Chandran Nair wants to make waves. He wasn’t raised a radical or trouble maker, in fact, he’s been a good capitalist and free market devotee for decades.
But his latest book, Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism, is asking people to think about the way they live and shake up traditional notions of “getting ahead”.
Nair’s premise is that the consumption-led economic model followed by the West for nearly 100 years is simply not sustainable for the Asia-Pacific region.
In fact, he says, it will lead to catastrophic failure.
The ideas of endless consumerism and that everyone “can have it all,” he says, won’t work in a world of 2050 where there will be nine billion people globally and some five to six billion in Asia, stretching the limits of food, water and other resources.
“Can you imagine all of those people living (consuming resources) like Americans?” he asks with urgency. Not everyone can live like the Californians that are seen on American TV shows.
Consumptionomics is not meant to be an attack on the West and its wasteful ways, he says, but a roadmap for how Asia – especially the big hitters like China, India and Indonesia – must take the lead in reshaping the idea of Asian capitalism.
He does often reference the Western model that says consumption-driven capitalism can deliver wealth to all.
“In Asia, it can only deliver short-term wealth to a minority; in the long term, it can only deliver misery to all. This is the intellectual dishonesty at the heart of the model the West has peddled to Asia,” he argues.
Do you want to be in a region in 2050 where one billion people have it, surrounded by four billion people who are angry, disenfranchised and knocking on your door?
While many in Asia are may be taking an “it’s our turn” approach toward growth, he notes that in the future the “minority will have everything, the majority will not.”
“Do you want to be in a region in 2050 where one billion people have it, surrounded by four billion people who are angry, disenfranchised and knocking on your door? I don’t think this is the political future and reality we all want, and governments should understand this and do something about it.”
Nair believes the time is now to address these potential problems – noting that the world simply does not have the resources to sate countries like China and India, should they develop super-sized consumer appetites like those of Europe or the US.
Nair believes that three things must happen to start the change toward a more sustainable planet:
First, resource management must be at the centre of all government policy making.
Second, the collective welfare of society must take priority over individual rights
And finally, resources like water, petrol and other commodities must be re-priced to realistic levels – fuel subsidies in many developing countries should be dropped, he says
If this sounds highly socialistic, he says it’s not meant to.
As a capitalist and business consultant, Nair says he wants to see countries prosper and grow. But he cautions that if this is not done in a new way, by a new set of rules, then everyone will suffer dire consequences: countries should focus on a more holistic approach to making citizens more content with their lot in life.
For example, China could encourage more people to stay in villages, by increasing education, medical care and better connectivity to the outside world. In essence: give them a reason to stay home and not move to the big cities, where resources are already stretched.
To make his point, he takes the example of chicken. Americans ate about nine billion birds last year. he says. If Asians ate the same amount per person, by 2050, they would swallow more than 120 billion.
New growth model
The type of government needed to push such a transformation is not totally clear.
Nair has praise for what Singapore has been able to do and says that “guided democracy” may be necessary to affect his vision of the future. Whatever the style of government, he says, it must be willing and able to have a hand in managing natural resources, industry and food production.
So where do we start? “We need a thousand PhDs around the subject of studying 21st century Asia, resource constraint, what would prosperity look like and therefore what are our rights?,” Nair says.
Asia has been obsessed for too long with the Western notion of development, he says. It’s time instead for the region to look within; to construct its own economic models and forms of government.
“I don’t think that can be done at Wharton or Harvard,” he says. “That needs to be done in this part of the world… to essentially mainstream a new narrative. That would then infiltrate big business, public policy and civil society. That’s how you change things.”