Consume the planet

Aug 15, 2011

By Matt Fleming, Time Out Hong Kong


If Chandran Nair told you your best friend was dead you’d probably smile and say ‘that’s okay’. His voice is so intelligently calming, he could deliver news of the Apocalypse and you’d think Christmas was coming. But you’d have to pinch yourself and remember he’s telling you bad news – the end is nigh unless someone does something now.

While the apocalyptic message is the same, the Malaysian environmental consultant’s writing is different. He steers clear of ‘calm’ and racks up evidence and statistics, presenting a campaign for worldwide change in Consumptionomics. There’s page after page of information, told in a manageable and intelligent fashion. Simply, if Asia copies the West’s unsustainable consumption model then we’ve got a problem, people.
In interview, Nair, founder of Hong Kong social venture think-tank Global Institute For Tomorrow, says (in his tranquil tone) that the world needs to listen to the messages in his book. He claims that China and India – as well as other Eastern countries – are on the verge of economic gianthood. And with that turf comes the desire to consume like Europe and the USA have done for so long. But his book is a warning to Asia. Copy the West and the environment will suffer far worse than it has done already.

“By writing this book I felt the need to create a more honest discussion on the levels of consumption in Asia,” he says. “I want to help people move out of their denial and to create a new narrative. A narrative that essentially understands that 60 to 70 years after the colonial era, this part of the world – which contains 60 percent of the world’s population – is embarking on an economic growth model that is absolutely unsustainable because it’s based on consumption growth. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that five billion Asians in 2050 can’t live like Americans. Full stop.”

Nair admits, in Consumptionomics – his first book – that he hasn’t been taken seriously in the past. When he’s visited environmental or political conferences his call to the world has been read as pessimistic by those who see the capitalist model coined by Scottish ‘father of modern economics’ Adam Smith – who effectively paved the way for the focus on consumption in the West – as the one true system.

“I’m staggered that economists today, basically led by Western economies, continue to quote Adam Smith,” says Nair. “Poor chap’s been sprouting daisies for about 200 years. Very nice, very intelligent but, my god, did he envisage this world? No. Did he have an understanding of China and India? No. So I thought ‘is it possible that I might, given my background with consulting and an in-depth knowledge and particular view of the world, try to put a pin in this bubble of dishonesty?’ And people came up to me and said ‘you’re damn right’ – and a couple of people said ‘write a book’. So I said ‘okay, I think I’m bold enough and if it crashes and fails, you know, I’ll go and hide somewhere’.”

Consumptionomics isn’t crashing and failing. It’s grabbing worldwide attention. Nair, 55, has been on national television in countries across the globe so far – and he hopes it will run and run. His thirst for a sustainable world began as a young boy when he saw trees being cut down in Malaysia and it’s getting stronger. He reckons that many Asians are ‘intellectually subservient’ and will blindly follow the West’s consumption model unless his call to arms is heeded and there are strict rules placed on consumption levels.

But why shouldn’t China enjoy a bit of consumer wealth for a change, Nair is asked. “Because it can’t,” he says. “If Asia follows Western consumption trends, that’s a billion chickens consumed a day, fossil fuels being drained faster than they are now and the oceans emptying quicker. If Asia thinks it has a god-given right to have more, well, it doesn’t.”

“I hope this book is a platform to encourage others who are smarter than me to be bold enough to challenge the mythology that consumptionism is good,” concludes Nair in a calm way that can’t hide his very serious message.

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