesque misrepresentation. A stereotype. And it fails to realistically answer the fundamental questions it asks: if not organic then what? If not harmony then what? If not local then what? If not small then what? To caricature the sustainable development movement in such a way is an unhelpful absurdity. Behind the cliche lies a fundamental truth that the good Professor COULD have teased out if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. His finger-pointing is childish. There are big problems with some of the naive solutions offered by grassroots acivists but these are in the tiny minority. We know from personal experience that many individuals advocate solutions that are gross over-simplifications. But like a child that wants every day to be Sunday these wish lists are NOT going to become reality. Collier is not dealing with the real world of WHERE policy comes from. It isn’t coming from the ill-informed streets. If anything it is coming from the ivory-towers that he represents.

Let’s remember one thing at this point: much of what Collier writes is common sense WHEN he sticks to economics and development. We like one phrase he used “sustainability does not imply preservation”. Here again though he points the finger at the romantic environmentalists for wishing to preserve everything just as it is. From our point of view ‘preservation’ is the aim of many right-wing Politicians and Civil Society movements but increasingley LESS SO of modern environmentalists. The likes of Friends of the Earth are too busy fighting to get wind farms built to worry about preserving the countryside in formaldehyde. That is now the preserve of right-wing ideology.

So, in line with the day-to-day gaffs of right-wing ideology we see the same old tired myths dredged up again and again. Take this classic nonsense:

During the recent commodity boom, when oil spiked to $147, there were hysterical forecasts that the world would run out of oil.”

“Hysterical”? Citation? None. This is a myth and it is utterly unworthy of an Economics Professor from Oxford to write nonsense like this and present it as fact. Oil has been running out since the first drop was pumped out of the ground. It will probably never run out but the rules of supply and demand dictate that its price may well become infinite if we are unable to invest in its replacement. And soon. Collier’s answer is unsurprising and terribly conventional: technology will ride to the rescue. The irrational cry of the wide-eyed cornutopian. Yet his own evidence in Africa shows depletion at work and people getting poorer for it. Contradiction, contradiction, contradiction. He describes the plunder of Africa’s resources as “selling the family silver” yet he also maintains that most of Africa’s resource have yet to be found. Intriguing if true.

In keeping with the conventions of his very-conventional profession (and equally conventional book) Collier tells us that people will keep flocking to the cities. Collier sees this as a good thing based on the following logic:

“The larger the city is, the more productive the people in it. The rule of thumb is that each time a city doubles in population, the productivity of its workers increases 6 percent.”

Citation? None. Recognition of the slums? None. Just how do you measure productivity? What do you compare it to? The work of farm workers? Maybe cities doubling in size presents a whole range of new problems that cannot be solved by an increase in productivity. All increases in productivity come not from size but from increased exploitation of cheap fossil fuel energy. Hence cramming lots more people into cities away from food sources and getting them and their economy addicted to cheap oil when we are in the second half of the age of oil is not exactly the wisest of solutions. There are too many externalities this analysis ignores. A big city is not necessarily resilient. Resilience can be economic advantage. It isn’t romanticism that tells us that big cities could fall apart in a world of escalating food prices and collapsing economies. Whither the big city.

But for Collier his Economics is his faith and it gives him strength. Take this classic:

“Total exclusion is a bureaucratic response to sustainability rather than an economic one.”

Well that’s alright then. What we need are more economists and less bureaucrats. Music to the ears of many in the ivory tower. Is economics the solitary home of reason these days? Questionable. By “Part III” of this book Collier has moved on to Climate Change and, quite conventionally, he recommends a universal carbon tax and, of course, Nuclear Power. D’uh. Next! It is all so predictable. He completely disregards the poor ECONOMICS of nuclear versus renewables but this doesn’t matter to the Professor because his faith is his strength and his faith tells him that BIG IS GOOD. A carbon tax will create an “adjusted world” in which Collier makes the following statement:

“Overall, our energy consumption need not change that much.”

Collier again assumes that some magical low carbon technology (probably Nuclear) will march over the horizon and save us.

In “Part IV – Nature Misunderstood” Collier picks up the rhetoric against the environmental romantics and their spiritual leader Prince Charles. The tirade of polemic against these vile creatures conjures up the image of the author spitting in contempt. Contempt for organics. Contempt for small-scale agriculture. Contempt for “quaint little farms”.

“…a return to antiquated technologies simply cannot feed nine billion.”

“Antiquated technologies”?! Citation? None. No evidence required. Now we do know that this is a hotly contested area but if we simply defuse it by calling “organic” its proper name: “low input farming”. For it is low-input farming that has a future in a fossil-fuel-starved world. Low-input farming is a modern and evolving technology that will replace high-input farming in our economic model. Sure as night follows day. Putting it simply: Collier has no clue what he is talking about and his irrationality about the issue is quite offensive.

Collier confuses labour and capital efficiency with land output productivity. He thinks you can simply scale up agriculture and benefit from the economies of scale that Toyota enjoys in car manufacture. This is not true. Large scale agriculture reduces the cost of food by using cheap fossil fuels in large amounts as both fertiliser and as a substitute for expensive human labour. However any man’s garden is far more productive than any similar area of monocultural farm. That is just the way it is. There is bountiful evidence to support this. In fact it is largely an accepted fact. The idea that industrial large scale agriculture produces MORE food is a myth. But it has the advantage of doing it cheaply and freeing up valuable labour to flock to the cities to work in IT. Or banking. Or become Economists. Our industrial food sector is energy intensive, very wasteful and very unsustainable as an economic paradigm. How can someone as smart as Collier fail to see this? His viewpoint is so conventional and he plies myth upon myth. Take this clanger:

“Of course, world food supply has been increasing for decades; it has more than kept up wth population growth.”

Citation? None. There is evidence that calorie production per head of population peaked in 1995. But Collier hasn’t even got started on the polemic. He shakes his fist at “the middle class affair with peasant agriculture”:

“Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.”

Citation? None. Pure opinion based on the views of Prince Charles that maybe Collier read once in a Sunday supplement. Utter twaddle. Even if such stereotypes existed are they really making up the agricultural policies of the Gambia? Give us a break. What is important for the developing world is that they have the democratic institutions to choose their own development path. There is no technical problem with a society embracing small-scale, family-owned, agriculture IF THAT IS WHAT THAT CULTURE WANTS. Small also works. What is the alternative? High-input unsustainable farming corporations stealing land from poor subsistence farmers?  Would that really help? Farming in poor countries is largely to do with culture and with land rights; and nothing to do with Prince Charles. I am sure most of us find the following statement completely offensive: “organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle”. With these words Collier condemns countless millions of farmers who are self-sufficient and/or low-input because that is what works. It is what sustains. Luxury? He should try it.

So Collier wheels out the usual indentikit economic arguments. So conventional. So lacking in imagination. Reduction in food miles reduces the income of poor people. Importing food is a moral duty! Organic food is for hippies. Genetically modified foodstuffs will fix everything. GM food is banned by Europe because Monsanto is American, ergo, it is anti-Americanism. He tops it off by comparing Prince Charles to Marie Antionette playing a dairy maid.

Of course our criticisms are isolated to only a few small parts of this book. There is plenty of sensible work here to keep the business-as-usual crowd sleeping restfully in their beds. IF Collier genuinely had come up with something really new here we might have overlooked The Plundered Planet’s obvious shortcomings. If Collier had refrained from the pointless personal attacks upon the British Monarchy and low-input-farming he might have walked away with is credibility intact. However his ludicrous gaffs are so many and his factoids so unsubstantiated by evidence that it undermines his entire case. If he had stuck to his area of expertise and provided the proper citations this may well have been a good book. But it has been sexed-up to a level of absurdity. Did he really get bored of what he was writing to the point that he just started making stuff up?

We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and you should not judge this one by its. It bears no resemblance to what its cover promises. You learn nothing new. This is a shame because we do need good published works, with proper citations, that can demolish dewy-eyed romanticism in policy-making and replace it with a rational appraisal of the facts. Collier blew-it. Instead of good guidance we had a long opinion-piece devoted to his hatred of hippy stereotypes. (Clue here Collier: they do not exist.) There is no place for this in academia. And no place for it on your book-shelf either. Unless gratuitous hippy-bashing is your thing. Avoid.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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