In Chapter 6 of his 1992 novel "Ishmael," Daniel Quinn compared our modern-day civilization to early aeronauts working to unlock the secrets of flight. Proceeding by trial-and-error, these inventors built contraptions that tested the laws of aerodynamics they sought to discover. Some aircraft performed better than others, but until the Wright brothers’ success in 1903, none truly flew.
Quinn’s comparison was specifically to the more optimistic of those early aeronauts, who might have thought they had built a flying machine, but who had really only built a falling machine. He imagined such an inventor launching off a high cliff and falling through the clouds, fooled into believing he was in flight. Congratulating himself and reveling in blissful ignorance, the inventor is completely unaware that the craft is aerodynamically incapable of flying.
Being so high in the sky, though, he could not yet see the ground rising to meet him. In Quinn’s eyes, humanity similarly had fooled itself into believing our civilization was in flight, having mastered what it would take to thrive for generations upon generations. In reality, our civilization is in freefall unless it can learn to obey the laws of nature.
As humanity has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on Quinn’s analogy, but with the word "economy" substituted for "civilization." For decades, the developed world has congratulated itself for creating the best economic system in human history, calling it at various times capitalism or neoliberal economics or the free market. As justification for our success, we’ve pointed to our rapidly expanding technological capabilities and the most dramatic improvement in quality of life our species has seen.