No growth for you

There's nothing particularly fair about Nair's argument.

Madeleine Bunting discusses the assertions of Chandran Nair, who argues that the world’s poor (specifically those in Asia) should never attempt to attain Western living standards because the result would be environmentally infeasible:

“If Asia continues like the west, the game is over; as people in Asia get richer, they eat further up the food chain. If 500 million Chinese want to eat just one seafood meal a week, it will empty all the seas of Asia. If Asians ate as much chicken as Americans, by 2050 that would amount to 120 billion birds a year instead of today’s 16 billion. To aspire to the western model in Asia is a deadly lie.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. I am solidly with Han Rosling on this one when he says that we really aren’t in any position to start telling people what their per-capita carbon usage should be until they are our peers (either because they are now as rich as we are, or because we’ve reduced our own consumption to match theirs).
  2. Nair’s beliefs strike me as being extremely Malthusian in their assumptions (which characterizes the climate change lobby in general) – these arguments typically read as follows “X million people use Y resources now, so of course Z*X million people are going to use Z*Y resources.” Such arguments ignore huge unknowns about how future technological progress will affect consumption. It’s highly unlikely that by the time billions of Asians are able afford their own iPhone 24 that the environmental impact of that iPhone will be as great as it is now.
  3. The environmental lobby groups have (to my meager knowledge, readers feel free to challenge this) failed to demonstrate that even `normal’ carbon-intensive growth is a bad deal for the average poor person. Most of the areas of the world we expect to see hit hardest by climate change are those which are growing very little, or not at all. Climate change is an externality problem – we have lots of countries not considering the full cost of carbon-led growth. However, we’ve never considered the possibility that, even if we manage to create a system that forces Asian countries to fully internalize that cost, that it still might still make sense for them to choose to grow, grow, grow.
  4. Nair’s arguments that we need might need benevolent autocracies to counteract a consumption-led model makes me feel even more secure using the Soup Nazi for today’s photo.
  5. Your thoughts are, as always, extremely welcome.


7 thoughts on “No growth for you

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    April 23, 2011 at 2:54am

    This puts you in the running for winner of the internet. ‘You want carbon? No growth for you!’

    I agree that this position, not to put too fine a point on it, is bullshit. Another example of the west trying to tell the rest not to do what they did to get rich while offering them no viable alternative. ‘Aren’t you happy in rags and without food? because if you want more, I might have to turn off my air conditioner at night’.

  2. terence

    April 24, 2011 at 3:17am

    Thanks Matt interesting post.

    on 1 – I agree with you and HR. That being said, with a name like Chandran Nair I suspect the thinker in question is from India? So what we have here isn’t quite a case of the developed world telling the developing “don’t develop like we did”.

    on 2 – I appreciate the theoretical point. But what empirical evidence do you have to suggest that technological improvements alone will really be enough to save the world’s fish stocks or prevent runaway climate change (to use two examples from the article)? Duncan Green had a good graph on his blog showing that while growth has become slowly less CO2 intensive, the increases in efficiency have, at current rates, been far too low to offset the impact of growth on climate change.

    In the case of world fish stocks I’m pessimistic about technology’s ability to save us because, in the case of species collapse, history suggests that it’s possible to deplete particular fish stocks to below recovery levels before price signals change consumption patterns. So the most likely means of ensuring sustainability isn’t that likely to ride to the rescue in this case.

    In the case of CO2 emissions, the prices signals will never be there in unless we get a global political agreement. And right now this doesn’t look likely. So I’m a pessimist again.

    On 3 Mark Lynas’ book 6 Degrees offers pretty good indirect evidence that significant climate change will be a bad deal for everyone, I think.

    Like you I don’t buy the argument that the solution to global environmental problems is for developing countries to forego economic development. The solutions need to start with us in the wealthy world. But, the trouble is, they aren’t.

  3. MJ

    April 24, 2011 at 9:20pm

    Hi Matt,

    I hope that not too many people would disagree with you over (1). However, elsewhere I think you’re being unfair. As Terence points out, the picture on fisheries looks pretty gloomy, and in fact gets gloomier as technology improves as we can hunt fish closer to extinction. Decades after the cod population collapsed in the north atlantic there still has been no rebound of stocks. And on the subject of iPhones, without pressure from environmental groups what chance of the ecological footprint of an iPhone getting an order of magnitude smaller by the time half of Asia owns one?

    In fact I think there is a subtlety to Nair’s argument which goes like this: the West may have been responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere up to now, but if Asia follows Western trends to development then it won’t matter a jot what the West does as we’ll all be doomed to a 6degC warmer world any how. This, I suppose, is the scientific basis for incredibly selfish position taken by the American anti-UNFCCC lobby.

    So, yes let’s have a lot less moralising and more moral leadership from the West on this issue (I’m dreaming – I know), but ultimately we’ll need to look East for our saviours. That really would be the definition of the Chinese (and Indian) century!


  4. MJ

    April 24, 2011 at 9:29pm

    ps. I’m not aware of any mainstream environmental groups suggesting that poor people should forgo development. And that instead it is principally incumbent upon the West to offer them carbon-efficient means of economic development. We have our crazies (like everyone else) but I don’t think they’re taken too seriously. See e.g. my post and comment discussion below it.

  5. Matt

    April 24, 2011 at 9:44pm

    Hi Terence, thanks for the comment

    1) The answer to you question here is actually in the article I’m linking to. Nair is born to Indian parents, but grew up in Malaysia and is now Hong-Kong based. He is indeed suggesting that Asia sort itself out – my comment was probably more to the Guardian audience that would likely embrace his reasoning, although I highly doubt Nair’s own carbon footprint is as low as the average Asians, so I would also put him in the same camp.

    2). No emprical evidence, except that history suggests that A) We’re really bad at predicting future tech growth, B) Old school and neo-malthusians tend to be overly pessimistic about future growth. I’m not suggesting that we should be complacent about this – far from it, we could be stuck where we are for 1,000 years (in which case we have even more things to worry about). But we can’t just take current consumption/C02 ratios and pretend that they will be comparable 50-100 years down the line when developing countries have reached convergence. Duncan Green’s numbers are reasonable, but they fail to take into account unkown large jumps in technology (think black swan events) which might happen in the future – imagine what projections of the world looked like 5 years before the internet boomed.

    3) Haven’t read it, but how well does it deal with the opportunity cost of forgone economic growth? I haven’t seen any cost benefit analyses that really look into this, rather focusing on the direct costs of climate change. If the average developing country has to grow at, say 4% every year over the next 50 years instead of 8% to reduce CO2 emissions, we’re talking about an absolutely massive welfare loss, all due to the lost income.

    But your last point suggests that we agree that Nair is wrong – that developing countries should not forgo development, which is exactly what Nair is suggesting.

  6. Matt

    April 24, 2011 at 9:50pm

    Hi MJ,

    All you points are reasonable – I’m not suggesting that environmental groups stop trying to get people to behave better (and knock down the CO2 footprint of iPhones!). All I’m saying is that we really don’t know enough about future technological progress for Nair to make his gloomy predictions about future resouce usage. Perhaps this is even greater cause for alarm (or, even greater cause for scientific research funding).

    On your last point – this is exactly what Nair is arguing! He is saying: “Asia has to stop developing.” Or at least, “Asia has to stop consuming and submit to a regime which promotes health and education, but doesn’t let people eat more or buy any electronics,” which is pretty close to the rhetoric of the loony steady-staters.

  7. MJ

    April 24, 2011 at 10:47pm

    Ok I guess we have different interpretations of what he is saying. I don’t detect the same lecturing tone that you do. He may also have suffered from Madeleine Bunting’s rephrasing and interpretation.

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