Syndicate content

Paul Collier and his Plundering Planet: When Both Economists and Environmentalists Don’t Get it Right

Otaviano Canuto's picture

Do you remember The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier’s 2007 book which became a classic? If you do, you will certainly like his latest work, The Plundered Planet. He came to launch his new book to the Bank this week, and I found it both fascinating and provocative. Let me give some examples of why.

Professor Collier, now the Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, declares a two-front war on economists and environmentalists at the same time. He is against what he calls “utilitarian economists,” because if left on their own, they would end up plundering the planet. But Collier also takes on “romantic environmentalists,” who would be unable to eradicate hunger in case they’re given the chance to rule the world. So as you can see, the book’s premises don’t really fit into the script of the blockbuster, Oscar-winning movie Avatar.

For Collier, who also worked as the Bank’s Research Director some years ago, Nature is the lifeline for the countries of the bottom billion – and thus cannot remain untouched. With a strong faith in the power of well-informed ordinary citizens, Collier proposes a series of international standards that would help poor countries rich in natural assets better manage those resources. Technology, which enlarges the capacity of ordinary citizens, is also necessary to turn Nature into assets. But of course, in order to be effective and benefit the bottom billion instead of just the few at the top, regulation, which requires governance, is another seminal element of the equation to create prosperity. If you leave regulation out of the equation, as some Libertarians do, the result is nature plundered. But if you end up with too much regulation – curbing the use of Nature – and thus preventing technology, then the result is hunger. And I’m certainly not one of those radical, romantic environmentalists who can imagine a bottom billion who is hungry but happy.

What does Professor Collier have to say about this? Well, he presents us with a chain of decisions that need to go right in order for a low-income society to become prosperous. First, a society has to turn Nature into assets through a discovery process; then “capture” them through a taxation process; and finally invest them in a way so as to break the limits to what economists call “absorptive capacity” (what he calls “investing in investing”). Challenges come from the fact that the outcome of this complex chain of decisions is only as good as the weakest link in it.

As Professor Collier says, even if economists only measure Nature as assets, environmentalists tend to moralize Nature without analyzing it. So I totally agree with him on the fact that if we want a prosperous world without hungry people, we have to use nature productively and sustainably, and not just keep it untouched.

Paul Collier with crowd
Paul Collier (left) and Otaviano Canuto (right) with the audience during Q&A


Reference: Collier, Paul. “Plundered Planet: Why We Must–and How We Can–Manage Nature for Global Prosperity.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.


Submitted by shaun mann on
Can we please put more resources into tourism, surely one way of sustaining nature while reaping some economic benefit. I know the Bank and IFC have, over the past decade, done a lot more in this area, but research efforts are lagging. Where is DEC is this scenario? Tourism is a major source of revenue for over half of our client countries - can we please start to say so.

Submitted by Otaviano on
I agree with you that the potential for sustainable tourism could be object of higher attention among developing countries. In a related field, I suggest you give a look at the good work done by the WBG team on cultural heritage preservation and tourism (looking at value chains etc.), which certainly may serve as a reference

Submitted by Moreno on
It was interesting to see how much hope Prof. Collier had in the citizen power. What does "well-informed" mean though? How do you judge which is the correct info and knowledge on nature management?

Submitted by Otaviano on
I can offer no straightforward non-biased answer. Certainly Prof. Collier has an upbeat view on the enlightening capacity that education provides (which I share). But one has to recognize that this is a slippery slope: no one can claim to be "owner of truth" (as we say in Brazil, my home country)

Otaviano you are absolutely right in pointing out that “Challenges come from the fact that the outcome of this complex chain of decisions is only as good as the weakest link in it.” That problem is further compounded by the fact that is so hard to ascertain ex-ante which is the weakest link. If we look at the current financial crisis, it resulted primarily from following too much what was supposed to be the strongest link... the credit rating agencies.

Submitted by Otaviano on
The bottomline is that one has to pay attention to all links in the chain of decisions, Per, given the risks that even successful efforts on one dimension of the problem will be lost if there are failures elsewhere

Absolutely but included in all the links is of course the Governments and that is a link that many want to look over because it is more convenient to do so. After Paul Collier had given his what to do about the curse speech in another place of WB I reminded him that some of us have heard exactly the same recipes before,… in my case at least when in 1974 I was appointed Diversification Manager in the brand new “Venezuela Investment Fund” set up to take care of the petrodollars flowing in, and in took me only 3 weeks to see that it was all basically a political sham… and so I left the same day the my brand new desk arrived. Paul Collier answered “Well really nothing is new!” adding in jest “except of course the Natural Resource Charter”. I sincerely believe that in order to deal better with the multifaceted problem of the oil curse the citizens need to take more direct control of the oil revenues, since a Government that is independently wealthy and therefore tempted to treat the citizens as nuisance, becomes almost by definition the weakest link

Submitted by Ronald Luttikhuizen on
According to the estimations of Ravallion and Chen at present about 80% of Sub Sahara Africa is living below the 2.50 USD (PPP) a day. Their average consumption is slightly above the 1 USD a day. According to the UN projections the total population in SSA will increase with about 100% in the next 40 years. Where does this leave the nature? Clearly the pressure on nature will increase. Can we save the animals and the forests? Perhaps not. A solution can be to start leasing nature. When we start leasing large parts of African nature (flora and fauna) we pay these countries to preserve their nature. Such a lease shout be about 25 years, and to be renewed. The lease payments can be used for education, and the preservation of nature. This would stimulate all developing countries with natural areas to invest in maintaining these areas. Indicators of success can be to keep the same numbers of flora and fauna alive. This would create a basis for future tourism from western pensioners to these natural areas.It can be co-financed by selling shares in these lease contracts. The revenue is a reduction when visiting the parks. The Amazon area also can be leased. Such type of project can replace the Carbon Dioxide discussion and have the same effect. If this does not happen many animals will be killed and forests will be cut in the next 40 years.

Submitted by Susana Carrillo on
There are many good examples of sustainable use of the environment and on the use of technology for poverty reduction(social technology) in MIC's. Facilitating knowledge sharing between private sector/communities between African countries and MIC's will contribute to unlock local potential.

Submitted by Saliha Dobardzic on
The argument is pretty elegant, but I have issue with some of the underlying assumptions. Prof. Collier seems to give the "radical environmentalist" the same weight in terms of influence as the utilitarian economists -- this is simply not the case. In addition, he makes what appears to me a simplistic binary split between the utilitarians and the nature romantics -- whereas many consider themselves utilitarians who realized that it is actually "utile" for the humans to manage nature in a way that is sustainable, including and certainly not limited to conservation. Definitely could be interesting reading to a novice in natural resource/environmental economics, and conservation.

Submitted by Ronald Luttikhuizen on
May I kindly ask you what happened to my earlier posting?

Submitted by Michael Levitsky on
I have not read Prof. Collier's book yet, and am not looking forward to doing so. "The Bottom Billion" must be one of the most over-rated books of this century (i.e. since 2000), and the new book can only be an improvement. I spent quite a bit of time looking into basic data that went into Collier's statistical manipulations. Every time I looked at something, it turned out to be either questionable or downright wrong. Collier's method, pretending to have useful statistics about someting (e.g. "governance"), doing a series of complex statistical analyses, and then stating the obvious is a travesty of what real economics and social science should be about. He reduces everything to simplified or plain useless numbers (e.g. "length of a civil war"), and then tries to weed out the cross-correlations so as to get to some sort of pure analysis. Sorry, the cross correlations are what real social science is about. It is making sense of the magnificent complexity of human economies and societies that is our job as real social scientists. Obviously statistics have their place, indeed they are very important, provided that they are treated with appropriate skepticism. Unfortunately, Collier is simply the most prominent of what appears to be a whole generation of economists who have substitued statistical analysis for judgement and insight.

Submitted by kyle robertson on
The 'Economy' is a subset of the 'Environment'. I think this seems to be a great ommission in Mr. Collier's thesis. He's right that there are two opposing ideologies that must in fact work together, but there is also a carrying capacity for the environment, that ridicules the thought that the west AND the bottom billion can perpetually grow their economies with finite resources. The need to contract (western growth) to enable bottom billion growth is paramount. Will the west endorse this message? I unfortunately doubt our citizen power has little appetite for this... until environmental increasing environmental / economic shocks curb the consumption, but then it's every ostrich for themselves...

Add new comment