Book review: Profit, by Mark Stoll

Genesis has two accounts of humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation. In chapter one there’s the famous invitation to “fill the earth and subdue it.” To rule over every other living creature. Chapter two is somewhat different in tone, saying that God put the first humans in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it.” When these invitations are held together, everything thrives. But it’s always been tempting to take the first and not the second, and so as environmental historian Mark Stoll writes, “we profit and have always profited at nature’s expense.”

Profit is his new book, “a history of capitalism that seeks to explain both how capitalism changed the natural world and how the environment shaped capitalism.” It begins in ancient civilisation and the dawn of agriculture, following the story through to billionaires and hyper-consumerism, considering the environmental consequences of each stage.

We might not consider capitalism to be an ancient idea, but there are prototypical elements of it in Greek and Roman trading systems, the development of new methods for accounting and for credit. Ages of empire, trade and slavery all add further complexities, with the discovery of fossil fuels dramatically raising the stakes.

Even the early forms of capitalism had a tendency to profit at nature’s expense, with problems such as deforestation and soil exhaustion. They too had ‘sacrifice zones’, places away from the eyes of the elite where pollution accumulated and where life was cheap, such as the areas around mines and smelting operations. And with each expansion of capitalism, the scale of the damage increased. Today, the resource footprint of the global economy is enormous. The pollution it creates is enough to change the chemistry of the oceans and the sky. Huge numbers of people are exploited to keep the wheels turning. Wildlife is in catastrophic decline as more and more of the planet is turned over to human purposes.

Of course, just as the two injunctions in Genesis can be held in tension, so capitalism is not a one-sided story. Industrial capitalism has improved human lives and brought many benefits. We don’t want to sacrifice the longer and healthier lives that we have been able to create, the comforts and the culture made possible by technological progress. Those are all good things.

The challenge is to rediscover the second invitation, the call to care for the garden Earth. As we have been exploring through the Joy in Enough project, that means a sense of enough, and contentment over greed. It means circular economies that reuse materials, rather than destroying ever greater swathes of land in our extraction. It means forms of agriculture that protect the land in the long term, approaches to building and manufacturing that use resources well.

Mark Stoll’s book doesn’t explore these sorts of solutions. As a historian, his job is to tell the story of where we have come from. It’s up to us to learn the lessons, secular and spiritual, and shape a better future with a healthier relationship to the earth.

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