Fredrik Albritton Jonsson

Cornucopian Projects

The age of projects was also the dawn of cornucopianism. What precisely was new and specific about this expectation of abundance? The shift in energy consumption that characterized the Industrial Revolution is often seen as the hallmark of modern growth. Fossil fuel stock and steam technology made possible a revolutionary escape from the closed systems of organic energy economies. But it would be too reductive to associate the new optimism only with coal and steam. Cornucopian expectations were also shaped by the peculiar conditions of European imperial expansion. This was an “empty world” of ecological frontiers open to colonial settlement and extraction, which fostered a notion of “infinite” abundance long before the Industrial Revolution. “Cornucopia” seems to have entered into the English language with King James’ Bible: “Men talke of Cornu-copia, that it had all things necessary for foode in it.” Francis Bacon employed the term in his memorandum to King James concerning the plantation of Ireland in 1606. Crucially, he saw this project as making a new world out of nothing, in imitation of God’s Creation. His follower Samuel Hartlib, entitled his great 1651 treatise on agricultural improvement Cornu copia. Bacon, Hartlib and other cornucopians like Gabriel Plattes thought of food production merely as one aspect of much wider program to master nature, predicated on the collection of useful knowledge, and extending into other fields beyond agriculture, such as medicine, alchemy, and credit. From the beginning, these new cornucopian objects and spaces proved malleable and migratory. When a resource was exhausted, the frontier moved elsewhere. Temporally speaking, the observation of infinite riches in any particular locale was stable only within a limited horizon. In this sense, we might speak of a universal logic of ephemeral cornucopia – or projects of nature - repeated again and again in different locations and periods. Arguably, this logic still persists in the economic doctrine of indefinite substitution and Ricardian scarcity.