Mark Stoll on Profit and the Environment
Ramanan speaks with Mark Stoll about the influence of religion on environmentalism and how to rehabilitate capitalism.
In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Mark Stoll, a professor of environmental and religious history at Texas Tech University, where he also serves as director of Environmental Studies.
Stoll has written two books about the American environmental movement's significant formative religious influences: Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America (1997) and Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (2015). His newest book, Profit: An Environmental History, is an environmental history of capitalism and has been described by such figures as Bill McKibben and Katherine Hayhoe as a “must-read” outlining “the central tale of the human story.”
We discuss the influence of religion on environmentalism, underrecognized environmentalists, and how to rehabilitate capitalism. Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our thesis, our portfolio, and our course for climate founders.
Thanks for listening! Subscribe here for future episodes.
[00:09:46] Intentions of Profit
[00:15:18] Rehabilitating Capitalism
[00:20:40] Forgotten Environmental Figures
[00:00:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Okay, welcome everybody. Mark Stoll is a Professor of Environmental and Religious History at Texas Tech University where he also serves as Director of Environmental Studies. He has a Bachelor's Degree in History and German from Rice and a Ph.D. In history from the University of Texas at Austin. And we'll probably talk about the gap between those two things at some point in this session. Stoll has written two books about the American environmental movements significant religious influences, which is something we have not talked about at all in the course of this podcast. Those books are Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America, and Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. Published in 1997 and 2015, respectively.
We got him here not just because of that, but catalyzed in part by his newest book, which was published last year, Profit: An Environmental History, published in 2022 by Polity books and we encourage you to get it and read it. It's an amazing read. It is an environmental history of capitalism and has been described by such figures as Bill McKibben and Katherine Hayhoe as a must-read, outlining the central tale of the human story.
[00:01:26] So Mark, to kick us off, can you walk us through your life and career? How did you end up as a historian of religion and the environment?
[00:01:33] Mark Stoll: So, I was born in Texas, which is where I am now, but I didn't intend to come back and I left, I was pretty young, so I've lived in Muskogee, Oklahoma, so I'm Okie from Muskogee if you know Merle Haggard. Then Topeka, Kansas, a suburb of St. Louis and then went to Rice University as you said. And then a friend of mine was living in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and when I graduated and I did not have a job lined up, so he said, you want to come out and live in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco for a summer? I was like, "Well, of course, who wouldn't want to do that."
[00:02:08] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right.
[00:02:10] Mark Stoll: But I ended up being in the Bay Area for 10 years.
[00:02:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Oh, wow.
[00:02:16] Mark Stoll: San Francisco Bay area is addicting and it's wonderful.
[00:02:19] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yes.
[00:02:20] Mark Stoll: And, of course, it's changed dramatically since then. But at some point I just decided my mother was right, I should go back to grad school and I ended up in history as my major. At the time, I had a religious upbringing. Did not make me religious, but did inform me a lot about religion. Absorbed a lot from it kind of intellectually but it left me with a fascination with religion. So wherever I've gone, I've visited holy sites and talked with people and so that kind of the religious history kind of comes naturally. But I also, growing up in the sixties, I was born in 1954 and we would go to national parks as a family vacation, and camping, and my dad would take me hunting. He was a farm boy from Kansas and take me hunting with him and fishing. He loved both of those. And so I just sort of naturally acquired an interest in the environment. And, of course, it was the sixties and I was in ninth grade when Earth Day happened.
So I'm just of that generation that gets kind of caught up in all of that. And so I joined the Sierra Club in 1981. When I got to graduate school, I was looking for a topic to write a dissertation about, and I had been reading biographies of John Muir, who I knew through his writings living in California. Read a biography and I was interested in the fact that he also had a religious upbringing, although he was not a churchgoer as an adult. And then had become this environmental icon. So as he wrote, the received wisdom at the time was that these two things were mutually exclusive. The Lynn White thesis of 1967 had said that Christianity was responsible for the environmental crisis because it gave us dominion over the earth and it took the spirits and so on out of natural things and made it just a thing to use.
And so he wrote an essay that's been very famous and influential in the environmental movement, even still today people were reading it and I thought that that is wrong. My example showed that there was a connection and that the example of John Muir also, which I identified with, that his kind of journey from a religious upbringing out of it and then to become really interested in protecting nature seemed something that I could identify with. So I decided to investigate why that was true and how they were related looking for continuities rather than... I mean, I know anybody who's had a religious upbringing knows you do not, you cannot get rid of that inner Catholic thing, that inner Presbyterian, that inner Jew, that whatever it may be. If you've had a religious upbringing that stays with you and shapes your life and the way you look at things, even if you are becoming nothing or convert to Buddhism or some other religion. Becoming evangelical, you still have that way of viewing and seeing the world that you had before.
That led to my first two books, which were looking at how your religious upbringing shapes the way you think about nature and the environment as an adult. I particularly looked, in the last book, at environmentalists in particular, kind of tracing back their religious origins and practically all of the leading major significant environmental figures that you could think of had a religious upbringing, historically, which is really interesting from one perspective, but the second perspective was really interesting was that they over and over, and over, and over again, all were coming from the same denominations, which is odd to say the least, and also odd that nobody else had noticed this I thought. Once you see it's like in plain sign and such a strange thing that needed to be explained. I was like, why hadn't anybody else done this?
So my last book in particular thinks about the history of the environmental movement in terms of the religious upbringing of the people that created it, formed it, led it in the 19th century, the first half of the 20th century, and then really since 1970 because in each of these three time periods, it was a different set of denominations that was dominant.
[00:07:04] Ramanan Raghavendran: Very interesting.
[00:07:05] Mark Stoll: So you can see a transition in the things that are most important to environmentalists at the time, which also changes over time, but that reflects the way you see society, the way you morally frame things.
[00:07:21] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, I do want to get to Profit, but this is just such an interesting thread. So I'm just going to ask a quick follow-up question.
[00:07:28] Mark Stoll: Right.
[00:07:28] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, the book, the last book Inherit the Holy Mountain is about religion, presumably primarily about various forms of Christianity and American environmentalism. In that exploration, maybe in the research, maybe in conversations, did you by any chance explore the influence of other religions in other geographic settings or is that just a whole topic to its own Hinduism and Indian environmentalism to pick one proxy?
[00:07:56] Mark Stoll: I have not really delved into Indian environmentalism. It is different, of course, in very many ways. And, of course, even just the setting of India and its environmental problems are rather different than ours.
[00:08:12] Ramanan Raghavendran: Correct.
[00:08:13] Mark Stoll: But I have done Europe to a degree. And you said Christian? Yeah, it's mainly Christian because Christians have practically everybody you can think of until the last 30 years or so that's a leader of the environmental movement, a major figure, has been Christian. Until really the seventies, they were all Protestant.
[00:08:32] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right. That's really interesting.
[00:08:35] Mark Stoll: So since then, we have more Jews that are prominent. Quite a few that you can name. Catholics and the traditional Protestants have vanished, really which is curious. And you can also see that in liberalism in general in America, if you just look at the leading members in Congress on the Democratic Party, whether it's Pelosi, or Schumer, or whatever, it's all Jews and Catholics.
[00:09:03] Ramanan Raghavendran: Fascinating.
[00:09:04] Mark Stoll: Which is I think there's another book to be written about that, which possibly would be my next project.
[00:09:10] Ramanan Raghavendran: Or perhaps a thesis for one of your grad students one day. Let's switch to Profit because we will come back and talk to you about religion and the environment and maybe we should have started with that topic, but we'll come back to it.
[00:09:25] Mark Stoll: Yeah, I was afraid we would end up spending half our time just talk about that.
[00:09:31] Ramanan Raghavendran: Let us declare it now. This will be a two-part series. We'll talk today about Profit a little bit. So the book Profit more explicitly brings in capitalism than the book before it, which was Inherit the Holy Mountain.
[00:09:46] What were your intentions in writing it and for readers who have not read the book, can you give them sort of a Cliffs Notes version of the thesis before we start diving deeper?
[00:09:56] Mark Stoll: Sure. Well, of course, capitalism is in the title of my first book.
[00:10:02] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right, true.
[00:10:03] Mark Stoll: Which may be the reason, I don't really know, the reason why the publisher at Polity approached me about writing an environmental history of capitalism. So I had not actually thought to write such a book and I'm sorry that I didn't think of it because it's such a wonderful topic.
[00:10:21] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yes.
[00:10:22] Mark Stoll: And after I just sort of got over my shock of the audacity of such a topic and viral history is capitalism in one volume. I mean, you could write nine volumes on that, right? So I was like, and then why me? I could see religion maybe, but somebody out of the blue writing me about to write this topic. But the more I thought about it was like very quickly realized, I have a lot to say about that topic. I'd love to write about this. So it was a really fun project.
[00:10:52] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it.
[00:10:54] Mark Stoll: And the Cliffs Notes version, I guess what I would want to emphasize is that capitalism, it’s difficult to assign an origin point to capitalism. Every time that you say, oh well it started with the British or the English in 18th century or something, it's like, well you can find the Dutch for doing that 200 years early, all the exact same thing, and you just keep leap-frogging back that same way until you just keep moving back into antiquity, which I realize that it grows up with us kind of organically and evolves as humans and culture evolves, which is why it's so, I think deep-rooted and very difficult to even conceive of eliminating and yet lots of people who are like, "Oh, we have to come up with an alternative capitalism." Well, good luck with that. You're not the first to try to do that. That's been tried many times before and it keeps coming back. It's like, you know, you lay a sidewalk down and capitalism comes back up through it like a weed. It's there. So I think that really we have to figure out how to live with it.
[00:12:10] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it. I'm going to come back to one or two of these things in a second, but I want to begin asking some more in-depth questions. So the book does an amazing job of almost by definition the environmental costs of technological developments that in large part have arisen from the forces of capitalism. These costs are often obscured or out of sight for the public.
[00:12:34] Was that a difficult topic to research? I mean, was this something that was challenging from an archival source standpoint?
[00:12:44] Mark Stoll: It really wasn't, because I've been interested in environmentalism since Earth Day number one, which is a long time ago now, it's hard to believe. And, of course, for 35 years I've been an environmental historian and I read widely far beyond just my historical sources. I just sort of kept this kind of mental catalog of these things and so I knew what topics I needed to talk about and what I wanted to talk about. I have to go back and dig up the articles again that I'd seen or go back and find the details about what was in my mind. But it's not hard. The hardest part really is writing it right and putting it into a readable format that's reasonably comprehensive but without, just, I mean, you can imagine this could easily be 500 pages, in which case my publisher like, "No, no, we can't do that."
[00:13:46] Ramanan Raghavendran: So I'm going to now touch on a topic that is very near and dear to us at Amasia, which is the notion that you ultimately, if you're thinking clearly, which not many of us are, you kind of have to get to the idea of reducing consumption. And so I want to hone in on one particular turning point you mentioned in the book around the turn of the century, when the limits to growth were no longer our ability to produce goods and services within reason, but our capacity for consumption. And you know, you tack on something we were talking about before we started, which is the explosion in population. And you detail in the book strategies, businesses, and governments used to generate desire to keep that growth going. And a lot of the venture capital discourse is around direct-to-consumer businesses and you know, you sort of begin peeling the onion a little bit and you realize this is all part of this enormous trend and it's clear now that we can't consume at the rate we do without exceeding planetary limits.
But in your conclusion, you also suggest that we can't put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak. And I especially love this expression, which I intend to shamelessly use, as long as I remember to attribute it to you, which is, “like a shark, consumer capitalism must keep moving to live.” Which is a great metaphor-slash-image and completely frightening.
[00:15:18] So the question is, because we expect you to have all the answers, the question is, what can we do?
[00:15:27] Mark Stoll: Yeah, that is the question. And the problem is that, as you mentioned at turn of the 20th century, we had to move... I mean one of the problems with all of the industrial capitalism of the 19th century is how often it collapsed or there's one at least every 10 years you've got a major depression. And it had the problem that it was too good at producing things and that's what industrial capitalism, its genius was, let's produce things cheaply and lots of it. Great. Then you saturate the market. What do you do now? So yeah, the 20th-century question is how do we expand the market, continuously, to absorb all this stuff we're making? So to promote consumption is the goal of capitalism in the 20th century and they've gotten super good at it.
Just as you say, frighteningly good at it. And we are, it's part of our lives, our every moment, waking moment there's consumption involved. And so the problem is that if you stop consuming, everything stops.
And we just spiral down. We almost did that in 2008. That almost fell off the cliff. We certainly did that in 1929. And so when people is like, "Oh, let's degrowth and things like that," it's like, "How are you going to do that?" How can you stop the consumption without everything stopping? Because it's like the shark. The shark will die if it can't keep going.
[00:17:03] Ramanan Raghavendran: And in this instance, the “shark will die” implies a billion human beings could die.
[00:17:07] Mark Stoll: Yeah. Well, and when we had the thirties with the last total collapse, you've got poverty, and desperation, and malnutrition, and starvation, and social dislocation, and migration of people, and political extremism. And this is what you're going to have to deal with if everything just collapses. So really we got to keep that shark moving and as you say, how do we do that? And that is the challenge. I mean I do not profess to have come up with the answers, but it seems to me there are promising movements in the direction of consuming without consuming stuff. Although it was a great interview with this executive with Ikea about half a dozen years ago that I quote that he says, Ikea, which is the purveyor of stuff and cheap stuff that we have to keep replacing. It's not meant to be for the ages, it's meant to fall apart and be replaced.
But the soul of consumerism, and he was saying IKEA has to prepare for the day when you have all the stuff you want and he called it peak stuff.
So we can hope that we can reach peak stuff and buy things that maybe are more... A lot of people now are buying things are like experiences or pre-packaged quote unquote adventures. It's not an adventure if somebody's packaging it for you. But people want to have these adventures. It does end up using some fossil fuels and but it's not like buying stuff. And we also have a lot of stuff online that can stream movies, we can do video games, all of this is very low in its consumption of both energy and resources. I don't want to propose everybody sit around and do video games all day.
[00:19:07] Ramanan Raghavendran: Why not? Why not?
[00:19:11] Mark Stoll: There are many people who would love to I'm sure, but it's more that this is sort of perhaps movement in the right direction. Things like that maybe we need to be looking at.
[00:19:21] Ramanan Raghavendran: I want to just mention two things. One, recently we interviewed, and we should share it with you, Roland Geyer, who made sort of a very similar point, defined it a little differently. His notion was we should spend much more on services which are not exploitative of the planet. And the example used is if you want to go get your haircut every week, provided your barber is not living in a different state that you have to drive to. That's an example of one versus the other. On your other point, I do want to say at my age, I just got myself an Xbox. So I, in fact, intend to play video games nonstop for the rest of the year.
I want to move us along here to our last question, which is I think something that's near and dear to me is people to emulate, people to model after, or people to just think about. And you profile many important figures in the environmental preservation movement in the book and in your prior books, including one of our favorites who is Jevons. And this may be the first time I've actually pronounced that name out loud so I hope I got it... You will now tell me it's Jevons and then I'll...
[00:20:39] Mark Stoll: Yeah.
[00:20:39] Ramanan Raghavendran: So we'll call him Jevons.
[00:20:40] Are there any particular figures who especially resonate with you as you did your research?
[00:20:49] Mark Stoll: Well, they all do.
[00:20:50] Ramanan Raghavendran: You're allowed more than one.
[00:20:53] Mark Stoll: Okay. Well, Jevons is great, but I don't know that he needs to be resurrected because he is already fairly well known, especially since he's a figure in energy economics and he has become relevant again. I think that a person who is neglected is someone who I profile near the end, which is Barbara Ward and she was very prominent at one time and everywhere from the Vatican to advising people at the first Earth summit in 1973 in Stockholm. She's not the chair of these things, but she's extremely active behind the scenes and forcing people to think about poverty in the global south, what they called the third world back then, and environmental issues in those places. And so I think that she is kind of the forerunner of our current interest in environmental justice and these kinds of issues and thinking more globally than say Rachel Carson or Jevons who was only thinking about England. So Barbara Ward, let's rediscover her.
[00:22:19] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right after this podcast is done, I will be reading up on Barbara Ward and I hope many of our listeners will as well. We're going to wrap this up here, Mark, but I just want to tell you, we'll be back very soon to talk about religion more in more detail. This has been wonderful. These are themes we are deeply interested in and through us, our audience, and thank you for sharing your wisdom.