Can Asia Save the World?

Chandran Nair
Asia 360 News

Western capitalism is clearly going through a structural crisis, but more importantly perhaps one of consciousness. The capitalist diktat, by preaching excessive consumerism, has conveniently ignored natural resources’ constraints, thus greatly threatening our collective future. Asia can save itself and the rest of the world from this environmental catastrophe if it repudiates Western orthodoxy based on consumption-driven economic growth.

Because of the region’s large population – 4.1 billion Asians according to the 2010 UN World Population Prospects, billions in Asia cannot, and should not, aspire to owning cars, larger air-conditioned homes and freely consuming foreign food and goods.

Contending that Asia cannot replicate the Western economic paradigm does not mean rebuking the West or advocating Asian exceptionalism. It is actually a call for the region to shed its intellectual subservience to the Western concept of homo economicus and rejects it because it can only lead to a bleak future. Indeed, the capitalist model emphasizes labour productivity only and incentivizes maximum resources’ exploitation, without any consideration for its limits. It mistakenly assumes that the combination of technology, free market and finance will overcome these challenges. Ironically enough, more Asians have access to mobile phones nowadays than potable water or sanitary toilets.

Mitigating the depletion of the Earth’s resources is, therefore, the greatest challenge of our time because it pervades all aspects of our lives: health, food production and quality, safety, security, housing, water and sanitation. The impact of an excessive use of natural resources based on under-pricing is especially dramatic in Asia. This region will confront chronic water shortages, potentially displacing millions of people, and the challenge of growing enough food for itself.

Relentless stimulation of consumption of everything and anything has led, amongst other things, to climate change, the mother of all market failures, and jeopardized Asia’s sustainability. The UN's Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlines that the weather would warm up in the region by 3°C in the 2050 decade and about 5°C in the 2080 one. The agricultural productivity would suffer extreme losses due to high temperatures, flood conditions and soil degradation.

Clearly, Asia cannot progress along the trajectory of a resource-hungry economic superpower such as the US. As the world is standing on the brink of a new era with the financial meltdown, Asia must reshape capitalism and propose an alternative model for human progress and development.Such vision must incorporate three fundamental principles, which will be a departure from traditional capitalism.

Firstly, there must be acute awareness, especially amongst policy-makers, that natural resources are limited. The state must put resource management issues at the heart of policy-making and pave the way for a more sustainable and therefore equitable society. It should foster growth for human progress and redirect consumption to meet critical needs, yet prevent gas emissions and pollutants. It could, for example, impose a realistic price on resources through emission taxes. The state should also promote the creation of enterprises focused on resources management, instead of resources exploitation.

In the area of agriculture for instance, Asia must formulate development strategies to enhance the agricultural sector in a region where about two billion people live in the countryside. In India, agriculture accounts for 17% of GDP and creates more than half of all jobs. The de-chemicalisation of agriculture and industrial food products should be a major policy-led initiative of all governments. They could curb resource-intensive agricultural activities by removing the subsidies supporting large-scale, input-intensive agro-industries and finance labour-intensive and carbon-free farming to ensure that food production is less polluting and conserves soils and water.

Secondly, the Asian model should emphasize collective welfare over individual satisfaction, by advancing an equitable access to basic necessities, such as water, sanitation, food, basic housing, education and health care. The state has a tremendously important role to play in operating a shift of mind-set. It must correct erroneous assumptions regarding consumption as a means to achieving the public good. It should impose restrictions on the influential media and marketing industries that encourage consumerism without ever being held accountable for its negative consequences. Such views will certainly find resistance, as local and Western companies with vested interests will resist change.

As another example, the ability of individuals to exercise their right to car ownership can create a collective nightmare, as evident now in most large Asian cities. Car ownership cannot be seen as a human right in crowded and polluted metropolis that already are unable to accommodate more automobiles. Public transports should enable the population’s mobility – with high-speed train network, instead of private jets or roads for individuals. Asian governments could also design transport systems that connect rural and urban areas, rather than concentrating investment in efficient means of transportation in a few mega-cities.

Thirdly, Asia must utilize technological progress to palliate resources’ depletion and only then, innovate within the limits imposed by the environment. Technological advances have hitherto disregarded the fact that resources are limited, with fishery and forestry technologies enabling to harvest on large scales for instance. It is now necessary to use technology as a tool to prevent a further diminution of resources.

Such model implies that Asia redefines the role of the state. Governments must be strong and intervene in all governmental areas so as to overcome resistance to change from powerful vested interests.

Asia’s new rules will, undoubtedly, shift the balance of power from the West to the East. Nevertheless, suggestions that the 21st century will be the Asia-Pacific century need to be rejected as they are premised on a 20th century geo-politics of resources domination. Unlike the US and the British Empire before it, Asia should not aspire to promoting exceptionalism based on the relentless need to consume, and achieve economic dominance.