Profit, says author and environmental historian Mark Stoll, is “a history of capitalism that seeks to explain both how capitalism changed the natural world and how the environment shaped capitalism.” It’s a wide-ranging book that takes readers from antiquity all the way to today’s internet-powered global consumerism, exploring the environmental consequences along the way.
Capitalism has emerged in a series of stages, from Greek and Roman merchants, through the ages of empire, plantation capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution. Each of these had different technologies and ideas, such as the development of more sophisticated accounting techniques or trading currencies.
Each stage had an environmental impact as well. This is something that tends to get discussed from the industrial era onwards, focusing on pollution or climate change. There was always a cost though, in lost forests or depleted soils. With each advance of the economy, the potential damage to the environment increases. Each time it is an acceleration of an existing pattern: “we profit and have always profited at nature’s expense.”
It’s interesting to see some early examples of problems that concern us today. Waste batteries from electric cars, for example, echoes a previous problem with battery pollution from America’s early telegraph network. Environmental problems have moved too, and different places have risen to prominence and then fallen away as resources were depleted or industrial production shifted. Swansea was at one point the global centre of copper production, with all the pollution that entailed. Changes in the climate also had an affect – periods of unusual cold devastated populations in Northern Europe, but benefitted farmers in the Middle East.
In telling the story, Stoll picks up on a few key characters and weaves the history around their life stories. Andrew Carnegie serves as a case study in steel production and the changes it enabled. Jeff Bezos takes us into consumer capitalism.
As I’m more familiar with the later stages of the story, I learned more from the early chapters. It’s fascinating to see how the Roman Empire needed ‘sacrifice zones’, polluted elsewheres around mines and smelting operations. Or how deforestation was so widespread that it potentially affected rainfall patterns, driving regional changes to the climate. As capitalism has progressed and expanded, more and more places around the world have been drawn into this dynamic, but it’s always been there. And to get us out of the climate and biodiversity crisis we’re in today, we need forms of industry and commerce that are regenerative rather than extractive.
Of course, the story of capitalism is not a tale of unremitting woe, and it would be misguided to only describe the negatives. As Stoll writes in the introduction, there are two aspects to the word ‘profit’. There’s the suggestion of surplus and extraction, something taken. To profit from something is also to benefit from it, and the book’s title has been chosen to reflect both meanings. The challenge for the future is to keep the benefits while eliminating and restoring the damage that capitalism has tended to leave behind.