The Growth Illusion

How Economic Growth has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many, and Endangered the Planet

By: Richard Douthwaite

Publication Date: January 1997

(5 customer reviews)


The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many, and Endangered the Planet by Richard Douthwaite

Short-listed for 1992 GPA Award

Is economic growth improving our lives? In 1992, when the first edition of The Growth Illusion appeared, most people had little doubt that the answer was ‘Yes’. Today, however, the climate of opinion has changed and there is widespread acceptance that, while growth might be necessary to generate jobs, the development path we are following isn’t making life better for ourselves or our children.

This new, revised edition of The Growth Illusion explains what has gone wrong. Douthwaite argues that since the 1950s, governments around the world have made economic growth their primary focus in the belief that by baking the biggest national cake, they are creating the resources needed to fulfill their political goals. Recent research in the USA, Britain, Germany and Australia shows that this ‘growth first, goals later’ strategy isn’t working and that in the past fifteen years the growth process has actually destroyed more resources than it has created on a sustainable basis. As these economies run backwards, their citizens become worse off.

So why is growth still paramount? Like an aircraft maintaining a minimum airspeed to stay aloft, so an economy must maintain a minimum growth rate if it is not to plunge into a deep depression. If demand fails to increase in any year, less investment will be made the following year, people will be thrown out of work and the economy will begin to unwind. The Growth Illusion explores this trap and many other topics along the way, asking fundamental questions about economics and the society in which we live.

In this revised and reworked edition, case studies and statistics have been brought up to date and amplified by new research. Douthwaite identifies recent changes in public attitudes to growth as the beginnings of an intellectual revolution as far-reaching in its consequences for human survival as those initiated by Copernicus or Darwin in their re-assessment of man’s place in creation. ‘Growth has pushed the economic system beyond safe environmental limits,’ he writes. ‘The present revolution involves our acceptance that Earth is finite and the laws of nature apply to us.’


‘Truly a book for our times: a fierce and unrelenting critique of the failures of laissez-faire capitalism … I commend The Growth Illusion to all.’ The Sunday Tribune

‘Here’s an economist who can entertain, blowing the whistle on consumer idiocies … After reading Douthwaite’s vivid and convincing case studies it becomes impossible to hear a politician promising ‘recovery’ … without feeling mingled pity and contempt.’ The Independent on Sunday

The Growth Illusion is simply indispensable for those who wish to empower themselves by getting a grip on an alternative model to the prevailing economics of misery. What is particularly impressive is the quality of the scholarship… The publication of this book is a very significant act in democratizing economics.’ Michael D. Higgins, Hot Press

‘Douthwaite is no head-banger…The Growth Illusion is a big rich book with an old-fashioned resonance: economics as morality – it does something to hasten the day when capitalism is no longer left as the only game in town.’  The Irish Times

‘A terrific book, splendidly written and meticulously researched. I have no hesitation in calling Richard Douthwaite one of the best environmental journalists in the world.’ James Downey, The Universe

‘Excellent book! It should be compulsory reading for all politicians, both local and national, as well as budding economics students.’ Customer review


RICHARD DOUTHWAITE was born in Yorkshire in 1942 and studied at Leeds and Essex Universities. He was a government economist in the West Indies before moving to Westport, Co. Mayo in 1974. He is the author of Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World (1996).

Also available as an ebook

5 reviews for The Growth Illusion

  1. Lilliput Press

    “This marvellous book should be compulsory reading for every government leader and every economics student, since we seem to have already exceeded the guidelines established in Kyoto for global warming . The phrase “grow or die” will take some time to fade. Douthwaite’s book could help to achieve this paradigm shift.” JOHN GILMORE

  2. Lilliput Press

    “Richard Douthwaite has written an important book. In this updated version of his 1992 classic of the same name, he brings the evidence he has amassed of growth’s downside up to the present. If anyone reading the book does not come to question the unexamined assumption most of us hold that growth is a good thing, then he is indeed delusional. Though other growth heretics, such as Herman Daly, have made many of the same arguments as Douthwaite, I know of no book which covers so many of growth’s unfortunate side effects or documents them so well, from the inadequacy of GNP as a measure of well-being through the decline in public health in recent decades to the slap in the face of our growth-oriented society administered by the refugees from Tristan da Cunha. Douthwaite uses the history of Britain over the last 200 years to document growth’s ambivalent contribution to human betterment, finding it as instructive a guide as Marx found it to be for analyzing capitalism 150 years earlier. Included in the book are chapters on the consequences of growth in his native Ireland and in contemporary Holland and India, chapters enlivened by his direct personal involvement in these countries. It is regrettable that more of his insights do not come from the American experience, both because of the United States’ remarkable history of growth and because of its premiere position in the world today as the foremost proponent and most dogmatic practitioner of the growth doctrine. Apparently, this is not where Douthwaite’s life experience led him to direct his attentions. Hopefully, in a future book he will.” KENNETH MEYERCORD

  3. Lilliput Press

    “‘How economic growth has enriched the few, impoverished the many and endangered the planet.’
    This is an excellent book, clearly written so that those of us not familiar with the world of economics can follow the author’s arguments with ease. Richard Douthwaite shows us the proof that undirected, economic growth leads to unemployment, breakdown of family life, soaring crime rates and environmental destruction. It stands to reason that infinite growth cannot occur in a finite world, but that fact is exactly what most governments seem to ignore. Accordingly, they set their economic policies in motion as if there were no tomorrow. The introduction starts with a quote from Kenneth Boulding which states ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’ sets the tone for the rest of the book. The mind boggles at the shortsightedness of those who direct the world’s economy. This book is a fascinating look at the nature of capitalism and whether or not continued economic growth is realistically or even morally feasible. It’ll make you think. A must read.”

  4. Lilliput Press

    “Excellent book! It should be compulsory reading for all politicians, both local and national, as well as budding economics students.” PHYLL HARDIE

  5. Lilliput Press

    “The author has a prescient insight into many flaws in macro economic expectations. It really is a ‘must read’ for anyone who is in a position to take an impartial view on the state of our world’s economic shambles, as well as ‘joe public’ who is picking up the tabs for politically motivated and often misdirected economic planning.” DIANE BYETT

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Weight 1 kg
Dimensions 155 × 230 mm
Publication Date

January 1997


Paperback, 383pp