Chandran Nair on the Future of Our Planet

Chandran Nair is author of the new book, The Sustainable State. Below is the text of our interview.

You write a lot about how lucrative palm oil farming is creating untold destruction across Indonesia and offer subsistence farming as a possible solution. Yet isn’t that unrealistic, given that similar initiatives have failed with Colombian coca growers and Afghan opium growers?

I can think of three reasons why the coca and opium initiatives failed. First of all, rich countries did not do much to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. Crops that form the basis of drugs and which are part of a wider geo-political struggle are not the same thing as a cash crop like palm oil, albeit one that is rapacious.

Second, there was not enough investment in providing alternate economic options nor perhaps, more importantly, in the infrastructure that would be needed to support these alternatives. These two crops were part and parcel of a wider ideological war too.

Third, initiatives were instigated by a third party: namely the United States, who was never going to have the long-term time-horizon needed to see these programs through to completion. Afghanistan and Colombia were not the ones suffering the costs of drug production.

The difference with Indonesia and the haze is that Indonesia actually does suffer the consequences of palm oil production and the crop is not part of a war with another country. It is thus better placed to actually look at the long term and invest in alternatives: not “subsistence agriculture” (at least in the way it’s normally conceived), but smallholder, high-value crops supported by publicly-funded infrastructure. That would in fact achieve economic and social goals that the Indonesian government would see as desirable.

Is desalination the only way to prevent mass unrest, death and migration from water-scarce nations?

First of all, it’s expensive: both in terms of monetary cost and power consumption. So it remains a rich-country solution (i.e. in places like Singapore or the UAE) where it is in effect subsidized, and thus one that will require dealing with the massive trade-offs.

But the problem will still remain: that water, even in water-scarce nations, is underpriced. This encourages overuse and abuse, as we’ve seen in countries like India and China or even in places like California. Desalination without dealing with this fundamental problem will merely shift the reckoning to some later date by encouraging denial.

How viable do you find carbon capture and global cooling schemes to be in avoiding planetary collapse from global warming?

These technological solutions are very expensive and are unlikely to be accepted in most places. Our current business models will not pay for them, as they are based on a free ride, until the State is willing and empowered to intervene. But they are also being talked about because people think that we cannot actually change our economic practices away from a high reliance on fossil fuels. The argument is that building massive carbon capture processes or developing some harebrained scheme to cool the Earth (and not mess things up in the process) will be easier than decarbonizing, say, the automotive sector, which seems like a somewhat perverse argument. De-carbonising cars should not be more difficult than some of the schemes being hypothesized now.

But I want to make an important point. While climate change is an important part of sustainability, it is not the only part; hence why The Sustainable State doesn’t actually deal with climate change that much. Even if we had a magic cooling solution that could counter the effects of global warming, we would still face the problem of our massive overuse of resources. And even if we found ways to generate more renewable energy, what would it be used for: to continue to grow with a “business as usual” model, whereby renewable energy now would be used to extract resources recklessly to promote relentless consumption by externalizing true cost. Only the energy source would have changed and hopefully helping fight climate change, but not the other aspects of the destructive path of human progress based on growth at all cost.

Do you think rising sea levels will self-correct the rise of coastal megacities and the decline of rural interiors?

This is a good time to clarify something: I’m not “anti-city.” I live in Hong Kong — one of the world’s most densely populated cities — and so I am fully aware of the important role that urban economies play to the national economy. Thus, I’d much prefer the relatively gentle (but firm) management of urbanization and de-urbanization by state policy, rather than the rather violent and disruptive process that will happen when cities are threatened by massive sea level rise. The point I am trying to make is that given the huge challenges most mega cities in the developing world are facing, I am suggesting governments in these countries stop viewing urbanisation as inevitable and instead take a more balanced approach to the rural-urban challenge.

Chandran Nair speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Monika Flueckiger)

As for rising sea levels and the coastal megacities, the key point is to invest in adaptation to protect economic assets and populations and to not encourage any further expansion. In some cases, there is an argument to be to even de-urbanise and to “ruralize” with heavy investments in key areas such as farming, irrigation, education, healthcare and small to medium size industries.

Realistically, how are bureaucratic democracies going to meaningfully tackle the climate and resource crises with the same fervor as authoritarian China?

I talk about some things that democracies need to do in the book. I think it’s possible, but it will take some rather fundamental changes in many of these democracies. For one, economic and environmental regulators need to be empowered to do their jobs, rather than continually be hobbled by political interference. I think one thing we have learned recently is that many of the “rules” that people believed protected the civil service did not actually have any weight behind them. Perhaps the independence of the regulators needs to be enshrined in law.

Democracies also need to work to ensure they are truly representative. When that’s lacking, there are too many avenues for vested interests to worm their way into the system. For example: if it is expensive to run, then politicians need to be wealthy themselves or are beholden to wealthy donors, ensuring that policies reflect what the elite of society wants (i.e. overconsumption). Fixing that problem, and allowing more “ordinary” people to run for office will help create an important diversity of views in the legislature. But more fundamentally, democracies need to be willing to reconsider their constitutions. Some countries, like the United States, now seem to find it a strange point of pride that their constitutions are so difficult to change, despite the fact that we live in a very different world now.

Would it be more sustainable to break up megacities by building smaller regional cities across the country or by increasing suburban viability through spending on housing assistance and public transportation?

I think these are two different things, and are solving two different problems. Building smaller regional cities is something on the national level — and something that can only be done by the national government. This would try to create a more resilient distribution of people and economic activity across the country, so that one concentration of people, wealth and consumption does not distort the entire economy.

“Suburban viability” is on the level of individual cities: can they build an urban environment that can provide a decent standard of living for their residents? Interestingly, Hong Kong may have accidentally stumbled across a model for this. Hong Kong does not really have “suburbs”; instead, it has dense housing estates, connected by good public transportation and surrounded by protected green space. This may be a better model for urban planning than the suburban sprawl we see in many other cities.

Can online jobs and educational programs become a major catalyst in preventing young people from moving away from rural communities in search of better opportunities?

I think they can play some role, as will any policy that improves economic opportunities in rural areas. But I also think there’s a deeper cultural phenomenon at work. At the moment, the city is “where things happen.” What will fundamentally change rural decline is real investment in the countryside. Not just in alternate economic opportunities (although they are important), but also in public institutions. Healthcare, financial access and educational programs are part of this. But there should also be investment in public sports, artistic and cultural institutions. In other words, people need to think that they can live a prosperous life in rural areas just as easily as they can in urban ones. That will arrest the problem of rural decline.

I wish you had written more about the botanical city concept. How would define it and what steps would be needed to implement it?

By a botanical city, I mean one that integrates urban living with green wild spaces and nature that goes well beyond landscaping contracts and municipal greening. Not just parks and botanical gardens (though they help), but actual nature: untamed, unrestrained wilderness that intrudes into the city and becomes as much a part of the city as its key infrastructure. This requires a whole rethink about everything with regard to how a city works in the tropics and what it is for. It is about ultimately making tropical cites what they should be “cites in the tropics” rather than ones built to ape life styles in temperate cites in the West.

I admit the examples of this are few in number, and often accidental rather than planned. Hong Kong, for example, does have country parks edge right up against high-rises — which has made hiking a popular activity amongst the city’s population. The lack of suburban sprawl also means that there is a lot of green space between the city’s dense satellite towns.

This wasn’t a set policy by the Hong Kong government of course, as shown by the lack of public parks and green spaces in the city proper. Geography plays a role: if Hong Kong was not as hilly, I expect it would have far fewer protections for green space.

But it may provide a few lessons. One is to control suburban sprawl: rather than build low-rise housing that sprawls over a large area, instead build high-density complexes surrounded by protected wilderness, and served by good public transport.

Another step may be to force any development above a certain size to allot area for green space and recreation. Perhaps incentives can be given for different projects to combine their spaces, creating larger natural spaces within cities. The city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is one that I see as having the potential to be the world’s first botanical city.

Why did Malaysia’s FELDA farm collectivism program work, as opposed to the abject failures of many Communist attempts?

Actually, many of the initial Communist land reform projects (and, indeed, land reform in general) actually succeeded. Breaking up the big farms and redistributing the land to smallholder farmers helped to increase yields and productivity. From there, cooperatives could be developed that provided a structure for smallholder farmers to work together.

The issue is when these land reform projects went a step further, from cooperatives into massive collectives. Farmers were no longer smallholders working their own land in cooperation with other farmers, but turned into laborers for a massive state-owned agricultural project. FELDA made the small holders key long-term economic stakeholders and that was the key to its success.

Your book is very skeptical of corporations and consumerism. Is a sustainable planet possible under capitalism or do you think socialism is necessary?

I’d rather not frame things in those terms, mostly because using them tends to immediately prejudice people one way or the other. After all, these terms mean different things in different places: “socialism” in the United States would be considered “pro-market” in many European countries. And it’s also a mostly Western debate. Asians aren’t too concerned about whether reforms are “capitalist” or “socialist,” but rather whether they achieve their goals.

I will say this: I do not believe a sustainable planet is possible under an unrestrained capitalism that pursues growth-at-all-costs. Hence the need for firm rules — set down by a strong state.