Everyday life for most Europeans and Americans today is a world apart from human experience throughout most of history. Our predecessors worried about having enough food to get through winter; we lose sleep over putting children through college. In the past, scarcely one child in two lived to be an adult; today almost all do. Families formerly had as many children as they could; now they intentionally limit their childbearing. At one time people lived almost entirely in the countryside; these days they are mainly concentrated in cities and their environs.
This book is my attempt to make sense of these and other striking changes in human experience – some of them worldwide in scope, others largely or wholly American. The first substantive chapter (Chapter 3) reviews the recent history of modern economic growth, which is a phenomenon that in the past two centuries has totally transformed material living levels in such areas as food, clothing, and shelter. The unabated rate of advance raises the question of where economic growth is taking us. Some would answer in terms of a happy postmaterialistic society; others would stress presumed adverse effects such as environmental deterioration or globalization. I suggest that there is no movement toward higher nonmaterialistic ends, nor are the “bads” commonly attributed to economic growth the principal concern. Rather, the fundamental problem is systemic: that we are caught up in a process of unending economic growth.