Politics & Culture
Top 10 Articles
Energy & Environment: The Moral Battle Of Our Day
U.S. House of Representatives, August 8, 2008 -- I am Dr. Edward Hudgins, executive director of The Atlas Society, here in Washington, D.C. Although I’ve testified many times before Congressional committees, I now find myself here on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The circumstances today are very unusual. Members of the Republican Party wanted a vote on legislation that would open up government-controlled offshore areas to energy exploration. The Democratic leadership adjourned the House to block this vote. The CSPAN cameras are turned off and there is a strict ban on any video or audio recording devices here on the floor. But many Republicans have stayed in Washington and in this chamber to stage a revolt to highlight one of the crucial issues of our day.
My organization does not endorse any particular political party or piece of legislation. But I will comment on the philosophical and moral battle being fought in this country and that is manifest here in Congress.
Let’s start with the moral.
The moral purpose of any individual's life should be to survive and flourish, to realize the values and joys that are open to us.
This means that we must use our minds to understand how the world works and to use the knowledge we acquire to create the physical means of our survival and flourishing as unique individuals.
This means we must transform the material world around us and unleash energy to create the things that we value. A literal as well as symbolic step in our evolution to becoming fully human was the harnessing of fire. The Greek myth of Prometheus imagined that great god bringing fire to humans. It is by using the material and energy in our environment that we create food and shelter, farms and cities, science and medicine and everything that has taken us out of the caves and made our modern world.
To achieve these goals requires that each individual have the right to utilize the material and energy in our world, which means to own and control private property.
And these goals and requirements in turn define the purpose of governments. No one defined this purpose in words better than Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence at this country’s founding: we are endowed "with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness--That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
In past decades, many public intellectuals argued that the world was running out of resources, that the government, rather than protecting our individual liberty and property rights, should restrict our freedom as a means to conserve scarce resources for the good of future generations. But both the moral and factual premises of this argument are wrong.
To begin with, we each as individuals live here and now, and it would be ludicrous for each of us to sacrifice our own values and dreams today for a future we will never live in. After all, this view would require individuals in future generations in turn to forgo using the bounty we leave for them for yet other future generations.
But the assumption of limited recourses is factually wrong. The great Julian Simon explained why in the title and content of his book, The Ultimate Resource, which referred to humans. We are the creators of the material means of our survival.
Ayn Rand explained that in fact there is no such thing as a “natural resource.” There are only the materials in the world that we humans with our minds discover how to put to our use. After all, a farmer 150 years ago would curse his luck if his property were seeping oil; how can one grow crops in such soil? Oil only became a resource when human minds figured out how to use it for fuel.
Today the moral and political foundations of humanity's future are directly threatened. Many environmentalists now argue not for conservation for the sake of future humans or even for clear air or water to benefit us here and now.
Rather, they turn the very concept of “value” on its head. No longer do they speak of things being of value to humans. They implicitly and, often, explicitly assume that the material world is in some way of intrinsic value, and that we humans should make ourselves subservient to the environment rather than using it for our purposes.
This immorality is seen clearly in the ban on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. That refuge is as large or much larger than ten of our states. South Carolina would just about fit into it. The proposed drilling facilities would be about the size of an airport. If you were deposited in this region without a map it would take you days or weeks to even find the facility. So why ban drilling in this area? This ban literally puts the good of frozen mud and mosquitoes ahead of the good of humans.
This is a view of value that would have humans feel guilty for the very act of living since our existence "interferes" with the so-called natural world. Our very act of breathing out carbon dioxide is seen as a threat to the environment. This view of value in fact negates the very concept of "value" since its logical consequence is the elimination of the valuers and creators, that is, we human beings.
Government bans and this immoral philosophy would not be such an important issue but for the fact that the federal government, rather than protecting private property and the rights of owners to do with it as they see fit, whether drilling for oil or keeping their property as a private nature preserve, owns or controls much of the property in this country. Government, rather than acting as the protector of our rights so we can create the means of our survival and flourishing, ties our hands and leaves us to suffer and die.
The battle over resource use is a larger battle over what moral philosophy humans should live by and, by extension, what form of government we should live under. And the key word here is "live" for this is a literal choice between a philosophy of life or death.
Only the living, not the dead, have values. We must fight this battle on moral grounds and the only ground for morality is individual human life.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.