Billions of Asians want one thing - to live pretty much like you or me. The fact is, they can't. There isn't nearly enough of anything to go around for that to happen. The UN Secretary General has warned it would take two and a half Earths to come up with the resources to make those aspirations a reality.
India and China haven't come to grips with the West's economic exceptionalism but some, such as Chandran Nair, are speaking out to warn that the western model of consumption-led economic growth would be disastrous for Asia.
"It's a matter of numbers," Nair said on a visit to London to speak at the Royal Society of Arts. "What Europe and America does about restricting its impact on the environment is pretty irrelevant. The future will be determined by what happens in Asia. Three billion Asians want what you and I have, but there is not enough to go round. By 2050, there will be 5 billion Asians," says Nair, who grew up in Malaysia and now lives in Hong Kong.
"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.
"If China and India had the levels of car ownership evident across the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], that would amount to 1.5bn more cars – and it would take the entire oil production of Saudi Arabia to run them," says Nair, whose book Consumptionomics: Asia's Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet has just been published.
...Nair reserves most scorn for the west's mythology about Asian growth. Yes, millions have been lifted out of poverty but rather than putting this down as a triumph of liberal market capitalism, Nair argues that the model of development has consigned many millions more to continuing abject poverty. Trickle down doesn't work. Consumption-led growth creates a comparatively small middle class floating nervously in a sea of poverty. Its a cruel illusion to claim that the poor can all one day join the middle classes.
..."This is my key point. The majority of Asians are being left behind by the current model of growth, and governments will have to change tack or risk losing legitimacy," argues Nair. He challenges the development model of rapid urbanisation and calls instead for investment in rural areas to improve sustainable farming methods and raise farming incomes. A policy that the Chinese have already adopted.
He uses a telling fact: 2.2 billion Asians now have mobile phones, but far fewer have access to drinking water or toilets. The problem is not about needing more technology but about restructuring an economic system to meet human needs. How is it that TVs, playstations and mobile phones are more easily accessible in some of the cities of Asia than a glass of drinking water from a tap?
"We live in a world whose values are set by an economic system that incentivises and rewards those who can generate growth for a select group of mostly western institutions," states Nair in Consumptionomics.
It is in the meeting of genuine human need that the future of Asian capitalism must lie: food production, environmental stewardship, and health and education. "It's harsh for Asians to be told that as latecomers to the capitalist party they will never be able to attain that way of life taken for granted in developing countries," he admits.
What's needed is a strong interventionist state that can take these difficult long-term decisions – Nair talks of "benign authoritarianism" and insists that the key issue is good governance, not whether it meets democratic criteria.
Benign authoritarianism may well be Asia's fate, perhaps even its best hope. That, however, begs the question of what lies in store for us, for the West? The Asians may be running into a wall but it would be absurd for us to smugly assume it won't be felt in our homelands, that we will be able to maintain business as usual. Absurd and dangerous.
Our model of consumption-led economic growth is not only unsuitable for Asia but it's unsustainable for the West. Unlimited, perpetual growth is not capable on a finite planet with finite resources. And once you reach the wall where consumption exhausts supply you inevitably must (if you're to survive peacefully) transition from a growth-based economic model to an allocation-based model. Inequality and disparities in wealth and well being are far more tolerable in a growth-based world than in an allocation-based civilization. Allocation is another term for rationing which begets a measure of collective sacrifice and in an environment of sacrifice, inequality is far less tolerable than it is under 18th century capitalism.
I suspect that globalization itself will falter and then collapse with the demise of growth-based economics. The preservation of prosperity in the more affluent and self-sufficient nations will depend on restoring trade, tariff and currency controls to arrest the outflow of national wealth.
Will we be able to escape the "benign authoritarianism" that seems to lie in store for Asia? If we do it won't be without a good deal of vigilance and resistance to the authoritarianism already creeping into our societies. Democracy will have to be defended and that effort begins by recognizing those among us who would gladly relieve us of our democratic rights and freedoms. That includes a segment of the Left and of the Right. It the political centre doesn't hold we may be in for a very rough ride.