Chandran Nair talks about Consumptionomics

It’s now a few weeks since we returned from the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, and some of the sessions and speakers are still floating in and out of my rather erratic brain.  Chandran Nair’s session on Consumptionomics is one of the ‘stickiest’ ones …

Chandran Nair is a brave man.  He is very upfront about a few things: he is NOT an author, NOT a writer, NOT an economist, and he strenuously denies it when people suggest he might have a “greenies” interest in the environment. And when we don’t even get through the Chair’s introduction to the Michael King Memorial Lecture without a Shouty Man’s heckling from the balcony, he is serene and forthright about how very unpopular his message is.

To really understand the message, as with many non-fiction speakers, you need to read the book, and I thoroughly recommend finding it and doing just this.  In the meantime, however, here’s my attempt to summarise what will probably (for me at least) turn out to be 2012’s most unsettling and thought-provoking Festival session.  (So don’t go shooting the messenger!)

In essence, these are the main points:

  • The current narrative of economics is from the West, and as such is heavily weighted towards Western ways of thinking – individualistic, consumer-driven, reliant on democratic models.
  • Most of us have a “pedigree of denial”, and dwell within “a climate of lying and denying” (purposeful or not)
  • The 2008-2009 crisis was the trigger: Asians were told that they were the new environmental and consumeristic ‘bad guys’ and that the responsible thing for them to do was to spend their way up and out of the crisis, but ALSO to use fewer resources while doing so – this is actually not possible.
  • We are seeing the dying pangs of the US and EU as global superpowers, leading to the rise of Asia as world leaders
  • BUT the painting of the 21st century as the “Asian century” is bad because it leads Asians to think that it is now “their turn” to have “all the things”, to “win at consumerism”, to have lots of stuff.
  • For Nair himself, the challenge of coming from Asia means that his message had to get more and more extreme in order to be heard, and he also decided that he’d never have a big audience anyway, so it didn’t matter …
  • His message is actually quite simple, if controversial: Bling is Out, and Less is More; Asia must reject the Western model (which promotes relentless consumerism, voodoo economics, and the constant ‘buy 1 get 1 free’ mantra); we need fewer human rights.  (You can see why his message might be seen as a little confrontational …)
  • The only way for this to work is to follow traditional Asian societal models – Asians cannot live like Westerners.  They must embrace the “restrain and restrict” message of societies like Singapore, and (even more contentious a suggestion) China.

This slightly dizzying summary in no way illustrates the nature or ‘feel’ of the session, with its already-mentioned Shouty Dude, myriad of business suits interspersed with a fair sprinkling of more alternative-looking types, and a really very challenging message, but will hopefully inspire those with a socially- or economically-enquiring mind to explore further!

6 thoughts on “Chandran Nair talks about Consumptionomics

  1. berniceccl 13 June 2012 / 3:25 pm

    I totally agree with his theory. Consumer driven western economics and saving the planet are mutually exclusive. Its not only Asia that needs a new model it is all of us. To require them to shoulder the responsibility while the rest of us give up nothing is unreasonable.

    • bronnypop 13 June 2012 / 4:04 pm

      Actually, one of the really interesting comments he made is that it’s no longer about us in the West at all, that Asia needs to do whatever it needs to do, because we here have left it too late. He said, If you think that turning out the lights in the hallway and putting your cardboard in the recycling bin is going to fix things, you are wrong.
      Pretty sobering stuff, really, and it ties in with a festival session I attended in 2011, with a guy from Greenpeace, who made similar comments.

  2. Isaac 13 June 2012 / 6:29 pm

    Can you speak a little bit more about the less human rights bit? Thanks.

    • bronnypop 15 June 2012 / 9:42 am

      Hi Isaac, I’ve just been looking back over my notes, and this is what I wrote down as he talked, “We need to redefine what it means to be free – the public good can only be delivered by the state, not by McDonalds”. And also, “Poverty and freedom are both relative – we need to lower our expectations of what we are ‘entitled’ to.”

      • Isaac 15 June 2012 / 9:55 am

        Thanks for the clarification. I agree that a redefinition of freedom would be helpful. In my experience, a lot of people believe that freedom is consumer choice. But freedom is not simply a exercise in wanton unconstrained consumerism. That’s not freedom, that’s a trap that leads nowhere but the desire to consume more.

        I’m not sure if I agree that it can only be provided by the state though. Have to think a bit more on that point.

  3. berniceccl 14 June 2012 / 4:29 pm

    He makes a good point, but as the Chinese say when they are asked to sign an accord on global warming – why should their new middle class give up their aspirations to live like we do, if we are not going to do it?

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