Will Asia’s Rise Mean the Wreckage of Planet Earth?

Asia has industrialized at speed, reducing poverty and raising living standards in urbanized space. Aerosols, plastic bottles and wraps become the new lifestyle of ‘use-throw’ consumption. Waste disposal infrastructures are not a priority, so urban garbage rots in the open or is dumped into rivers and oceans. Carbon emissions from factories and traffic choke the atmosphere.

China, India and Indonesia are galloping large populations into rapid urban migration. Environmentalists fear the non-renewable resource depletion and industrial pollution may be unsustainable if this model of linear development is not steered away from disaster.

Chandran Nair wants Asian countries to re-think development priorities. Rather than less government intervention in the economy, Nair, the first individual from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be inducted into the Club of Rome, famous for its ‘Limits to Growth’ primer of 1972, argues for more intervention. Asia’s development path, he says, should be for long-term value rather than short-term GDP gains.

Environmental degradation is not a price to pay for development that shortchanges future generations. Nair rejects free-market liberalism which allows corporations to pollute with impunity. He is not against capitalism. He is for responsible capitalism. Nair sees mindless urbanization sucking rural youth into squalid slums without basic sanitation, water, or electricity, as cheap labor for construction, and as slaves to the urban middle class.

Nair, a prolific campaigner and writer whose 2011 book ‘Consumptionomics’ details prescriptions for Asia to re-shape capitalism, has a point. China is leading the rest of developing Asia into the “Asian Century” of surging economic growth. Feckless industrialization and urbanization on this scale could sink the whole planet.

China, US emit 45 percent of CO2

The 2015 Carbon Dioxide Emissions report of the European Commission & the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency shows China emits 30 percent of global CO2 emissions, followed by the US at 15 percent. These two countries alone account for 45 percent. The top 10 emitters aggregate 68 percent of world CO2 emissions.

We have reached 400 ppm (parts per million) CO2 levels measured in the atmosphere, compared to under 300 ppm in the pre-industrial era. That 30 percent rise accelerates with more industrialization. The global population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Our man-made CO2 pollution is triggering global warming and climate change.

Planet Earth’s natural “sinks” of forests, oceans and soils absorb harmful carbon emissions. Up to 50 percent of CO2 emissions are absorbed annually by these “sponges.” The half not absorbed raises global temperatures, melts the polar ice and boomerangs on human populations as natural calamities.

A 2015 study on plastic garbage in the oceans by Ocean Conservancy & McKinsey, identified five Asian countries for “priority intervention” to contain the damage: China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand & Vietnam. The study projected a potential 45 percent reduction from this group over 10 years if waste management is implemented.

March of diseases

Carbon emissions are borderless, as are plastic wastes in oceans. We pay a heavy price for irresponsible multinationals, wasteful consumption-economics, and clueless governments. We already have “cancer villages” in China and India, where entire communities of the poorest are trapped from birth. The killers remain invisible.

In the 1970s US, small farms growing food crops and husbanding livestock for local communities were overtaken by industrial agriculture. This fed the fast-food chains that sprouted across cities for urban populations. The supporting ecosystem of factory-farms of animals and poultry, in turn, required massive feedstock acreage.

Industrial farming generates 37 percent of the methane gas in the atmosphere, which is 20 times more warming than CO2 emissions. 260 million acres of forests were cleared in the US alone for animal-feed and 3 million acres of rainforests in Brazil for chicken feed. Massive pesticide usage kills the natural soils and runs off to infect water systems.

The technology to produce food surplus cheaply, ignores the ‘externalities’ of fatal contamination of the land, water and air. Polluters are not held responsible to clean up their life-threatening discharge. Governments provide incentives for them. They do not create employment for rural populations. Asia should not adopt this destructive idea at all.

The fast-food and carbonated drinks of these industrial food systems cause obesity in children in China, India, Indonesia and the Middle East, whose normal diets have been displaced by processed food for the new middle class. Children’s TV advertising and promotions prompt parents and kids to frequent McDonald’s and KFC.

Rich societies dump

The World Bank facilitated the transfer of ‘dirty’ industries to developing Africa and Asia. Multinationals escaped waste treatment costs, while host populations absorbed the toxic residue. The poor countries showed GDP gains while the multinationals scored profits. It was touted as a benefit of globalization and free trade.

The 1991 “just between you & me” memo of Larry Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, argued the wisdom of relocating ‘dirty’ industries to the LDCs (least developed countries). They were poor and dying anyway. When leaked, the memo was disavowed by Larry who signed it, and Lant Pritchett who wrote it, as a spoof.

E-waste from computers, mobile phones and other devices, is another outsourced hazard, demolished in unsafe ways by cheap labor to recover rare metals which just happen to be radioactive. Toxic waste colonialism exploits developing nations via ‘free trade’ agreements, aided and abetted by global financial agencies.

Profit without ethics

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other institutions which promote trade and development, all subscribe to the “trickle-down” benefits of industrialization and urbanization. When exporting countries lose factories to the next layer of poorer countries, they are primed for the consumption-economics medicine.

At the heart of these development prescriptions, is the obsession of multinationals for market share, unending profits, and a ‘safe’ world order for resource extraction, cheap manufacture, waste dumps, and new markets for fast-food, fizzy drinks, fashion, computers, automobiles, designer watches and Disney toys.

The fiction of corporations as ‘persons’ enjoying rights of property, free speech, and legal protections, with entitlement to profits without morality or ethics, is the cancer within unbridled capitalism. The free-market mantra has run its course with disastrous consequences for people and the planet. The developing world needs a saner model of economic growth.

Nair’s crusade

There is an entrenched belief in cities as the key to modernization. Nair disagrees. He advocates budget allocations for rural transport, communications, health, education, and storage infrastructure. It is rural agriculture that has to feed the cities. Perishable produce is lost without appropriate storage silos.

Nair makes the case for retaining rural populations through property rights and protections which give them a stake to stay, rather than abandon agriculture. That, he acknowledges, requires government policy for equitable land distribution. Fundamental social equity redress will not happen without committed political leadership.

“Cleaning-up later” after countries pollute for GDP growth, observes Nair, is suicidal. There is no way to isolate any nation, or social class, from the consequences of pollution. The “growth at any price” mismanagement has to end, for the human species to survive. Nair wants the ‘Asian Century’ development strategy to reset urgently.

“The biggest lie is that consumption-driven capitalism can deliver wealth to all,” says Nair. “In Asia, it can only deliver short-term wealth to a minority; in the long term, it can only deliver misery to all. This is the intellectual dishonesty at the heart of the model the west has peddled to Asia.”

Cyril Pereira is a Hong Kong-based commentator and contributor to Asia Sentinel.