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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

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


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.

Update: Principles

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.

answered Sep 05 '12 at 01:43

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Sep 06 '12 at 02:02

Thanks for taking the time to answer. The question that I struggle with remains unanswered. What about private owners who may "reshape the earth in image of their values" where the values are to turn ecosystems into parking lots? This can affect others very negatively. The Earth is connected. Clearly much "reshaping" in China has not been the best for man's life. Eventually man needs air and water and animals. Some would argue that he also needs wilderness (otherwise why would we have parks at all?) and nature. I am not advocating a "pristine earth" but, rather, a balanced, healthy one.

(Sep 05 '12 at 08:27) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

The presumption here is that productiveness destroys man's environment. To the contrary: productiveness improves man's environment. If forests are a value to man, capitalism will protect them. Right now, there are privately owned nature preserves where one can visit for a fee.

There is no balance to be made between the interests of Man, and the "interests" of nature. Nature, properly understood, is the sum of raw materials for Man's use, for Man's purposes.

Property rights allow men to peacefully coexist while reshaping the earth in the image of their values.

(Sep 05 '12 at 09:03) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

OK. But for every beautiful private forest preserve, there are many more blighted and polluted areas. Where does this end up? While there are many enlightened owners, there are many others who believe that "raw materials" are there to be used up and then get out of Dodge. If I follow your line of thinking, what's to prevent 100% clear cutting of forests if one can make a buck in so doing? This is not theoretical. It is what owners have done. The Chinese view the earth as you do ( i.e. raw material to be used) and just look at the ugly disaster they have created in their country.

(Sep 05 '12 at 09:22) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

The Chinese are lifting a billion people out of poverty. I suppose maintaining beautiful landscape is more important to tourists than the elimination of human suffering.

(Sep 05 '12 at 12:26) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

The incentives are the opposite of what you seem to think they are: collectives who use a Commons, and disinterested bureaucrats who nobly regulate our use of such, are the ones who most often create such blights. In contrast, those who actually own something tend to be much better stewards of it so as to maintain its value. Clearcutting a forest isn't a great strategy when it's mine -- but clearcutting and overuse in general are common when everyone is rushing to get what value they can before it is gone and/or to shift costs onto others before those others shift costs onto them.

(Sep 05 '12 at 13:18) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Humbug basically equates the wanton destruction of natural habitats with "lifting people of poverty". I am not sure I agree at all. Many countries have "lifted" millions out of poverty without rampant destruction. Sure, there's unavoidable pollution and some of that it perfectly OK. I like development. The question was more about balance. The more I read Humbug's and Ideas' answers, I see an oversimplified view: to care about nature = hating humans. I think this is unhelpful. I love humans and love nature as well. The choice of pristine world vs parking lot seems silly to me.

(Sep 05 '12 at 14:58) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Greg's answer is (as usual) helpful. The tragedy of the commons is apposite. If large tracts of land are "unowned" then they are perhaps also at risk. If I could square the ownership with some sort of "responsibility" and "stewardship" then I think we'd have it. At the moment, I see more reason for concern than not.

(Sep 05 '12 at 15:00) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Valuing nature <> hating humans. Valuing nature to the point where rights are violated = hating humans. In fact, the only reason why the valuer is still alive is because they're being inconsistent in their practices (e.g., OK with violating rights of others to protect nature but not willing to go jump off a bridge themselves).

(Sep 05 '12 at 17:00) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Thanks, Danneskjold_repo. Okay... To be clear, are you saying that, given a Capitalist/rights-respecting context, you are concerned that the very people who have enough intelligence, drive, and virtue to earn and maintain control of valuable resources in the service of peoples' lives would also be stupid, lazy, and/or of such poor character that they would tend to irreparably destroy their wealth rather than deploy it in the service of peoples' lives (or lose it to someone who would)?

(Sep 05 '12 at 17:16) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Yes I am more or less asking about that. If you're saying that a completely rational, long-range thinking capitalist would probably not destroy nature wantonly, I probably agree. The problem is that Alan Greenspan probably thought this way about the bankers. He expressed surprise when he saw the immoral(and probably quite irrational) scams they perpetrated. That is my worry. Not everyone who gets rich has virtue in all areas. Some rich landowners are smart bankers but hate wilderness. Placing something that we all depend on (the ecosystem) in their hands doesn't seem all that smart.

(Sep 05 '12 at 18:12) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Humbug-- I don't want to violate rights. I am just wondering if some of this is akin to you not being able to buy a bazooka or build an atom bomb even though you can buy a shotgun.

(Sep 05 '12 at 18:13) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

But please note that your most horrific examples are also, notably, extreme examples of non-Capitalist contexts -- and the non-Capitalist parts are what caused the disasters. For example, the FED, Fannie and Freddie (and Congress), and Greenspan's bankers were all engaged in extraordinary cost and risk shifting on a scale that is unimaginable in a Capitalist context. So your examples seem to underscore the rational need for concern regarding the opposite of what you are concerned about: the epic disasters that result from systematically violating instead of securing peoples' rights.

(Sep 05 '12 at 18:26) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

The problem is finding a country that exemplifies capitalism these days ;-) The USA has had its examples of poor environmental stewardship: the Love Canal disaster, lead contamination at Picher, Oklahoma etc. All of these led to long term disruption/poisoning of nature by (I suppose) careless industrial concerns. The clear logging of the old growth timber in the Pacific Northwest has led to flooding and other negative effects. I do agree that in NON capitalist countries, the problem is much worse since people have zero long range thinking (get rich quick or eat everything).

(Sep 05 '12 at 21:18) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Obliquely labeling me a "leftist" is silly. I am asking a question that I have wrestled with in good faith. My purpose is to clarify my own thought processes. After all, Objectivists claim that some control of freedom is needed (police, weapons regulations) because not doing so sets up people to violate others' rights. Damaging the bioshpere could also potentially violate others' rights to life and thus I ask. The Earth is not just a set of title deeds and what happens in Africa affects Brazil. In this sense you can call me whatever you like but it's the truth.

(Sep 06 '12 at 08:27) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Finding a capitalist country seems like a red herring; the issue was whether capitalism per-se would be a threat to valuable ecosystems. No, securing rights would not entail allowing people to coerce or prey on one another, even indirectly through "damage to or destruction of an ecosystem". One needs to keep in mind what makes ecosystems (or anything) valuable; nothing, ecosystems included, has intrinsic value apart from the evaluations of valuers -- which is why others here have been emphasizing that one must keep peoples' lives at the fore.

(Sep 06 '12 at 12:52) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Thanks to all of you. I appreciate your answers. Lots to ponder here.

(Sep 07 '12 at 10:32) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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Asked: Sep 04 '12 at 12:58

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Last updated: Sep 07 '12 at 10:32