The thesis of the book is that the policies of unfettered capitalism pursued by the west for the last 50 years has largely failed, since the underlying purpose of the creation of wealth is happiness, and Hamilton contends that people in general are no happier now than 50 years ago, despite the huge increase in personal wealth. In fact, he suggests that the reverse is true. He states that the pursuit of growth has become a fetish, in that it is seen as a universal magic cure for all of society's ills. Hamilton also proposes that the pursuit of growth has been at a tremendous cost in terms of the environment, erosion of democracy, and the values of society as a whole, as well as not delivering the hoped for increases in personal happiness. One result is that we, as a society, have become obsessed with materialism and consumerism.
Hamilton proposes that where a society has developed to the point at which the majority of people live reasonably comfortably, the pursuit of growth is pointless and should be curtailed. The surplus wealth could then be diverted into the essential infrastructure and to other nations that have not reached this level of wealth. Hamilton coined the term Eudemonism to denote a political and economic model that does not depend on ever increasing and ultimately unsustainable levels of growth.
Clive Hamilton is the head of the Australian Institute, an independent think-tank. It is widely regarded as one of the very few viable left-leaning research centres in the country. Growth Fetish itself reflects many of the findings from the AI's report Overconsumption in Australia, which found that 62 per cent of Australians believe they cannot afford everything they need, even though in real terms their incomes have never been higher. The report also found that 83 per cent of people felt that society was "too materialistic", with too much emphasis on money and things, instead of what really matters. The Institute is also researching the growing phenomenon of downshifting, which Hamilton feels may be a response to the growth fetish, laying the foundation for a post-growth society.