The Infinite Desire for Growth

The Infinite Desire for Growth


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Why society’s expectation of economic growth is no longer realistic

Economic growth—and the hope of better things to come—is the religion of the modern world. Yet its prospects have become bleak, with crashes following booms in an endless cycle. In the United States, eighty percent of the population has seen no increase in purchasing power over the last thirty years and the situation is not much better elsewhere.The Infinite Desire for Growthspotlights the obsession with wanting more, and the global tensions that have arisen as a result. Amid finite resources, increasing populations, environmental degradation, and political unrest, the quest for new social and individual goals has never been so critical.

Leading economist Daniel Cohen provides a whirlwind tour of the history of economic growth, from the early days of civilization to modern times, underscoring what is so unsettling today. The new digital economy is establishing a "zero-cost" production model, inexpensive software is taking over basic tasks, and years of exploiting the natural world have begun to backfire with deadly consequences. Working hard no longer guarantees social inclusion or income. Drawing on economics, anthropology, and psychology, and thinkers ranging from Rousseau to Keynes and Easterlin, Cohen examines how a future less dependent on material gain might be considered and, how, in a culture of competition, individual desires might be better attuned to the greater needs of society.

At a time when wanting what we haven't got has become an obsession,The Infinite Desire for Growthexplores the ways we might reinvent, for the twenty-first century, the old ideal of social progress.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172538
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 1,169,526
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Daniel Cohenis director of the Economics Department at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and a founding member of the Paris School of Economics. A former adviser to the World Bank, Cohen was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 2001. His many books includeGlobalization and Its EnemiesandThe Prosperity of Vice.

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The Human Species

Is economic growth intrinsic to mankind? It sounds like a crazy question: growth is usually portrayed as a relatively new phenomenon, dating back only two centuries. From the mists of time until the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, human beings' income stagnated at a level close to that of the poorest people now living, about a dollar a day. Growth, in the sense of a continuous rise in per capita income, is the major innovation of the modern world. If, however, we allow for a more flexible time frame, counting technological and organizational progress in millennia, rather than in centuries, or as we do now in decades, growth, both of populations and in the number of innovations they produce, does go back much further in history. One may indeed venture to say that it is part of human history.

Two Big Bangs altered the course of our existence within an extremely brief time frame, when measured against the history of the human species. The first was the invention of agriculture, which caused a population explosion that continues even today. The human population grew from 5 million ten thousand years ago to 200 million in the time of Christ, and might reach 10 billion by 2050, at which date it could stabilize. Agriculture gave birth to writing, money, metallurgy, the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder.

The second Big Bang was the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, which gave new impetus to human knowledge, and its growth too was exponential. To take just one recent example among many thousand: according to an original estimate by the economist William Nordhaus, the cost of making a standardized set of calculations has dropped by a factor of more than a billion in the last fifty years.

We are now witnessing the dawn of a third Big Bang, when these two forces are beginning to resonate, each gaining strength from the other. Paul Crutzen, winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry, characterizes our epoch as the "Anthropocene," which marks a transition from a world dominated by nature to one dominated by human beings. One statistic in and of itself sums up the significance of that term. During the era when agriculture developed, human beings, their herds, and other domestic animals represented less than 0.1 percent of all mammals on earth. They now represent more than 90 percent.

Faced with the extraordinary challenge of living in a finite world overrun by their presence, human beings have to start thinking collectively about the consequences of their actions. Up until now, we have not made the effort, swept up in a historical evolution whose real significance we have generally understood only in hindsight. To regain control of our future, we must retrace that history. How and why did economic growth, in the sense we currently understand that expression, first appear? What particular causes explain why it originally emerged in the West rather than in China or elsewhere? Should that be seen as the sign of a lasting philosophical, political, and moral superiority or as a phase that has already passed? These are decisive questions for understanding the origins of our addiction to growth and how to handle it.


The first hominids appeared six to eight million years ago, and nothing would have allowed one to predict that they would one day rule the planet. Ants and termites took about a hundred million years to gain possession of the world below ground, giving other species the time to adapt. Humans have occupied the earth much more quickly, and, in a quite extraordinary fashion, now seem bent on destroying it.

The most ancient fossils date back seven million years: they are those of Toumai, a member of the species Sahelanthropus tchadensis, whose brain capacity was that of a present-day chimpanzee. Then came Australopithecus afarensis, the "Lucy" species (Lucy was discovered by Yves Coppens in 1974, and her name is an homage to a Beatles song). Then, a subgroup differentiated itself: Homo habilis, which appeared two and a half million years ago and vanished seven hundred thousand years later. Because the climate was becoming dryer, the savannah replaced the forests where Homo habilis was living (the long arms characteristic of members of this group suggest they were often in the trees). Homo erectus (in tandem with a cousin, Homo ergaster) came next, marking the beginning of a tremendous change in the brain. The philosopher Francis Wolff seems amused by our abundance of ancestors: "Even recently, we were looking for a common ancestor of human beings and apes, but that question is gradually losing its pertinence. What about Flores man or the mysterious Denisovans, and what about all the fossil human species that will unfailingly be discovered in the future, which will be new blows to 'our' humanity?" In any case, abstract thought, syntactical language, long-term memory, and the ability to construct hypothetical scenarios, to cooperate within the group, and to predict the intentions of one's enemies now constituted the formidable tool kit of the human brain.

According to Michael Tomasello, a specialist in evolutionary anthropology, humans' superiority lies in their power to collaborate with others to achieve common goals. As Edward O. Wilson puts it, "We have become the experts at mind reading, and the world champions at inventing culture." Hunter-gatherers and Wall Street traders gossip at every opportunity. The sociable nature of human beings bears a superficial resemblance to that of insects, which are also capable of a remarkable division of labor in service of the reproduction of the species. But cooperation amongst bees is not really "cooperative" in origin: the queen alone controls the reproduction of her genetic inheritance. She travels great distances and severs her ties with her original colony to constitute her own. The human species has more subtle and flexible resources at its disposal: a combination of altruism, domination, reciprocity, betrayal, and deceit allows human beings to play out their destiny on the great stage of social life.

Most of the ideas that occur to animals die with them. Female chimpanzees teach their young to crack nuts and to strip the leaves off plant stems to catch termites, but human language, which far surpasses the language of other animals in its complexity, allows us to learn collectively. We share 98.4 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. As individuals, we are not a great deal brighter than our simian cousins. As a species, however, we fare much better. The human brain should not be compared to that of chimpanzees. Rather, it is the combined total of all human intelligence that must be measured against that of all chimpanzees.

Throughout its history, humanity has invented techniques for accumulating and diffusing knowledge that vastly increased its technical and social power. Writing, currency, and then, much later, the printing press, the telephone, and the Internet are all technologies that have allowed us to create a collective intelligence with no equivalent among the other animal species.

The brain combines a capacity to be highly intelligent, even computerlike, with the emotionality of a lovestruck adolescent. Both selfish and altruistic, rational and emotional — how did our species reconcile these contradictory qualities? According to Wilson's research, presented in The Social Conquest of Earth, two biological traits lie behind these propensities: our (large) size and (limited) mobility. Granted, humans are small compared to dinosaurs, but we are very big relative to insects, which are not of a size to control fire or sizeable objects. Insects on the other hand travel far and quickly, thus avoiding contact with other groups. Humans, with their low degree of mobility, must live with their fellows, whether in peace or in conflict. Although incapable of running as fast as their prey — antelopes, zebras, or ostriches — they can track them over long distances. They also learned to use projectiles (stones, and later spears or arrows) to hunt animals, as well as fire to cook the meat.


Tribal membership and the defense of the tribe against rival groups are among the fundamental traits of human nature. Theories such as that of the selfish gene are appealing because they seem to explain the astonishing concomitance in many species, not just mankind, of altruism and individualism. A typical example of this is the male praying mantis, which allows itself to be devoured by the female to ensure the reproduction of the species. But the underpinnings of human tribalism are much more complex than the mechanical reproduction of genes. Psychology experiments conducted on college students have shown how quickly, and altogether arbitrarily, groups form among human beings. If one subgroup of strangers who share no genetic heritage is given red cards and another blue cards, solidarity forms among those given the same colors. And boundaries between various groups are totally malleable: families, alliances, and guilds all give individuals a home, or more than one home, within a chaotic world.

In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Claude LéviStrauss explains that the human species is the only one to have domesticated itself. In his view, the prohibition of incest was the founding moment when culture prevailed over nature: if I give my daughter in exchange for yours, our clans will live in peace. The capacity to create prohibitions and classifications without any basis in biology is one of the recurrent traits of human beings. According to Lévi-Strauss, in some societies a girl may (sometimes must) marry the son of her maternal uncle but not the son of her paternal uncle, even though, from a genetic standpoint, there is no difference between the two cases. The difference is entirely cultural. Such is the foundation of culture: it sets down rules, however arbitrary from a genetic perspective, that establish the modalities of social life.

Culture is not the monopoly of humankind, however, when defined as a set of rules that organize the life of a group. Female chimpanzees will join adjacent communities, whereas the gregarious males must secure their position within their original group. African wolves and wild dogs have an elaborate social organization, whereby hunters bring food back to the alpha female and the newborns. Chimpanzees and bonobos hunt in packs. Bonobos engage in exuberant, nonreproductive sexual activity, which serves to relieve the stress of a very emotional species. Empathy can also be found among the rhesus macaques. And the violence of young chimpanzee "gangs" against their peers is remarkably similar to that of their human counterparts.

In all species, survival requires the group's cooperation to confront predators. Conversely, within the group, male competition for females favors the tenet "every one for himself." These two traits are not always mutually compatible: nature does not necessarily do things well every time. One gazelle must run faster than the others to escape its predators and, ultimately, that is a good thing for the species as a whole. By contrast, as Darwin noted in his analysis of peacocks, the magnificent colored plumage of the males allows them to seduce females but is also a hindrance when fleeing predators. Stags have antlers that allow them to vanquish their rivals, but at the cost of reduced mobility, which is a handicap. It is logical for males to want to attract females on an individual basis, but that sometimes occurs to the detriment of the species.


Let us turn, then, to the key question, "What distinguishes humans from the other species?" Freud put it this way: "Why do our relatives, the animals, not exhibit any such cultural struggle?" By "such cultural struggle," he means discontent, anxiety, the torment of existence. Alone among animals, writes Pierre Legendre, human beings "ask questions about their presence, the very fact of their own existence." In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles says it would be better not to be born. All cultures are propelled by the human question par excellence: Who am I, and what is the purpose of life?

The simplest way to characterize a human being is to say it is a speaking animal, in search of someone who will listen and respond and acknowledge them. As Pierre Legendre also says, the "revolutionary" fact of the human species is the demand for legitimacy. Betrayal is never easy for us, even when the circumstances call for it. A permanent tension exists within us between honor, virtue, duty, and their opposites: selfishness, cowardice, hypocrisy. Culture, including art, expresses this conflict, a constant throughout human history, and also contributes toward its resolution.

"We are the only species that not only lives in society, like the other animal species, but that produces new forms of social existence, and hence of culture, in order to go on living. To always be creating, not simply recreating, society is what is unique about human beings." That is the answer proposed by Maurice Godelier in the conclusion to a book on Lévi-Strauss. The social games of animals do not evolve, or do so very little. There are no soccer games, no violent videos or online pornography for young apes. Over the course of civilizations, we humans play at modifying the rules. We changed the model of kinship, the fertility rate, and can (sometimes) contain the violence within us. The critical problem identified by the French philosopher Georges Bataille, however, is that each civilization has a tendency to take as inviolable the rules that it has created and prefers to go along with them, right up to the point of exhaustion, rather than change them, when needed.



About a hundred thousand years ago, a period of extreme aridity struck tropical Africa. At the time, humanity in its nascent state came very close to extinction. Its numbers dropped to a few (tens of) thousands. Then the great drought ended. The tropical forests and the savannah gradually recovered their luxuriance. Better climate conditions allowed for an increase in the number of people, who forged a path to the Nile and the Sinai. After passing through the Nile Valley, then the Levant, Homo sapiens entered Europe in about 40,000 B.C.E., occupying the territory that had already been inhabited by a similar species, Neanderthal, for some two hundred thousand years.

Shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens, the Neanderthals disappeared, no doubt because of the imprint the newcomer left on their ecosystem. The Neanderthals practiced "big-game" hunting, took care of their injured, and buried their dead. One hypothesis about the differences between them and Homo sapiens is that the Neanderthals may have had less of an ability to speak, perhaps because of a poor placement of the larynx — despite possessing the FOXP2 gene, responsible for language.


Then came the great upheaval: the invention of agriculture about ten thousand years ago (and subsequently, in eight different places), which would turn the relationship between humans and nature on its head. Modifications in the climate once again played a role. A warming of the climate (in about 9600 B.C.E.) may have been the cause. Three hundred years later, barley and wheat were being cultivated in the Jordan Valley, and grains significantly larger than the wild versions were being consumed. In "less than a thousand years," as Ian Morris, a professor at Stanford University, put it, agriculture became a science. Lentil and chickpea dishes made their appearance. Human beings learned to sew clothing. And animals were put to more efficient use. They were no longer killed immediately for their meat, but were raised for their wool and milk, or to pull carts.

That invention set off a population explosion that is still under way. It quashed biodiversity, because the other species had no way to adapt to our evolution in such a short time. Between 10,000 and 7000 B.C.E., the use and manufacture of stone tools increased, and farmers invented pottery, the first looms, and architecture. It was the dawn of the "short" time of history. The "deep" time that transformed humans biologically has since scarcely played a role. A few genetic mutations have occurred, such as one enabling the production of lactase, the enzyme that allows us to digest milk products, but these are minor. Jared Diamond mentions one of his Aborigine friends, born in a village straight out of the Stone Age, who had no difficulty integrating first into a society with writing, then a digital society. "In other words," concludes Diamond, "and it is good news, there was no need for a genetic modification for people to learn to read and to fly a plane."


Excerpted from "The Infinite Desire for Growth"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Éditions Albin Michel—Paris.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgment xi

Introduction 1

Part I The Origin of Growth 7

Chapter 1 The Human Species 9

Chapter 2 Exodus 18

Chapter 3 November 13, 2026 29

Chapter 4 The Invention of Money 33

Chapter 3 The Theft of History 41

Chapter 6 From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe 63

Part II The Future, The Future! 65

Chapter 7 The Singularity Is Near 67

Chapter 8 Whither Human Labor? 73

Chapter 9 Vanishing Growth? 78

Chapter 10 Marx in Hollywood 86

Chapter 11 Capital at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century 93

Chapter 12 De collapsus novum 97

Part III Rethinking Progress 107

Chapter 13 The (New) Great Transformation 109

Chapter 14 Economics and Culture 118

Chapter 15 The Elusive Quest of Happiness 132

Chapter 16 The Double Bind of Work and Autonomy 140

Chapter 17 Social Endogamy 145

Conclusion 151

Index 155

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This interesting and thought-provoking book considers the question of whether humanity needs to live in a state of permanent aspiration. Its breadth of reference is remarkably impressive."—Howard Davies, author of Can Financial Markets Be Controlled?

"Can modern society survive slow growth? In The Infinite Desire for Growth, Cohen presents on balance among the best and most accessible analyses of this central and very important issue. This is an interesting, forthright, and worthwhile book from an author who brings humanity to economics."—Jeff Madrick, author of Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World

"This erudite and opinionated book keeps readers on tenterhooks: Will humanity emerge intact from the tensions between the endless desire for growth and the economy’s (and earth’s) limits? Cohen’s conclusion is elegant, hopeful, and controversial. An unputdownable masterpiece."—Esther Duflo, coauthor of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty

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