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The Growth Illusion- How economic growth has enriched the few, impoverished the many and endangered the planet

First published in 1992, Revised Edition 1999 By Richard Douthwaite, 347 pages New Society Publishers http://www.newsociety.com
by Carol Brouillet

         The foreword by David Korten is a reminder of how Douthwaite's work has deeply influenced the growing numbers of critics of "Globalization" and "Economic Growth." The companion book- Short Circuit- Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World (1996) has become the bible of a healthy economic future which reins in the cancerous growth of the modern world and channels energy into a better life for all, rather than the pursuit of profits for the few.

         Politician's beware. The promises of the benefits of economic growth, in narrow economic terms, look rather weak when set beside the case for a higher quality of life, which take into consideration the environment and social justice. Were people ever so short-sighted that they never thought about how important the air, the water, their natural environment, leisure time, traffic congestion contributed to or detracted from their lives? Myopia remains, at least amongst politicians, but people are beginning to catch on, and to use more sophisticated arguments against blind, rampant growth for the sake of, well, blind, rampant profits. The hollowness of "GNP" as a measure and the possibility of using other indicators is examined (I thought the whole book would be about this, but this is just a small facet of his thesis). Eight entire chapters, look at the effects of economic growth on the lives and happiness of ordinary people in Britain over the last 200 years.

         This is absolutely fascinating reading! From why capitalism needs growth, why empires must and have expanded, and why technological innovations harm those who can't maintain a spot at the cutting edge, to looking at who actually profits and suffers from the "growth process." There are more than a few charts tucked in the pages to illustrate and clarify the points made, these are amazing- especially health and life expectancy in countries where there are great differences in the distributions of income, and in countries where income is fairly evenly distributed. Bill Gates and the other few hundred billionaires should read this! Everyone's health improves when income is well distributed, and everyone's health suffers when there are gross inequities. The raw health statistics don't address all aspects of health, family and community life, but when all of these are examined- the picture is very provocative. Indeed the anecdotes laced throughout the text capture more than raw numbers ever could.

         For example, at the end of Chapter 3, the question is raised about whether people living long ago would have preferred to live in the society and economy of the 1900s. A case is cited of a group of 274 people, living almost exactly as their ancestors had done in the 1820s, who were brought to Britain, and invited to stay in 1961. They were from an island "Tristan da Cunha, " 1900 miles west of the Cape of Good Hope, which was threatened by a volcanic eruption.

         There is a lengthy description of the primitive conditions under which these islanders live "To a foreigner, these conditions of life indicated a level of destitution, of starvation almost, which would be intolerable to a civilized man."...

         After two years in modern Britain, the refugees learned that the danger was over. Although their homes, livestock were lost or damaged while they were away, all but six young women, who had married Englishmen, unanimously voted to return. Why? An inhabitant returned to Tristan said, "If life were as free in England as it is in Tristan, I wouldn't mind living (there). But I'm not used to working for a boss. Here I work when I feel like it."

         Despite the comforts of modern society; we have obviously lost something valuable along the way that our ancestors valued highly. Not just freedom, either! Douthwaite looks at air quality, climate change, genetic engineering of foods, energy, the Dutch, as well as the Indian situation, before bringing his lens back to Ireland, which he knows so well, and detailing their experience of self-sufficiency and economic growth.

         Demystifying "sustainable growth" and the infallibility of the "invisible hand," he then moves on to the BIG question of "What are the alternatives?" This is easy for Douthwaite, although he just mentions them briefly in this book and Short Circuit goes into far greater depth. The Growth Illusion is a marvelous prelude, and both books will lead most people from falling into the fallacies perpetuated by mainstream economists, pursuing corporate interests at great expense to the environment, the health and happiness of humanity, and the world's other living inhabitants. Both books inspire a hopeful vision and encourage local action.

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