The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy, and Society

Chandran Nair

288 pages, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018

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The Sustainable State builds off my first book, Consumptionomics, which took to task those in Asia who believed that development and progress could only be achieved by copying the Western-model of consumption-led growth. The reality is that focus on high consumption and growth-at-all-costs would greatly strain the region’s fragile environment and worsen consequences for all and especially the very poor.

But while Consumptionomics highlighted the problem, The Sustainable State tries to think about how to find solutions to solve it. If we cannot pursue “Consumptionomics” in a world of resource constraints, what might a policy of “Constrainomics” look like?

What follows is a brief discussion of what I believe is the major challenge facing the world’s large developing countries. These countries still have millions of people that lack access to what I term the basic rights of life: clean water, basic sanitation, safe and secure food supplies, a safe and secure home, good healthcare, and so on. It is both a political and moral imperative that their standard of living is improved. But if large developing countries try to improve living standards through the standard Western model of development, they will doom both the planet and their own societies.

However, no one who talks about sustainable development has really come to terms with this problem. Many refuse to think about it, instead hoping that some technological development or new business model might make the problem go away. But it won’t.

The rest of The Sustainable State deals with my proposed solution: an active and interventionist state that can provide basic needs while also constraining over-consumption at the topic. This excerpt starts with a real-world story of such a state: China’s policy of reforestation in Youyu County.—Chandran Nair



In 2012, I traveled to Youyu County, nestled in the northwestern corner of China’s Shanxi Province. It can be easy to assume and expect that Youyu County, like large parts of central China, is a dusty, arid semidesert—especially after you learn that almost 90 percent of the local economy is driven by coal mining. But Youyu County isn’t brown; it’s green. Forests and grasslands blanket the landscape, holding back the nearby deserts.

This wasn’t always the case. The county is close to the Ordos Desert, which had steadily expanded into the region due to soil erosion and drought. In 1949, over three-quarters of the region’s land had been affected by desertification. This was clearly bad on its own terms, but the desertification also had serious effects on the county’s development. Agriculture was difficult, which kept incomes low and kept people in poverty. Those who could leave often did.

An old rhyme from Youyu puts the issue more plainly:

It was so dark that people needed lamps during the day,
At night the sand will bury your door which won’t open in the morning
Once windy there was a sandstorm,
Once rainy there was a flood
The hills were bare like the head of a monk,
Nine out of ten years there was no harvest
Most men left in search of better lives,
The ladies left behind dug wild herbs to feed themselves.

Nowadays, desertification is one of China’s major national environmental priorities. The country’s expanding deserts are blamed both for swallowing up large tracts of arable land and for worsening the air pollution crisis in Beijing and other major cities. China has launched many programs to combat desertification, from tree-planting campaigns to moving communities away from overgrazed and overfarmed regions. The Chinese government is now starting to plant forests—a “Green Necklace”—along the Hebei-Beijing border to help combat creeping desertification and large-scale pollution from the manufacturing-driven Hebei Province.

But, in Youyu, the fight against desertification started much earlier. The county’s first party chief, upon taking office in 1949, reportedly stated that the county’s development guideline should be: “To be rich, stop the sandstorm. To stop the sandstorm, plant more trees.” Over the decades, this approach made the county a national leader in reforestation. Government officials took pride in their work, even as China’s opening to the rest of the world and subsequent rapid growth highlighted flashier symbols of development. When I was there, I was told that when the county mayor was promoted to a new position elsewhere in the country, the only souvenir he took from his office was the beat-up shovel he used during his twelve years in Youyu.

Today Youyu is called a “Green Pearl”—far from the barren desert landscape of decades past. The numbers are truly staggering. At the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, only about 0.3 percent of Youyu County was covered in forest. By 2016, this number had risen to 54 percent, higher than both the national average (21.36 percent) and the world average (32 percent). Water and soil erosion during the rainy season have been reduced by as much as 60 percent. The number of sandstorm days has been halved. Desertification has been effectively halted in its tracks, and the planting of trees has become a revered activity for all age groups in this rural population.

Controlling the sandstorms unlocked Youyu’s economic potential. The county has replaced traditional subsistence farming with “high-quality, high efficiency ecological agriculture.” The forests have also encouraged tourism, with over seven hundred thousand visitors to the county in 2010.

Youyu is a shining example of not just environmental protection but also environmental regeneration and achieving long-term sustainability objectives. But it took heavy government intervention and unusual leadership over a period of decades to hold back the desert. The government devised a strict blueprint for reforestation that was followed for over half a century, spanning two generations. Party cadres became “Forest Directors,” responsible for tree planting. Finally, the government organized the people into a mass reforestation movement, which supported the efforts of the state, thereby also gaining legitimacy at the same time.

It is hard to think of another country that has actively reforested its countryside in this way over two generations in such extreme conditions, and certainly none can be found in the developing world. Youyu’s officials had a great deal of authority, but they were passionate about governance and improving the lives of society as a whole. And, in turn, the people trusted their leaders’ judgment and worked over several decades to support their objectives.

It is worth asking a potentially bold question: Could the Indian government reforest one of its states in this way? Would Indonesia’s government be able to reforest vast parts of Kalimantan (Borneo), where, very fortunately, the climate would easily support such an effort? Or could the US launch such a large-scale program of reforestation? To ask an even more bold question about the role of the state in attaining sustainability goals: Would the US be able to build a network of high-speed trains across the country and thus reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation sector as China has done? Are these countries capable of turning the tools of the state toward sustainability, resource protection, environmental regeneration, and survival?


Throughout my career, both as the former chairman of Asia’s largest environmental management consultancy and currently as the founder of a pan-Asian think tank focused on economic development and sustainability, I’ve come away from countless conferences and meetings about sustainable development with business leaders, government officials, and NGOs with the same nagging thought.

Very few people seem—from what they say and write—to have truly grappled with the multidimensional and global scale of the sustainability challenge and confronted the realities and the brutally honest nature of the solutions needed, apart from actions (untested in policy to date) against global climate change—an important part of the sustainability challenge, but only a part.

This is not to say that people do not grasp the severity of the problem, nor that they are not passionate in trying to find solutions. Instead, it would appear that the current conversation about sustainable development is based on several flawed premises that distract us from coming up with real solutions that will require painful adjustments, especially by the global “haves,” and redefining our ideas about prosperity.

The idea of sustainable development has become confused with pollution reduction, being environmentally friendly, or even just being environmentally conscious. This has allowed many organizations across the world, especially businesses, to paint their actions as improving their sustainability and tackling the global challenge. Actions as small as an office lowering the temperature setting of its air conditioning and as indirect as Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of a water-use reduction conference are placed under the umbrella of “sustainability”—in spite of the fact that both entities either engage in massively unsustainable practices themselves or encourage them in others. Organizations such as the UN have, in my view, muddied the waters by not taking a clear position and instead creating platforms such as the Global Compact, where multinational corporations can showcase their all-too-often superficial attempts at sustainability while allowing the UN to promote its engagement business, and thus claim it is being fair and inclusive to all stakeholders. Even worse, these platforms have become respected institutions, thus not even allowing well-informed UN officials to be intellectually honest, for fear of upsetting corporate members of the Global Compact and the numerous other Business Advisory Councils it has created.

Here is why environmental awareness is not the same as being “sustainable”: “being green” is about reducing the environmental costs of economic activity and other human impacts, such as proper disposal of human waste. In this day and age, one could even say that taking action about the environmental impacts associated with economic activity is simply doing the “decent” thing, which should be no badge of honor. Sustainability goes deeper than harm reduction. It concerns the management of common and public resources to ensure they are not overused or abused, so that all people have fair and equal access to them.

Perhaps it would be best to start from first principles. Sustainability is the ability of a system to survive indefinitely, by not using or abusing resources faster than its ability to replenish itself. A more sustainable economy, therefore, is one with a smaller gap between its use/abuse of resources and the Earth’s ability to renew them. Some green techniques, though good on their own merits, do not reduce this gap. In other words: all sustainable systems are green, but not all green systems are sustainable.

Development, by contrast, refers to the provision of basic needs and standards of living to a population that constitutes an improved quality of life. A developed economy is one that largely provides basic needs universally among its entire population; by contrast, a developing country has yet to achieve this. The basic needs include, but are certainly not limited to, safe and secure food supply systems, clean water, safe and sturdy shelter, basic energy systems, sanitation, and high-quality health care and education.

Like sustainability, development has become a broad term. Some use it to refer to high economic growth, even if fundamental living standards have not improved for a large part of the population. Some tie it to modernization, especially along Western lines. This often links development with flashy symbols of modernity: skyscrapers in Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, or Manila are seen as proof of development, even as poverty continues to exist not far from the city center and targets the majority. The newest development fad is the internet, with exaggerated claims that connectivity is a must to address issues of poverty alleviation and will also help the cause of sustainable development. The new development paradigm seems to have more to do with fiber optics and satellites to connect everyone than with toilets, sewers, water supply networks, and proper roofs.

There is also a bad habit of deeming unfamiliar systems as “undeveloped” even if they get better results. The West can be particularly guilty of this, calling countries that follow Western models of economics and politics to be more developed, even if the results are growing inequality, and even if non-Western models have had better results.

This return to first principles leads us to the idea of sustainable development: the improvement of living standards and provision of basic needs in a manner that does not consume or abuse resources at a faster rate than they are replenished and that also preserves the right of future generations.


There is, as of now, no answer to what I will call the “India question”: How can India, a country of 1.2 billion (peaking at 1.5 billion in 2050), lift hundreds of millions, and perhaps as much as half a billion, out of poverty in the next thirty years, yet also curtail its emissions and resource use at the same time? All the economic development models available to India would release huge amounts of emissions, produce mountains of waste, overuse resources and create even more pollution, and would thus worsen the global sustainability challenge. However, India, with some justification, argues that it would be unfair to deny better living standards to its hundreds of millions of people and so should strive to standards attained by Europeans and Americans by employing the same approach to development. In a perfect world, India would be absolutely right. But as the book will argue, this will not be possible, and this problem encapsulates the sustainable development challenge for the developing world.

India is not alone in needing to pursue sustainability and development at the same time. Despite huge progress in alleviating poverty globally (mainly in China), many in the global majority are still not provided with basic needs. According to the World Bank, 700 million people still live on less than US$2 a day. One in ten people lack access to clean water. One in three does not have a proper toilet despite having a mobile phone. Then you have the hundreds of millions who, although not living in abject poverty, still do not have a reasonably comfortable living standard, with access to good education, a safe home, and health care for themselves and their families.

However, the current attempts by developing countries to improve the livelihood of their people, while successful in alleviating abject poverty, have also had huge repercussions in terms of environmental degradation and resource depletion, not to mention social costs. Cramped cities with inadequate housing are choked by smog and poor waste disposal, which create huge public health risks for residents. Ancient forests, reservoirs of biodiversity, are cut down to make room for plantations. Groundwater and waterways are contaminated by trash, industrial and agricultural chemicals, and human waste. Then add the carbon emissions that are likely to be added by the construction of new power plants, the massive growth in car ownership levels, and the expansion of agriculture (among other activities), and one can see how this quickly becomes a global issue even if impacts are most felt at the local level.

Developing countries like India are thus currently stuck in a dilemma. Do they develop using the models available to them, and risk damaging, if not destroying, their environments and impoverishing their people further? Do they lie and promise Western living standards to their people, despite the fact that this will lead to ruin? The harsh truth is that they can’t. But without an alternative understanding of prosperity and development, this admission is tantamount to dooming their people to perpetual poverty—a morally and politically difficult argument. This is a dilemma not addressed by Western experts and institutions, as it would raise some fundamental questions about the economic and political models being promoted and result in all sorts of accusations that liberals are unwilling to confront. The resource footprints of countries like China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil will— and must—increase if they are to achieve a basic standard of living for all their people. Yet the only development models available to them are unsustainable and borrowed from Western economic and political orthodoxy.

How can the developing world provide the most basic living standards for their whole population, without destroying the planet in the process? This is the real challenge of sustainable development.