I asked a more specific version of this question earlier and I got a pretty specific set of answers ( http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/2969/what-is-the-objectivist-position-on-the-preservation-of-wilderness). I know Objectivism has clear views on ownership and property rights. I also know that ownership precludes violating the rights of others and that's all fine. I also "get" that pooled private ownership of nature reserves can work in certain cases.
The question I now pose is a much broader one: how do property rights in general deal with natural ecosystems that almost certainly do not obey strict property boundaries? If someone owns a large part of a forest and decides that he'd like to develop it and in doing so removes, say, bird habitat, what does Objectivism have to say about the resultant loss and potential extinction(s) that could happen? This is not some textbook case, this kind of development has happened many times. How do we think about the loss of a species in terms of (a) others' ability to enjoy and value the species (b) the potential large impact within the web of life? The bird's extinction per se may not matter to the forest owner, but it could well be prey for some other species and that for another and the results may be quite terrible when considered in a global context. The central issue is that nature does not obey property laws and what one does with one bit of nature affects other bits. How does Objectivism view the natural ecosystems of this planet which are inherently linked and have complex interactions that are not even fully understood? A well-meaning owner could easily create a situation where entire sets of natural creatures would disappear forever based on short term profit. How do we analyze this?
asked Sep 04 '12 at 12:58
Although the question asks about something called "ecosystems in nature," the question also asks: "How do we analyze this?" We analyze it, first of all, by recognizing that it is just one more species of the environmental movement, the Objectivist view of which is well summarized in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Ecology/Environmental Movement." One of the excerpts in that topic succinctly concludes:
If, after the failure of such accusations as "Capitalism leads you to the poorhouse" and "Capitalism leads you to war," the New Left is left with nothing better than: "Capitalism defiles the beauty of your countryside," one may justifiably conclude that, as an intellectul power, the collectivist movement is through.
One also analyzes the question by recognizing that it is primarily a question about values. The main concern expressed in the question is potential extinctions of species (a great many of which happen all the time without any involvement by man). Ok, so why is the extinction of a species necessarily a disvalue for man, by the standard of man's life qua man? The question as stated offers no answer, other than a vague allusion to a "web of life" and alleged but unexplained "results [that] may be quite terrible [by what standard?] when considered in a global context."
The question bemoans the loss to others -- non-owners of a property -- in no longer being able "to enjoy and value the species." In other words, others who do not own a property ought to have the power to stop a property owner from developing his own property. This is a clear conflict between individual rights and collective powers. It really should come as no surprise to anyone that individual rights are incompatible with collectivist politics, or that the view of a rational producer and trader that the earth is man's to remake in the image of his values, is irreconcilably in conflict with the view that pristine nature, untouched by man, is the supreme "value." The envirnonmentalists know it all too well, as do their collectivist brethren from the beginning of recorded history. It is just one more instance of the centuries-old battle of individualism versus collectivism, and of the collectivists' belief that a collective can endure while relentlessly crushing any individuals who "stand out" too prominently.
Environmentalists pose as defenders of "nature," yet they completely ignore man's fundamental nature. One of the key virtues which man must practice in order to live is productiveness. Here is how Ayn Rand describes productiveness in the lead excerpt in the Lexicon topic of "Productiveness" (excerpted from VOS Chap. 1, bold emphasis added):
The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man's mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself. Productive work is the road of man's unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-essertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values.
Try to reconcile that with eivornmentalism. It can't be done -- not if one understands the meaning of "untouched by man." The closest man can ever come to the environmentalist ideal, assuming he continues to exist at all, is described in the lead excerpt in the Lexicon topic of "Ecology/Environmental Movement":
Ecology as a social principle ... condems cities, culture, industry, technology, the intellect, and advocates men's return to "nature," to the state of grunting subanimals digging the soil with their bare hands.
It is a prescription for a new holocaust, a massive reduction in the present worldwide human population, since the land simply cannot support the present world population without technology and industry. And again, the leaders of the environmental movement know this very well, even if too many of their followers are reluctant to see it.
The questioner states: "The question I now pose is a much broader one...." I've given a broader answer. If man's life is one's goal, individualism and capitalism are the way to achieve it -- individual freedom to engage in productiveness and trade guided by reason, with equal protection of individual rights for all.
In the comments, the questioner skillfully and subtly (though not necessarily by conscious design) pollutes the discussion with an issue that isn't specifically mentioned in the original question at all: pollution. The Objectivist view of pollution is not a simple projection of Objectivism's view of the ecological/environmental movement. The very last excerpt in the Lexicon topic of "Ecology/Environmental Movement" introduces the issue of pollution by way of differentiating it from what environmentalists are really after. Merely cleaning up pollution is not the essence of what they want.
The Lexicon topic of "Pollution" elaborates further on the political principle involved in pollution:
... if a man creates a physical danger or harm to others, which extends beyond the line of his own property, such as unsanitary conditions or even loud noise, and if this is proved, the law can and does hold him responsible. If the condition is collective, such as in an overcrowded city, appropriate and objective laws can be defined, protecting the rights of all those involved -- as was done in the case of oil rights, air-space rights, etc.
The same excerpt also observes:
... just as peace was not their [the leftists'] goal or motive in that crusade [anti-war activism], so clean air is not their goal or motive in this one [environmentalism].
The questioner insists that he is not a "leftist," though he acknowledges that "leftists" exist. Yet apart from pollution, he is hard-pressed to cite specific examples of actions that are within the individual rights of the perpetrators (which pollution is not) and do not violate the individual rights of anyone else (which pollution does), but nevertheless "warrant" intervention by government to stop the exercise of individual rights by the perpetrator, in the name of some unspecified, non-objective "higher good of society." The questioner states: "I am not advocating a 'pristine earth' but, rather, a balanced, healthy one." By "balance," the questioner evidently means a mixture of individualism and collectivism, freedom and controls, overseen somehow by "society," by unspecified, unnamed principles which the questioner does not, and cannot, identify. That is a fundamentally unprincipled approach, a rejection of principle as such, in favor of "social consensus" and emotion, ripe with opportunities for all manner of pressure-group warfare, as potential victims scramble to acquire as much political "pull" and power as possible. Such is the logic of principles and their rejection, although anyone who rejects principles in this way may be unable or unwilling to comprehend it. It is, in fact, the essence of today's system in America and many other countries around the globe. In contrast, Objectivism shows man how to live by principles and why he ought to do so. Refer to the Lexicon topic of "Principles" for further discussion.