It is difficult to find fault with Paul Collier's central thesis. I read his earlier book, 'The Bottom Billion, a few months ago and found it to be what I can best describe as a sobering read that resulted in much reflection on my part. It was this that prompted me to purchase his latest book as soon as it came out. What I particularly like about the argumentation in 'The Plundered Planet' is the way in which the middle ground is adopted. But the reason for this goes way beyond any notion of pragmatism or compromise. The author's reasoned approach is persuasive and, to be honest, makes good sense. None of the problems currently confronting us are ever going to be solved if the polemic stance of what are in effect polarised perspectives (i.e. let's call it, the dogma of capitalism versus the dogma of environmentalism) are allowed to influence the decisions we make now about the future of everyone on this planet.
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This book is truly though provoking, and shows Collier at his best in trying to figure out how to resolve the most urgent development problems totally out-of-the-box. Nevertheless, being bold comes at a price, and in my humble opinion he takes a quite naive position in at least a couple of issues, and for someone so rigorous in his academic endeavors, he is also guilty of a couple of acts of blind faith. Also, do not expect this book to be a follow-up of his bestseller The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Even though the first part of the book deals with the "resource curse" only Chapter 3 revisits and updates the "trap" discussion first laid down in the Bottom Billion.
Although the book is formally organized in five parts, in terms of style, content, and even ease of reading, "The Plundered Planet" was written in three completely different moods or styles: the scholar, the philosopher, and the bold practitioner.
Parts I and II (Chapters 1 through 7) reflect Collier's rigorous analysis based on thorough research and recent findings, his usual academic style, but written with so much detail and rigor that sometimes it drives you crazy because he is repeating some info too much and constantly questioning his own assumptions. Here he goes step-by-step discovering how the poorest countries should manage their natural assets to find a way out of the bottom billion.
On the other hand, in Part III (Chapters 8 and 9), he abandons his rigorous academic style as Collier enters uncharted waters to discuss the sensible topics of natural liabilities, particularly about fish depletion due to overfishing, and the always controversial man made climate change. Here the discussion is guided by his experience, common sense but is mainly guided on his ethic principles and ideological view on these problems. I will discuss below what I consider a couple of flaws in his analysis.
Parts IV (Chp 10) and V (Chp 11) present Collier's discourse on how to resolve some of the main problems in the poor countries, particularly regarding how to avoid hunger and the negative impact of global warming. Here he is bold and even politically incorrect at some times. Just to illustrate, he proposes a political deal: "mutual de-escalation of folly. In return for Europe's lifting its self-damaging ban on GM (genetic modification), America could suspend its self-destructive subsidies on bio-fuel." He also supports and proposes the adoption by the poorest countries of the successful Brazilian agri-business model, and harshly criticizes China's latest approach of securing land and natural assets in Africa.
Now it's time for a summary of the highlights and the blunders. His short and concise explanation on why food prices rose before the financial crisis together with how this problem can avoided in the future is a must read for both, scholars and practitioners in the field of economic development, and those working in the international development institutions (actually the whole Chapter 10 is a must read). This guy knows what he is talking about; here he goes to the heart of the problem, and does not fall in the temptation of using this problem to push other agendas (as actually happened a lot during the peak of the food vs. fuel debate). This key discussion is followed by his take on two environmental "follies", and also what he calls the U.S. fantasy of growing its own fuel (corn ethanol).
Even though I loved this book, I rated with four stars instead of five due to what I consider regrettable flaws and blunders. First, Collier's unconditional support of the The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review is based mainly on ethical grounds than in economic principles, though he tried hard to mask it as sound economics. Here he falls in the romanticism he so much (and rightly) criticize of the environmental advocates. Why? Several prestigious non-skeptic economists have harshly criticized the Stern Review for its unrealistic assumptions required to support his green recommendations.
Second, I really enjoyed his discussion about the problem of fish depletion, but comparing overfishing with global warming as similar problems, it's just non-sense, particularly from the economic point of view. If we halt fishing at once, we have readily available food substitutes, but if we switch at once from our carbon economy what is the impact to the world economy? An furthermore, his proposal to "forget about who has done what to whom, or who is to blame for the current stock of carbon, or who should pay whom to compensate. Instead, we should focus on what it means now that we have discovered carbon to be a liability." This concept is just going nowhere as Copenhagen just showed. Add to that his proposal of a worldwide $40/ton carbon tax to use carbon's shadow price carbon at which people would in aggregate emit no more than the safe level of carbon. Here, he was plainly very naïve. Google for the 2010 Hartwell Paper for a much better down to earth proposal.
Collier also proposes to assign all natural assets in international waters to the U.N., and let the bureaucrats accrue the rents from fishing rights in international waters to be used for feeding the bottom billion? No comments. Moreover, some of his proposed solutions are conditional upon ordinary citizens of the world taking the trouble to be reasonable well informed about the scientific and economic issues. That is too much undeserved faith in human nature. Here he fell for a romantic view again.
And finally, he made several awkward and politically very incorrect assertions inspired by his child complaints about the deforestation of the Amazon Forest, and also later in the book when discussing the depletion of natural assets. Collier seems to have forgotten the importance of sovereignty and how dear and sensible it is for the citizens of any country. His take on the stewardship of the Brazilian Amazon Forest is offensive for Brazilians, and unfortunately only serves to feed the neurotic fears that the Brazilian military have had for decades. He should have known better and stay all the way in the academic mood. Was he in a hurry to publish? Or is this just the risk you take for being too bold? Or just passionate about the subject?
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To be honest I think as many people as possible should read this book and become better informed about: the best ways to help the poorest people in the world; how nature's resources could & should be used for the good of the world; how to manage carbon emissions; and how to use democracy and public information to make all the previous points happen.
The economics in the book look sound & were convincing to me. He described all the issues accurately and interestingly. After the first couple of chapters I thought it was a darned good read too. Most of all I think he has found a middle way that all the peoples of the world could be happy with. It's nice to get some answers to the big problems of the world for a change.
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