Visiting Associate Professor of History, Fordham University (2008-)
I study the ways people think about resources, capital, and how what we call The Economy functions within the larger economy of Earth. I call myself an environmental historian, but my work is related to geography, social ecology, and the political theory of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Most of my work concerns agrarian society in the United States because I have found that agriculture offers the ideal vantage from which to observe the intersection of ideas and practices, economies and landscapes. Students and friends sometimes ask me why I think about these things and when I started. If I had to nail down an early influence without which I might be doing something else with my time, I would blame everything on a childhood spent roaming around the Long Beach Harbor. My dad had a marine supply store in the Harbor, and he gave me more liberty in that marginal landscape than perhaps he should have. I dodged the trucks crossing Anaheim Street in order to climb into boxcars on the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. I trespassed to peer into the weird churning of oil refineries. A netherworld stretched out behind the store into a forlorn industrial landscape--burning vapors from flame-tipped towers, makeshift slaughterhouses, giant piles of yellow sulfur, feral dogs, weedy lots piled with rusted chain link each the size of economy cars. There were also broken, rootless men who showed up looking for work after getting out of jail--once in the Navy, once a longshoreman, once a foreman in the tuna canneries. When Southern California boomed in the 1980s, the Harbor remained underdeveloped as a mirror image of the wealth it made possible for others, a kind of third world of unpaved streets and unsolved murders. The Harbor showed me the underside of"progress" before I knew anything about economic growth or capitalism. It gave me so much to think about because none of its pieces fit together in my mind. I started writing about agriculture after feeling puzzled by another forlorn industrial landscape, another location of furious capitalist activity and environmental sacrifice--the San Joaquin Valley of California--subject of my dissertation and first book.
I am still trying to understand what we mean when we talk about progress and what progress has to do with the way people live around the world. I noticed that English speakers, in particular, have vague and negative words for grow their own food. We call them subsistence farmers, people who practice slash and burn cultivation, use with primitive tools, and live in economic isolation. I became curious. The book I'm working on, Outliers and Savages is a history of the agrarian household, defined as any group of related people who live under the same roof, work together, and eat from the same pot. Feudal lords, nation-states, and multinational corporations have tried to extort from the household, manipulate it, tax it, or destroy it. I want to know when and where it thrived, how it has survived, and why we should care. The Southern Mountains of the United States between the 1790s and the 1930s forms the book's principle historical subject in an overall narrative that places the backwoods of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia in a world context. By considering smallholders in Appalachia, Haiti, and Mexico, I hope to present the likeness between the distillers who resisted the Whiskey Tax in 1794 and the campesinos who protested NAFTA in 1994. In both cases agrarians complained that policies intended to coerce them into more encompassing market relations undermined their ability to endure as households.
By Steven Stoll
Capitalists have hated the agrarian household since the seventeenth century, calling its members savages, outliers, slackers and draggers, backward and degenerate, and wasteful of land and labor-at best curiosities, at worst forest- or mountain-dwelling insurgents without political allegiances or ties to centralized authority. The agrarian household so perplexed and infuriated its critics because it seemed to deny historical progress. It was not in a process of becoming something else. Rethinking our assumptions about development, and allowing subsistence cultures to produce for exchange on their own terms, would give Haiti a chance to recover the best part of its history and to stun the world again with the genius of its freedom. -- Steven Stoll in"Toward A Second Hatian Revolution," Harper's Magazine (April 2010)
About Steven Stoll
Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley, 2010-Present
I would've been more cooperative if I'd realized that the guy in the front of the bus had a gun. But bemused cluelessness had served me fairly well during other hairy moments in Mexico City, so when a skinny, nervous teenager strode up and told me to take off my seatbelt I just sat there."No hablo español" I muttered, hoping he'd leave me alone. He shook his head and kept going, working his way up the aisle and talking quickly to each passenger in turn. Clicking noises followed his progress like a chorus. Everyone else on the still-speeding Mexico City-Puebla bus took off their seatbelts. Weird. Don't look interested, I told myself. Maybe it's some sort of perverse anti-safety campaign? Then I noticed that the burly guy in the front of the bus was waving something small and black in the air. He shouted incomprehensibly, but everyone else must have understood because all at once they bent down and buried their faces in their hands. Okay, bad sign. The teenager began making his way back down the aisle, holding something (a bag?). I kept staring at my book, determined to stay in clueless character. He paused for a moment when he reached my seat and then hit me across the face, sending my glasses skittering across the floorboards."Take your [colorful Spanish adjective] seatbelt off and cover your eyes, you stupid [colorful Spanish noun]." Oh, I thought. That's what's happening.
In retrospect getting robbed that day was a pretty tame brush with danger, especially compared to some of my friends' stories. Whenever I've recounted it, it's always come out as (light) dark comedy. But the truth is that those guys scared the hell out of me and most everyone else on the bus. I vividly remember the sound of my heart beating in my ears; the older lady across from me whose hands shook as she removed her earrings, and the relief, tears, and outrage on board once the thieves jumped off.
That experience, along with a handful of other frightening but ultimately harmless situations on this and later research trips, left me with a valuable gift: a little taste of fear, helplessness, and vulnerability. I'd come to Mexico to study interethnic violence in the north of the country in the decades before the U.S.-Mexican War. Sometimes this violence unfolded in matched battles between groups of fighters. More often it involved armed, mounted men launching surprise attacks on isolated groups of families. Thousands of children, women, and men died in these attacks, and thousands more lost their daughters and sons, their parents, their siblings and neighbors, and some or all of their meager possessions. The grief, terror, desperation, and heartbreak these thousands of people experienced, what did I know about that? Virtually nothing. But that seemed just slightly better than absolutely nothing. I don't know if my own miniscule brushes with danger helped me write about these people with more sensitivity, empathy, or nuance. But they definitely made me want to.
By Brian DeLay
About Brian DeLay