Collier’s ethics of nature

In: Uncategorized

26 May 2010

The call in today’s Financial Times (registration required) by Paul Collier, an expert on Africa and professor of economics at Oxford, for a practical ethics of nature is worth examining closely. His call for a humane environmentalism embodies some flawed and dangerous assumptions.

Collier sets up his argument by opposing two alternative views:

* Romantic environmentalism. By his definition this means those who favour the preservation of nature above all else. In reality few greens hold such an absolute position.

* Austere utilitarianism. This is the view held by Nicholas Stern, the author of the influential British government report on the economics of climate change, and other economists. Its concern is for the maximisation of welfare for all human beings – the living and the AS YET UNBORN. From this perspective extreme caution is needed by the present generation as its actions could damage future generations. Embedded in this assumption is extreme pessimism about human progress. The possibility that the existing generation can create a wealthier and better future is seen as an unlikely scenario.

Collier pitches his own view as a practical ethics or humane environmentalism. He summarises his view as follows:

“Our obligation to the future is not to preserve purity but to pass on equivalent value for the natural assets we deplete. If, by converting natural assets into more productive assets, a poor society can escape poverty, then it should do so.”

There are at least three problems with Collier’s outlook:

* It makes no sense to talk about the “rights” of people in the future. Only conscious agents have rights. People who have not been born or even conceived certainly cannot have them as they are in no position to exercise rights. What does it mean to grant rights to a hypothetical person who may live in the next century the right to free movement or free speech? Instead it is better to talk in terms of each generation having an interest in economic progress.

* While Collier is obsessed with hypothetical future human beings he grossly underestimates the potential for existing human beings to create a better world. This includes reshaping the world to create a better environment for everyone.

* The way Collier poses the argument is in line with his stated preference for the western powers and multilateral organisations to intervene in poor countries to maintain stability (see, for example, 11 April 2009 post). He has no respect for the national sovereignty of the “Bottom Billion” poor countries he identifies.