04:45 AM Jan 18, 2012
As Asian economies close the gap on Western living standards, an awkward question lurks beneath their seemingly spectacular progress. Can Asians enjoy Western standards of living without destroying the planet?
Mr Chandran Nair, author of Consumptionomics, a book that questions the sustainability of the imported Western growth model, argues that they cannot. His views are controversial. To suggest that Asians must refrain from a Western lifestyle would be regarded by many as an affront to perfectly legitimate and long-delayed aspirations.
But Mr Nair, a Malaysian, says this is denial. How can everyone in China or India eat sushi like the Japanese or drive cars like Americans, he asks, without draining the seas of fish and the deserts of oil? Western capitalism, he says, built its high living standards on abundant resources, partly supplied by colonialism. The US had few people and seemingly limitless resources, the opposite of what is now true in Asia.
The answer, Mr Nair argues, is to price resources properly. You can own a car, but only if you pay for the roads you drive on and the (unsubsidised) petrol you use. That is a stark message both for Westerners and increasingly for Asians, many of whom are coming to see a Western lifestyle as a birthright.
Mr Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues from a different perspective that Asians need to redefine what kind of growth they want. In an essay in Outlook magazine with Jean Drèze, a development economist, he writes that “economic growth is not constitutively the same thing as development”. India has grown strongly for 20 years but “the progress of living standards for common people, as opposed to a favoured minority, has been dreadfully slow”. Growth can be useful. But without public policies to ensure that the fruits of that growth go to improving health, nutrition and education, it has little meaning, he says.
Mr Nair’s concerns are that the majority of Asians are instead being sold a capitalist fantasy. “They’ve gone to the West and bought the idea that wealth trickles down,” he says. “But the gravy’s too thick and there’s not enough to go around.”
Capitalism fantasy with GDP growth
Economic growth is not constitutively the same as development as a Western form of consumerism is not sustainable nor it is suitable for Asians. Now with slowing growth, Asians need to evaluate their priorities instead of being sold a Capitalist fantasy to tweak the areas of development and the goals they want to achieve to pass to their next generation. Examples of capitalistic failures of the US and EU will bring the world on their knees and we need not walk the same paths to realise their mstakes. The lessons learned from mistakes from the past need not be repeated in the future as we seek to improve lives, not to go back into depression economics.
Globalisation results in displacement of jobs if you do not stay relevant by having the right skillsets even though you may be having a University degree, as today’s higher education doesn’t automatically guarantees employment. Evidence can be seen all around us. Have all our talented leaders who have done academically well faced up to the challenges of the “New Economy”? I doubt so.
– Contributed by Oogle.