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Nature and Wilderness

Nature and Wilderness

4 Mins
September 28, 2010

Question: Why are Ayn Rand followers so against nature and wilderness? They seem to feel everything on earth is for our pleasure and to heck with the natural world and its wildlife. This keeps me from really getting into the whole idea.

Answer: What Objectivism opposes is the idea that nature has inherent value, apart from any human needs, values, or purposes. In general, Objectivism also opposes people who want to force others to do what they think is morally right. In the case of the environmental movement, this means Objectivists oppose most governmental environmental regulations and land use restrictions. The environmental movement is also motivated in part by a hatred of industrial civilization. Objectivism, with its heroic view of man, opposes the environmentalist morality of self-abnegation and primitive living.

Every living being needs, if it is to live, to pursue the values that support its life. For a plant, this may be good soil, sunlight, and water. For a squirrel, this may be a forest abundant in oaks, a place to shelter for the winter, etc. If a human being is to live a happy and flourishing life, he must live in the manner appropriate to man, which is to live by his own rational judgment. Every person is morally entitled to use his natural environment to promote his life and happiness.

For this reason, nothing is intrinsically valuable. A thing is only of value to some living being who values that thing. To say that something is intrinsically valuable is to say, for instance, that human happiness is worth nothing in comparison with the intrinsically valuable thing. Not even peace is intrinsically valuable. Peace is valuable because it enables people to live cooperatively and to produce and flourish. The flip side is that peace is valuable when it spares us needless danger, suffering, and death. Similarly, nature is not intrinsically valuable. It's?only valuable insofar as people can use or enjoy it. You might like walking in a forest for your pleasure or cutting its trees to build your home, say. Both are values for certain individuals trying to survive and to enjoy their lives.

"Don't the other organisms have a right to live, too?" you may ask. A right is a political principle sanctioning freedom of action in a social context. It applies to beings who have free will, who can choose, and who can grasp the principle of a right and act on it. It is essential to having a right to life that one respect the lives of others. So it is obvious that the non-rational animals and other organisms cannot and do not have rights. Can you talk a grizzly bear into respecting your right to life when it is hungry? No, but hungry people do without murder and cannibalism all the time. Can you cut a deal with the deer to stay out of your gardens? No, but keeping the neighbors out is another matter. We have to deal with all organisms in a manner appropriate to their natures, and non-rational animals are just that: non-rational.

To people who say that nature is worth more than some human activity, Objectivists say: prove it! Those who value a wilderness are welcome to buy it and protect it. To those who think farmland would be better used as open prairie, I say: Take what you want, and pay for it, respecting the rights of others. I like a wilderness park myself and I'd be glad to contribute in the right circumstances.

To those who say that industrial civilization is making human life impossible, Objectivists say again: prove it. In fact, human lifespans continue to extend as our technology and civilization advance. It is human reason that will solve problems we create, if it is allowed to do so. Usually these problems can be solved through applying clear property rights and letting individuals determine freely what they value and how best to organize solutions. An example is over-fishing of the oceans: This is a classic case where a lack of property rights has caused chaos. The solution is not regulations and catch quotas, but property rights and auctions of fishing rights.

Sadly, most self-proclaimed environmentalists are far more eager to bridle industry with laws than they are to actually invest their own efforts and money. Look at the scorn and calumnies directed at Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, for trying to address environmental concerns on a rational and human-centered basis.

I notice you live in Brooklyn. Why don't you live on a primitive organic farm near a wilderness? How relevant is the wilderness to the life you actually lead? It is easy to demand that costs be imposed on others, for luxuries you would like to occasionally enjoy. What we all need to do is get our values straight and be willing to produce the values we need, not impose them by force on unwilling others.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

William Thomas
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William Thomas
Environment and Energy
Values and Morals