Government is the key to achieving sustainability, says Chandran Nair.

Earlier this year, I travelled to a rural part of India’s Maharashtra state, far from the urban hustle and bustle of Mumbai, to run a leadership programme for corporate executives from around the world. The area is suffering from a major drought. Access to water has become the difference between farmers staying on their land and keeping their livestock, or abandoning it entirely.

The proud and hardy community is doing its best to sustain itself, and is being assisted by various local donor-backed initiatives to provide free fodder and water to cattle, but it is clear the problem is not going away. The drought is not a short-term emergency. It is a long-term structural problem. Decades of neglect and mismanagement of water resources, including over-exploitation, have drastically reduced river flows and ground water tables across a region that is prone to low rainfall. Rich farmers, who can afford to drill deeper, stay productive, while poorer farmers are pushed off their land or become indentured. Economic distress is disproportionately cited as the reason for thousands of farmer suicides – and climate change is threatening to make things much worse.

The question to be asked is: where is the government, and what is its role? Where are the water-management plans – reservoirs, irrigation systems – and regulations that might have avoided over-exploitation and depletion of ground water aquifers? Where is the strategy to restore water tables and the ecological landscape, like large-scale tree planting, or programmes to help farmers adapt to their new harsh reality?

The situation is a stark reminder of one of the core arguments in my book The Sustainable State: that business, civil society and communities can only do so much with regard to the manifold challenges of sustainability. This will become more problematic as climate change and resource constraints rise in prominence over the coming decades, especially in large developing countries like India. Without the presence of a strong and effective state, communities like those of rural Maharashtra will be fighting a losing battle.

The sustainability dilemma

This sort of scenario is playing out in many parts of the world, both rich and poor: fires in California, floods in Europe, heatwaves and typhoons in Japan, and so on. Yet one still encounters the same denial-laden narratives at sustainability conferences across the world. They are dominated by presentations and panel discussions that fail to connect with the real issues, offering pious, facile answers and none of the hard-hitting solutions that are urgently needed. Chief executives pledge that companies will improve their resource use and reduce their environmental impact. Thought leaders and consulting firms argue that innovations in technology will eventually overcome our need for resources. Heads of NGOs show picture-perfect examples of communities practising sustainability at the local level, while multilateral agencies present the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a magic wand solution.

Yet few of these people are grappling with, or even willing to acknowledge, the fundamental cause of our unsustainable global economy: the Western-derived, free-market model of economic development, which pursues relentless consumption-driven growth at any cost by under-pricing resources and externalizing costs. It is a model that has been exported globally and is almost universally accepted as the only way to sustain economies, alleviate poverty and create prosperity.

This leaves large developing nations with a problem. They need to improve living standards for their large populations who still lack access to basic necessities and the ‘rights of life’, while protecting resources, yet that economic model will deplete their (and the world’s) common resources. The externalities it produces not only reduce the quality of life today, but impinge on the rights of future generations.

By contrast, the developed world has a relatively easy task, having already provided a basic standard of living for most of its people. Yet there are now high expectations about rights, living standards and quality of life, which the state dares not challenge in the pursuit of sustainability. No sacrifices can be called for. This often defines the political discourse and actions that follow.

The developing world does not have that luxury. Its priorities require very different political objectives, and new approaches to governance and public policy-making. The only option is a strong and effective state that can improve access to basic needs for the disenfranchised majority, while preserving resource stocks for future generations – thus managing the tension between collective welfare and unfettered individual rights.

Why the state?

Businesses, even when they claim to be green, cannot be the vanguard of such an approach to sustainability. They are in the business of producing and selling more, externalizing costs as they pursue their overall aim of growth. When they think of sustainability, they are limited to focusing on harm reduction and improved efficiency. However, sustainability requires not just doing more with less, but actually doing less; or, in some cases, complete avoidance. That can only be under the purview of the state.

Nor are technological solutions the panacea they are often made out to be. Innovations won’t be spread if a market encourages business-as-usual, because under-priced and unsustainable goods and services – not to mention monopolies – price out better technologies. It can take several decades for a new innovation to become widely affordable in the developing world. The fact that millions around the world still lack access to basic water supplies and sanitation, arguably the most important technologies for human life, should tell us that innovation alone is not enough to overcome powerful economic and political barriers.

Viewed through the lens of the developing world, it is evident that sustainability requires strong governance of the economy. The state is the only entity with the legitimacy, authority and resources to do that. The alternatives are simply not viable. On one hand, global governance fails if not backed by states with the power and will to take action: think of how the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions has been undermined by the US’s withdrawal. Equally, local communities do not have the reach needed to transform the economy. Many good local initiatives are halted by an inability to organize nationally, and by national governments that are either unwilling to act or, worse, are actively anti-sustainability.

The sustainable state

The sustainable state – a strong government with the capacity and competence to intervene consistently in the economy – would have three major objectives.

Basic Needs 1. Protecting common and public goods for the basic rights of life

First, the sustainable state would protect common and public goods to ensure that both current and future generations receive the basic rights of life.

This is the state’s core human rights obligation. Society depends on common and public resources that cannot be properly managed by an unregulated free market. Without controls, common resources are over-exploited and depleted, so the state must invest in strong institutions, reliable monitoring and independent enforcement agencies to determine how resources are used, distribute access licenses, and punish those who cheat.

A strong state could encourage better use of public resources by seizing any illegally extracted resources and counting them towards annual quotas for that resource. This would encourage companies that do want to follow the rules to put serious effort into any ‘self-policing’ initiative.

Protecting common goods is a critical challenge, not only for current generations, but so that future generations can access basic resources and necessities. In Maharashtra, the lack of water management means that hundreds of farmers and their children now struggle to preserve even a basic standard of living. Water is a fundamental human right. Contrast the effect of its shortages with the freedom of speech:  they all still have that, but it counts for little when water is short. Better water management would have preserved a path to development and provided those people with the chance to overcome the drudgery of their current existence, by creating “moderate prosperity”.

Moderate Prosperity2. Moderate prosperity

The second task for the sustainable state would be to manage its population’s expectations through well-stated policies, to create a vision of moderate prosperity: a comfortable standard of living that remains within reasonable planetary boundaries in our hot, crowded and constrained future.

Defining moderate prosperity would be a challenge. Currently, the only vision of the “good life” is the wholly unsustainable American one: a large suburban home, two cars, meat with every meal, and so on. Even populations that have followed a very different model of economic development, such as China’s, still have the American way of life as their ultimate objective.

Governments need to define what kind of lifestyle can exist within planetary boundaries and thus help mould truly sustainable societies where it is not a free-for-all when it comes to resource access and wealth creation. Social justice and the cohesion of these societies depend on such a vision. It requires thinking about what people actually need and want to do, rather than what they can or want to own. Once those needs have been clarified, governments can determine more efficient ways to achieve those results.

For example, car ownership is often considered one of the signifiers of prosperity. But is car ownership in itself prosperous, or is it the ability to travel from one point to another at some reasonable level of speed and convenience? If it’s the latter, then we may be well advised to invest in efficient public transportation systems and better urban planning, allowing people to be mobile without relying on mass car ownership.

Thinking about aspirations and comfort in this way allows people to live prosperous lives without creating the externalities that go along with American-style excess.

Constrain Consumption3. Constraining over-consumption

The third task for the sustainable state would be to constrain over-consumption at the top of the income scale, beyond the level of moderate prosperity.

It is not enough for governments to help those at the bottom, because elite consumption places excessive costs on the rest of society. This means pricing in externalities to ensure that true costs are reflected in market prices. It means taxing over-consumption, through an array of economic instruments like road pricing, or outright bans, for example of plastic bottles.

Income and wealth inequality are currently hot political issues, but consumption inequality is also important. Ensuring that people do not consume too large a share of resources will be critical in a more resource-constrained future.

This will mean making important choices. Should cities continue to expand along coastlines if sea levels threaten to rise? What about suburban sprawl in places prone to wildfires? Should households in arid environments expect to have a lawn and a swimming pool? And should people in hot or cold environments expect their homes to be exactly 22C?

These questions get at core redefinitions needed under the sustainable state: those of ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’. In today’s consumerist society, consumers act as if they have a right to their consumption – if they can afford something, they should be allowed to purchase it and use it as they wish, regardless of consequences. The sustainable state needs to set some firm rules about what, and how, things can be consumed. In such a state, people in arid environments could still choose to have a swimming pool: they would just need to be willing to pay the true price, which may be exorbitant.

The strong state: China?

No state has adopted the type of governance needed to overcome the sustainability crisis. But the one that comes closest is China. It is one of only two countries on track to achieve its Paris climate targets. It has embarked on a number of ecological restoration projects and supported important industries: the plummeting price of solar power is due almost entirely to Chinese support of the industry.

But more importantly, China’s state-driven path to development means that it already has the tools to intervene and manage its economy. It can orient those tools towards greater sustainability without needing to spend time and political will on building them. Other countries, both developed and developing, need to create or recreate them.

True, China has made many mistakes. It has significant problems with air, soil and water pollution. It has treated rural labour like an unending resource for its growth, depopulating rural areas and communities. And more importantly, the Chinese people still define prosperity as Western over-consumption, which will be completely untenable for a population of over a billion. But when Beijing decides to change its approach – and, as recent statements from the National People’s Congress show, it seems to have already done so – it has far more tools at its disposal.

The importance of the state

A discussion of strong states and sustainable development should end with this cutting question: if you are poor, would you rather be poor in China or in India?

An honest reading of the situation would imply that China is the right answer. The key difference is that China understands that governance and a strong state is critical when it comes to development for large poor nations trying to give their people a chance. India has sadly struggled to realize the same, despite its democracy and rich resources including its human capital.

Developing and developed countries alike should take this lesson to heart. As the world becomes more resource-constrained, business-as-usual won’t get us to a sustainable future. Only the strong sustainable state can. Only it can then direct and unleash the private sector to solve the true challenges of our time – which go far beyond building another app or e-commerce platform to order more stuff online.

— Chandran Nair is founder and chief executive of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, and author of The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy and Society (2018).