Mar 142008

Graig Janssen asks:

I’m a regular reader of Noodlefood, and have a question about environmentalism. I understand and agree with the idea that human beings should not hold nature as an end in itself nor sacrifice themselves for its benefit. However, does Objectivism differentiate between environmentalism of this kind and the kind that would seek to preserve the planet for humanity’s own sake? For example, many Objectivists seem to be of the mind that the global warming issue is nothing but hysterical propaganda aimed at subjugating mankind to nature. However, isn’t it in our self interest to avoid a future catastrophe that could be disastrous for people as well as the planet? If there are scientific papers claiming that global warming poses no threat to humans, I’d very much like to read them. Do you think Objectivists are too quick in dismissing pro-environment ideas as “anti-man” when there are clearly cases in which both environment and mankind benefit?

That’s a good question. Due to constraints of time and ignorance, I will limit myself to a few brief comments, plus recommended reading.

An environment conductive to human life is definitely a genuine value to be sought and kept: it’s necessary for life! That requires a broad concern for all living organisms and their environs, as well as for the future effects of present actions — but within limits. In other words, we shouldn’t adopt any precautionary principle, nor just extrapolate from current trends to 50 generations hence, nor protect dangerous-right-now species based on claims of intrinsic value or on arbitrary speculation about future benefits. Today’s environmentalists do that in spades — with predictably absurd results. Without exception, environmental philosophy is seriously, deeply corrupt.

None of the above implies that environmental questions can be resolved from a comfy philosophic armchair. Sure, philosophy must identify the proper standards of proof in science, the ultimate value of human life, and the absolute requirement of respect for rights in public policy. Yet the particular details of environmental problems and solutions must be left to the experts, i.e. the biologists, geologists, chemists, etc. I’m certainly skeptical of the claims of impending doom from global warming, but I have only laymen’s questions, not proof. I can say that whatever the environmental problem, the proper solution is more reason, more egoism, and more freedom, particularly more respect for the rights to life, liberty, and property — not less. That’s easy to assert in the abstract, but likely more difficult to implement, as the proper legal remedies for collectively-caused environmental torts are not obvious. Working out those problems would require not just good philosophy in general, but also expertise in philosophy of law, particularly tort law.

As for further readings, I’d recommend a few items off the beaten track from two Objectivists I respect:

While I don’t agree with all that is said in those essays, they do thoughtfully challenge the sweeping disdain for environmental concerns sometimes espoused by Objectivists.

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