Real Hong Kong thinker seeks Asian solution to save the planet

  • Author Chandran Nair has set out to redefine the contemporary state in terms of its responsibility to the environment, and ultimately, the survival of the species
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 10:07pm

Hong Kong has many think tanks. It’s too bad it has few real thinkers.

Chandran Nair is that rare exception. An author and environmental management consultant, he has thought deeply about the nature, purpose and legitimacy of the contemporary state that goes well beyond the sterile opposition between Western-style democracy and non-Western authoritarianism in which our city’s political discourse has been mired.

Recently, he was elected to the executive committee of the Club of Rome, the global think tank co-founded by David Rockefeller; a well-deserved recognition!

In his latest book, The Sustainable State, Nair has set himself an ambitious task – to redefine the contemporary state in terms of its responsibility to the environment, and ultimately, the survival of the species.

It’s no criticism that he doesn’t quite resolve the problem. It is, perhaps, more than plenty that he raises the substantial issues about the continuing dichotomies between environmental sustainability and economic development that confront and confuse many of us today.

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In a previous book, Consumptionomics, he criticised a common economic approach in Asia to ape the Western model of consumption-led growth. By focusing on consumption, high growth rates, and Western lifestyles, Asian economies may have set themselves on the road to ruin.

Here, he offers a distinctly Asian solution. We can’t rely on free markets to achieve environmental responsibility; nor can the state alone force the rest of society “to do the right thing”. However, the state is the only governing entity with “the legitimacy, accountability, and ability to make the necessary political choices about the economy and the use of resources”.

Rejecting Western neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, Nair argues Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China have all developed themselves via the state management of the economy to achieve social goals. They have used state investment and protectionism to “drive modernisation, mechanisation, and urbanisation”. Only this time, that goal has to be sustainability.

Here he makes probably his most problematic move. He argues the primary goal of the “sustainable state” is to price what economists call “externalities” – unintended consequences or collateral damage from economic activities – correctly and make those responsible pay.

Interestingly, William Nordhaus just shared a Nobel prize for economics for his work on taxing polluters and pricing carbon dioxide emissions to combat global warming. Clearly, some combinations of market and state are needed for solutions to save the planet. We have yet to work out how.