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'The Plundered Planet'
by Paul Collier | 14 May 10
‘Is it possible to continue to feed and clothe ourselves without despoiling the planet for future generations?’ is the question posed by Oxford Professor Paul Collier in his new book The Plundered Planet.
Professor Collier is Professor of Economics and Director of the University’s Centre for the Study of African Economies (CASE). In his award-winning book The Bottom Billion, he tackled the issue of global poverty. This new book sets him an even more ambitious goal: to reconcile the immediate needs of the world’s burgeoning population with a sustainable environmental future.
He argues that corrupt politicians and greedy industrialists ‘plunder’ the world’s natural resources in the name of ‘development’. According to the book, their actions are ruining the environment while the world’s poorest countries, mostly in Africa, continue to struggle towards economic growth that would enable them to feed and clothe themselves.
His answer, emerging from a wealth of economic data and original research, lies in the proper extraction and stewardship of natural resources. Professor Collier sifts through the data to show that, if Africa has the same proportion of natural resources as the OECD countries, it could save the continent from poverty. Some of the answers lie with the world community: Collier’s research shows that we pay $30billion to subsidise a ‘plunder of the oceans through an inefficient fishing industry’. He demonstrates how to channel this sum through the World Food Programme, whilst also giving the fishing industry a viable future. Some solutions depend on people in the West: he argues that in Europe we must give up our fear of genetic modification; and Americans should put the brakes on their ‘misguided’ environmentalism that leads them to use crop resources for biofuels rather than food.
Professor Collier says the extreme and contrasting impulses of unchecked profiteering – by individuals, corporations and governments – have so far thwarted any attempt to build a framework for constructive cooperation. Here he provides an ethical framework and argues that although the chains of decision-making are subtle and fragile, these are policies that governments and corporations around the world urgently need to adopt.
Books asked Professor Collier about his research.
Can you tell us what new evidence you base the key findings of this book on?
I am in the fortunate position of directing a large research centre at Oxford University, so for this book I have been able to draw not just on my own research, but on a large group of talented people. Between us we have analysed a lot of new data.
Who is guilty of plundering the planet? Is your message directed mainly at the West?
No. It is not directed against the West. The key problems of plunder occur in two arenas: one is the countries of the bottom billion, which are often being plundered by an alliance between local political crooks and Asian business interests; the other arena is the trans-national natural assets like the fish of the oceans, where many countries are guilty of plunder.
Plunder is an emotive word. Do you think making people feel guilty works if you want to change policies or individual behaviour?
I give plunder two very specific economic meanings: one is the expropriation by the few of what should belong to the many; the other is the expropriation by the present generation of what should, by rights, belong equally to the future. We need to see such behaviour as unethical.
Based on your research, how hopeful should we be that governments and corporations will cooperate and provide the policies we need to protect the planet before it is too late?
Governments will only take the required actions if, country-by-country we build a critical mass of informed citizens. The new information technology makes that much easier. That is why I wrote The Plundered Planet – to help build that critical mass of citizens.
In your view, what is the single, most important thing that governments or individuals should do to protect the planet?
Preserving nature is not the key issue. What is vital is that we harness nature for sustainable prosperity. That depends on a getting a chain of economic decisions right. We won’t do that unless more people understand them.
The Plundered Planet is published by Penguin.