Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Steven Stoll's "The Great Delusion"

Steven Stoll is Associate Professor of History at Fordham University, where he teaches environmental history. He has written for Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, and the New Haven Review.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth, and reported the following:
“Everyone seemed to be rethinking the nature and purpose of work. Stollmeyer tried to cut through the question (and grab some attention) by challenging the ‘erroneous notion … that the people want work; that man ought to work … The people do not want work. Work is not the end ... The end is provisions, happiness, the satisfaction of all our rational desires.’”

--The Great Delusion, Page 99

Conrad Stollmeyer had one thing right. The people want happiness though the satisfaction of all their desires--rational or otherwise. Stollmeyer (not a familial relation of mine) was among the first people to express progress as material accumulation, as ever greater provisions without a thought about the origin of the materials themselves. Stollmeyer confronted English socialists of the 1840s, attempting to persuade his working-class audience to turn away from politics and protest and embrace a technological utopia, a scheme that would liberate them from wage slavery without conflict. On page 99 of The Great Delusion, Stollmeyer has just arrived in London from New York to publicize the vision of his business partner and philosophical leader, a brooding and inscrutable German engineer named John Adolphus Etzler. Imagine one trillion people enjoying endless food and endless energy delivered to them by an all encompassing machine that would perform all their work. Etzler called this mysterious machine The Satellite. The partners gather adherents and make their plans for a colony in the tropics. It’s all part of the biography at the core of The Great Delusion. But the book is also a history of what became of Etzler’s thinking: the seemingly reasonable pursuit of economic growth. Think about it for a moment. Growth is the notion that a society can--even that it must--increase in wealth and population without end. No matter what evidence the tired and picked-over planet provides to supporters of growth, they continue to wave them away. In other words, Etzler and Stollmeyer might seem crazy, but they were no crazier than the most sober-thinking political economists of their time and of ours. Our presidential candidates might not use words like “infinite abundance,” but when they talk about prosperity without regard to planetary limits, when they promote growth as the cure for income inequality, they participate in the very same delusion.
The Great Delusion is Steven Stoll's fourth book. Learn more about his research and publications at his faculty webapge.

Read more about The Great Delusion at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue