How Studying in Asia Made Me See the Need for a Steady State Economy

by Jan de Graaf

Crossing the border from Singapore to Malaysia allows anyone to see the real-life benefits that can come with economic growth. Singapore is modern, prosperous, organized, clean, safe and efficient. Malaysia less so. On Malaysia’s side of the border the roads aren’t as good, the traffic signs not as clear, the sidewalks not as clean and the greenery not as well maintained. Singapore’s transformation looks impressive, especially since it was expelled from Malaysia only in 1965.

I noticed this cross-border difference during a two-year master’s program in public policy at the National University of Singapore. Soon I learned that Singapore’s rapid economic transformation came with considerable tradeoffs. A lack of political freedom is one of them. Singapore’s political system — dominated by one ruling party since independence — has yet to prove its resilience. But Singapore’s economic growth has provided obvious benefits too; many citizens in southeast Asia would forego political freedoms for Singapore’s level of prosperity. Who wouldn’t want to raise children in a safe, efficient, tropical but air-conditioned country with little corruption and top-quality education and healthcare?

Paradoxically, the answer seems to be: Singaporeans themselves. Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. The government is vigorously encouraging couples to have babies, though so far with little effect. The former prime-minister Lee Kuan Yew — one of Singapore’s founding fathers — stated last year that Singapore can “fold up” if citizens do not reproduce. He said, “The answer is very difficult but the problems, if we don’t find the answers, are enormous.” Like many other countries, Singapore is being blinded by fears of a shrinking population and ignoring an obvious fact: one of the tiniest countries in the world can’t grow its population forever. The optimal population size is likely less than what it is now, not more.

Singapore’s population has increased almost 280% since independence: from 1.9 million in 1965 to 5.3 million people today. Its land area, on the other hand, has increased by only 23% (it was 224 square miles at independence and after some reclamation of land from the sea, it is now 276 square miles — about the size of Chicago). The country is squeezed in between Malaysia, a narrow sea strait and Indonesia. Physical expansion in such a physically bounded space cannot continue indefinitely. It has to stop growing at some point, a principle that applies not just to the number of people, but also to economic production and consumption.

Singapore and Malaysian Slum

The glitz of Singapore (photo by C. Andersson) and the slums of Malaysia (photo by D. Nunuk) are different, but equally unsustainable results of continuous economic growth.

Singapore like any country, needs to achieve demographic, political, economic and environmental sustainability. Maintaining a healthy environment is often under-appreciated, even though it is just as important as (and directly related to) the other types of sustainability in this list. I recognized this when I lived in China during a semester abroad and traveled through other parts of Asia. I breathed the toxic air in Beijing and Shanghai, walked through piles of waste in India’s urban slums, and saw the vast palm-oil plantations that have replaced tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia. If all these countries were to emulate Singapore, which is in a state of ecological overshoot, the environmental impact would be disastrous.

China seems to be doing its best to follow in Singapore’s ecological footsteps. It has managed to lift more than 600 million people out of poverty in roughly thirty years, an unprecedented achievement. Real GDP growth averaged 10% per year from 1978 to 2011. Its economy is more than 30 times bigger than it was in the late 1970s. It will soon be the biggest economy in the world. At the same time, China is in absolute terms now also the world’s largest energy consumer, greenhouse-gas polluter, crop importer, cement consumer and potash consumer, to name only a few things. How many more examples of explosive growth like China’s can the planet withstand?

India, another Asian giant, cannot do the same thing China has done. India has about as many people as China (1.2 billion versus 1.35 billion; each country has about one-sixth of the world population). Yet, India’s economy is less than one-fourth the size of China’s as measured by GDP. What if India’s economy had already grown to the size of China’s economy, with similar physical inputs (e.g. minerals, food, coal, etc.) and outputs (e.g. air pollution, soil depletion, biodiversity loss, etc.)?

Clearly, we need to take steps to achieve sustainable and equitable prosperity around the world. But trying to achieve prosperity through ever more growth — a method that irreversibly damages the planet, depletes natural resources and destabilizes societies over the long term — is not the way. The elephant in the room, the global problem that needs to be solved is “us” — the rich, industrialized part of the world that generates an unsustainable ecological footprint. “We” have only been able to live beyond our means because enough other people don’t. Communities in rural India, Namibia or Costa Rica could continue living their lives, with modest ecological footprints, for centuries without being a threat to global civilization and the planet. “We” in Europe, North America, Singapore, Shanghai and other rich parts of the world, on the other hand, cannot.

Still, many people in the world aspire to the lifestyles of Singapore, coastal China and the West. What if more and more people demand their fair share? Aside from the energy received from the sun, the Earth is a closed system with finite resources, so “we” the over-consumers have to get used to living with a much more modest ecological footprint. The predicament of the over-consuming countries raises some fundamental questions: how can we call our current economic growth “progress” if it can never be attained by all? And how can we call our current economic growth “progress” if it is based on depleting precious nonrenewable resources?

Real progress would take the form of new political and economic models that achieve a sustainable and resilient equilibrium. Unfortunately, as my home country (the Netherlands) and the nations I visited in Asia are demonstrating, we are far from it. That’s why I volunteer with CASSE to promote the concept of a steady-state economy. The over-consuming nations of the world are teaching an important lesson: the current spoils of continued economic growth come with a spoiled foundation for achieving continued prosperity in the future. Are we smart enough to heed the lesson?

Since graduation in Singapore, Jan de Graaf has been an intern at the United Nations headquarters and a trainee at the European Commission. He now works in the clean energy sector in Africa for an American start-up company.

An Open Letter to Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment

by James Johnston

Regarding Your Modest Proposal for Preventing Canada from Remaining Cold

Dear Minister Kent,

On December 12, from the foyer of the Canadian House of Commons, you irrationally rationalized why it is a good idea for Canada to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. I would like to congratulate you on your cheeky display of hyperbolic satire — there was so much cognitive dissonance and misleading rhetoric in your statement that it couldn’t possibly have been serious! I can’t wait for the day when you reveal that your government’s position is one big elaborate hoax designed to taunt the world into acting on climate change. I want to point out where your satire was effective but also give you a little bit of advice on how you could have made your statement even better.

First of all, you could have come right out and given the “real” reason why the “Harper Government” (TM) is getting out of Kyoto: because global warming is in Canada’s national interest! Developing the tar sands and pumping out greenhouse gasses to the max has the obvious benefit of improving Canada’s national temperature.

We all know that international forums are talk-fests that amount to non-binding statements of procrastination, but I laughed out loud when you pretended not to understand the symbolic value of forums like Kyoto and Durban. This rings especially true for a government that has proven its media savvy by virtue of authoritarian-style message control. Indeed, Kyoto has become a misplaced symbol of climate justice. But standing before a global audience and shamelessly teasing the world with such irresponsible nonsense! Priceless!

You were pretty convincing each time you conjectured that it is possible to create “jobs and growth” while also reducing emissions. Surely someone of your intellect and stature knows that at no time in history have we had economic “growth” without a corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Certainly not when the figures are adjusted to track the export of pollution at the planetary level. Development, maybe, but not growth! Man, I have to tell you, the joke became more cruel each time you repeated it (which happened a lot). Use it sparingly next time.

Your goal to reduce emissions via a “legally binding agreement to address global emissions that allows us to continue creating jobs and economic growth in Canada” hints at how elaborate the government’s hoax must be. At present, the Canadian government is shaping an economic agenda where more and more “growth” is coming from unsustainable oil production, natural resource extraction, and real estate inflation. No sane person thinks this is a good trajectory for the planet. Talk about wanting it both ways! Must be Christmas (well not quite, but almost — a few more sleeps!!). The world will be so shocked when you reveal the truth — about the Canadian position, I mean (not about Christmas).

Speaking of Christmas, I had an idea when I saw you pretend to stand up to big emitters like China and India. Way to goad them into action, by the way. But you know what would have been even better? Declaring that you are “standing up to preserve the Canadian holiday tradition of consuming an excess of cheaply manufactured Asian goods.” Then, when emissions go up in Asia as a result, you can stomp and huff that it’s “all their fault.” You missed a few opportunities like this to set yourself up for future satirical tantrums.

There were a couple of moments when your sense of humour went a little too far. Like when you repeated the government’s nonsensical target for emissions. The promise that you will focus on “reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent over 2005 levels by 2020” — effectively doing less than the previous government and pretending that it will save us from climate disaster — that’s so funny it hurts (my children). You can’t keep that joke up forever. But I double over with laughter each time you say your target is somehow the previous liberal government’s fault. Those genetically incompetent liberals!

It was cute how you pretended that “Canada’s position” is shaping a global consensus among the “EU… the United States, Australia, New Zealand, [the] least developed countries and the group of 43 small island states.” Cute, because Australia’s Minister for Climate Change implied they were leading the way by instituting a carbon tax, and don’t tell me that you’ve changed your “position” on that one! That would ruin the hoax! Beyond that, judging from how irked tiny Tuvalu was about your statement, you must have known that you were pushing a few buttons. Ian Fry, Tuvalu’s lead negotiator at Durban, said that “it’s an act of sabotage on our future.” Seriously, though. Tuvalu? Who knew that was even a country, right? ;)

Just when I thought you were going too far, you made a point so absurd that it reassured me of your comedy genius. The pièce de résistance was when you quipped that Kyoto would require Canadians to remove “every car, truck, ATV, tractor, ambulance, police car and vehicle of every kind from Canadian roads; or, closing down the entire farming and agricultural sector and cutting heat to every home, office, hospital, factory and building in Canada.” Well light my hyperbolic pants on fire and sound the alarm. Sure it would… if we choose exclusively to develop the tar sands instead! You’re such a drama queen. I’m glad you know Canadians aren’t stupid enough to believe such misleading statistical play. Who could ever dream of taking their ATV off the off-road anyway!?

And finally, regarding your plea at the end for “an agreement that works” for jobs …and growth …in Canada …and China …and Tuvalu …and for emissions reduction. Frankly, it was getting a little convoluted. Next time you should just let out a loud fart in front of the press, apologize for the emissions and then, in a fit of despair declare “what’s the point!? By the time global warming starts wreaking havoc, I’ll either be out of government or dead. What a waste of time. Stupid liberals.” Boy would that ever ignite a global response!

Anyway, you’re cutting it pretty close. It’s just about too late to stop runaway climate change and it’s making us all very nervous.You’re going to have to reveal your true position pretty soon and stop taunting us with these clever hijinks.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing more of this precious, mind-bending stuff. And soon. It’s truly a joy to watch.