“How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?” So begins Christopher Lasch’s study of progress and its critics, The True and Only Heaven. In recent years, the gospel of progress and growth has faltered, and serious people, economists among them, have challenged the notion that continued economic expansion is the only way forward. The depletion of Earth’s natural resources can be credited with undermining one of capitalism’s most enduring principles: that there are no limits to economic growth, that natural capital is inexhaustible. The current financial crisis may refute the notion that credit too has no limits.
Steven Stoll’s recent book, The Great Delusion, is in part a response to Lasch’s question. Stoll notes that by 2050, present trends in consumption will reach a level equal to double Earth’s capacity. We’ll need another planet to sustain ourselves. In that same 40-year period, the world’s population will increase by 36 percent, to roughly 9 billion. “Growth has become a condition of the political order,” Stoll writes, “but that way of thinking might not survive much longer.”
Through the figure of John Adolphus Etzler, a German madcap inventor and political theorist of sorts who first visited the US in 1822, Stoll traces the idea of growth from the 19th century to the present. Etzler saw in America the promise of a world without limits, where nature would meet the needs of all men and require little in return. In 1833, he published The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men and promised to “show the means for creating a paradise within ten years.” That such an achievement would require changing “the whole face of nature” seemed of no concern to Etzler. Man would “level mountains, sink valleys, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, intersect everywhere the land with beautiful canals” in order to “provide himself with means unheard of yet.” Not to mention happiness and knowledge.
Etzler never fashioned his “paradise.” But Etzler retained his faith in progress and in nature’s capacity to provide for all humanity. His story is not so much a parable as it is a reflection of our own way of thinking. In the face of massive evidence that progress and growth may destroy the planet, we continue to believe that consumption, spending, acquisition, and producing more is the key to the good life.
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