Kirkus Star


A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth
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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.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8090-9506-3
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2008


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