Book review: The Plundered Planet, by Paul Collier

Blake Lee-Harwood finds too many of his book's proposals are either common sense or themselves unrealistic.

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2013

Paul Collier
Allen Lane £20.00

Paul Collier is one of an elite band of economists who commands attention from some of the most powerful decision makers in the world so, when he speaks, we all need to listen because his views might just shape the future. His previous tome, The Bottom Billion, was a full-blooded neo-liberal battle cry for an end to outdated models of development aid and a new approach based on turbo capitalism and a generous dash of western military intervention. Unsurprisingly this message attracted a good deal of controversy and his latest work - The Plundered Planet - seems sure to stir up similar wasp nests.

Intriguingly, the author introduces the book by describing himself as a latecomer to environmental issues who now wants to hammer out a middle way between the 'ostriches', who deny the existence of an environmental crisis, and the 'romantics', who insist on false solutions (such as renewable energy, organic farming, GM-free food, smallholders, food miles, anything you might find advertised in The Guardian, etc). This sounds like an interesting proposition until you discover the book doesn't quite stick to the 'middle' and contains a phenomenal number of brickbats for romantics while the ostriches get a much easier ride.

The largest portion of the book continues a line of argument that extends from his previous work and focuses on the mineral assets of poorer countries and how they could be best used to build effective development.

At one level, these remedies are not controversial. Clearly, poor countries do need to manage their mineral wealth better, transparency should be maximised, corruption eradicated and the proceeds of the minerals business wisely invested to support infrastructure in health, education, transport and some deposits in a sovereign wealth fund. Likewise, his insights into the 'resource curse' seem fairly self-evident; well-governed countries tend to use minerals wisely and prosper, while poorly governed countries actually suffer from mineral wealth because of the corruption engendered by such vast incomes.

But, in truth, none of his remedies feel like startling insights or easy guides to future action. The challenge of establishing good governance in poor and unstable countries is hardly new and if there was an easy way to do it someone would have found it by now. Certainly the poorest countries of the world would significantly prosper if corruption could be rooted out of every crevice - but just how to do this is not explained in a convincing way.

Moving away from minerals extraction, the author turns his attention to questions around climate change and renewable resources and thankfully he does actually accept the science (so at least he's on the right side of that argument). He makes a good, if familiar, case for why 'cap and trade' won't effectively reduce emissions of carbon dioxide but then fails to provide an alternative except a $40 carbon tax. This is a well-worn argument that's not really advanced by the thoughts in this book - Collier's suggestion that nation states could use other kinds of instrument apart from a tax so long as the effect is the same just raises more questions than it answers. How would equivalence be reliably assessed, how would cheating be effectively detected, how could such a scheme work in data-poor environments such as China and India?

Apart from big chunks about minerals and carbon there are some smaller nuggets that must have been thrown in just because the author thought they needed a platform. A scheme to allow the UN to auction off fish stocks in international waters to generate aid money sounds great but politically impossible. There's also a forceful piece about the need to chuck peasants off the land so that efficient commercial agriculture can take over and increase food production. And, best of all perhaps, is a suggestion that the European Union should end its rejection of genetically engineered food in exchange for the US giving up subsidies to maize-based biofuels.

These are challenging ideas to debate and would enliven even the dullest dinner party but they belong to a brainstorm rather than a book with an argument. Ultimately, The Plundered Planet has lots of pyrotechnics but little in the way of a coherent narrative. It's full of ideas which don't obviously link together and the defining vision of Professor Collier is essentially shaped by what and who he doesn't like rather than a bigger intellectual project.

He doesn't like citizens who aren't informed (which he defines as disagreeing with his views on genetic engineering, nuclear power, agri-business, etc). He doesn't like weedy romantics who moan on about organic food and allotments. He doesn't like poor countries that constantly 'blame' the rich world for causing climate change. And he really doesn't like Prince Charles - who bizarrely is the only 'romantic' actually named in the book and gets credited with just about every intellectual vice under the sun.

It's hard to imagine that anyone could agree (or disagree) with everything in this highly variable offering but it's worth a read by way of intellectual stimulation and you can be sure that somewhere out there are powerful people carefully taking notes.

- Blake Lee-Harwood is an environmental and social consultant,

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