Navigating the asian century: Q&A with Chandran Nair

18 October 2023 – In our next instalment of the Q&A series with authors of Limits and Beyond, we sat down with Chandran Nair, a member of the Club of Rome and Founder of the Global Institute For Tomorrow. He discussed the dangers of adopting Western economic models and worldviews in the upcoming ‘Asian Century’ and explored ways to secure basic rights for the global majority while steering Asia toward a more sustainable future. 

Your chapter is focused on the Asian Century. Can you explain this concept? 

In 2050, Asia will have the world’s largest population counting six billion people. Many in the Western world see Asia as the engine of global economic growth and further suggesting that by embracing Western economic models and political systems, Asia could be the success story of the 21st century. I argue that this idea of an Asian Century is very dangerous because if six billion Asians were to adopt an economic model based on relentless consumption and externalisation of true costs, there’s only one conclusion, a catastrophic meltdown in terms of resource availability, environmental impacts and destruction of social nets.  

 How do you imagine a transition towards a more sustainable future in Asia? 

When we look at the issue of population and constraints that The Limits to Growth talks about, we have to accept the reality that the majority of people in the developing countries cannot consume relentlessly, nor can they have everything they desire. In this regard I argue that you don’t have a right to three cars, and you don’t have a right to a large lawn and a swimming pool in resource constrained areas. To ensure that resources are equitably used and shared, the institutions of society, you could call it the state, will have to dictate what you can and cannot have. This is a very different ideological position from what Western-led narratives like to prescribe, because it starts touching on sensitive issues such as rights and freedoms. It is important to note that when I talk about a strong state, I’m not talking about a military, authoritarian or fascist state. The fundamentals of a strong state are competence, meritocracy, and a very clear governance system committed to protecting common and public goods.  It is not entrenched to the idea that only free markets deliver prosperity, but instead operates on the basis of serving public good through intervention drawing on strong technical capabilities, social innovation and creative social policies. 

 What are the main obstacles to achieving this? 

 The main challenges are twofold. One is that most governments, many of our economists and business leaders are subservient to the dominant economic narrative of the West. So, one barrier is figuring out how to untangle these narratives and formulate our own policies suited to the population and challenges which are unique to this part of the world. The second barrier is at the local level, getting people to understand what moderate prosperity looks like, how to live within constraints, and getting people to reorientate themselves away from the Hollywood version of what a good life looks like.  

 How do colonial worldviews hinder this transition? 

 We have to understand that in the 1970s when The Limits to Growth was written the rest of the world had no concepts about limits or growth as all they wanted were for the basic needs to be met. If you were in the Commonwealth and a subject of the colonial empire, the one thing you knew was that prosperity and betterment was all about aspiring to live like the British, so you copied their economic models and lifestyles. And many did not fully appreciate that the imperial model was about plunder and thus unsustainable.  Many people in the West do not understand that for the vast majority of people in the world, basic needs are still the priority. This is why I caution good intentioned people against taking the current fashionable discussions on degrowth in the West and conflating it with meeting the sustainability challenges in the rest of the world. The challenge in these countries is not about degrowth or growth, it’s about how do we provide these people with the basic rights to life such as safe food, secure water supply, sanitation, public health, education, electricity and energy, without following the colonial model of exploitation, extraction and externalisation of costs. 

 How does you work with the Club of Rome aims to help this along? 

I became a member of the Club of Rome about five years ago and I was later elected to be a member of the executive committee. It has been a great opportunity and privilege to work with many of my esteemed fellow members. Historically, the ideals of the organisation are closely connected with those outlined in the Limits to Growth. While it is a wonderful, seminal work, many of its ideals were born out of a Eurocentric worldview. They’re not wrong, but in today’s day and age, we need to embrace some new viewpoints. My contribution to The Club of Rome is to bring those viewpoints, and to try and create an understanding that the challenges in the countries where the global majority live cannot be solved by ideas rooted in Western economic and political ideologies that may have worked in the past when the world’s population was a third but are not suited to most parts of the world where the global majority live. 

Limits and Beyond is a collection of essays from world-renowned thinkers, scientists, and economists from across the globe, grappling with the most acute issues of our time. Published on the 50th anniversary of The Limits to Growth, it explores what we learnt and where do we go from here. 

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