Adam Smith Walks Into A Bar:
A Fable in Lieu of A Publisher’s Note
Adam Smith walks into a bar and orders three fingers of Scotch. The bartender clocks who he is right away, and he hands him an empty glass. (“Invisible hand fellow, innit?”)
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” I say, as Smith stares at his lack of Macallan’s. I slip into a seat next to him, as confidently as if I own the place—because I do. This is the Great Books Bar and Grill, a watering hole of my imagination. Old dead white guys come here to knock a few back with the living and defend, if they can, what their ideas have brought us to.
“How’s capitalism?” asks Adam. He’s all perky.
“We’re eating credit cards,” I say, which I figure is as good a place to start as any. I explain about the recent study that found the average person is ingesting 5 grams of plastic—a credit card’s worth—every week, due to the degradation of discarded plastic into microparticles suffusing our soil, water and air. I also tell him that any minute now, someone’s going to attack that study’s methodology, and then there’ll be a lot of arguing about how maybe it’s only a couple of swizzle sticks a week, or just a good-sized drinking straw. Then a lot of good, smart people will work very hard for a couple of years convening and multi-stakeholdering and figuring out different possible pathways under which, if Herculean efforts are made, the baby food eaten by my hypothetical future grandson could have various different plastic/food (or food/plastic) ratios. Meanwhile, nobody knows what the hell all that plastic-eating is doing to our bodies, so even though alcohol’s a proven carcinogen, I intend to have some more of it. I flag the bartender down.
“A lot of people think it’s your fault,” I tell Adam. He looks at me blankly, and I realize I’ve used a bunch of words he doesn’t know. Like plastic, and credit cards. A whole lot’s happened since he’s been dead. So I send him off for a mind-meld with our lead waitperson, Tavi, who has a knack for updating these old guys on modern life. Meanwhile, I go off to reread his books.
The Wealth of Nations, it turns out, opens with a disparagement of the indigenous economies that I and a lot of other people are now thinking are our best models for sustainability. “The savage nations of hunters and fishers,” Smith says on page 1, are “miserably poor,” and often have to euthanize or abandon their old, sick, or young. (Old Adam clearly didn’t know much about indigenous cultures, and he never tried to get health insurance in America.) Then he moves on to giving a free pass to the idle rich. In “civilized and thriving nations,” he says, there is a non-working class whose members may consume “the produce of. . . a hundred times more labour” than the average worker. Still, the economy is so productive that even the poorest worker, if he is “frugal and industrious,” has a higher standard of living than a “savage.” (I suppose the question of standards is key: would you rather have cable TV, or unplasticized water?)
For all Smith’s prejudices, however, his core insights are revelatory, which is what got him into the canon. High productivity, he says, results from the division of labor, which allows us to make lots of stuff fast (he just didn’t anticipate that our making and consuming ever more stuff would one day threaten civilization itself). He notes that private land ownership—another thing indigenous peoples lack—was the start of the core conflict in society, between a powerful, propertied class and the workers it employs. He explains that wages are higher when societies are increasing in wealth than when they are stable (but doesn’t consider that constant growth might be unsustainable), and he explains how employers regularly collude to keep wages down (even though, he says, you don’t hear about it the way you hear about worker’s rebellions). Employers’ goal is to keep wages at the minimum needed to allow workers to raise children to reproduce their labor—a minimum level he also calls “consistent with common humanity.”
At first, I’m thinking he didn’t realize how little common humanity people actually have. But then I look at his other major book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and he’s all over it. He goes on about how we have a hard time imagining the suffering of other people if we don’t know them, or even sometimes caring about them when we do, and how our self-interest is always uppermost and pretty short-term focused (which, it occurs to me, might have to do with the fact that we live in the economic system described in The Wealth of Nations.) Anyhow, by this time I feel fairly sure that he’ll understand pretty quickly the pickle we’re in, once we bring him up to speed about the Earth: that its bounty isn’t exhaustible, and that so much of it has been damaged or destroyed.
So I walk back to the bar, and I see that Tavi’s printed Adam the main reports he needed to see, once he got up to speed on the modern economy. He’s speed-reading through the IPCC reports on global heating, and the IPBES ones on the extinction crisis. But he looks up at the TV when the news comes on, showing satellite images of fires in the Amazon rainforest. The crawl at the bottom of the screen accelerates, in order to fill him in ASAP.
World’s largest carbon sink imperiled by racist government; major biodiversity reservoir produces 20% of the world’s oxygen. Investors claim fiduciary duty limits them to weak response; seek greater disclosure of corporate supply chains. Companies ponder whether/how to act; raise concerns re bottom-line effects, obligations to shareholders. Meanwhile, the forest burns and burns.
He looks back at me. And then Adam Smith begins to weep.
I published the essay above in Responsible Investor in 2019. At that point I was nearly two decades into a career in responsible investment, had survived a bout with breast cancer, and now found myself unemployed—uh, I mean, consulting—and trying hard to make sense of it all. Dealing with cancer had helped me come to terms with my own potential death, but only at the cost of making me care more than ever about the world that would continue with or without me—the net effect being more painful than peaceful, given that the world that was so obviously in dire straits.
Seeking a way I could help (and pay at least some of my bills), I collaborated with Cherokee economist Rebecca Adamson on a research project about the US responsible investment movement that excavated its original ties to social justice movements. Along the way I learned from her about key principles of indigenous economics that I later wrote up and tried to share with others. I did a brief stint at Starbucks in an unsuccessful quest for affordable health insurance; and one day I got the idea of dramatizing the ecological crisis from a fresh angle, as an alien hedge fund analyst’s discussion about Shorting the Earth.
At the same time, I tried to connect what I saw happening in my professional field and in the world with the private explorations of emotion and consciousness that I had been engaged in for decades with the help of psychoanalysis. Those explorations had broadened in recent years to include more intensive engagement with the spiritual, creative, and erotic dimensions of life. These dimensions were sources of vitality, curiosity, and joy for me, but they existed in a kind of parallel reality, unable to cancel out the anguish I felt when considering my social, ecological and political context on the basis of reason alone. When I heard about an essay contest honoring the memory of Suzanne Chassy, a psychoanalytic writer whose diverse work had touched on many of the same topics and issues I found compelling, I decided to write an essay integrating as best I could these different aspects of my experience. The result was Fearless, which is being published here for the first time.
Then came the pandemic, my divorce, a move to a new home, and starting last year, a new job, working again on climate change in an investment context. In the time since I first mused about drinking with Adam Smith, the state of the ecological crisis facing our planet has only grown more acute, sparking the Mayday Mayday Mayday call that I take for this month’s theme. (Tandeta journal editor Greta Ode helped come up with the topic and contributed a wonderful essay—of which more below—but she is otherwise off for the summer, working on her novels about the Old West, Puritan America, and Genghis Khan.)
“Mayday,” as the relevant Wiki entry explains, is a “procedure word” used in radio communications, and this idea itself fascinates me. “Mayday” is a word used not to refer to something, but to convey information about what is happening in a real-time situation. The radio operator who utters it isn’t talking about International Workers’ Day, but rather saying I need help. It was originally invented as an English phonetic equivalent for the French “m’aider” (help me), and the triple repetition helps make sure it’s understood, even if the transmission’s crackly. Most importantly for me right now, “mayday” conveys alarm without despair. It calls for help with the assumption that it can be given, and might soon be on the way.
That’s important because when I think rationally about what I know is happening to our environment, it feels very easy to just despair. For example: the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon than it absorbs; the population of North American birds has plummeted by 3 billion in the last fifty years, mirroring dramatic declines in bird and insect populations worldwide; the world’s major ocean currents are slowing dramatically, with potentially disastrous effects on weather, sea level rise, and food production; and in the face of all this, greenhouse gas levels have continued to climb, despite the pandemic. Just in the first few months of 2022, simultaneous heat waves at both poles of the Earth—a phenomenon scientists previously thought impossible—gave more evidence that our climate system is breaking down. Meanwhile, new research on cracks forming in the long-watched Thwaites “doomsday glacier” suggests it could fall into the ocean in as little as 3-5 years, causing catastrophic flooding of coastal cities around the world.
Moreover, even if humanity somehow manages to avoid tipping points in the climate and biodiversity crises, evidence is mounting that pollution from plastics and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals has us headed to a different kind of endgame. Over the last forty years, as scientist Susanna Swann explains in her 2021 book Count Down, these pollutants have been linked to a 50% decline in human sperm counts that shows no sign of slowing and that, if current trends continue, could make the human race largely infertile by midcentury.
Of course maybe, from a cosmic perspective, none of this matters at all. It’s easy for any science fiction fan to imagine that civilizations, and planets, perish routinely, all over the universe. I’ve written before that caring about it could be seen as mere home-planet bias. But the sense of spiritual connection I’ve been feeling increasingly in recent years is making me come to agree with the Kogi people of Colombia, who explain in their astonishing film Aluna (and here I am paraphrasing, as best I understand) that any time a world like ours perishes, it slows the positive evolution of the cosmos (although ultimately, that positive ascension can’t be stopped).
I’ve also come to look with curiosity, rather than scorn, at the writing of people like Dolores Cannon, whose work was first recommended to me by a psychoanalyst with whom I experienced the preternatural event I recount in Bereishit. Cannon began her career as a hypnotist trying to help people with ordinary concerns like smoking cessation, but soon found that while in trance states, many people related extraordinary stories that had common, repeated themes. Over and over again over decades of research, Cannon heard people tell of incarnating on Earth in order to help try to save it from the dangers that have threatened it since WWII, including nuclear weapons and ecological decline. These stories are of course, by their nature, unproveable; but unless Cannon made up all the stories herself (which I think unlikely), they are evidence of something.
At the very least, these may be common fantasies that many people’s unconscious minds generate in response to their perceptions of the existential risks we face; if so, the very universality of these fantasies shows a greater commonality across people, a greater degree of collective consciousness, than is often assumed to be the case. Or perhaps these stories are in some sense correct. Reincarnation is a central tenet of some of humanity’s greatest religious traditions; what if it’s real? If it is, why should it be contained to just our world? And if humanity is a part of some broader pool of sentient beings, wouldn’t this be just the time for some of them to come help us out?
I don’t know; but my own response to our potential end-of-history moment is to look back at our canonical thinkers in order to see what collectively, humanity has learned. That was one of the motivations for the classic-inspired pieces in last month’s Apocrypha, and it’s the reason I’m delighted to be publishing Vanessa McHale’s essay on Goedel’s Anorexia]. Kurt Goedel is a hero of mathematics, often considered the finest logician humanity has produced since Aristotle; for my literary approach to some of his key ideas, including the difference between provability and truth, see the February installment of Shorting the Earth (Blue Hill). It’s long been known that Goedel starved himself to death, but that fact has usually been viewed in vague and general terms, seen as an example of the cliche that madness and brilliance often coexist in the mathematical mind. Vanessa, to my knowledge, is the first person to examine the biographical information on Goedel together with the medical literature on anorexia, and to demonstrate that he had the symptoms of this particular disorder. I hope bringing attention to her findings can help to raise awareness that anorexia afflicts men as well as women, and also help to destigmatize this condition.
Another response the accumulation of disastrous news is provoking in me is the wish to finally publish a number of my own up-to-now-private writings on psychological topics that might help others. I’m currently compiling a collection of writing about my experiences in psychoanalysis into a forthcoming volume, entitled The Client. Meanwhile, I’m including in this issue a speculative theoretical essay I wrote years ago after meeting the mother of a nonverbal autistic child, in which I explore a possible reason the Rapid Prompting Method of communication with these children might work.
Finally, in counterpoint to my many expressions of urgency, Greta’s essay, Sometimes a Calamity, reminds us that there are have been times of apparent near-apocalypse before. Greta both shares her own reflections, and quotes her father’s reminiscences of the intense events surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Our issue closes with a poem memorializing another memory from that same era, this time from a family member of mine.
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