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Growth Triumphant: The Twenty-first Century in Historical Perspective (Economics, Cognition, and Society) Hardcover – October 15, 1996
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From the Back Cover
As we approach the twenty-first century, many see a world beset by economic stagnation and explosive population growth. Based on the historical experience of both developed and developing nations, this book offers a sharply differing view. Although the future is not without serious dangers, Easterlin sees rapid economic growth as successfully sweeping the world, with explosive population growth as a passing phenomenon. The question remains, what will the world be like when economic growth is triumphant? Will humanity, freed from material need, turn to nonmaterial pursuits, as many have envisaged? The answer suggested by experience to date is No. Instead, the world will be one in which ever-growing abundance is continually outpaced by ever-rising material aspirations, a world stuck on a hedonic treadmill. Taking a longer-term view than most literature on economic development, Easterlin stresses the enormous contrast between the collective experience of the last half century and what has gone before. An economic historian and demographer, the author writes in the tradition of the "new economic history", drawing on economic theory and quantitative evidence to interpret the historical experience of economic and population growth. He reaches beyond the usual disciplinary limits to draw, as appropriate, on sociology, political science, psychology, anthropology, and the history of science. This work will be of interest not only to social scientists but to all readers concerned with where we have been and where we are going. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Analyzing these trends into a series of interrelated technological, organizational, and behavioral factors, he constructs a framework for projecting his view of the human condition over the next 50 years: "The future, then, to which the epoch of modern economic growth is leading is one of never ending economic growth, a world in which ever growing abundance is matched by ever rising aspirations, a world in which cultural differences are leveled in the constant race to achieve the good life of material plenty" (p. 153).
Lest critics be too hasty to reject this as so much cheerleading for a conventional Western world view, let them note that the author also questions whether this future will increase human happiness - he concludes that "in the end, the triumph of economic growth is not a triumph of humanity over material wants; rather, it is a triumph of material wants over humanity." (p. 154)
The major strength of this work is that it presents a concise, non-technical understanding of economic and social development as that understanding has been gained through the work of major theorists in the field of economic demography, such as Kuznets, Solow, Rostow, and Easterlin himself. Yet these theories are not accepted uncritically: the author places each in contex and considers several alternatives, then presents comparative and historical data to resolve the theoretical questions in simple intuitive terms.
In this manner he quickly covers the long-contested grounds of international relations, the growth of national economies and supporting social institutions, health and population growth, and the relationship between material progress and happiness. Drawing conclusions from the resolution of one theoretical problem with emipircal evidence, he proceeds to the next in a cumulative sequence that culminates in a compelling, logically integrated argument to support his view of the future.
This sequential construction is especially apparent in his explanation of how the rise of institutions conducive to techical innovation together with the accumulation of wealth preceded the wide spread application of health technology and subsequent "mortality revoultion", which cut mortality rates in half in just over a century. Following from the decline in mortality, he examines a model of decisions regarding family size and shows how the "fertility transition" follows as a logical consequence of the mortality revolution. He makes a solid case to support the expectation of continued economic growth with slowing population growth, and in the process introduces the reader to the major acievements of economic, demographic, and sociological studies of international development in a coherent analytic framework.
The weakness of this work lies in the necessarily high level of abstraction required to concisely analyze modern economic history. The prose is "high and dry", requiring frequent infusions of coffee for the reader to make much headway before losing consciousness. While he has created a skeletal outline of history, it is not fleshed out with the jucy details of the dramatic conflict and wrenching socio-cultural change that has characterized the rapid transition from the second to the third economic epoch. It is precisely in this chaotic turbulence following the various revolutionary changes that give rise to the more vocal criticisms of rapid growth, global economic convergence, and unlimited material progress.
Easterlin puts aside the whole literature comprising the "postmodern" critique of society in order to clearly delineate the modern. While this lets him project the broad outlines of what will follow for the next two generations, it may lead the reader to believe that further material progress is unproblematic. Despite a brief discussion of the potential barriers to further global expansion of modern economic growth, which he sees as rooted primarily in international power conflicts, and despite his conclusion that happiness will not ultimately be achieved through material progress, he makes a case for the inevitability of further material growth without questioning its desireability -- that, we suppose, is left as an exercise for the reader.