I've been reading Paul Collier's The Plundered Planet: Why We Must - And How We Can - Manage Nature for Global Prosperity. He is writing about natural resource extraction in emerging nations and the impact that has on local economies. I thought this excerpt was especially helpful:
We have now reached the heart of what is distinctive about the role of government in societies that are rich in nonrenewable natural, assets. The exploitation of the natural asset is intrinsically unsustainable. At some stage the oil well is going to run dry, the vein copper ore will be exhausted, and the revenue stream will cease.
That word "unsustainable" sends shivers down the spine every environmentalist. But just because the exploitation of a natural asset is unsustainable does not mean that it should be avoided. The only sustainable rate of use of a nonrenewable natural asset zero. But were we never to use any nonrenewable assets they might as well not be there in the first place: the baby has disappeared with the bathwater. So, literal sustainability sets the bar absurdly high. Here economics is helpful in imagining a more meaningful conception: sustainability does not imply preservation. The world has sustained overall economic growth, albeit with hiccups, for two centuries yet virtually no Single economic activity has been sustained. Growth has not been a matter of everything getting bigger. Rather, it has been like running across ice flows: if you stand still you fall in and drown; if you keep going - even if each individual step is unsustainable - you survive. In the nineteenth century the British government was worried that it was going to run out of tall trees for the masts of ships. What happened, of course, is that at a certain point ships no longer needed trees.
The decision to deplete a nonrenewable natural asset is therefore not intrinsically an economic sin. The ethics of depletion depend upon how the money generated gets used. I have suggested that it is ethically incumbent on us to respect the rights of future generations. We may not be the curators of natural assets, but we are the custodians of their value. We are not obliged to turn the earth into a gigantic museum, with nature neatly preserved in its display case. Nonetheless, we have a responsibility not to plunder natural resources because we do not own them in the way that we own created assets. We can fulfill our ethical obligations by bequeathing to the future other kinds of assets of an equivalent value. This boils down to whether to consume the revenues or save them. We have a responsibility to save.
This represents the golden rule for the ethical use of revenue from nonrenewable natural assets. It implies that the use of this revenue should be quite unlike that of normal tax revenue. Normally, tax revenue can be presumed to rise as the economy grows: it is sustainable and thus can be spent on consumption. A good test of whether the government of a resource-rich country is being ethically responsible is whether it has a higher savings rate of its revenues from natural-asset depletion than from other tax revenues. As it depletes the natural asset is it accumulating man-made assets in its place?
Do you have a higher savings rate of unsustainable income than income you expect to continue? Perhaps you have not consciously thought about it; you just have an overall savings rate out of your total income. It might equally be difficult for a government to identify which part of its overall savings is attached to which part of its income. However, we might reasonably expect that those governments whose revenues are largely generated by the depletion of natural assets should have higher savings rates than those whose revenues are fully sustainable. For example, Africa, where so much revenue comes from resource extraction, should tend to have a higher savings rate than "Developing Asia," where revenues are linked to industry. In fact, the opposite is the case. Africa's savings rate averages around 20 percent of national income, whereas that of Developing Asia has been approximately double. (98-99)