John Vidal tries to make sense of an economist’s ecological theories

Paul Collier CBE is a heavyweight economist, in the same league as Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs. He’s an Oxford professor and a former head of research at the World Bank, as well as being a UN and British government adviser. He is an authority on war and democracy, he has addressed the UN general assembly and has given a seminar at 10 Downing Street. His previous book, The Bottom Billion, a provocative look at the economics of the poorest, was lauded by US treasury secretary Larry Summers and billionaire George Soros. In short, Collier now sits on the top shelf of intellectual big cheeses – a ripe Stilton in the larder of the global liberal establishment.

Like most orthodox economists, he was trained as a utilitarian. His instinct is to be suspicious of environmentalists. Now, global events and the emerging politics of climate change have led him to try to make sense of man’s rapidly changing relationship with the natural world. It is an area that desperately needs exploring but I fear that his ideas on how we should live in the new world of climate change and resource pressure are inadequate and grim.

His first premise is simple, if dull: economists and environmentalists must come together because they are on the same side in a war that is being lost. His second is contentious – that economic sustainability need not imply preservation and that economic growth is not an enemy. His third is unproven and I suspect wrong: that the world will inevitably starve if we try to achieve harmony with nature; and his last is politically dangerous – a set of neo-liberal economic proposals that seems to boil down to the poorest countries having to open themselves up for exploitation further and faster, and take responsibility for the climate change which they did not cause.

If only Collier had stuck to straight climate economics like Lord Nicholas Stern, or to new ecological research like the Indian Pavan Sukhdev. What we get is a regurgitation of the politically convenient opinions of rich governments and institutions who fete him. And the further he blunders through the thickets of science into the ethics of resource depletion, the more he reveals the greed that grips the liberal establishment when it comes to nature. His messianic championing of GM foods and global agribusiness could be written by the US department of agriculture; his belief that nuclear power is “completely carbon free” is plain wrong; his proposal that “commercial” or “scientific” farming replace smallholders to provide more food is socially and ecologically dubious; and his big idea that the UN should be given control of fish stocks and should then auction them back to fishermen to sell is . . . well, barmy.

Here is a man who works in the interests of Africa yet whose utilitarian instincts offer little hope for its 50m pastoralists and the 200m who depend on growing crops and cattle. He has no faith in the great mass of peasants because they are inefficient food producers; he argues that the continent needs many more mega-cities like Lagos because people in them are “more productive”, yet he does not consider the reality of life in them. The world’s 400m marginalised indigenous peoples get one line.

Instead, he fears African countries are so corrupt they will deliberately destroy their own economies to ensure they get more climate change money. Indeed, the core of his argument is that Africa’s problem is not so much that it has suffered “resource curse” or been plundered for its resouces, as that only around 20% of its assets may have been exploited so far.

The suspicion that we may be dealing with an ecological outrider interested largely in justifying business as usual is compounded by Collier’s assertion that the total depletion of a non-renewable natural resources is not intrinsically an economic sin “because the ethics of depletion depends on how the money generated gets used”. By this weird argument, it’s OK to trash the earth if the money earned from doing so is used to colonise other planets.

But Collier – he thankfully sees the irony of his ancestors being coalminers – is so keen to address climate change that he trips himself up and makes elementary mistakes. He makes no distinction between energy and electricity or carbon and carbon dioxide. He twice says the Himalayas – as opposed to the glaciers – may melt; he wrongly claims that “all minerals can only be used once”; and he erroneously states that polar territories are not assigned to any nation. When he says that it’s impossible to “scale up” solar or wind power, the average power company will despair. We know what he means, but for a leading academic, it’s sloppy and it undermines his other arguments.

Even worse are his northern prejudices and perjorative asides. “People will not bother to plant trees on land they do not own” is nonsense; “rural bliss is precarious, isolated and tedious” is deeply patronising; “sometimes Nature does not respect frontiers” is rubbish; and who exactly are these “environmental romantics [who] are perversely gleeful about global warming”? Collier seems to have no knowledge of the benefits of conservation, and his lumping together of environmentalists as “Prince Charles-type romantics” is wilfully ignorant. This book will be taken seriously because it represents state-of-the-art liberal establishment economic thinking. But I fear Collier’s recipes for economic growth are mainly in the interests of folk like him. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds