Hundred dollar hamburger?

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A noted environmentalist and author has claimed that the value of most global resources is 'totally under priced' and if the true economic and environmental costs of producing meat were factored into the price of food, a hamburger would be worth 'about one hundred dollars'.

Speaking to the BBC's Business Daily, Chandran Nair told Lesley Curwen that the current Asian model for economic growth is broken and unsustainable.

If economic development in Asia is to continue its rapid pace, 'draconian measures are absolutely needed' in order to combat the deterioration of the environment.

Transcript is below.

Chandran Nair: There is so much discussion about the shift of economic power from the west to the east and much of the narrative is a western narrative. And I argue that a sort of intellectual subservience in the part of many Asian policy makers and economists has resulted in a denial of the scientific based evidence that 5 billion Asians in 2050 cannot live like the average American.

Lesley Curwen: Why not?

Chandran Nair: Simply because there isn't enough to go around. Let me give you an example for instance. Today China is already the world's largest car market and car ownership levels in China today are about 150 per thousand people. In the OECD countries, the levels are about 800-750, depending on which source you go to, per thousand people. India's car ownership levels today are at about 50; Indians even haven't started driving. And the estimates are that between China and India alone, there will be about 1.5 billion cars, which will be three times the current world population of cars.

Lesley Curwen: In what year would that be?

Chandran Nair: In the next 30 years. So this is simply not possible for a variety of reasons including just the nature of the ability of cities to accommodate these amount of cars, but more importantly is that there are some estimates that it will take the entire oil shipment of Saudi Arabia just to drive cars in China and India if they reach these levels of ownership. And I can go on to talk about meat and everything else.

Lesley Curwen: What about meat?

Chandran Nair: Well, meat consumption is a particularly interesting one given the concerns about how inefficient meat production is in terms of converting grain to meat et cetera and the water intensity. But, again, here is an interesting stat. Americans today consume something like 9 billion birds per year. Asia with a population of about over 10 times that today consumes about 16 billion birds. If Asian meat consumption increases as it is projected to, Asians in 2050 will consume something like 200 billion birds. This again is not going to be possible because on that journey to these levels of consumption, we will see a huge amount of collapse in terms of the ecological systems that we are very much dependent on here.

Lesley Curwen: You are talking here aren't you about the aspirations of people to do better for their children than they have themselves. It is such a basic human urge. Isn't it unstoppable?

Chandran Nair: You could argue it's unstoppable and then we can all stop the conversation about climate change making the world a better place. If we don't care, because we say human nature is all selfish and it's unstoppable, then let's just hope for the best. But hope is not a plan.

Lesley Curwen: If policies are going to constrain economic growth in Asia, in particular, then how do you get governments to adopt that, because surely in democracies people aren't going to vote for it and is it likely that a country like China would willingly adopt that when so far what we have seen is 'let's have more growth' from the Chinese government?

Chandran Nair: I think we need to move beyond this very simplistic notion about what economic growth is. I think what we are all interested in is development. I argue in the book that it's actually in the interest of governments in Asia to start addressing this problem immediately. A shift, a change in direction will provide them with a better opportunity to uplift the majority.

Lesley Curwen: Are you actually saying there should be limits imposed on the number of people who can own cars in Asian economies, the number of people who can eat meat, is that enforceable?

Chandran Nair: Draconian measures are absolutely needed. We have draconian measures in many aspects of our lives today. I mean we have draconian measures, that don't allow you and I -I don't smoke- to smoke indoors. Some governments might decide that there would be restrictions on car ownerships, which some governments already do. These interventions can be very direct, but they can also be through fiscal means and taxation, et cetera.

The current economic model is based on one very important thing and that is the under pricing of resources. Most global resources have been totally under priced and extreme capitalism has thrived on this. If you start pricing things properly, then clearly meat will be eaten, but people will pay a proper price for this.

I would argue as some economists who have started to look at this issue have suggested that the price of a burger which I think, I don't eat burgers but, range from US$3 to US$4. The actual price if you have factored in the true economic cost of the externalities would be something like US$100. So the first step in all of this is clearly pricing externalities properly.

Lesley Curwen: If you constrain growth in the fastest growing bit of the global economy, what does that mean for all of us in the end?

Chandran Nair: This is actually the critical question, the fabricated narrative around issues of resource limits, climate change, et cetera, would suggest that somehow free markets, technology and finance will solve these problems.

One of the things that provoked me to write the book was, and I think this goes to the heart of the question. When the financial crisis hit, you will remember that the urgings of most western economies and governments was to ask Asians to consume. At the same time, we were being told that climate change is probably the biggest challenge facing humanity. Any intelligent person knows that you cannot reconcile asking billions of Asians to consume more like Americans and at the same time deal with climate change.

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