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Book Review of: The Plundered Planet

Why We Must--And How We Can--Manage Nature for Global Prosperity

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Review of The Plundered Planet, by Paul Collier (Hardcover, 2010)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

While this book contains some good analysis and good ideas, it also contains some poor analysis, factual errors, and really bad ideas. So, it's not definitive but may prove helpful in the larger debate about properly using the planet's resources.

I almost decided not to read the book while reading the Preface, but soldiered on. The Preface doesn't explain the book, but instead propagandizes the Al Gore view of global warming. The author seems sure this issue is settled, but I am still waiting for the global warming people to meet the fundamentals of presenting their case (yes, I was on the debating team in high school).

Thus far, they have relied on assumptions, cherry picked facts, non-sequitors, and false causation chains. While their conclusion may be correct, they are a long way from establishing a basis for believing it is (I do not mean conclusive proof, only meeting basic debating requirements). I actually want to believe the theory, but need something other than faith to do it. The disingenuous arguments presented by its proponents show me they don't believe in the theory themselves (that doesn't mean the theory is wrong, only that its proponents don't believe it or they'd be honest in trying to prove it).

My personal take on "global warming" (as presented by the cap and trade faction) is it's a red herring. We need to focus on "reduce, re-use, and recycle" plus other efforts at greater efficiency, less mindless consumption, and less waste generation. In so doing, we will reduce carbon output anyhow. And, contrary to myth, some of us in the USA are carbon-negative (our property and activities sink more carbon than we release) and have done that due to efforts unrelated to reducing carbon per se.

The author is certain we need more taxes to "solve" the alleged carbon and/or global warming problem. I find it interesting that proponents of such "solutions" focus on a particular symptom (the amount of carbon) and not on any actual causes of the carbon. Nor do they focus on real things we can do today (and that many of us are doing, unlike GW mania-based millionaire Al Gore). They just hold big, carbon-spewing conventions and talk about taxing us even more than we are already taxed.

If we can set aside this global warming (non)issue, which I did so as to finish the book, we can look at a few other misconceptions the author has. Here are three of them from near the end of the book:

  1. On page 209, he asks the question, "Why did food prices rise?" The period he was looking at and the numbers he was using roughly coincided with the inflation of the US dollar (its value has dropped 50% over the past 10 years). So, inflation explains nearly all of the price rise but he never mentions this one factor. Odd.
     
  2. On page 215, he starts praising Big Agra. I'd like to see him spend a weekend in a home located near one of the CAFOs (read about CAFOs if you have not already done so). As he's in the U.K. and presumably not subjected to this abuse, he really doesn't know what he's talking about. He is, however, correct that we can't go back to peasant farming. There is a middle ground, and it's not Big Agra.
     
  3. On page 239, he shows he's completely disinformed about about federal "elections" work in the USA. He talks about transparency and says the ability of citizens to coordinate action has increased. Then he says the Obama campaign is an example of this. No, the Obama campaign is an example of how the mudstream media undermine the "elections." The myth he's referring to is Obama was elected because of grassroots efforts. This is not the case. He was "elected" despite grass roots efforts. Ron Paul was forced from the ballot, despite grass roots efforts.

    During that farce of an election, Obama's record as a senator was available from one of the few citizens advocacy groups that exists--the National Taxpayer's Union. As a US Senator, Obama voted only for spending measures and violent criminal protection measures. And he voted for every one of these that came before him. He refused to vote on anything else (he abstained by saying "present" instead of "yes" or "no"). So we informed citizens knew he would pile even more debt on us following the Clinton/Bush spending orgies. And, sure enough, in his first 10 months he did as much spending damage as Bush did in 8 years. Given Bush's poor record, that's saying a lot. But it was utterly predictable, based on Obama's terrible Senate voting record.

The author also proposes "solutions to climate change" as if the solar events that informed people have been tracking and correlating to the weather for several years now (see spaceweather.com) are inconsequential and as if the unusual geological disturbances of the past few decades are also of no import. I suggest he read up on Mt. Pinatubo and Mt. St Helen's, for starters (I've personally seen the Mt. St. Helen's crater several times--the whole top of the mountain is simply gone). He might also want to read about a few earthquakes and tsunamis that were not caused by "carbon emissions." I can't take him to task over the Iceland volcano, as that event happened after this book came out. But he would do well to read up on it anyhow or maybe even go visit the place.

Now, I don't want to give the impression the author was completely wrong on everything. He wasn't. But some of his factual errors were doozeys. The author clearly limits his thinking to a particular dogma or two, and his biases appear throughout the text.

For the informed reader, if you can exclude the errors you can find some valuable insights in the areas where the author does know what he's talking about. For example, his discussion on resource extraction really impressed me. He clearly understands the economic, political, and logistical issues involved in capturing natural assets. I think if he had stuck to what he knows, the book would have been excellent. Where he talks in his area of expertise, he does an outstanding job.

This book consists of five Parts.

Part I, The Ethics of Nature, contains the first two chapters. Here, he talks about two opposing viewpoints: those of the economists, and those of the ecologists. He shows where there's a common ground and how these two viewpoints need to meet on that common ground. I found this discussion illuminating. He has a few facts wrong, such as claiming the 40% taxation rate in Europe is "by far the highest" level of "internal redistributive taxation." Across the pond, there's a country called the USA. Divide its total federal debt by the number of wage earners, and assume money does not grow on trees. The taxation exceeds 100%. That doesn't include all the state, county, and city taxes imposed on USA citizens. We pay 128 taxes on a single loaf of bread. I'd be delighted to have only twice his tax burden.

Part II, Nature as an Asset, consists of Chapters 3 through 7. This is the best part of the book. If he excised the rest of the book, then he'd have a much better book. In these five chapters, he looks at nonrenewable resources and explores the prospecting, extracting, and other processes for obtaining them. This was a really good discussion.

Part III, Nature as a Factory, consists of Chapters 8 and 9. Here, the author looks at renewable resources. His primary emphasis is on fishing in the first chapter, but in the second he drops into the carbon tax proselytizing. His discussion in Chapter 8 presents solutions for the "commons" problem of ocean fishing. The same concepts can apply to other "commons" issues. I think he has real solutions, here. I don't like his "solutions" in Chapter 9 at all, even assuming he's correctly identified the problem.

Part IV, Nature Misunderstood, shows the author's misunderstandings about agriculture. It consists of a single chapter that mostly praises Big Agra. I suggest he read Animal Factory, which is an excellent exposť of just one aspect of Big Agra's bad behavior.

Part V, Natural Order, takes the attitude that governments in the poorest countries are unaccountable, as opposed to governments in the richest countries. He may not have heard that, in the USA, our Secretary of the Treasury is a tax cheat. He must not be at all curious about Chuck Rangel's tax evasion or how Rangel managed to accumulate so much wealth outside our borders (or why). Rangel, who heads the House committee that writes the Tax Code, claimed ignorance of the Tax Code as a defense and that satisfied the IRS. A regular citizen who complies with the Tax Code often cannot rely on it for defense against an alleged tax debt, because an IRS employee who wants a promotion will simply declare the taxpayer owes the alleged debt anyhow. And this is accountable?

The GAO investigated the IRS and found its employees spend half their office time on p*rn and gambling sites. What's really a hoot is the GAO also found that among all occupations, the highest degree of tax cheating occurs within the IRS Collections Department. I think "accountable" and "government" are not synonymous, but what do I know?

The author has this idea that the Western world holds the keys to bringing everyone else into enlightenment. But who are the biggest arms dealers keeping bloody wars going in Africa (and other places) today? The USA holds first spot. China, Russia, and the author's own U.K. are also in the top five. Note, it's the governments of these countries that are supplying both sides in these wars. We're supposed to rely on these same governments to solve thorny problems of resource allocation?

Conclusion

While the author has great insight into some areas, he has too many misconceptions for this book to be taken seriously. He also believes our best hope lies with the world's top sources of misery and human suffering (the governments mentioned above). Before the big players among the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations start prescribing what others should do, they should demonstrate competence in managing their own affairs. Having responsible, ethical, accountable governments is an essential part of that.

A nation that runs up a debt greater than the GDP of all nations combined obviously has a government that doesn't behave responsibly. And those nations that gladly provide vast arsenals to petty dictators, murderous tyrants, and the latest "liberation army" aren't exactly moral beacons either.

I'm not saying government is bad. I am saying that government-based solutions face awfully tough odds of success. The author's solutions are government-based, so they don't strike me as realistic.

Why was I not surprised to find a scarcity of referenced works? Of those listed, they are either "by the author" or (presumably) by the author "with" a co-author. So, this isn't a researched work of non-fiction. It's a university professor's op-ed piece. Unfortunately, many of his opinions are flatly wrong.

 


 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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