In Asia, New Questions About Growth Emerge

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A worker moves bags of cement at a factory in Ningxia, China. Photo by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

You can’t talk about economic growth without talking about Asia. Major economies there — those of China and India in particular — are booming. And that boom is firmly tied to GDP growth: In 2010, the World Bank projects a growth rate of 9.5 percent in China, and 7.4 percent in India — with expectations of a rise to 8 and 9 percent in coming years.

Those seem like big numbers, especially in the context of financial recession.

But some voices within Asia are questioning their meaning — and wisdom. A fantastic piece popped up in the New York Times recently, titled, “Rethinking the Measure of Growth,” which weaves together a much-ignored oil spill off the coast of Singapore, China’s recent success and enthrallment with GDP, and its parallel attempt at putting together a “green” GDP measurement.

What’s most interesting about the article is that it isn’t really about measuring growth at all — it’s about asking whether growth is an important thing to think about in the first place. Here’s a quote:

“The problem is not G.D.P.,” said Bhanoji Rao, a visiting economics professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “The problem is the culture of consumption.”

And it gets more interesting:

But economists like Mr. Xie and Mr. Rao warn that even with greener development, the result may still be the same if the goal remains an American-style standard of living. Asia may instead need to carve out a vastly different vision of prosperity that does not rely on ever-increasing levels of material consumption.

And in what represents a bit of strange casting, some economists say the answer may lie in drawing on Asia’s religious traditions — Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism — with their emphasis on harmony with nature and self-denial.

“Is there any commandment from the heavens that one must have one’s own swimming pool?” Mr. Rao said. “That one must have 10 bedrooms?”

To illustrate, he cited Mahatma Gandhi’s comment about the Earth’s providing enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

To my mind, here’s why this is exciting: a) the core notion that “progress” is tied to economic indicators — green or not — is being questioned and b) a re-examination of  local cultural traditions (Shinto, Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu) is being suggested as a way to recast the outlines of that progress.*

The air is bad in Beijing, and this is no mystery to the Chinese. The country seems torn between its rise as an economic powerhouse and the clear worsening of its physical environment — a threat which, eventually, will get in the way of everything. As Wang Jinnan, one of China’s leading environmental researchers, told the New York Times in 2007: “It is a very awkward situation for the country because our greatest achievement is also our biggest burden.”

Seems like these questions are emerging more and more from this part of the world (the connection between growth and India’s water crisis comes to mind). Can anyone share similar news from Asia?

*I’m not advocating for or against religion — just for a larger understanding of what it means to live a good life in a society that works. Part of that, I think, is rebuilding a rich and diverse cultural fabric that’ll get our minds off of growing economies and on to something a little more interesting…

Published by Scott Gast

Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.

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