The Plundered Planet, By Paul Collier

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The Independent Culture

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