Allen Lane, £20, 271pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Plundered Planet, By Paul Collier

Paul Collier tells us that if we are to feed everyone without wrecking the rest of the world, then we must steer between the "romantics" and the "ostriches". The romantics (he includes Prince Charles) advocate a lifestyle that is "organic, holistic, self-sufficient, local, and small-scale", while the "ostriches" feel that "if there is to be a scramble for natural resources the important thing is to win it". He goes on, like Odysseus, to plot an appropriate course between the two – and very plausible and scholarly it sounds.

Professor Collier's analysis resembles that of, say, Sir Nicholas Stern (whom he cites with approval), who contrived to show that we could buy our way out of global warming if only we spent a certain amount right now. Such analyses are within the comfort zone of governments. But the mess we are in is dire, the approach we need is radical, and the methods, theories and carefully tailored statistics we are now bringing to bear can only make things worse, and waste more time.

Collier's subtitle is revealing: "How to reconcile prosperity with nature". This is the crux. On the one hand we have the economy which shapes our actions, our social structure, even our attitudes. On the other hand we have "nature" – the Earth and all its creatures; which we study by means of science, notably biology. The key requirement for humanity is to bring the two into line. But those who have addressed this issue – including Collier and Stern – fall foul of a series of errors.

The first is to grant the economy and biology equal status. To Collier, nature is important because it affects us. He tells us that we should not mindlessly exploit the world – but only because we waste riches. But exploitation of the Earth and of our fellow-creatures for short-term convenience should be unthinkable. We need a different mindset: to feel the full weight of the Greek concept of hubris. This is what "the romantics" are saying, and they are right.

In the end, the biological realities of the Earth are all that we know are truly "real", and should be the given. The economy, whatever form it takes, is a human invention and can be adjusted. If we had any real sense of survival, we should design the movable economy to fit the immovable biology. To give them equal status is to misconstrue reality.

Yet thinkers like Collier (and Stern) place the economy above biological reality. Thus in agriculture a succession of politicians have acknowledged that Britain must produce more and better food – a biological reality - but are keen to add (I paraphrase) "only if we can produce food more cheaply than we can buy it in". In their minds, whatever the physical state of the world and the plight of humanity require us to do, the economy – meaning the economy we have – must trump it.

Scientists who have read any philosophy know that science does not provide the royal road to omniscience. Biologists know that life is particularly intractable. Its relationships are "non-linear" – uncertainty is in-built. The effects of the "high technologies" from science are uncertain in spades. There are always side-effects - collateral damage - and no way of predicting the outcome. But gung-ho executives, people like Collier and Stern, and scientists who shun philosophy, don't realise the limitations. If there's a misfit between the economy and nature then, the modern zeitgeist has it, we must change nature.

Hence, says Collier, GM crops are all-but banned in Europe only because of the "romantic giant" – "the European fear of scientific agriculture, which has been manipulated by the agricultural lobby". The ban "panicked African governments into banning genetic modification". In truth, GM crops as they stand are a huge mistake, a commercial and political scam. Alternative ways of breeding and husbandry could achieve far more, but have been systematically neglected in favour of the short-term bonanza.

We do indeed need to create an economy that makes it possible for humanity to behave in ways compatible with our own real requirements, and the limits of the Earth. But we absolutely do not need, except in the shortest term, to reconcile mere "prosperity" with nature. To start with an economy rooted in nothing except dogma and wishful thinking, and then try to shape reality to fit, is madness. But we won't get the necessary re-think from the powers-that-be. We need a people's movement. But that's another story.



Colin Tudge is co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones