Last year I wrote an article for atlantic-community.org on China’s quest for ecological sustainability. The basic point that I tried to make was that China has to create its own model for development because China simply will not be able to function as a country if its nearly 1.4 billion people expand their ecological footprint to the same level as that of North American societies. I am not arguing that China must not develop its economy. Rather I am arguing that it must develop its economy in a radically new way and not slavishly copy the pattern of development that the West has established.
I’m pleased to note that a similar argument has now been made but fleshed out in much more detail, by Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, a “social venture think tank.” The book has already been reviewed by the Financial Times and I’m very interested to read it. It hasn’t yet been published in North America, but I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.
According to the FT’s Hugh Carnegy,
Nair is adamant that nothing good will come to any of us if success in the new economies of the east is defined by flashy, western-style consumption. His book is a call for Asia’s developing nations to eschew consumerism and adopt a more ascetic economic model that will deliver sustainable development and save the planet from environmental disaster.
While Nair is much more interested than I am in fleshing out the policy details of what such a redesigned capitalism would look like, I am pleased to see that attempts are being made to bring about a serious debate on what kind of development the world can tolerate. Hopefully, Nair’s book can go a long way to mitigating the dreadful assumptions that lay behind last year’s New York Times Magazine article on how best to develop China’s domestic appetite for consumer products.
Nair’s vision seems to be for a Singapore-style benevolent dictatorship that will proactively guide Asian economies towards more sustainable forms of economic development. This echoes the feelings of my own students that dictatorships may be better for sustainability than democracies. But to my mind this seems to completely overlook the possibility that sustainability can be seen in a positive light, and not as some form of state-sponsored asceticism.
To my mind, sustainability has the potential to be understood not simply as an economic policy, but as something like a spiritual path, a vision that can provide hope, purpose and meaning for human beings caught in the swirling currents of global capitalism. I believe that sustainability understood in this way resonates profoundly with the deep philosophical currents that flow beneath the shiny surface of modern Asia. This gives me hope that sustainability can become embedded in Asian cultures in ways that Western policymakers may find hard to believe.