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How to Reconcile Prosperity and Nature

Nature is valuable and it is vulnerable.Nature is valuable and it is vulnerable. It is hugely important to get decisions about nature right. But nature has gotten moralized before it has gotten analyzed. Our societies are in danger of becoming polarized between those who are passionate about preserving nature at any cost to the economy and those who are passionate about preserving our prosperity at any cost to nature. So far the result of this polarization is some truly lousy decisions across a range of seemingly disparate issues fought out in different parts of the world. Currently, in America the key dispute is about climate change, and in Europe it is about GMOs. But nature is most especially important for those countries that remain stuck in poverty. Nature is their major asset and potentially it is their passport to prosperity.

Take those natural assets that are under the ground, like oil and minerals. Beneath the average square mile of America and the rest of the high-income world there is some $300,000 worth of them. Now, take the average square mile of Africa and challenge yourself to answer a question: is the value of natural assets under Africa less than what we have, or is it more?

Your answer is probably more: that is what around 98 percent of people choose. If so, you are a long way from current reality: the actual figure for known sub-soil assets in Africa is only about a fifth of that for the rich world. Most likely, this is not because there are fewer natural assets beneath Africa, but rather that fewer have yet been discovered. In one sense people are right to think of Africa as resource-rich: resource extraction is already the dominant economic activity in the region. A reasonable guess is that Africa has much the same value of natural assets as we have. Africa and a few other troubled parts of the world such as Afghanistan are the last frontiers for resource discovery. Now that commodity prices are high, those resources will be discovered. What does this imply?

If Africa's known sub-soil assets are only a fifth of our own, then its unknown assets are likely to be correspondingly greater. Multiply by five Africa's current resource extraction to get some sense of the likely scale of the opportunity. The trillions of dollars that will flow from resource extraction make aid, remittances, and foreign investment all look like sideshows. And now think of the history of resource extraction in Africa, in order to get a sense of the risks involved. Historically, resource extraction in the region has more commonly been in the form of plunder rather than transformation.

The Plundered Planet starts by analyzing the ethics of nature and proposes a clear meaning to that emotive word plunder. One form of plunder happens when natural assets that should belong to the many are expropriated by the few. Plunder in this form has been common enough: in Africa ordinary citizens have repeatedly lost out, both to the companies that extract resources and to local elites. But plunder also happens, more subtly, when the present generation consumes natural assets without regard to the future. Life is good while nature is being burnt up, but it is not sustainable. That, for example, is what the Zambians have being doing with their copper for the past few decades. As a Zambian friend of mine asks, "What will our children say about us when the copper runs out?" We need to have regard for the future, but "regard for the future" is not the same as the environmentalist notion of sustainability.We need to have regard for the future, but "regard for the future" is not the same as the environmentalist notion of sustainability. It is often neither sensible nor ethical to preserve nature. Humans are not curators of the natural world, it is there for us to use. If the poorest people on earth can sustainably escape poverty by using up their natural assets then it is unethical to discourage them. "Regard for the future" does not usually require that nature be preserved, but it invariably requires that whatever prosperity is attained should be sustainable. And so, if natural assets are depleted, other assets that are at least as valuable should be handed on to the future. The plunder of nature — whether theft by the few or unsustainable consumption by the present generation — is not, at heart, an environmental scandal: it is an economic scandal.

Although the plunder of nature is at its starkest in the impoverished little countries of the "bottom billion," the same issues are repeatedly faced in our own societies. For example, the fish of the high seas are a valuable natural asset that is being alarmingly mismanaged. There is so much overfishing that many species are likely to disappear; as we eat the fish that would otherwise breed the next generation we plunder future generations of people in a very straightforward way. Sometimes, overfishing is curbed by imposing quotas on the fish catch which are then given to fishermen. Valuable assets that should benefit everyone are acquired by the few. Sometimes, as currently in America, curbs on overfishing rely upon limiting the days when fishing boats can work. Such curbs are even worse than quotas: instead of public value being captured by the few, it is dissipated in an oversize fleet of idle fishing boats. The same dilemmas concern carbon emissions, which cumulate into a natural liability. The accumulation of a natural liability is analytically equivalent to depleting a natural asset: this is the plunder of the future by the present. Currently, in America emissions are being tackled by creating tradable emissions rights. But since these rights are being handed out through pork barrel politics, we risk replacing one form of plunder by the other: pork barrel emissions rights benefit the few at the expense of the many.

There is an inescapable need for natural assets and liabilities to be regulatedThere is an inescapable need for natural assets and liabilities to be regulated: the job of good regulation is to curb these two forms of plunder. Good regulation of nature depends upon facing down the self-serving political lobbies, and for that there is no substitute for an informed citizenry. At present we lack a critical mass of citizens who are well-informed about these choices and so, again and again, the struggle for good regulation is being lost. People are concerned about nature, but their emotions are easily manipulated into misunderstanding; as I said, nature has been moralized before it has been analyzed. Nowhere is this process of manipulation clearer than in European thinking about GMOs. A noxious cocktail of anti-Americanism, health scares, and a romantic distaste for modern commercial agriculture have forged a potent coalition that has repeatedly blocked the use of GMOs. Africa, which is still overly in thrall to European ideas, followed Europe in banning them. While Europe shot itself in the foot, Africa shot itself in the heart. Climate change is tending to make Africa hotter and drier so it needs the rapid crop innovation that GMOs can potentially provide.

I have written The Plundered Planet to help build a critical mass of citizens who are better informed about the ethical choices concerning nature. The same motivation has spurred a group of us to launch the Natural Resource Charter. The Charter is a website ( designed to help the citizens of resource-rich societies. It sets out the chain of decisions that determine whether their natural assets will be harnessed for sustained prosperity, instead of repeating the sorry history of plunder. The struggle for societies that are better informed about the choices of how to manage nature will be played out around the world in the next few decades. You, like me, will be a participant in that struggle, through your ears and through your voice. Please read my book.

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The Plundered Planet was published by Oxford University Press in May, 2010. The Bottom Billion (OUP, 2007) won the Arthur Ross Prize, the Lionel Gelber Prize, the Estoril Prize, and the Corinne Prize.

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Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University and a former director of Development Research at the World Bank. In addition to the award-winning The Bottom Billion, he is the author of Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.

Books mentioned in this post

Paul Collier is the author of The Plundered Planet: Why We Must -- and How We Can -- Manage Nature for Global Prosperity

2 Responses to "How to Reconcile Prosperity and Nature"

    Oz Sue June 2nd, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    So what happens when we apply an analytical approach to the content of this article...

    How does the argument change if we reject the premise "Humans are not curators of the natural world, it is there for us to use."

    Is there a logical contradiction in this statement "...sustainably escape poverty by using up ...natural assets..."

    How does the argument change when demand finally exceeds the supply of non-renewables?

    Yeah, you're right about anti-American sentiment: many people see America as the epitome of consumption because of the attitude that you expressed ie the natural world is there to be used.

    I wonder if or how things might be different if oil companies saw themselves as having a custodial responsibility that matched their 'use of the natural world'.

    Jim June 9th, 2010 at 8:42 am

    The problem is not with the moralizing of any issue. The problem is centered on a proper morality. Every individual has their own idea of what is moral, whether they are part of the globalist movement that wants everything regulated, or the anarchist movement that wants nothing regulated.

    True morality does not come from humankind, it comes from our Creator. Until we understand that and order our lives accordingly, neither the economist or the environmentalist will arrive at a proper stewardship of the creation.

    Of course, it it exists simply as a matter of chance, the issue becomes political and divisive. Since we evicted the Creator, we have lived with the conflict that always arises when humans think they/the creation is God.

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