Top Young Historians: 117 – Steven Stoll

TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

117: Steven Stoll, 10-31-10

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Visiting Associate Professor of History, Fordham University (2008-)
Area of Research: Environmental & agricultural history; geography, social ecology, and the political theory of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
Education: Ph.D., Yale University, December 1994 (American History).
Dissertation: “The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Horticulture and the Industrial Countryside in California.” (Awarded Distinction).
Major Publications: Stoll is the author of The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008; paper edition, 2009); U.S. Environmentalism Since 1945, A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, Bedford Series in History and Culture, 2006); Steven Stoll JPG Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002; paper edition, 2003); The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).
Stoll is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others:
“Ground Truth: How Agriculture Shaped Society,” in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History (Oxford University Press, submitted); “Pattern Recognition,” in Lapham’s Quarterly 1 (Summer 2008); “Farm Against Forest,” in Michael Lewis, ed., American Wilderness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); “The Smallholder’s Dilemma,” Journal of Technology and Culture 47 (October 2006); “Postmodern Farming, Quietly Flourishing,” The Chronicle Review of The Chronicle of Higher Education (cover story, June 21, 2002); “Insects and Institutions: University Science and the Fruit Business in California,” Agricultural History 69 (Spring 1995): 216-239.
Stoll has written reviews that have appeared in the following periodicals and scholarly journals:
American Historical Review, Environmental History, Harper’s, Journal of American History, Journal of Historical Geography, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Technology and Culture, Pacific Historical Review, The American Scientist, The Atlantic, William and Mary Quarterly.
Awards: Stoll is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Finalist: The Mark Lynton History Prize, awarded by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. Jurors David A. Bell, Michael Kazin, and Roy Rosenzweig chose Larding the Lean Earth as one of two finalists out of 229 entries. March 2003.
The Heyman Prize, for an outstanding manuscript on any subject in the humanities, for The Fruits of Natural Advantage, Yale University, July 1998.
W. Turrentine Jackson Award, presented by the American Historical Association, Pacific Coast Branch “to the author of the most outstanding dissertation on any aspect of the history of the American West in the twentieth century,” August 1995.
Phi Alpha Theta/Westerners International Award for the best doctoral dissertation in western history, August 1995.
Frederick W. Beinecke Prize, awarded by the Graduate School at Yale University “for an outstanding doctoral dissertation in the field of Western American History,” May 1995.
Additional Info:
Formerly Senior Fellow, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis (2007-2008);
Associate Professor of History, Yale University (2002-2007);
Assistant Professor of History, Yale University (1996-2002);
Lecturer in History (full-time), Yale University (1994-96).
Stoll was a member of a panel of historians chosen to create “California: A Thematic History.” KCET, Los Angeles. Worked with the script writer and consulted on the project’s grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities (2001).

Personal Anecdote

I study the ways people think about resources, capital, and how what we call The Economy functions within the larger economy of Earth. I call myself an environmental historian, but my work is related to geography, social ecology, and the political theory of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Most of my work concerns agrarian society in the United States because I have found that agriculture offers the ideal vantage from which to observe the intersection of ideas and practices, economies and landscapes. Students and friends sometimes ask me why I think about these things and when I started. If I had to nail down an early influence without which I might be doing something else with my time, I would blame everything on a childhood spent roaming around the Long Beach Harbor. My dad had a marine supply store in the Harbor, and he gave me more liberty in that marginal landscape than perhaps he should have. I dodged the trucks crossing Anaheim Street in order to climb into boxcars on the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. I trespassed to peer into the weird churning of oil refineries. A netherworld stretched out behind the store into a forlorn industrial landscape–burning vapors from flame-tipped towers, makeshift slaughterhouses, giant piles of yellow sulfur, feral dogs, weedy lots piled with rusted chain link each the size of economy cars. There were also broken, rootless men who showed up looking for work after getting out of jail–once in the Navy, once a longshoreman, once a foreman in the tuna canneries. When Southern California boomed in the 1980s, the Harbor remained underdeveloped as a mirror image of the wealth it made possible for others, a kind of third world of unpaved streets and unsolved murders. The Harbor showed me the underside of “progress” before I knew anything about economic growth or capitalism. It gave me so much to think about because none of its pieces fit together in my mind. I started writing about agriculture after feeling puzzled by another forlorn industrial landscape, another location of furious capitalist activity and environmental sacrifice–the San Joaquin Valley of California–subject of my dissertation and first book.

I am still trying to understand what we mean when we talk about progress and what progress has to do with the way people live around the world. I noticed that English speakers, in particular, have vague and negative words for grow their own food. We call them subsistence farmers, people who practice slash and burn cultivation, use with primitive tools, and live in economic isolation. I became curious. The book I’m working on, Outliers and Savages is a history of the agrarian household, defined as any group of related people who live under the same roof, work together, and eat from the same pot. Feudal lords, nation-states, and multinational corporations have tried to extort from the household, manipulate it, tax it, or destroy it. I want to know when and where it thrived, how it has survived, and why we should care. The Southern Mountains of the United States between the 1790s and the 1930s forms the book’s principle historical subject in an overall narrative that places the backwoods of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia in a world context. By considering smallholders in Appalachia, Haiti, and Mexico, I hope to present the likeness between the distillers who resisted the Whiskey Tax in 1794 and the campesinos who protested NAFTA in 1994. In both cases agrarians complained that policies intended to coerce them into more encompassing market relations undermined their ability to endure as households.

Quotes

By Steven Stoll

  • “Things came together. An older metaphysical progress married a burgeoning productive capacity, creating a powerful ideology of growth—driven by the myth of human perfection and grounded in the precise observation of The Great Delusion JPG economic reality. [John Adolphus] Etzler is a nexus for the complex of ideas that boiled and simmered into a full- fledged conception of material progress … There is something deeply pragmatic about Etzler’s schemes and something fundamentally utopian about economic growth, and vice versa. They share the same qualities, and Etzler illuminates them and almost every important materialist idea during the time in which he lived … For as much as we tend to dismiss utopia for the way it wishes away greed and poverty, we would do well to consider the ways that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mall of America, and the Williams-Sonoma catalog partake of the very same expectations of salvation. What happens when we read plenty into environments that have the same kinds of limits our own bodies do? What does it mean that wealth in capitalist societies must be thought of as endless if the system is to avoid contradictions that might destroy it? What was Etzler trying to create with the Satellite and a colony in Venezuela that shows us a picture of ourselves?” — Steven Stoll in “The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth” (2008)
  • “In the logic of economic development, land that feeds people is underemployed, freeholder sufficiency is poverty, and independence from wage work is backwardness. People once called isolated and unproductive now starve from being integrated and unemployed. They starve, in other words, from the very dependency that represents their modernity. These millions of Haitians-the great-great-grandchildren of the slaves who instructed the luminaries of the European Enlightenment on the meaning of liberty, the great-grandchildren of the proud smallholders whose cassava and dasheen gave material meaning to that freedom-grind earth between their teeth….
    Capitalists have hated the agrarian household since the seventeenth century, calling its members savages, outliers, slackers and draggers, backward and degenerate, and wasteful of land and labor-at best curiosities, at worst forest- or mountain-dwelling insurgents without political allegiances or ties to centralized authority. The agrarian household so perplexed and infuriated its critics because it seemed to deny historical progress. It was not in a process of becoming something else. Rethinking our assumptions about development, and allowing subsistence cultures to produce for exchange on their own terms, would give Haiti a chance to recover the best part of its history and to stun the world again with the genius of its freedom. — Steven Stoll in “Toward A Second Hatian Revolution,” Harper’s Magazine (April 2010)
  • “Did boom years on Wall Street deliver the kind of growth that improves health, prolongs life, and makes people happier? The gross domestic product certainly increased, with sharp gains in those places burgeoning with construction jobs and property taxes. GDP, however, does not measure things like the loss of natural capital; neither does it measure human misery. The use of credit as a source of economic growth generates phantom prosperity with incomprehensible social costs. I find myself agreeing with the free-market economist George Reisman, once a student of Ludwig von Mises and a friend of Ayn Rand. Writing earlier this year, Reisman, an emeritus professor of economics at Pepperdine University, noted: “The truth is that credit expansion is responsible not only for the boom- bust cycle but also … sharply increased economic inequality, in which the wealthier strata of the population appear to increase their wealth dramatically relative to the rest of the population and for no good reason.” Companies crave credit expansion because it elevates their stock prices, giving them money for nothing. From the point of view of the aggregated goods and services that we call the economy, money for nothing does nothing. Profit-taking is not the outcome of selling things, making things, or employing people. Profits from mortgages traded on credit-correlation markets do not end up in blue-collar paychecks and then at the supermarket. Even worse, credit expansion has enticed Americans to mine their homes instead of demanding higher wages. In a self-serving scheme that would be unbelievable if it were not real, many companies pay their employees in company stock. Rather than compensate secretaries and sales representatives out of profits, executives substitute a utopian promise of future riches – fictitious money. In some companies, those securities have genuine value, but in example after example workers have been coaxed and manipulated into forfeiting their earnings.” — Steven Stoll “Wall Street’s Delusions,” Chronical of Higher Eduation (October 3, 2008)

About Steven Stoll

  • “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
  • “The lesson Stoll wants us to learn from the mad inventor’s biography is clear: Despite our optimism that we can harness all the energy necessary to increase production, we cannot fool Mother Nature.” — Paul Davidson, The New Leader
  • A significant work that uses the life of 19th-century explorer and inventor John Etzler to dissect the fallacies of the global mantra for continuous economic growth…. Distilling complex ideas in lucid, easily accessible prose, Stoll (History/Rutgers Univ.; Larding the Lean Earth, 2002, etc.) explains how his zealous protagonist, who believed the earth could support a population of one trillion people, was shaped by the Young Hegelian materialist theories of his era. Born in central Germany in 1791, Etzler promised his followers lifelong ease and abundance based on limitless natural resources. Modern consumers, too, believe that the energy powering their iPods, cars and leaf-blowers will always exist, notes Stoll. But in a time of rapidly rising gas prices and melting tundras, his timely and immensely readable book asks whether unfettered consumption can continue in a world with scarce resources. The author convincingly argues that modern economic theory, with its belief that growth equals progress, is derived from the same materialist currents that inspired Etzler. He takes as a metaphor Etzler’s bizarre invention, a massive, lumbering, do-anything machine called the Satellite, powered by wind, water, a pivot and ropes. The Satellite never worked, because Etzler ignored entropy; energy seeped away as useless heat (caused by friction over long ropes) and could never be recaptured. Stoll contends that the law of entropy, which establishes that natural energy resources are finite and unrecoverable, has also been willfully ignored by growth-focused economists. Unless consumerism is curtailed to a rate that allows the earth to replenish itself, and manufacturing becomes environmentally benign, he predicts that major crises will occur. In the 1840s, Etzler led a group of English emigrants to Venezuela, promising them a tropical paradise without limits on natural bounty, but delivering only destitution and death. Ideas influence behavior, Stoll reminds us, and Etzler’s life has a clear message for us today: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”… An erudite, entertaining historical deconstruction of the modern economic world. — Kirkus Reviews for “THE GREAT DELUSION: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth”

Posted on Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 7:33 PM

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