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.
“This is a hot little book, hot in moral intensity, hot in probable consequences, and hot to handle. It will dismay some, infuriate others, and invite thinking by anyone who regards ours as the responsible species. We have memory and anticipation. Stoll wants us to observe, anticipate, and act. A stirring and eloquent piece of work.” —Roger Kennedy, Director Emeritus, the National Museum of American History “An odd and intriguing chunk of history that helps us understand where our great ideé fixe—endless growth—came from. When you consider what a weird idea it actually is, and how central to our intellectual universe, it’s well worth trying to figure out how we first fell under this fancy.” —Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
“Stoll’s brilliant exhumation of the life of Etzler—Frankenstein-like inventor and Hegelian con man—confronts us with the lunatic-utopian origins of our civilization’s most profound (and suicidal) desire: the infinite consumption of nature.” —Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums
“This is a hot little book, hot in moral intensity, hot in probable consequences, and hot to handle. It will dismay some, infuriate others, and invite thinking by anyone who regards ours as the responsible species. We have memory and anticipation. Stoll wants us to observe, anticipate, and act. A stirring and eloquent piece of work.” —Roger Kennedy, Director Emeritus, the National Museum of American History
“Enthrallment with growth has brought us to a perilous state environmentally. The world economy is so large that its impacts are disrupting the planetary systems that make life on earth possible, and yet economic activity is on track to double in size in less than two decades. Stoll’s insightful book on the utopian origins of our growth fetish could not be more timely. It raises difficult issues about the balance of economy and ecology that must soon be faced.”—Gus Speth, Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy, Yale University
“Steven Stoll presents the technologically utopian zeitgeist of our time in biographical preview—the fascinating story of a possessed nineteenth-century German engineer named John Adolphus Etzler. It is a cautionary and instructive story.” —Herman E. Daly, Professor, School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland