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

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9780809095063: The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth
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Endless economic growth rests on a belief in the limitless abundance of the natural world. But when did people begin to believe that societies should—even that they must—expand in wealth indefinitely? In The Great Delusion, the historian and storyteller Steven Stoll weaves past and present together through the life of a strange and brooding nineteenth-century German engineer and technological utopian named John Adolphus Etzler, who pursued universal wealth from the inexhaustible forces of nature: wind, water, and sunlight. The Great Delusion neatly demonstratesthat Etzler’s fantasy has become our reality and that we continue to live by some of the same economic assumptions that he embraced. Like Etzler, we assume that the transfer of matter from environments into the economy is not bounded by any condition of those environments and that energy for powering our cars and iPods will always exist. Like Etzler, we think of growth as progress, a turn in the meaning of that word that dates to the moment when a soaring productive capacity fused with older ideas about human destiny. The result is economic growth as we know it, notas measured by the gross domestic product but as the expectation that our society depends on continued physical expansion in order to survive.

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About the Author:

STEVEN STOLL is an associate professor of history at Fordham University and the author of Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (H&W, 2002). His writing has appeared in Harper's, Lapham's Quarterly, and The New Haven Review.

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  The Great delusion
CHAPTER ONEA Philosophical MachineThey rolled it out of the shed before daybreak, heaving it with men and horses to where it stood the morning long, in the ordinary dampness of the field. The directors of the Tropical Emigration Society arranged with a local member of the gentry for the use of the pasture near Oxford, England, renaming it Satellite Field for the occasion. Gunshots and church bells rang out before noon, and people gathered with bottles and blankets to watch what promised to be more than just another rake-and-reaper show—rather, a world to come, a kind of revelation. Its inventor designed it to do anything on the ground: plow, pulverize and sift soil, level a field, sow grain, pull weeds, cultivate between plants, mow, harvest, hammer, saw, cut down trees, pull out stumps, notch rocks, excavate and elevate, dig ditches and canals, form terraces, operate in water or mud, dig mines, and generate its own power. It was a Swiss Army knife on wheels, a cross between a plow and the Batmobile. The inventor devised other marvelous things that he promised would capture the abundant and available forces of the earth: a Naval Automaton powered by ocean waves, as well as a floating island covered with fertile soil, supporting houses, halls, and windmills. But nothing surpassed the Satellite in its transformative power, in the vastness of its meaning. The country people would witness a conduit of energy that would liberate them from authority and custom, a tool toward the creation of a completely cultivated and populous earth, the prime mover behind a community that would be exemplary for all communities—a philosophical machine.We know it only from its blueprint. It consisted of an iron frame nearly forty feet long and eighteen feet wide—about the dimensions of a shipping container. Two long, rotating beams mounted on top extended its length to fifty-seven feet. Massive wheels carried it at the front end, smaller ones behind. Its forward motion turned a roller that could be fitted with teeth for planting or spades for digging. Add a hopper for seeding; attach blades for harrowing; connect ropes and wheels for pulling anything; snap on brushes, shovels, boards, saws, and hammers as needed. A truck for collecting ran alongside. No horses, no engine. It looked more like the Mars rover Leonardo da Vinci might have invented than an agricultural implement.Its energy came from a square-shaped reservoir surrounded by twelve windmills. The windmills lifted water into the reservoir, which filled to the level of a spillway, from where the water fell 100 feet onto a wheel. The rotating wheel pulled a series of wire lines thousands of feet long, each wrapped around a wooden pivot. The turning pivot transferred energy from the wire lines to ropes connected to the Satellite. To understand the shape it created, draw a line ending in a point; then draw a radius off of the point at any angle, like the hour hand of a clock; then draw the circle implied by the radius. But the Satellite didn’t go round and round in the same circle. The ropes could be shortened or lengthened to change the machine’s distance from the pivot, resulting in a spiral pattern as the contraption worked its circle inward or outward, sowing or cutting trees or harvesting wheat or digging ditches. Think of the circular fields created by pivot irrigation on the Great Plains. Each is about 2,600 feet in diameter, or half a mile. On paper, the Satellite had a maximum radius of 1,000 feet, enclosing about 70 acres as it wound inward, tracing a furrow like a snail shell. Gawky in its details, the Satellite makes a different impression from high above its trajectory, seemingly as elegant and certain in its orbit as the moon.The Satellite. Etzler’s design for a machine that would generate infinite wealth by concentrating infinite power on infinite resources can be difficult to decipher. This top view of the machine shows its rotating beams and a roller fitted with spikes. A truck for collection runs alongside. The same illustration features the reservoir and windmills. Note the smaller version of the Satellite, placed to establish scale. (Courtesy Yale University Library)Every form of production changes space in characteristic ways. A landscape formed by peasants cutting wheat with scythes looks different in its scale and patterns from one formed by a steam-driven reaper. As a spatial system, Etzler’s model had a single overarching purpose—replication. The Satellite would subject vast regions to mechanical discipline, driven by its determining machine. An observer at cruising altitude would take in branches splitting off from every 4,000-foot central line, creating a hexagon of eighteen orbits, together enclosing about 1,400 acres (including the spaces between the circles). The inventor called this pattern a circuit. Fifty-five circuits formed a dominion of nearly 80,000 acres, twelve miles wide. The history of humankind told a story of drudgery and scarcity, with people flailing helplessly to open the great chest of abundance standing in plain sight. With the Satellite as their key, the starving multitudes had it in their power to overturn the structure of society without violence, causing a social revolution that no industrialist or aristocrat could ever stop. The inventor promised that those “who are poor and of the labouring classes,” who earn but “a poor pittance for sustaining life,” would soon delight in 20,000-acre gardens “cultivated by three or four men, with but one dollar of capital (once forever) per acre,” and would then “live like gentlemen and ladies.”1Orbit, Circuit, and Dominion. The Satellite created its own land system, one that could be infinitely extended in a geometrical pattern. (Courtesy Yale University Library)The benevolent colonizer behind the promises, the trickster scientist who somehow shrouded the most detailed blueprints in fog and night, was John Adolphus Etzler. He was not in England or even in the temperate latitudes at the time of the demonstration. His last communication came from Venezuela, reporting on his negotiations with the minister of foreign affairs for land on which the Satellite would operate. By 1845, Etzler provided the intellectual leadership for a thriving organization of believers who anticipated machinery to usher in their freedom from crippling factory work and horrifying poverty. The South American venture also involved Etzler’s partner, publisher, and interpreter, Conrad Stollmeyer, who remained in England to work out the details of the construction and testing of the Satellite. The mechanic in charge in England, however, found it difficult, whether by a lack of skill or materials, to follow every detail of Etzler’s design, so he built a smaller machine—four feet wide and twenty feet long—and improvised in other ways as well. Awaiting the reservoir and windmills that would plug it in to the earth’s perpetual motion, the Satellite moved under the force of a steam carriage set in the middle of the pasture, the two connected by a six-hundred-foot rope running atop drums and rollers. It must have looked gangly and awkward, like a freight car on a leash, as everyone became silent. It was September 22, 1845. With a crowd of eight hundred looking on, the engine shuddered and smoked, its stationary feet ripping into the black, buckling turf. Then the ropes whined, and the Satellite lurched.
 
 Between the 1820s and the 1850s, a new kind of existence came into view, powered not by lumbering bodies but by gravity and coal. The fusion of philosophical idealism with innovations in mechanics released a soaring optimism. Go back to 1750, and everyone on earth lived nearly the same way—moving only as fast as a horse, pulling only as much as an ox, and preparing food, shelter, and clothing by hand. It was a biological old regime about to be overthrown. In 1814 the industrial advocate Tench Coxe reported statistics meant to dazzle Americans. With the British technology of the time, Coxe said, 100,000 Americans (roughly the population of Baltimore) could mill as much cotton into yarn as eight million people (the entire population of the United States in 1810) could accomplish by hand in the same amount of time. The outlines of a new economy became distinctive even as it remained firmly anchored to the larger economy of nature. Anyone who had ever felt his teeth rattle in his head as hundreds of looms shook the beams and floors of a water-powered factory—as it turned out bolts of cloth like eggs from an automated henhouse—walked away thinking that the human economy no longer possessed definite limits. Material progress did not first appear in the 1820s, but only then did many people witness its possibilities; only then did they really experience it. According to anthropologist Ernest Gellner, “A society had now emerged which, for the very first time in history, was based on sustained, perpetual cognitive and economic growth.”2Economic growth is a measure of throughput, or the capacity of a system to transfer raw material from environments to consumers through a widening process of production. Growth thrives where proliferating needs meet proliferating means. It creates webs of consumption, as when people clear land to produce corn to feed cattle to turn out beef and leather to make car seats for Cadillac Escalades. All along the line the demand for additional fuel, labor, housing, food, medical care, and roads contributes to that great measure of prosperity—GDP. Growth is also impelled by capitalism, a system of organizing labor and land that creates capital. Capital is the profit or surplus value resulting from production that is then reinvested in technology or additional labor to increase production, creating still more surplus value. This never-ending necessity to keep all the factors of production fully employed makes capitalism different from any other economic system that has ever existed. Adam Smith bluntly asserted that no rational person would behave any other way: “A man must be perfectly crazy who, where there is tolerable security, does not employ all the stock which he commands.” Anyone in the possession of capital, wrote Smith, “always expects it to be replaced to him with a profit.” Karl Marx shouted out this imperative, this drive to expand: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! ... Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.”3 The self-perpetuating cycle of accumulation has absorbed nearly the entire material world, turning everything into a commodity.But while growth has existed, in some sense, for as long as the human population has been increasing, its identification with progress—a human value—is more recent. The word dates to 1475, but its usage took a noticeable turn with the publication of The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (1678). John Bunyan’s allegory follows the life of Christian as he navigates a treacherous moral universe, avoiding a gauntlet of shady characters. Christian visits the Palace of Deliverance, climbs the Hill of Difficulty, passes through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and finally makes it to the Celestial City. Before Bunyan, progress mostly referred to movement across a landscape or through the country. After Bunyan, it referred to the movement of the soul through the labyrinth of society to the sacred geography of heaven. The sense of movement took on moral direction. Progress didn’t simply get one from place to place, it represented betterment, improvement, as one moved closer to the goal of salvation by overcoming the moral obstacles of life. For centuries, the natural environment had no particular role to play in salvation, but that was about to change.Then came the Enlightenment. Radical thinkers, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza, argued that the world could be understood by experience, without reference to God. By arguing that God was the inner essence of all things and not their direct cause, Spinoza equated God with Nature, as having no personality, no conscious power, and no independent control over human affairs. Spinoza ripped a hole in the keel of the old-time religion, and nature came pouring in. Nature quickly emerged as the new foundation of the social order. It could be observed; its properties could be demonstrated; and its vastness lent eternal and self-evident truth to just about anything. So John Locke asserted that a primordial “state of nature” established “natural rights,” and Thomas Jefferson claimed the rightful independence of the United States by appealing to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), did not see God directing people toward their best interests when he devised the “invisible hand,” but some unnamed force, comparable to gravity. God ceased to be the King of Kings and became more like a constitutional monarch, following earthly rules. As for the destiny of the soul in heaven, it came to be replaced by human destiny as the material world took on greater importance: as people understood it better, manipulated it on a larger scale, and saw it as a way to wealth.Progress became material. Social observers ceased to refer to God at all in their attempts to relate the story of civilization. The philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Kames, and Adam Smith, introduced a story meant to sync with the Bible and supersede every chronicle of kings and ministers, to reveal the primal motives and environmental influences behind human history. We all know how it goes. In the beginning, there were poor savages who never accumulated enough food by hunting and gathering to sustain more than a few wretched people in scattered groups. Finally using their wits to escape their pitiful starvation, they captured horses and domesticated sheep, living as shepherds or (in the action-thriller version) as pillaging barbarians. Population increased to the point where wild forage became scarce, making it necessary for people to stay in one place and cultivate some of the large-seeded grasses their sheep had been gnawing on for millennia. Farmers produced more food than hunters or pastoralists, resulting in more births. Their surplus grain and milk could be traded in villages, sustaining a population of nonproducers, including princes, bureaucrats, soldiers, and merchants. Divisions of labor, rule by law, a free and open market, great commercial cities—all these defined “civil society”—the final stage of social evolution.4 Progress in the final stage took a different form than it had before: constant expansion. Society would never again evolve into something else; it would just get bigger and bigger, adding new markets, new territory, and more people into its benevolent vortex.The theory of stages presented the way things must have happened, probably happened, should have happened. Its central assumption, that history has direction and meaning, originated with the messianic faith of the Torah and the New Testament. The narrative translated that faith into secular terms. It built a bridge between religious destiny and the new materialism. It redefined salvation as deliverance from dearth and hunger at the savage edge of subsistence, fulfilling God’s Providence with a set of human institutions that mediated the attainment of necessary things.5 The soul ends up not in the Celestial City, but in the city of shopkeepers. Material progress differed from salvation in an...

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