Question: I am just beginning to learn about Objectivism, but I have yet to hear anything about how Objectivists would address the multifarious environmental issues that plague this world today, including environmental cleanup from industry and preservation of ecologically rich environments for the sake of species diversity.
1) My experience is that when businessmen and bankers are allowed to please themselves, someone else ends up monitoring the environmental cleanup (if it is cleaned up) and the taxpayers end up paying for it, while the polluters keep their profits. How would Objectivism create a fair playing field so that only those who benefit from an industry pay for the cleanup, rather than those who live down-wind or down-time (i.e., in the future)?
2) How would Objectivists manage to preserve ecologically rich land areas that possess no intrinsic financial value, at least not when evaluated in our current fiduciary mindset, but which provide environmental services free of charge (e.g., wetlands purifying the water that runs through them, forests generating oxygen) and which give pleasure to mankind simply by being? Or in other words, how would Objectivism represent the non-human, yet vital, aspects of our world?
Answer: On the first part of your question, the basic answer is: private property rights. To the extent that a resource is owned in common, no one has an incentive to keep it from being destroyed or to economize on its use; the result is what is known as "the tragedy of the commons", the common resource being quickly depleted or destroyed. Those environmental concerns that have validity invariably are the result of this phenomenon.
Genuine environmental problems therefore have only one real solution: better definition and enforcement of private property rights. If an industry owns the resources it uses or pollutes; or if these resources are privately owned by someone else who can sue for damages if his property is harmed; then the industry will have to pay these costs. Defining property rights may not always be easy, and in some cases will require some technological development (an example is the definition of property rights in grazing land for cattle, which required the development of barbed wire); but the philosophical principle involved in the solution to such problems is clear, and it is the same principle that Objectivism
advocates for much more fundamental grounds: the principle that human life requires private property rights.
The only justification
for preserving natural areas is the value that people place on such preservation and the pleasure they get from it.
On the second part of your question, the direct answer is that in the free market, anything that people enjoy and value does have financial value. The profit in developing land to be used for industry or agriculture comes from the willingness of the industry's customers to pay for its products. If people enjoy a natural area, as a place for hiking, camping, etc., they will also be willing to pay for that enjoyment through entrance fees, so keeping the natural area undeveloped can also be profitable. Also, people who place a value on having natural areas preserved, or on species diversity, without necessarily enjoying them directly, can donate money to organizations buying such areas to ensure their preservation. So supply and demand in the free market will determine which land will be developed and used for industry or agriculture, and which will be preserved as natural areas, in the way that will best satisfy people's diverse values.
Many environmentalists do not find this answer satisfying, because they regard nature, or species diversity, as valuable in itself, independently of human benefits and purposes; and so they do not want the preservation of natural areas to depend on the value people put on such preservation. The idea of nature as an intrinsic value is asserted as a dogma, without argument or justification; and the Objectivist analysis of the concept of value exposes the fallacy in any assertion that something has an intrinsic value. A value requires an answer to the questions: of value to whom, and for what? There is no meaning to a value something allegedly has in itself, independently of some valuer. Nor is there a meaning to a claim that something "gives pleasure to mankind", apart from pleasure to individual men. Once we get rid of the idea of intrinsic value, the only justification for preserving natural areas is the value that people place on such preservation and the pleasure they get from it; and that will be expressed in their willingness to pay, and the only moral way to satisfy it, alongside all the other values people have for the use of land and natural resources, is in the free market.