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May 18, 2024

Professor Schoenberger awarded Guggenheim Fellowship

By YANNI GU | April 22, 2020



Schoenberger research investigates how powerful capitalists influence the public’s commitment to environmental protection. 

Why do humans fail to act in their own interest when it comes to the environment, despite knowing what ought to be done? This is the guiding question that Erica Schoenberger, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, will explore as a Guggenheim Fellow. 

Earlier this month, 175 scholars were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships for exceptional work in the arts. The program awards grants to professionals across diverse fields so that they can creatively explore topics of interest to them. In an interview with The News-Letter, Schoenberger explained that she seeks to address her primary inquiry by investigating the intersection of environmental history and capitalism. 

“I’m hoping to shake up the conventional view of how capitalism came about,” Schoenberger said. 

She hopes to bring together two seemingly unrelated concepts and connect them through an analysis of the past. Schoenberger acknowledged that her work does not fall under the conventional idea of scholarship in her field. 

She noted that the inspiration for the project came from readings about the history of mining that dated back to 5000 BCE; she realized that the origins of markets and of money conflicted strongly with conventional accounts. The typical narrative describes the origins of markets, towns and money as a story of natural evolution, the result of generations of people working and advancing. During her fellowship, Schoenberger seeks to challenge that narrative.

“If the story’s true, it means you can’t ask a lot of questions like, ‘Could we have a market economy that actually served the interests of the large mass of people and that did not wreck the environment while doing so?’” Schoenberger said.

She sees capitalism not as the result of natural evolution, but as the product of the invisible workings of certain people. These invisible workings laid the groundwork of social and physical infrastructures from which the economic system arose. She points to the appearance of money and markets in the high middle ages as an example of this groundwork.

For generations, people have thought of money as a means to make exchange easier. However, Schoenberger noted that in a feudal world where people lived in the same place for generations, bartering had never been a problem. She argues instead that the need for money was only present among the ruling class. 

“In a feudal system, the ruling class wages war. That’s kind of their occupation,” Schoenberger said.

According to Schoenberger, war requires liquidity — or the ability to exchange assets without diminishing their value — that is easy to mobilize across large distances. Thus, money was created.  

“Where do you get money? You get it in markets. Where do you get markets? You get them in towns,” Schoenberger said.

Schoenberger’s historical research shows that the ruling class created towns and markets in order to obtain money. This is contrary to the belief that towns created markets that required money. The result of the creation of towns and markets was the emergence of wealthy dwellers — merchants, bankers and urban patricians who own large amounts of land. 

“[The wealthy] start to have a sense of themselves as a class apart. I think that’s where the sense of self as a kind of baby capitalist comes from,” Schoenberger said. 

Schoenberger pointed out the differences and similarities between feudal towns and modern cities; although modern cities are not ruled by kings who own the land, capitalistic principles are apparent.

“Cities and indeed the entire social and economic landscape are created in the image of capitalism,” Schoenberger said. 

According to Schoenberger, powerful capitalists not only influence how the populace views economic and governmental regulations, but also their commitment to environmental protection. 

“We are making decisions that unavoidably promise incredible environmental harm, and it’s not because of capitalism, largely,” she said. “It’s because of who’s driving the bus now — what particular capitalists, what particular industries and what particular segments of the capitalist world are really in charge.”

Schoenberger notes that all kinds of systems, not just capitalism, have major environmental impacts. However, she distinguished between the environmental disruption caused by some economic systems, and the environmental and social catastrophes inherent in capitalism. She plans to delve further into the roots of capitalism in order to find a definite answer as to why capitalist systems do not preserve the environment; her findings may offer steps toward that preservation. 

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