The Sustainable State

Chandran Nair
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
ISBN: 9781523095148
A review by Susan Froetschel

The world risks catastrophe by failing to practice sustainability. Only determined governments can come to the rescue, contends Chandran Nair in The Sustainable State.

Sustainability goes beyond the environmental consciousness and boasting common among businesses and even youth. Sustainable living requires sacrifice and revisions of society’s definitions for prosperity and even freedom. The world cannot afford China, India and other developing nations to pursue the West’s ruinous development path. Instead, emerging economies must devise systems that ensure survival and emphasize collective welfare over individual rights.

Nair’s message is blunt: The West does not provide leadership on sustainability, and true sustainability requires corporations to sell less. Companies project leadership on environmental issues only to avoid regulations and consumer backlash. Hence, corporations and shareholders sell unnecessary goods, benefiting from inaction and public gullibility for slogans and corporate responsibility programs. He hopes to convince elites of emerging economies and young citizens everywhere to consider the impact of climate change for their countries, to lead on making their own preparations and not wait for the West.

Advanced economies balk at giving up fossil fuels, large homes, SUVs and all the comforts of a disposable culture – lulled by assurances that technology will someday handle rising temperatures and seas even while rejecting the scientific findings of climate researchers. Public common goods like energy and water are underpriced and overused. He notes that market “pricing does not work when oil costs more than water,” adding “the persistence of external costs and underpriced resources, and the subsequent growth of vested interests and overconsumption shows that unmanaged and unregulated markets lead to flawed outcomes and prevent societies from creating a more sustainable economy.” Assessing the true external coats of burning coal or selling bottled water would put some companies out of business.  

 A combination of global, national and local governments can shape sustainable growth with environmental protection, education, improved energy access, poverty reduction and other strong social policies rather than the tax cuts, deregulation and debt passed on to future generations. Governments emphasize sustainable growth by doing more with scarce resources, assessing all external costs, endorsing labor-intensive activities and protecting communities as a priority. 

Business solutions are no viable replacement for government action, and Nair anticipates being labeled as alarmist and extremist for supporting the “visible hand of state” rather than “invisible hand of the market.” He maintains that the national state offers the best combination of authority, accountability, scale and capacity building to manage operations in sustainable ways and preserve resources for future generations. Self-regulation is not an option, and consumption taxes can restore balance.

Regardless of form of governance, Nair points out that trust builds a strong state while oppressive authority is a sign of weakness. Mechanisms for a strong state include a free press and channels that communicate public opinion to government, robust debate on policies, multiple sources of expertise for long-term planning, goals that unite society, competent institutions and the rule of law. Assessing a handful of places on these features, Nair points out that nondemocratic China has made greater progress in improving the lives of citizens over democratic states like India. He praises China’s ability to identify challenges and develop a culture of competence for meeting long-term goals while expressing concern about democracy, caught in a downward spiral, with obstinate opposition and partisan gridlock that reduce accountability for the party in power.

Consistent management by strong democratic leaders can rally societies to achieve lofty social objectives even during the worst of economic times. For an example, Nair turns to Frank D. Roosevelt, the US president during the 1930s Great Depression who tackled bank safety, labor standards, social security and more. Administrations who lead on social adjustment benefit from accountability, an informed public, a long term in office, less media consolidation and less money in politics. The book details modern-day sustainability challenges and efforts, including land reform, urbanization and rural underdevelopment, traffic and pollution controls, leapfrogging technologies and never-ending expectations for a better life in Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Modernization, automation, digitalization and open borders for trade ensure that old development paths are obsolete. “The lesson we should draw from past examples of state strength is that consistent state intervention and management in the economy can achieve social and economic objectives,” Nair writes. “By contrast, countries that hoped the free market would achieve these goals have largely seen disappointing results.”

Regardless of governance, developing countries are less capable of withstanding governance mistakes than advanced economies. Nair offers three objectives for sustainability: protect public common goods, define moderate prosperity and structure the economy to plan an infrastructure that accounts for market externalities. Countries can also reserve a portion of profits from resource extraction for future generations via foundations, permanent funds or other saving accounts.

Nair, a biochemical engineer by training, emphasizes that non-Western is not anti-Western, yet a role reversal may be due. Developing nations should no longer feel pressured to catch up with advanced nations, and wealthier nations could slow their frenetic pace, becoming more vibrant while learning to live with less. Societies need examples, and the book could do more to challenge today’s limited visions of sustainable development. For example, Nair explains: “Comfortable refers to a lifestyle that does not have the basic drudgery of everyday life, and that provides people with adequate comfort and free time to pursue their own ideas and hobbies, while providing enough opportunities for their families.” Such sentences trigger reader curiosity about his ideas for an appropriate living wage, the ideal square footage for homes, weekly limits on energy or water for any one individual or family – as well as details on enforcement mechanisms for corruption, inequality and greed. The world is entering an era of constrained resources, as its population went from 1 billion in 1800, 3 billion in 1960, to 7.7 billon today and many people already adjust to less income and certainty. Societies can shape institutions that encourage order and cooperation, but that requires an understanding of standards for what he calls “moderate prosperity.” Nair suggests that nations can establish their own philosophies, yet globalization is about discovering and implementing best practices.

Politics, science, even the arts and literature could help determine standards for avoiding overuse of resources by a minority of the world’s people, distinguishing needs versus desires and imagining new forms of citizenship – making these philosophies of conservation more palatable. A tough task awaits governments, convincing a skeptical public that simplicity is more rewarding than prosperity that destroys our world and home. Nair’s timely book is a valuable service towards persuading a cynical public.

Susan Froetschel is the editor of YaleGlobal Online and the author of five novels, most recently Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, which examine globalization and sustainability in Afghanistan.

This review was posted December 17, 2018.

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