Steven Stoll


On his book The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth

Cover Interview of December 30, 2008

The wide angle

My first thinking about growth and capitalism came from teaching the environmental history of the Atlantic World.  Markets are central to the changes of the last 400 years.  But in example after example, when an animal or a forest or a stretch of farmland became attached to market demand for the first time, it was nearly wiped out.  I got tired of teaching this to students without exploring the assumptions about nature that lay beneath these examples.  I wrote The Great Delusion to find some answers.  The book also came from a specific experience—the 1996 Vice-Presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp, in which Kemp exclaimed, “We should … double the size of the American economy!” I thought about it for days afterwards.  When, years later, I cast about for a subject related to the economy, Kemp’s strange outburst came back to me.

The book is good background for the present financial crisis on Wall Street and the likely future of the world economy.  As much as speculation has made billions of dollars for brokerage firms and investment banks, the implosion of such major firms as Lehman Brothers makes clear that wealth really does have a material basis—in the actual price of actual houses on actual hillsides.  The latest panic is not just the result of bad loans and the shifting value of the housing market but of an attempt to create bloated value from bloated value.  The recession itself, as everyone knows, cannot be separated from the cost of food and petroleum.  Living with scarcity does not mean living in poverty—far from it.  It does mean changing our expectations about how we will live.  That, in the end, is what The Great Delusion is about.

As for me, I am new to the critique of capitalism.  I did not grow up in a radical household, nor did I have any reason to doubt that economic growth made life better for people.  But at a certain point in my education I became fascinated with where things came form, who made and grew the raw materials that made my existence possible, and how stuff flowed through the economy.  I also have this visceral feeling of scarcity—that everything exists in limited quantities.  The long view of things is great for correcting any faith in infinite abundance.  Industrial society is about 250 years old.  There are Pacific sea turtles nearly that old.  And yet in that time we’ve deforested the temperate latitudes, changed the climate, and endangered thousands of species.