Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Which is more important: saving the environment or fixing global poverty? Economist Paul Collier argues that we can find a middle ground and do both in his new book The Plundered Planet: Why We Must—and How We Can—Manage Nature for Global Prosperity. A former director of Development Research at the World Bank and author of the widely acclaimed and award winning The Bottom Billion, Collier’s The Plundered Planet continues his life mission of advocating for the world’s poorest billion people.
Collier made a quick stop in NYC recently and I was able to ask him a few questions about his new book. In Segment 3 he discusses the battle between environmentalists and economists over the world’s natural resources. You can check out the rest of the series here.
Michelle Rafferty: You were recently quoted saying that “nature has turned into a series of environmental battles between environmentalists and economists.” Can you tell us about the two opposing views on how the world should manage its resources and why, as you write in your book, they “are each half right”?
Paul Collier: Yes, I think there’s quite a few battles going on out there, but I think environmentalists bring a key insight which economists have missed—and that is that natural assets are special. Nature is distinctive, and why is it distinctive? It’s because we don’t own nature in the same way that we own the things we’ve made. Natural assets have no natural owners. We haven’t created nature, it’s there because previous generations didn’t plunder it. And so we don’t have the rights to plunder it, burn it up and consume it for our own benefit. The future has rights, and we have to respect those rights. And economists are not really good at recognizing the rights of the future. So economists need that insight.
But similarly, environmentalists need to take on board some insights from economists. And the key insight there is that natural assets are just that—they’re assets, they’re valuable assets. And our obligation to the future is sometimes to pass on the value of those assets, not necessarily the assets themselves. And so our role, vis-à-vis natural assets, is not as curators. Nature isn’t something to be put in a museum behind a glass case and admired as we walk past. Our role is not as curators, it’s as custodians of value. Sometimes it’s sensible to use natural assets to convert them into other assets that are more productive. But then our obligation is to pass those other more productive assets onto the future. The thought experiment, the way of testing whether or not you’re behaving ethically, is to put yourself in the position of the future and pose the question: so, am I content with what the present is doing?