The Plundered Planet

From Global Thinker No. 29 Paul Collier, an examination of the divide between environment and economy, and a plea for reconciliation.

Environmentalists and economists have been cat and dog. Environmentalists see economists as the mercenaries of a culture of greed, the cheerleaders of an affluence that is unsustainable. Economists see environmentalists as romantic reactionaries, wanting to apply the brakes to an economic engine that is at last reducing global poverty.

The argument of my book, The Plundered Planet, is that environmentalists and economists need each other. They need each other because they are on the same side in a war that is being lost. The natural world is being plundered: natural assets are being depleted and natural liabilities accumulated in a manner that both environmentalists and economists would judge to be unethical. But the need for an alliance runs deeper than the practical necessities of preventing defeat. Environmentalists and economists need each other intellectually.

In 2009 Sir Partha Dasgupta, an economist at Cambridge, comprehensively reviewed how the profession has analyzed the natural world. His conclusion was that it "remains isolated from the main body of contemporary economic thinking." Even when economists incorporate nature, they treat it as they do any other asset: natural capital is simply part of the capital stock, to be exploited for the benefit of mankind.

Since the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change of 2006 one aspect of the natural world -- that it is warming -- has suddenly slammed into the economic mainstream. Lord Stern commanded sufficient respect to force the profession to pay attention to the costs of global warming and the options for mitigation. The result has been an acrimonious battle among economists as different models have produced widely differing results. Yet as Stern has stressed, the key issues are not technical, they are ethical. Policy choices should turn on the responsibilities of the present generation to the future. Yet mainstream economics has blundered into climate change guided only by an ethical framework that is simply inadequate to deal with nature because it ignores rights. Rights are central to the ethics of the natural world: the rights of the present versus the future, and my rights versus yours. Environmentalists bring a fundamental insight that economists have missed. Nature is special: our rights over the natural world are not the same as our rights over the man-made world. Economists need that insight in rethinking the ethical assumptions made in their models.

It will come as no surprise to most people that economists need an injection of ethics. Survey evidence finds that economics students tend to me more self-interested than other students. Either economics attracts the selfish, or worse, it inculcates greed. Economists indeed assume that people are interested only in their own consumption, yet paradoxically, economists judge the world according to an ethical framework that is selfless in the extreme: Utilitarianism. As adopted by economists, Utilitarianism is an austere, universal value system that is impossibly demanding; according to its judgments even noneconomists are selfish. Given the gulf between the values economists use to judge the world and the values they assume ordinary people to hold, many economists conclude that ordinary people cannot be trusted adequately to protect the interests of the future: they are ostriches. Economists share Plato's view that the ideal government would be comprised of wise Guardians, although, of course, those Guardians should be economists rather than philosophers. In advocating an override of democracy, economists dig themselves deeper into ethical trouble. Nor is their approach realistic: government priorities will inevitably reflect the preferences of their citizens.

Yet in this, too, economists can learn much from environmentalists. One of the founding texts of modern environmentalism is Our Plundered Planet, by Fairfield Osborn. Originally published in 1948, Osborn -- who was then president of the New York Zoological Society -- sought to awaken ordinary citizens to the unsustainable exploitation of nature.

The Plundered Planet proposes a synthesis in the practical value systems used by environmentalists and economists. Environmentalists are right that each generation has responsibilities for natural assets that it does not have toward other assets. But economists are right that nature is an asset, to be used for the benefit of mankind. We are not curators of the natural world, preserving nature as an end in itself. We are not ethically obliged to preserve every tiger, or every tree. We are custodians of the value of natural assets. We are ethically obliged to pass on to future generations the equivalent value of the natural assets that we are bequeathed by the past. The natural world indeed presents us with distinct obligations, but those obligations are essentially economic.

In the proposed alliance between environmentalists and economists the common enemies are the ostriches and the romantics. The ostriches will plunder the natural world. Sometimes plunder takes a form that is instantly recognizable as unethical. But more often the true consequences of an apparently legitimate action have to be teased out from a chain of decisions. As a result, plunder goes largely unrecognized. In the countries of the bottom billion there is a complex chain of decisions the end result of which is that natural assets are being extracted without sustainable benefit to ordinary citizens. In the rich countries activities that until recently were innocuous, now accumulate natural liabilities. The romantics will leave the potential of the natural world untapped; preserved rather than harnessed. The lifeline for the bottom billion will not be seized.

The poorest countries need rapid economic growth and this creates tension between poverty reduction and the preservation of nature. Environmentalists have been right to stress that economic development must be sustainable, but economists bring the insight that sustainability need not imply preservation. If environmentalists insist on the preservation of each aspect of the natural world they are liable to find themselves on the wrong side in the struggle against global poverty.

Plunder and romanticism are so rife precisely because ordinary citizens are insufficiently informed about the opportunities and threats that nature poses to have forced governments into effective regulation. In the task of building an informed citizenry the starting point is an ethics of nature that people in societies with widely different value systems can understand and accept. Neither the romantic variant of environmentalism that sees nature as an end in itself, nor the austere universalism of economic Utilitarianism, can provide such a foundation. The most difficult wars to win are those that must be fought on two fronts. It is more straightforward, psychologically more satisfying and dramatic to have only a single enemy. The romantics among environmentalists and the Utilitarian Platonic Guardians among economists see nature as a single-front war. The romantics regard economic growth as the enemy; the Platonic Guardians regard the values of ordinary citizens as the enemy. But most struggles in development are not like that: sanity lies in the middle rather than at the extremes. Aid provides an example. It is neither a panacea nor a menace.

In this book I am going to try to turn the exploitation of nature and its assets into a two-front war, expanding what is currently no-man's land into a place where all but the romantics and the ostriches can feel at home. The romantics and the ostriches each tap into a rage of emotions: the romantics on guilt, fear and nostalgia; the ostriches on greed and optimism. But the devil need not have all the best tunes: effective solutions to vital problems that have been intractable lay where they always have -- in the center.


How's That New World Order Working Out?

The multipolar moment has arrived -- and it's nothing like Americans imagined.

Looking for a sign of when the multipolar moment suddenly seemed real? You could do worse than mark the day when Brazil and Turkey -- two of the world's most avidly internationalist emerging powers -- joined together this May to announce they had stepped in to broker a nuclear-fuel swap deal with Iran that potentially -- though sadly not actually -- paved the way toward a peaceful solution to the standoff. Turkey and Brazil aren't superpowers, nor are they permanent U.N. Security Council members. But just as U.S. President Barack Obama came into office preaching a renewed focus on multilateralism, rising powers are reminding us that respect for hierarchy is no longer on anyone's agenda.

What a difference a couple of decades makes. A little over 20 years ago, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush -- who had just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and saw the Soviet Union disintegrating before his very eyes -- stood at the granite podium of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and proclaimed a "new world order," a U.S.-dominated international system "where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle." Two decades later, the "new new world order" we are in fact living looks almost nothing like what Bush -- and most Americans -- imagined or hoped.

The United States still has the world's most powerful military, of course, but its utility is diminishing as the capacity to deter and resist spreads. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Military might and political influence no longer necessarily go together, and too much of the former can even undermine the latter. More fundamentally, the world has quickly become multipolar, with the European Union a larger economic player than the United States while China rises quickly on all measures of hard and soft power. Obama couldn't give the "New World Order" speech today; he'd have to negotiate it first with his peers in Brussels and Beijing. And as for democracy: Meet authoritarian state capitalism, a new entry into our lexicon that underscores the non-Western options every state can pursue today. Nobody's talking about the Washington Consensus anymore -- instead the Beijing Consensus, the Mumbai Consensus, and even something only half-jokingly called the Canuck Consensus are competing for the hearts and minds of global elites.

Rather than a world of alliances, it's a world of multi-alignment. Globalization means never having to choose sides. Look at the Persian Gulf states. They make big-ticket arms deals with Washington, buying weapons to recycle their petrodollars and deter Iran; sign huge trade agreements with China, where ever more of their oil flows; and negotiate currency arrangements with the European Union. If there is any doubt as to the general lack of foresight that governs international relations today, just consider how America has ceased certain joint weapons production with Israel as punishment for Israel's selling sensitive technology to China, which in turn sells missile technologies to Iran, whose leadership wishes to eradicate Israel from the map. Everyone is playing everyone else in what seem like endless single-iteration prisoner's dilemma games.

Bush Sr. chose to give the speech at the United Nations for a reason: America was the preeminent power, but he was a multilateralist. Paralyzed during the Cold War, the United Nations now had a chance toplay the central role as arbiter of global governance for which it was envisioned. But rather than personify multilateralism itself, the United Nations is proving to be at best just one manifestation of it. Free-standing functional agencies like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund -- which has only become more important in the wake of the financial crisis -- are our only effective global bodies, and they are solely economic in nature. But the G-20 has hardly lived up to its billing as the new "steering committee for the world." Before the most recent Seoul summit, world leaders described U.S. proposals for harmonizing current account surpluses and deficits as "clueless." The Security Council has long ceased to be legitimate or effective, with little prospect for reform in sight. As we learned so painfully this year, the United Nations can't forge a global climate deal and can't make the world meet the Millennium Development Goals. For every issue there are now several specialized agencies, like the World Food Program and Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, that mostly secure their own funding contributions and are evolving at their own pace.

The closest thing we have to multilateral governance happens on a regional level, and it is far more promising, whether the deeply entrenched and supranational European Union, the rejuvenated Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or the nascent African Union. Each is building a regional order tailored to its members' priorities and level of development. On Sudan and Somalia, it's Uganda leading the new diplomatic and peacekeeping push. For Palestine, the Arab League is considering a peacekeeping force. And on Iran, Turkey is now in the lead.

The world of 1990 was expected to remain fundamentally international. Yet instead its very structure has changed as globalization has empowered legions of transnational nonstate actors from corporations to NGOs to religious groups. As a result, today's world features overlapping and competing claims to authority and legitimacy. The Gates Foundation gives away more money each year than any European country. Villagers in Nigeria expect Shell to deliver the goods, not their government. And Oxfam shapes the British development agency's priorities more than the reverse.

Neither the United States nor the United Nations can put the genie back in the bottle. With each passing year, deal-making at Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative become more important than the glacial advance of empty declarations at international summits. These and other venues are the places where the "new new world order" is being built. And it's happening from the bottom up rather than the top down.