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Ladder Award to Chandran Nair for exposing the folly of encouraging a billion Asians to consume like Americans…

Chandran Nair, an Asian academic and CEO living in Hong Kong, is awarded a Village Connections Ladder for:

1. Highlighting what is probably the most important issue facing the planet: the dire consequences for all if a billion Asians consume like Americans.

Nair says that already “500 million Asians who joined the consuming class in the last 20 years have rocked the world” and points out that while “the majority in Asia are not yet in the consuming class this will soon change.”

There will be dire consequences if, as is being encouraged by the West:

  • Every Asian owns a car
  • Lives and works in air-conditioned environment
  • Consumes imported goods

2. Importantly Nair not only highlights the consequences of increased consumption by increased numbers of Asians, e.g. resource depletion, breakdown of eco and social systems, hastening of climate change, he opens up thinking on how to create new and realistic narratives for sustainable alternatives.

Nair’s main argument is that if increased numbers of Asians increase their consumption, there’s no hope for any of us. As things stand, the West will not change their consumption-based form of capitalism, which encourages all to consume like Americans, so change will have to come from Asia.

Changes will need to include:

  • Correct pricing of resources to take account of environmental and other externalities
  • Collective welfare: e.g. safe food, clean water, sanitation, housing, access to health and education would take precedence over certain individual consumer rights such as car ownership
  • Need for the institution of the state to create relevant rules e.g. car-free cities, tax junk food

State intervention and encouragement of local development

The majority of Asia’s four billion populations remain rural. Nair believes that choosing local development will help to slow the depletion of resources and prevent the pollution synonymous with mega city development.

21st century planetary challenges

While Chandran sees the need for strong state intervention in Asia to forestall catastrophe, one gets the impression that he would also prefer, before it’s too late, more inclusive global conversations (e.g. Asians and Westerners) to develop more realistic and hopeful narratives of prosperity for all.

Chandran proposes a thousand PhDs in Asia to address questions that are crucial to human futures:

  • If we agree planetary constraints are needed (because not all can have a Western lifestyle) what would prosperity/well-being for all look like?
  • What would rights look like?
  • What would a (viable) economic model look like?

Comment: with or without village and village-focused national conversations?

Here in New Zealand, in 2007 the then New Zealand Prime Minster Helen Clark said in her “Speech to the Throne”:

I believe New Zealand can aim to be the first nation to be truly sustainable – across the four pillars of the economy, society, the environment, and nationhood. I believe we can aspire to be carbon neutral in our economy and way of life. I believe that in the years to come, the pride we take in our quest for sustainability and carbon neutrality will define our nation, just as our quest for a nuclear-free world has over the past twenty three years

Helen Clark then outlined how her government proposed to address these sustainability issues. Most of the developments proposed were top-down and to be bureaucratically administered, an approach which differed from New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy change in the 1980s, which came from the grass-roots and was first proposed, argued and implemented at local levels.

When re-elected in 2005, Helen Clark gave a speech to the Combined Trade Unions where she said she wanted to engage grass roots organisations and communities in debate about the kind of future New Zealanders wanted for their country.

As it happens sustainable New Zealand policy, whether brought about by top-down government intervention or grass roots engagement or both, has remained more about aspiration than implementation.

However readers may be interested in knowing the Clark Government did offer PhD scholarships where students could address questions such as Chandran Nain proposes. Hazel Ashton was awarded such a scholarship. The resulting PhD developed and piloted a methodology for nation-wide, community-based conversations and narrative creation about creating globally-sustainable ways of living well in localities.

We would love to hear from you

We would love to hear what you think. Do you agree with Chandran Nair that encouraging more consumption in Asia will have dire consequences for us all?  How do you feel about state intervention to ‘fix the problems’ – with or without public engagement and discussion? And if with nation-wide public engagement, how can this be made more than yet another aspirational goal?

Please comment below. Readers are welcome to make their own nominations for a Ladder or Shovel Award or submit blogs or material – and /or email if you would like details about the methodology.

Chandran Nair

Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of independent, pan-Asian think tank The Global Institute for Tomorrow, based in Hong Kong. He is also the author of Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet.  He was invited to New Zealand to speak at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and was interviewed on Radio New Zealand Saturday Morning with Kim Hill. The interview was a repeat and  first broadcast 28 April 2012.

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