Adam Smith on the Anthropocene

I’m on a bit of a quest to find passages in writers from the past who seem to anticipate the Anthropocene idea. And in following up on my sense that Smith is aware of the phenomenon of niche construction I came upon the following, from his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (Part IV, ch. 1). The key phrase is emphasized—I’ll return to the “deception” he mentions below.

It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth, by these labours of mankind, has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants.

I think it is fair to say that Smith articulates the notion that anthropogenic environmental transformation is planetary in scale—and more, that it can operate at the level of natural process (fertility) as well as landscape cover form. It is interesting to note that, with his intuition, Smith might qualify as another ancestor for the Anthropocene proposal. But even more interesting is that Smith seems to offer an explanation for the phenomenon.

Obviously the quote has the form of an explanation. He is explaining the development of modern (technological, commercial, indeed capitalist) civilization—and he clearly grasps that this civilization will physically transform the planet. Thus I propose that we take him to be explaining the Anthropocene, at least in germ.

What accounts for the changes he sees? Smith anchors his explanation with a reference to “this deception”—that is what begins and maintains the process that of which the Anthropocene is the culmination. So what is “this deception?” The context for the quote suggests (I believe) that it has to do with consumer culture. In the lines leading up to his “anticipation of the Anthropocene” Smith seems also to predict the psychological dynamics of advertising:

If we examine, however, why the spectator distinguishes with such admiration the condition of the rich and the great, we shall find that it is not so much upon account of the superior ease or pleasure which they are supposed to enjoy, as of the numberless artificial and elegant contrivances for promoting this ease or pleasure. He does not even imagine that they are really happier than other people; but he imagines that they possess more means of happiness. And it is the ingenious and artful adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of his admiration. . . . If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or economy [the lifestyle] by means of which it is produced. . . . And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind . . .

The deception, in other words, is that what used to be called the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” provide for a life that is actually more satisfying than a one in which basic needs are met. Smith is quite clear that this is clearly false: that is the deception. He engages (here and more explicitly elsewhere in his works) a readily available distinction between true needs, and superfluous mere wants—characterized as luxury, or more generally as convenience. Deception that it is, however, Smith points to it as the ultimate explanation for the economic activity whose impacts we now see as threatening Earth’s habitability for countless people and entire species.

The connection between consumerism and the Anthropocene is in the news lately, in light of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate change (New York Times story here)—though Pope Francis’ critique of consumerism predates the encyclical, and has other bases than its environment impact. Let me close by noting a challenge I think Smith’s view poses to the idea that the deception he places at its core can be easily overcome. For, I believe, Smith links this deception to a deep feature of human nature—indeed, to the specific dynamics of human niche construction.

As I noted in my recent post, Smith understands the basic idea of niche construction: he sees that human beings must modify their environment in order to survive. Some modifications are required to meet humans’ metabolic needs—e.g. to be in an atmosphere of a certain temperature range, achieved by clothing or built shelter. But others have to do with psychological needs—in his Lectures on Jurisprudence Smith speaks of human beings’ “delicacy of mind, ” which generates needs not generated by their metabolism. These prompt people to modify the objects they use to meet metabolic needs in ways that are not directly metabolically relevant, but instead satisfy some other human requirement. Smith specifically mentions a fundamental need for aesthetic satisfaction. But I believe that his remarks on consumerism point to a further fundamental need: for assurance. (I wonder whether this has to do with the peculiarly human relation to the future, which includes the capacity to imagine absence.) That is, the pleasure we take as spectators of the luxurious surroundings of the wealthy—a pleasure Smith characterizes as aesthetic—has ultimately to do with the assurance they symbolize that basic metabolic needs will be continuously met. The meals prepared in a kitchen seen in Architectural Digest may not support survival better than the most basic system for preparing food. But they convey the symbolic meaning that survival is not in question.

Humans are in no way unique in their need and ability to adapt their environment to their needs. But as the species which seems uniquely self-reflective, human beings do seem to stand alone in their need to make their niche construction symbolic: for humans, niche construction not only provides survival, it means survival. Smith seems to suggest that the urge to, in effect, celebrate our capacity to construct a niche is fundamental. Of course Smith does not consider the prospect that, in light of external costs, this urge can lead to self-defeating excess: the challenge of the Anthropocene. But if he is correct, that challenge cannot be met without accounting for a human need to make the human niche symbolize niche construction.

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