Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, by Chandran Nair, Infinite Ideas , 256 pages

If thought provoking books are your thing then Chandran Nair’s new book Consumptionomics should provide an adequate excuse for some careful page turning with pursed lips and much furrowing of the brow. It is nothing more nor less than a reasoned attack on current economic wisdom backed up with wealth of statistical examples and plausible prediction. It also calls into question the morality of following current economic and developmental directions. Chandran Nair cannot be accused of being a stranger to the boardrooms and economic analysis in that he has been a senior executive for ERM (an environmental consultancy) where he worked both at company and and government level, easing the way for policies he now warns about. His current position is that of an environmental consultant and founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow think-tank. Although he comes across as a visionary, his background and experience do not suggest a tree hugging greenie, and nor for that matter does he come across as an unrealistic Thomas Malthus.

He starts with the measurable indications that Asian development has bought into the same style of flashy consumption which has been the driving force for Western economies over recent years. At present he believes that the West is using this Asian growth in consumption in an attempt to rescue the global economy and draws a vivid picture of an insatiable fuel guzzling, resource gobbling and energy burning awakening giant. For example Nair takes the example of energy use, pointing out that if Asia’s population continues current trends to the point where they were to use as much energy per person as Europeans do today (substantially less than the use per head in the US), Asia would use eight to nine times as much energy as the US currently consumes. He points out that China who recently overtook Germany in car production has now caught up to the US in terms of manufacture.  He points out that by the year 2020 China’s car use will reach 330 million owned vehicles and makes the unsurprising conclusion that this this would put massive and unsustainable pressure on the finite reserves of oil.

A continuation of current policies Nair believes would lead to devastating environmental impacts. We already have huge areas of toxic haze, polluted waters and previously rich areas of good farm and forest land destroyed by unwise exploitation which Nair warns can only get worse with accelerating consumption. Similarly while at present the large scale mining to supply the Asian markets is making some local wealth for the suppliers, Nair argues that as demand for resources continues to grow the supply will be unsustainable with geopolitical consequences as nations vie for access and control.

His suggested answers are probably less radical than many might expect, but that in no way means that they would be accepted in the current economic climate. One solution he believes would be to encourage indigenous populations to stay put where they are more likely to look after their environment that if they surrender their land to developers. He describes a sort of Singaporean control system, with attention given to ensuring minimal standards for the poor and sufficient welfare to guarantee survival. He also suggests a mandatory cutting back of expectations for desirable growth. Encouraging badminton rather than golf and discouraging wasteful transport are just two of his many ideas. He suggests the current wealthy countries should cut back on their reliance on cheap goods manufactured in Asia, pointing out that Asia’s environmental problems inevitably become problems shared with all in the destruction of the global environment.

No doubt his critics will be telling him that like Malthus before him, the apparently certain approaching doom predicted might conceivably be averted as scientists, technologists and even politicians grapple with the realities. The great unknown as always will depend on what innovations lie ahead. New solutions to energy problems, perhaps using nanotechnology, new ideas for food, radical improvements to transport – are all beyond accurate prediction. However even if he is only partly correct in his prognostications Nair is providing focus for an important discussion, and even if his solutions are in need of improvement it seems likely that the questions he raises deserve sensible answers.

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