Not sure I want to re-read that now…

Once upon a time, back when I was a sheltered and naive undergrad, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The books were interesting; they made me think and though I did not agree with everything in them, the cultural and political commentary was engaging. There was always something about Rand’s books that never sat right with me especially Atlas Shrugged. But I read them for fun and didn’t dwell on them or their unsettling aspects until Atlas Shrugged was discussed in a class on the Whig Interpretation of History. It was for Dystopia Day and the other options we were given to read were classics like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, and less obvious narratives of dystopia like The Monkey Wrench Gang – we also watched clips from movies I can’t remember the name of and the video for “Do the Evolution.”  It was the first time in years I’d really thought about what was going on in Atlas Shrugged and by the end of the discussion I was really questioning if I agreed with any of the themes Rand presented.  But again I left the book alone when class was over I moved on to thinking about other thing like ecotage, tree spiking and tagging Hummers.

Then I started reading old issues of the University of Alberta student newspaper The Gateway and there were references in a surprising number of articles about environmental issues to the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI).  From the vague way the ARI was brought up it was clear it was anti-environment, so I googled it.  The results were eye opening.  Turns out there is an institute devoted to promoting Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.  It was founded back in 1985 – making it 25 years old in 2010 – and focuses on introducing high school and university students to Rand (they are especially interested in catching the impressionable, open-minded undergrad population).  There is a whole section of the website devoted to applying objectivism to current events and it seems environmentalism is pretty high up on the list of things that do not mesh with objectivism at all.  There are op-eds with titles like “Rachel Carson’s Genocide” and “The Danger of Environmentalism,” press releases like “CO2 Restrictions Threaten Human Life” and ” ‘Earth Hour’ Symbolizes the Renunciation of Industrial Civilization,” and articles called “Against Environmentalism,” “Animal ‘Rights’ and the New Man Haters,” and “In Moral Defence of Forestry.”   A quick scan of the website and the presence of a branch of the institute at a university in Alberta was not surprising.  It oozes classic conservative environment denial and the disregard for anything except the progress of industrialization and making more money.  It was frightening reading the extremes to which Rand’s philosophies are being taken.

Ayn Rand will continue to sit on my bookshelf.  I will not relegate her work to a box containing the books I hate and will be donating to a used bookstore on of these days because even though I disagree with much of her philosophy and interpretation of history, Rand’s books are thought provoking and I am glad I’ve read them.  I don’t plan on re-reading them anytime soon, unless of course the ARI appears frequently enough in critiques of environmentalism that refreshing my memory of her perspective on the environment is necessary.

If you have not read any Rand, you should – The Fountainhead is less dense than Atlas Shrugged and a couple hundred pages shorter, but Atlas Shrugged paints the best picture of her philosophy (unless you want to get into The Romantic Manifesto which is all philosophy not story).  The writing is engaging and at the end of the 600+ pages of Atlas Shrugged it is a little odd to realize the author died in 1982.

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About Lauren Wheeler

Just a reformed history phd student working as a public historian and staying connected with the environmental history world from remote Edmonton. Requires coffee, music, laughter, and regular escapes to less Edmonton-like places.
This entry was posted in Environmentalism, Opinion, Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Not sure I want to re-read that now…

  1. Sean says:

    Excellent piece! Good on you for turning away from a-near book burning. I remember just one of her ideas: Something like if you’re confused and can’t make a choice, identify the two premises in your way–then chuck one of them. Or something like that.

    How does (did?) she get off arguing that every decision was some kind of bifurcated line? If only life was that simple. Even so, is not the decision to reject one and not the other still a leap of faith? What about faith? Anyway, another fine excerpt Wheelie!

  2. clay barham says:

    To turn our country around, we must permit individual interests and not community interests to dominate. Obama, Democrats, socialists, liberals and everyone on the left wants to share the booty from America saying community is most important. Save Pebble Droppers & Prosperity on Amazon and claysamerica.com, tells how America did so well in the first place, and shows us how to repeat the process of regaining our prosperity. America has drifted into meaningless self-sacrifice to the point we cannot earn our way back and focusing on individual interests as described so well by Ayn Rand. Claysamerica.com

  3. MichaelM says:

    Lauren

    I second Sean’s praise, and suggest that when time allows you read some of Rand’s nonfiction for a deeper understanding of Objectivism. And do it with patience and the self-discipline to leave behind the pre-judgments you have come to take for granted. This philosophy inverts the status quo on its head. Judge the ideas for themselves, and dig down through her premises to the deepest base of your disagreements, resolve them and proceed back to the everyday applications.

    Sean, she does not say that every decision is a simple black/white issue. But every *aspect* of every decision is. Life is nothing but one long string of alternatives from which you must choose in order to act on one or the other. The complexity of alternatives and the speed demanded of our choices of actions is the fact of reality that gives rise to the need for a deliberated code of values — an ethics — to guide our spontaneous decisions in a direction we are able to consciously choose prior to acting.

    Emotions are not cognitive. Faith is a feeling, not knowledge. Emotions and feelings function rather to prompt our spontaneous actions per our (passively or actively) imbedded values and to funnel feedback to our mind re the consequences. In our everyday life we get too busy to focus on this process and more often than not do not bother to understand it, let alone manage it.

    Consequently a choice may appear to be a leap of faith, and in the lives of people who refuse to think, is more often than not. But the rational person works throughout life to constantly challenge, revise, and reorder that code of values to facilitate valid and consistent choices. Faith is the enemy of this process. It is a denial of the efficacy of a rational mind to accurately define and cope with reality.

    Also Lauren, you are taking huge leaps of faith in judging the attitudes of Objectivists on environmental issues. That said, I must concede that the plethora of articles against environmentalism on Objectivist websites and forums tempts one to take that leap from the appearance alone. But here is where that self-discipline is required. Here is where one must recognize that a philosophy espousing as its primary values, reason purpose and self-esteem, and as its primary virtues, rationality, independence, honesty, integrity, productiveness and pride is unlikely to be advocating the wholesale destruction of the environment.

    Note that Objectivists are not anti-environment, but rather anti-environmentalism. Their position is that the politics of environmentalism is often rooted in a hatred of man more than a desire for the proper management of the environment. They recognize that man’s unique means to survive and thrive is to exploit nature, and they simultaneously demand, as in every other endeavor, that the exploitation be rationally exercised — over the long term. The environmentalism they oppose reverses the relationship and demands that man is to be exploited for the sake of nature.

    The other problem with environmentalism is that its practicers universally condone coercion to achieve their ends. The Objectivist ethics recognizes that man’s essential nature requires that each individual be autonomous in the application of reason to action in the service of life. That mandate, when extended into the social context of a governed society demands that all human interrelationships be voluntarily entered into. The government then has only one task to perform, to guarantee that:

    No person shall initiate the use of force to gain, withhold, or destroy any tangible or intangible value owned by any other person who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange.

    The benevolence of the Objectivist philosophy lies in its thorough and consistent condemnation of coercion among all persons.

    That requires in turn a radical reordering of the management of our social interaction. The only regulations must be directed solely at the use of force. All others must be supplied by the populace taking responsibility for their choices that are made with the assistance of competing certification institutions. The control of undesirable actions must be effected by non-coercive actions of shunning, boycott, deed and contract restrictions, not only of the one who acts, but also of those from whom he derives his own necessities.

    There could be no coercion through taxation to pay for services or products not wanted. There would be no subsidies or means for the government to favor one group over another. Corporations would be unable acquire wealth without offering more value at a lower price. Force and fraud would be strictly prevented, stopped and punished.

    Beware the knee-jerk reaction that holds such to be impossible or impractical. Those requirements are first and foremost moral, and the immoral may never be held to be practical, because morality supersedes all other considerations. The moral is ever and always ultimately and inherently practical. Keep in mind that everything the government does is provided by people — people who would not suddenly be unable to provide necessary services in the absence of government management.

    This is just a sampler of the depth of the implications of Rand’s philosophy. A well reasoned judgment of it requires much more than a trip through two of her novels. I hope that you find the time in the coming years to delve deeper. Here are two important essays as starters:

    Objectivist ethics:
    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ari_ayn_rand_the_objectivist_ethics

    Man’s rights:
    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ari_ayn_rand_man_rights

    And the Ayn Rand Lexicon with excerpts from her writings on over 200 topics:
    http://aynrandlexicon.com/

  4. Lee Chamney says:

    MichaelM,

    Even while advising Lauren to “do it with patience and the self-discipline to leave behind the pre-judgments you have come to take for granted,” you seem to have a lot of pre-judgments of your own when it comes to environmentalism as a movement. The image of an environmentalist as an anti-humanist is a straw man. Despite media portrayal, very few environmentalists would advocate the destruction in whole or part of mankind for environmental reasons. In fact, the mainstream environmental movement’s rhetoric revolves around the danger to the human food and water supply. Even more radical organizations such as Greenpeace devote the lion’s share of their research dollars to the development of alternative energy sources for consumption by humans (as opposed to, say, a logical pro-environment/hatred of humanity invention such as biological weapons). The aim of most environmentalists is to sustain both the biosphere and biodiversity for future and continuing use by humans.

    This is a good demonstration of an essential fault of both Objectivism and certain cultures of the left: the lack of self-criticism and self-doubt. Many types of liberalism as well as Objectivism make the assumption that their school of thought is the only one to have fully extricated themselves from pre-assumption and irrationality. Yet, it is obviously, evidently, demonstarably impossible to escape from pre-assumptions and value judgments. For example, Ayn Rand made the value judgment that human prosperity is a desirable goal, while almost everyone holds the value judgment that organic life is a good thing in general. Even the belief that reason is possible is built on assumptions about the operation of the human mind. The belief that one could attain complete rationality is almost as much a leap of faith as belief in a higher power.

    However, many people feel that they’ve done it. And the belief that someone has become wholly rational hold with it the belief that everyone who disagrees with him/her is to some extent irrational. The condescension of this point of view, which I have to say comes out pretty clearly in your post, is also a major reason why environmentalism still has not achieved mass popularity: everyone dislikes environmentalists but aren’t self-doubting enough to consider why this is or whether their presuppositions are correct.

    In the spirit of self-criticism, I realize that I’ve been generalizing about Objectivism. If there have been answers to these problems found in Objectivist thought, I’d like to hear about them.

  5. MichaelM says:

    “Despite media portrayal, very few environmentalists would advocate the destruction in whole or part of mankind for environmental reasons.”

    I said “exploit” – not “destroy”. That refers to the willingness employ governments to control actions and take values of others by the threat of physical force.

    “This is a good demonstration of an essential fault of both Objectivism and certain cultures of the left: the lack of self-criticism and self-doubt.”

    False assumption. How would you know if I or anyone else has never challenged his own views. I rigorously challenged and rejected the views I held in my youth precisely because Objectivism was the only philosophy I had ever encountered that demanded that one constantly challenge them. I am doing that now every day I blog and most likely was doing it long before you were born. Your assumption implies that I have faith in my positions. Assuming that Objectivists take things on faith is nothing more than a wish made by someone who is extensively ignorant of the actual content of the philosophy.

    “Even the belief that reason is possible is built on assumptions about the operation of the human mind. The belief that one could attain complete rationality is almost as much a leap of faith as belief in a higher power.”

    The word “assumption” is but another unsubstantiated characterization. You can’t make charges like that stick by just uttering them. You have to point to the evidence that they actually are assumptions. If you read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology or the first few chapters of Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and then pick any idea in there apart here, then honest minds will sit up and take note. I do not expect you or anyone else to write a full treatise attached to every claim. But just as I promptly explained your misreading of “exploit”, I give you now the opportunity to show that Rand has nothing to back up the claim that reason is man’s fundamental tool of survival but a random assertion. Good luck!

    “And the belief that someone has become wholly rational”

    Yet another unwarranted assertion. No Objectivist could claim such or even assume such without forfeiting the right to call himself an Objectivist. The philosophy specifically rejects it. It is the word “wholly” that reveals the dishonesty of the accusation. It is preposterous on the face of it.

    In the long run is you who is the bigot here. You have implied a position on the environment of mine and of Objectivism that is wholly groundless. In real life, I have spent the past 20 years in a solo campaign to rid the local area of exotic vegetation and replace it with plants native to the spot in which they are planted. I have become a recognized authority and lecture at State Native Plant Society conferences. My selfish interest in the landscape philosophy I have developed provoked me to take control of two local parks and maintain them for the City for free for 18 years so i could transform them to natives, and I paid for the trees and plants with money I raised selling cuttings of them — not taxes, all of it in keeping of my strict adherence to the principles of Objectivism.

    I would advise you to better inform yourself before you take on this philosophy. There is, as they say, more to it than meats the eye!

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