February 3, 2019
‘The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism
Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work and asks the author 10 key questions
We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrate our conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.
Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.
That’s not for want of trying, mind. Library shelves groan under the weight of books about what digital technology is doing to us and our world. Lots of scholars are thinking, researching and writing about this stuff. But they’re like the blind men trying to describe the elephant in the old fable: everyone has only a partial view, and nobody has the whole picture. So our contemporary state of awareness is – as Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace once put it – one of “informed bewilderment”.
Which is why the arrival of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is such a big event. Many years ago – in 1988, to be precise – as one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School to hold an endowed chair she published a landmark book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which changed the way we thought about the impact of computerisation on organisations and on work. It provided the most insightful account up to that time of how digital technology was changing the work of both managers and workers. And then Zuboff appeared to go quiet, though she was clearly incubating something bigger. The first hint of what was to come was a pair of startling essays – one in an academic journal in 2015, the other in a German newspaper in 2016. What these revealed was that she had come up with a new lens through which to view what Google, Facebook et al were doing – nothing less than spawning a new variant of capitalism. Those essays promised a more comprehensive expansion of this Big Idea.
And now it has arrived – the most ambitious attempt yet to paint the bigger picture and to explain how the effects of digitisation that we are now experiencing as individuals and citizens have come about.
The headline story is that it’s not so much about the nature of digital technology as about a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.
“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.
Viewed from this perspective, the behaviour of the digital giants looks rather different from the roseate hallucinations of Wired magazine. What one sees instead is a colonising ruthlessness of which John D Rockefeller would have been proud. First of all there was the arrogant appropriation of users’ behavioural data – viewed as a free resource, there for the taking. Then the use of patented methods to extract or infer data even when users had explicitly denied permission, followed by the use of technologies that were opaque by design and fostered user ignorance.
And, of course, there is also the fact that the entire project was conducted in what was effectively lawless – or at any rate law-free – territory. Thus Google decided that it would digitise and store every book ever printed, regardless of copyright issues. Or that it would photograph every street and house on the planet without asking anyone’s permission. Facebook launched its infamous “beacons”, which reported a user’s online activities and published them to others’ news feeds without the knowledge of the user. And so on, in accordance with the disrupter’s mantra that “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission”.
When the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote that “surveillance is the business model of the internet” he was really only hinting at the reality that Zuboff has now illuminated. The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.
And it won’t be easy to fix because it requires us to tackle the essence of the problem – the logic of accumulation implicit in surveillance capitalism. That means that self-regulation is a nonstarter. “Demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists,” says Zuboff, “or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking old Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck, or a cow to give up chewing. These demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.”
The Age of Surveillance Capital is a striking and illuminating book. A fellow reader remarked to me that it reminded him of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in that it opens one’s eyes to things we ought to have noticed, but hadn’t. And if we fail to tame the new capitalist mutant rampaging through our societies then we will only have ourselves to blame, for we can no longer plead ignorance.
Ten questions for Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Larry Page saw that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood’
February 3, 2019
If you were to muse on the contribution of Japan to world literature in the 20th century, a host of authors’ names — from Soseki to Tanizaki, from Endo to Murakami, from Akutagawa to Kawabata — might come rushing to mind. Yet you might not realize that one of the most revolutionary moments in modern world literature occurred in Japan, but involved not a Japanese, but the most celebrated of all modern Chinese authors.
The scene: a biology class at Sendai Medical College in January 1906. The lecture finished, some lantern slides of photographs from the recent Russo-Japanese War that had raged in northeastern China were shown to medical students.
In one of the slides, Chinese bystanders apathetically surrounded a Chinese prisoner about to be executed as a traitor for providing information to the Russians. The Japanese classmates shouted and whooped “banzai” in approbation but, seated among them, a solitary Chinese student secretly burned with shame at the sight of his countryman humiliated in this way. What particularly appalled him was the attitude of the Chinese onlookers in the image who, though physically fit, seemed spiritually diseased.
Common medicine, the Chinese student realized, was never going to change this situation. What his countrymen needed was spiritual medicine. In that moment, he realized he needed to dedicate himself to something that would truly enlighten and modernize his nation: literature.
That student was Lu Xun, now widely regarded as the most important writer of modern Chinese literature, commemorated with major museums in both Beijing and Shanghai. He was born in Shaoxing in 1881 and died in Shanghai in 1936, and is best known for his savage satires on the plight of his native China in the early 20th century.
In his short stories “A Madman’s Diary” (1918) and “The True Story of Ah Q” (1921), Lu penned his devastating critiques of the disappointments of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and China’s ongoing social malaise.
He also wrote many wonderful stories looking back to his youth in rural China, such as “Nostalgia” (1909), in which his childish imagination is terrorized by Confucianism and thrilled by his house servant’s memories of the Taiping rebels, or the affecting portrait of a destitute, petty scholar in “Kong Yiji” (1919).
But it was Japan that unleashed Lu’s literary talent. As a young man, he was dismayed by some of the practices of traditional Chinese medicine and determined that he would bring the enlightenment of Western medicine to China. He arrived in Japan to study medicine in 1902, aged 21, and after concentrating on learning the Japanese language, proceeded in 1904 to Sendai Medical College.
Yet by 1906, Lu had abruptly abandoned those studies. Whether the lantern slide incident was the actual trigger or a bit of later self-mythologizing is hotly disputed, but what is clear is that Lu began proposing a radical new agenda: Literature was a nation’s true medicine.
Why literature and not philosophy or politics? And what prompted him to turn to literature that year?
The answer can be found in Japan’s own relation to literature, which was a relatively new and revolutionary concept in Japan in 1906. People had of course been writing plays, poetry and entertaining stories since ancient times, but the notion — imported from the West — that these could be collectively grouped together and comprise a discipline worthy of the profoundest contemplation was a new one in Japan in the late 19th century. Lu had arrived in Japan when it was in the grip of this literary renaissance.
Deeply disillusioned with the stifling influence of Confucianism on his return home, Lu’s first attempt to bring literary enlightenment to China was not to write his own stories, but to translate into Chinese, often via the medium of Japanese or German, stories from Britain, America, France, Finland and many countries of Eastern Europe. But his 1909 collection, “Tales from Abroad,” managed to sell just 41 of the 1,500 copies printed.
Among his later translations were pieces written by Natsume Soseki and, partly inspired by Soseki’s memoirs of Britain, in 1926 Lu penned a memoir of his instructor in biology in Sendai called “Fujino Sensei” in which he recounts how Fujino went to the trouble of personally correcting Lu’s weekly lecture notes.
In a famous parting scene, which has captivated the imaginations of Japanese readers ever since, Lu describes being called to his Japanese tutor’s house and receiving a photo of Fujino Sensei with the kanji characters, “sekibetsu” (sadness of parting) written on the back. After returning home to China in 1909, Lu hung it in pride of place on the east wall of his study in Beijing — pointing toward Japan — and wrote that he gained constant inspiration from gazing at it.
During the early decades of the 20th century, in which the Japanese Empire ever more strongly encroached upon China, the writings of Lu were a reminder of the close cultural ties and the warmth of human spirit that could exist between the two nations.
Lu’s writings were first published as a collection in Japanese in 1924 and Rojin, as he is known in Japan, was nowhere greater appreciated outside of China than in Japan itself.
Author Osamu Dazai wrote in 1945 a novel called “Sekibetsu” about Lu and, in 1991, the writer Hisashi Inoue published a play, “Shanghai Moon,” describing Lu’s deep friendship with the Japanese bookseller and publisher Kanzo Uchiyama in Shanghai in the 1930s. Lu even hid in Uchiyama’s bookshop in 1934 to avoid a round-up of left-wing writers.
The sense of literary mission that Lu acquired in Japan never left him. The greatest change he effected was in shifting our understanding of the power and potential of literature itself, of pushing aside the pieties of moralistic philosophy, and presenting literature as something which can move nations, probe the human mind and be the hands-on, skeptical and ever-questioning application of human wisdom.
The personal cost of Thailand’s political turbulence is often opaque to outsiders. It was surprising for this reader to discover that Anand Panyarachun, scion of the Thai establishment, was once himself caught in the swiftly changing tides of Thai power politics. In the bout of indigenous McCarthyism that followed the October 1976 anti-student thuggery at Thammasat University, scores were also settled amongst the elites. This saw Anand, then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, investigated as a communist sympathiser. Stood down from his position, Anand spent some weeks in limbo before being exonerated, by which time he had already decided that his career as a diplomat was over and business would be his next pursuit. It was not the last time that the outspoken public figure was to incur the wrath of powerful figures, including in military and judicial circles.
Dominic Faulder’s new biography is a very welcome addition to the rather sparse English-language offerings on former Thai political leaders. While Anand’s life was depicted in a 1999 biography in Thai, this is the first consolidated portrait in English, covering Anand’s career as diplomat, politician, businessman and philanthropist. As Faulder intends, the account of Anand’s life is also a very accessible and vivid account of Thai diplomatic and political history. Particularly well covered are two decades: the 1970s, as Thailand “separated” from the United States and its military bases, and the 1990s, when Anand as a two-term prime minister set in train what many mistakenly thought was to be a permanent democratic trajectory.
Born of a mother of Hokkien Chinese background, and a father of Mon ancestry, whose own forbears had held senior positions in the Siamese bureaucracy, Anand’s family name was bestowed by Rama VI. It drew on the Sanksrit-Pali for wisdom, panyaa and the name of the Ramayana hero, Arjuna. After growing up in Bangkok, including living through the Japanese occupation, Anand followed in his father’s footsteps with a British public school education.
Schooling in England at age 16 in 1948 brought with it a tough first year of “unrelenting cultural immersion”. But by the time he graduated from Cambridge in 1955, after spending 7 continuous and formative years in England, he had become in his own words, “practically bicultural”.
Excellent English language and sharp critical thinking skills meant that after joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 1955 his career progression was rapid. Helped by a close relationship with foreign minister Thanat Khoman, Anand was appointed Ambassador to the United States at tender age of 39, a position he later held while concurrently representing Thailand at the United Nations. Interestingly, at this time Anand and the Thais were elder mentors to the relatively inexperienced Singaporean diplomats, a situation that would be hard to imagine today.
Anand’s forthrightness and unwillingness to suffer fools were on display from early in his career, as was his strong belief that MOFA should lead on foreign policy. From time to time, both characteristics brought him into conflict with the Thai military, at no time more so than when he took a hard line on negotiating the terms of the exit of United States forces from Thailand under then Foreign Minister Chatichai Choonhaven. His willingness to insist on MOFA’s prerogatives on foreign policy made him enemies in the Thai military, who then sought his downfall following the 1976 violence. The account of this difficult period in Thailand’s alliance with the United States is one of the book’s highlights, as is the account of Anand’s visit to China accompanying Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj in 1975, including meetings with the ailing Mao.
Many will also read with great interest the telling of Anand’s two formal forays into politics in the early 1990s. Never a member of any political party, Anand’s clean reputation lead to him being tapped twice for short stints as prime minister, each time as a way of circumventing political crises. The exact circumstances of Anand becoming an appointed, rather than elected, prime minister are given close attention in this book and are revealing of patterns of Thai politics, and in particular the role of the monarchy. The book also gives good accounts of key achievements of the Anand governments, including the ASEAN free trade agreement, the Cambodian peace process and the effective response to HIV/AIDs.
Anand’s direct, confident manner led some to question his “Thainess”. Certainly he was sometimes warned by colleagues to soften his approach in debating his peers and disciplining his staff. But to Tej Bunnag, a contemporary of MOFA who also ventured briefly into politics, “Anand is very Thai but of a certain kind”, with a personality reflecting his background as “the youngest son of a very distinguished family”.
While it is tempting to imagine that more politicians like Anand in Thailand’s leadership class might be the solution to Thailand’s struggles with democracy, it is probably also true that his uncompromising manner would be difficult to sustain over a longer period. And while it is true the man and his political record reveal few blemishes, one area where Anand might now admit he might have done more is with respect to unionism. As Prime Minister Anand presided over legislation that one activist called “the most crushing blow ever for the Thai labour movement”. Unfortunately as this review was written, Thailand had just claimed the unenviable title of world champion of income inequality, with 1% of the population possessing 66% of Thailand’s wealth.
In his post-prime ministerial career Anand continued to sit on numerous boards, including banks, as well as take an active role in his first choice of business, Saha Union. He also worked on several international and national inquiries and commissions, including for the United Nations. Probably his most significant contribution, with many recommendations yet to be implemented, is with respect to the troubled South. Anand took charge of a National Reconciliation Commission after the violence flared again after 2004, but the political division since the 2006 coup has stymied progress. Anand remains committed to decentralisation and devolution of power to Thailand’s outer regions, not only the southern border provinces but also the north. On this score, Anand remains more liberal than many of his colleagues in the ruling elite.
A staunch monarchist, Anand has never served on the Privy Council and appears unlikely to do so. In the words of businessman Prida Tiasuwan, Anand is “pale yellow” in his approach to the monarchy. A massive reader, a gregarious and willing public speaker, with a sharp and analytical mind, Anand as a royalist democrat has been a significant contributor to Thailand’s public life and national development.
Faulder’s account of his life is highly readable. It is not without some flaws; the book sometimes gets into trouble when freelancing on history. For example, the claim that Thailand never joined the League of Nations is mistaken; while it was never member of the League Council, the executive body of the General Assembly, it was an active founding member of the League itself. Anand himself seems sketchy on Siamese history. For example, when he states that Thailand as an uncolonised country was left untutored on international relations, Anand seems to overlook the role of the several capable and trusted foreign legal advisers employed by Thai kings, such as the Belgian Gustav Rolin-Jaequemins employed by Chulalongkorn or the American Francis Sayre employed by Vajiravudh.
A book cannot be all things to all readers, but there were some questions I would have liked to have seen explored. What for example, are Anand’s attitudes to Buddhism, to modern China, to the future of US–China relations? Does Anand himself speak Chinese? Based on many interviews with Anand, the book in the end is a sympathetic biography. Faulder does seek to gently challenge Anand, seeking for example his reaction to Duncan McCargo’s “network monarchy” thesis and the suggestion that he is part of this network. But the additional interviewees are also somewhat biased towards the “yellow” royalist side of politics. It may have been interesting to know how some of the Red Shirt or Pheu Thai leadership or even Thaksin Shinawatra clan remember Anand. These are however, relatively small quibbles, and the book is highly recommended.
Dr Greg Raymond is Research Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. He is currently writing a book on Thailand’s alliance with the United States, with John Blaxland. His book on Thai strategic culture, Thai Military Power: a Culture of Strategic Accommodation was published by NIAS Press in 2018. Before joining the ANU, he worked extensively in the Australian Government, including in strategic and defence international policy areas of the Department of Defence.
January 13, 2019
New York Times Book Review: “The Truths We Hold”
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I was raised to do things, not to talk about myself or my feelings — or frankly, even to look back. It was an effort to talk about my feelings as things were happening. It was difficult. I talk about a lot that’s really personal, and that I had not talked about in public. That was a component of it that made me feel very vulnerable. But I felt it was important to talk about for a couple of reasons. One, I’m really clear in my mind that there are a lot of experiences I’ve had, emotional experiences and responses, that are in common with a lot of people. But more important, I wanted to give context to the work I’ve done. Almost everything I’ve done professionally has been motivated by some experience I’ve been exposed to.
The process of writing the book required me to really explore what I was feeling at those moments. For example, the whole chapter that we named “Underwater” — I had never talked about the fact that our mother bought our first house when I was a teenager. I’ll never forget, when my mother came back and said, “This is going to be our home.” The pictures and the excitement she had, and the excitement we then had. I connected that emotion to what it meant for all those homeowners who either had that hope when they engaged in what ended up being a fraudulent mortgage scheme or when they lost their homes. Knowing what that meant, when I’m sitting across the table from executives at the biggest banks in the country and feeling a sense of responsibility, that this wasn’t simply a financial transaction. When your mother comes home with the picture of the first home you’re ever going to have, it’s not like someone waving around a piece of paper with a stock portfolio. It’s a whole other thing.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Hopefully the book takes the reader on a journey down memory lane about the last 12 months and how much happened. Everything is happening so rapidly right now that a lot of people tend to forget what just happened six months ago, when the thing that happened six months ago was earth-shattering. There’s a lot in the book that was happening in real time; so literally as I’m writing it, it’s happening. The book was due and then the Brett Kavanaugh hearings happened, and so how do I handle that? It was important to me to at least try to talk about that, knowing that people will be reading about it months after it happened.
“I hope you’ll walk away renewing your faith in the nobility and importance of public service, and convinced that we are a country that was founded on noble ideals. Imperfect though we may be, what makes us strong, and special, is that we’ve always aspired to reach those ideals.”–Kamala Harris.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Certainly my mother. She was incredibly creative, as a scientist. But when I think about performers: Bob Marley. I first started listening to him when I was a child. My father had an incredible jazz collection but also a lot of Marley. I saw him in concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. I was hooked.
Jamaica’s history is actually not that well known in the context of the issues we deal with in the United States. But Jamaica grappled with vicious slavery for generations, and then colonists, with a very strong sense of identity in terms of what it meant to be particularly a black Jamaican. A lot of his music was about what it means to fight for the people. He was a very spiritual person also. I’m very spiritual. I don’t talk a lot about it, but the idea that there is a higher being and that we should be motivated by love of one another — that also requires us to fight.
Persuade someone to read “The Truths We Hold” in 50 words or less.
I hope you’ll walk away renewing your faith in the nobility and importance of public service, and convinced that we are a country that was founded on noble ideals. Imperfect though we may be, what makes us strong, and special, is that we’ve always aspired to reach those ideals.
January 12, 2018
By: Cyril Pereira
Can planet Earth survive Asia’s economic drive?
The Sustainable State is Hong Kong-based environmentalist and author Chandran Nair’s second book, following Consumptionomics, published in 2011. Both call for urgent recognition of the looming ecological disaster for humanity. The book launch in Hong Kong’s trendy Lan Kwai Fong district on Nov. 13 was billed as a conversation between Nair, and Zoher Abdool Karim, the recently retired TIME Asia editor. Nair’s manifesto dominated. A bemused Zoher was the smiling prop. The audience could have gained more from meaningful interlocution.
Chandran Nair has been the town crier on environmental disaster for 20 years. He faults industrialization, capitalism, free enterprise and liberal economics, for destroying the ecosystems of rivers, forests, air and water on so vast a scale, that life itself is the price paid by the poorest across the developing world. Malnutrition, starvation, and lack of access to potable water, plagues many societies at subsistence level.
The developed world prospered from early industrialization to capture vast resources via conquest and colonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America, he writes. The poorest societies hold the richest deposits of minerals, fossil fuels and land for plantations of rubber, palm oil, tea and coffee. Pesticides and insecticides from Monsanto and others destroy their soils and ruin their water systems. They have also been too frequently run by kleptocrats.
What he calls the “externalities” of capitalist trade – environmental degradation, pollution, social dislocation, disease and malnutrition, impact the poorest disproportionately. Therein lies the supreme irony. Nair wants these externalities of economic activity priced and charged directly to corporations. He also wants individual accountability for wasteful consumption computed for carbon footprints and taxed to discourage waste.
Responsible development and consumer habits need to be enforced, if we are to survive our collective un-wisdom. How the corporations and individuals would agree to these principles, and the respective methods to calculate the amounts to pay, are undefined. Nair does not expect the culprits to volunteer. By the legal trick of defining corporations as ‘persons,’ companies can argue rights protecting individual citizens, under national Constitutions.
Migration to cities in Europe progressed over an extended period, without too much social disruption. Rural migration to cities in the developing economies is too rapid, within a compressed time-frame. Slum populations struggle without sanitation, proper housing, access to fresh water, electricity, or schooling for children, in too many cities across the developing world. This hollowing-out of rural populations is wasteful.
A whole new raft of public policies needs to evolve for ecological balance. Development plans to retain rural manpower and incentivize agricultural food security, are absent. Urban dwellers have to pay higher prices for natural produce, instead of buying packaged food in supermarkets. Efficient public transport systems have to be built to prevent city traffic gridlock. Electric vehicles have to replace fossil fuel engines.
Nair’s nightmare is the adoption by developing countries of the Western model for economic growth. India and China will constitute 30 percent of the global 10 billion by 2050. Add Africa, Latin America, and the rest of developing Asia to that, and the consequences of feckless industrialization, along with wasteful urban consumption, are too obvious. Nair advocates a radical overhaul of the development mindset.
Prescriptions from the developed world peddled by the World Bank and the IMF, in Nair’s mind, exceed Planet Earth’s healing capacity. Natural resource depletion and poisoning of the earth, water and air, must be stopped now. Hurricanes and typhoons destroying habitats and flooding societies, are increasing in frequency and ferocity. The consequences are all too real for climate change deniers.
Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea
The weight of floating plastic in the oceans will soon exceed that of the global fish stock. This poison has entered our food chain, killing us slowly while choking sea life. Human overpopulation, food cultivation and de-forestation, wipes out wildlife at the rate of 30,000 species per year, according to Harvard biologist E. O Wilson. Now our collective irresponsibility will kill the oceans too.
Prioritize social equity
If replicating the Western growth model is madness, what are the alternatives? Nair moves into contentious territory on this. He calls for strong government and a revised development agenda. Rather than Hollywood-movie lifestyles, he suggests inclusive policies for all citizens to ensure clean water, electricity, sanitation, universal education and gainful employment as minimal benchmarks. Modest prosperity benefits all.
Social equity, well-being and protection of nature cannot be achieved without political legitimacy and effective rulership. Governance has been hijacked by Big Biz and sponsor politicians. Lobby groups target lawmakers. PR companies spin fakery for corporations and politicians. The mass media is co-opted through advertising and ownership. All at the expense of gullible citizens, led to believe they have some say every five years.
Strong state works
Nair contrasts the dysfunctions of India with the success of China. He skates on thin ice where individual rights and freedoms can be ignored, for the collective good. He says only a “strong” state has the mass mobilization capacity to marshal people, resources and investment, for sustainable development. To Nair, Hong Kong is a weak state unable to address basic public housing. He jests that a boss imposed by Beijing can fix that.
The European Union is a strong authority able to mandate socially responsible policy across its constituent members. Britain and the US are weak states floundering for effective governance, polarized by divisive populist politics. Nair is less interested in ideologies of the Left or Right, than in the State as effective authority for the common good. He wants the institutions of good governance strengthened at every level.
Oddly, Nair dismisses world governance as the solution. The United Nations, overly compromised by funding dependency and too timid to upset powerful voting blocs, is not his answer. Where then will the needed global course-correction come from? The issues Nair raises are urgent. Are we doomed to self-destruct by default anyway? If he has an answer, Nair has not articulated it in his books, or his public campaigns. Perhaps there might be a third book for that.