Why do modern people assume that there will be perpetual economic growth? Because, David W. Noble tells us in this provocative study of cultural criticism, such a utopian conviction is the necessary foundation for bourgeois culture. One can imagine the existence of modern middle classes only as long as the capitalist marketplace is expanding. For Noble, the related—and relevant—question is, how can the middle classes believe that a finite earth is an environment in which infinite growth is possible? The answer, which Noble so painstakingly charts, is nothing less than a genealogy of the uses and abuses of knowledge that lie at the heart of so many of our political problems today.
As far back as Plato and as recently as Alan Greenspan, Noble finds proponents of the idea of a world of independent, rational individuals living in timeless simplicity, escaping from an old world of interdependence and generations. Such notions, although in sync with Newtonian science, have come up against the subsequent conclusions of geology, biology, and the physics of Einstein. In a survey of the responses to this quandary of historians, economists, literary critics, and ecologists, Noble reveals how this confrontation, and its implications for a single global marketplace, has forced certain academic disciplines into unnatural—and untenable—positions.
David Noble’s work exposes the cost—not academic at all—of the segregation of the physical sciences from the humanities and social sciences, even as it demonstrates the required movement of the humanities toward the ecological vision of a single, interconnected world.