Review: The Plundered Planet by Paul Collier

The strength of this very important book lies in the author’s impeccable credentials: Paul Collier is an Oxford-based economist and a former director of development research at the World Bank.  His earlier book, The Bottom Billion, has had a profound impact on world poverty.  The Plundered Planet promises to be of equal significance.  And just in time.  Collier’s goal is to reconcile the immediate needs of the world’s increasing population with a sustainable environmental future.

Up to this point, constructive action on climate change and sustainability has been at a frightening standstill, thwarted by impulses of unchecked profiteering, on one hand, and backward-looking ‘environmental romanticism’ on the other—with neither side willing to compromise.  Environmentalists are right that each generation has responsibilities for natural assets; but economists are right that nature is an asset to be used for the benefit of mankind.  According to Collier, natural assets are special, but not so special that they cannot be used.  It’s when we do so without leaving equivalent value that we are guilty of plunder.

This delicate but critical relationship between environmentalists and economists is at the very heart of this book.  It also happens to be at the centre of all possible solutions.  Collier argues that they are both are on the same side in a war that is being lost.  Their interests are not competing but mutually dependent.  Unless their perspectives are reconciled immediately, we will not be able to survive.

Collier has succeeded in translating extremely complex ideas from the opaque framework of economic research into something that can be read beyond a narrow circle of professionals.  Convincingly argued, The Plundered Planet provides a way forward—one we can’t afford to ignore.

The Plundered Planet, Paul Collier, Allen Lane (and Penguin Books Australia).

Review first published in the Courier-Mail in July 2010.

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