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Growing pains

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Growth Fetish By Clive Hamilton. Pluto Press, 2004. 262pp. £12.99

Growth Fetish is an eloquent restatement of one of the most pervasive and pernicious assumptions underlying contemporary debates on society.

Clive Hamilton, an economist and the head of an Australian think tank, believes that the world has developed an unhealthy obsession with economic growth.He argues that beyond a certain point, once the economy has reached a reasonable level of subsistence, striving for affluence can only make everyone miserable.

In a strange way, Hamilton's view of the world parallels that embodied in The OC, a popular American television series now showing on Channel 4. In The OC, set in Newport Beach in California's Orange County, everyone is stunningly beautiful and fabulously rich. Yet they are also deeply unhappy. The inhabitants of The OC live in palatial homes and drive giant cars but their many maladies include alcohol abuse, gay bashing, shoplifting and suicide attempts. Unsurprisingly, therapists play an important role in helping the characters deal with their troubled personal relationships.

The appeal of The OC to viewers - besides the obvious one of watching beautiful people - should be clear. It is possible to covet the luxurious lifestyles of Orange County while simultaneously enjoying the misfortunes of the pampered rich. In an unequal society, it is natural that the majority of us who are not super-rich supermodels get pleasure from watching a portrayal of the troubled lives of the wealthy.

While sneering at affluence may make good television, it is bad politics.

Hamilton's book can also be seen as an elitist critique of popular consumption; from burgers to buildings. He derides 'gullible consumers', who he says 'include almost everyone in Western societies'. In his view, 'today's average consumer may be an everyday victim of foolishness and feeble-mindedness in their consumer behaviour'. Such consumers struggle to purchase what he sees as crass consumer goods, such as flat-screen televisions, yet obtaining them does not make people any happier. Presumably only the enlightened ones, such as Hamilton himself, have the inner strength to overcome such primitive cravings. People, like architects, who feed such cravings, are, by definition, morally culpable.

Apart from his distasteful snobbery, Hamilton's world view also embodies a powerful sense of low expectations. He assumes that contemporary society has achieved all it should on a material level. Hamilton does not recognise that the West could benefit from being even more prosperous. The ability to conceive, to develop, to construct, is anathema to him. Architects should consider the dangerous logic of this position.With the extra resources that more economic growth could generate, we used to recognise that it would be possible to build far better hospitals, schools and universities. The aged would no longer need to live in desperate poverty and the mass of us could have far more free time to do what we enjoyed. By accepting Hamilton's rejection of such possibilities, he repudiates a central element of human progress.

Of course, the living standards of the poor of the developing world are way below those of the West. For Hamilton they need more growth: 'As long as it is growth of the right sort and not the type that feeds the extravagant lifestyles of crony capitalists and the power of rapacious finance houses.'

Despite Hamilton's caricature, the aspiration for the poorer countries should be to raise their living standards to at least those prevalent in the West.

The problem of global inequality is not that the developed world is too rich but that the developing world is not nearly wealthy enough.

Hamilton has a point in recognising the prevalent unhappiness in contemporary society. Judged by improvements in living standards alone, it is surprising that people are often so miserable. However, Hamilton is wrong to attribute such unhappiness to economic growth. Indeed it is ironic that in this respect he is guilty of the vulgar economic determinism he so readily attributes to others.

For Hamilton's key assumption - that this level of affluence is as good as it gets - itself underlies much of the misery in contemporary society. In effect he is telling people that they should be happy with their lot. Rather than strive to improve their lives, they should exercise self-restraint.

From this perspective, perhaps, the most astonishing of Hamilton's claims is that he is a lone voice warning of the dangers of rampant growth. Before the book even starts he quotes George Bernard Shaw, saying: 'All great truths start as blasphemies.' Hamilton acknowledges that E J Mishan, an economist whose book The Costs of Economic Growth was first published in 1967, anticipated some of this arguments. But Hamilton goes on to argue that: 'While doubters such as Mishan could still find a publisher in the 1960s, the economic and political changes of the 1970s put an end to that.'

Such a claim rightly outraged Geoff Mulgan, the prime minister's head of policy, at the London launch of Growth Fetish. Mulgan made the point that during the past 30 years a whole literature of 'growth scepticism' has emerged. He should know because, in addition to his familiarity with the academic work on the subject, New Labour has embodied growth scepticism as a central tenet of its policy. For instance, under Gordon Brown the possibilities of economic boom are always set against the dangers of a bust.

Despite Hamilton's radical pretensions, he is completely within the contemporary mainstream. He is a conservative in the most literal sense of wanting people to be content with what they already have. And he reserves a special contempt for those who purposefully strive to improve their lives. Architects should read this book and remember why they got into the profession in the first place.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist

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