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!