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

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star