climate change development

Why the future of the climate depends on Asia

“The patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being. Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator – not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.”

That’s Amitav Ghosh in his book The Great Derangement, with what is a fair summary of the core concept behind Make Wealth History. Coming at this from a British viewpoint, I add the idea that the richest nations need to scale back their lifestyles to make ecological space. From Ghosh’s Indian perspective, it’s more a matter of finding alternative paths to development, and rejecting the Western model of consumerism.

In that, India has precedent. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Gandhi wrote in 1928. “If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

Fast forward 90 years, and India is a billion souls larger than in Gandhi’s time, and bent on exactly that form of industrialisation. So is China, with another 1.3 billion.

As Ghosh explains, there’s a key difference between Western environmental impact and Asia’s. The West’s represents an expansion in ecological footprint for a smaller number of people, sustained over 150 years. Asia’s impact is from a smaller and faster expansion, but for a much larger population.

Lifestyles across much of India and China could expand much further yet, and that puts the fate of the climate firmly in Asian hands. If the drive for industrialisation continues, and China and India have every right to continue, then climate change is unstoppable. On the other hand, Ghosh points out that climate change will affect more people in Asia than anywhere else, something he describes in his detailed exploration of Mumbai’s vulnerability to storms and flooding.

What does any of this mean for those of us in the rich world? By no means does it cede responsibility for climate change to Asia, given our historic emissions, high per-capita footprints and wasteful cultures of consumerism. We need to get our own house in order. But it’s also worth considering that if a climate change solution doesn’t work for Asia, it doesn’t ultimately work. That goes for international agreements in particular, but also for key technologies, lifestyle habits, ideologies and economic models.

That should be a lesson for Eurocentric commentators like myself, which is what I’ve been thinking about since reading Ghosh’s book, and in reading a broader set of news sources this year. Problems and solutions around climate change tend to bounce around an echo chamber of green blogs and news sites, and I’m going to try and make a more conscious effort to keep asking how those developments play in China and India.


  1. I agree totally. Having just visited India (and offset my carbon as best I can), I was also struck by the huge amounts of plastic waste, especially at the backs of slums near the railway lines. When the monsoon comes, it will largely head to the sea. We need to use some of the aid budget to help countries like India upgrade their reuse, recycling and waste disposal systems

    1. Yes, especially since that waste could be a resource if we supported small recycling businesses. Tearfund have done some good work on this, and are lobbying the aid agencies to give more to recycling schemes that create jobs.

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