Considering the Latin root of the word, ‘forensics’ is about bringing something before the public that they should perhaps know about. And certainly, exploring the question of where influential beliefs about the climate come from seems quite relevant.
While massive atmospheric emissions caused by mankind at a sufficiently large scale to change important global processes is probably a fairly new (post-war?) phenomenon, we actually already have some experience, and some successes, in managing emissions. For example, we tackled sulfur dioxide emissions by removing sulfur from petrol and installing flue gas desulfurization systems. International treaties to implement regulations made a major contribution to getting acid rain under control. Likewise, the total effective ozone-depleting potential of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere is going down, due to emissions control measures. Similar things can be said about tackling lead emissions from automobiles.
In all these cases, while there has been some resistance to these changes, we did in the end manage to collectively do the right thing (more or less). This does not mean that we couldn’t do better — there are a number of awkward loopholes remaining — for example, sulfur emissions from cargo ships in international waters still are a big issue. But in none of these cases we have seen anything like the ferocious resistance against getting CO2 emissions under control. Where does this come from?
I do not think that there is a single answer to this question. Rather, there seems to be a number of important aspects that need to be explored. In this article, I want to focus on a quite specific one: the 20th century author Ayn Rand, her philosophy of ‘objectivism‘ and how her thinking contributed to shaping, in particular, the libertarian perspective on environment-related issues. Let us start with a famous quote from one of her books. (See also this youtube video to hear it in Rand’s own voice.)
Observe that in all the propaganda of the ecologists — amidst all their appeals to nature and pleas for "harmony with nature" — there is no discussion of man’s needs and the requirements of his survival. Man is treated as if he were an unnatural phenomenon. Man cannot survive in the kind of state of nature that the ecologists envision — i.e., on the level of sea urchins or polar bears. (…)
In order to survive, man has to discover and produce everything he needs, which means that he has to alter his background and adapt it to his needs. Nature has not equipped him for adapting himself to his background in the manner of animals. From the most primitive cultures to the most advanced civilizations, man has had to manufacture things; his well-being depends on his success at production. The lowest human tribe cannot survive without that alleged source of pollution: fire. It is not merely symbolic that fire was the property of the gods which Prometheus brought to man. The ecologists are the new vultures swarming to extinguish that fire. – aynrand.org (From "Return of the Primitive")
I do not think it would be necessary on a permaculture blog to go into any detail how deeply misguided that perspective actually is. It might have been written mostly as a response to eco-primitivism, but even so, the author clearly was not able to discern between perspectives that are a world apart.
Ayn Rand’s real name was Alisa Rosenbaum; she was born in 1905 in Saint Petersburg and emigrated to the U.S. in the 20s, where she achieved a certain degree of fame with her 1943 novel "The Fountainhead" as well as her best known 1957 novel, "Atlas Shrugged", which was actually an exposition of her philosophy of Objectivism. Apart from her influence on libertarian thinking, her ideas also had an impact by shaping the views of some of her influential close friends, including, in particular, Alan Greenspan.
I do not want to claim being an expert on Ayn Rand, and in writing this article I hope for some readers who have deeper insights into specific issues than I have to be able to help clearing up some of the confusion around her and her influence — so, this is more an invitation to dialogue than it is an article set in stone.
What strikes me about Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that on the one hand it’s a mishmash of quite independent but strongly held beliefs which are woven into a network of ideas with sometimes fairly thin strands, and on the other hand, it gathered followers in a way that seems to strongly remind one of cult-like structures.
From a ‘30000 feet altitude’ perspective, Ayn Rand’s philosophy seems to be about three ideas that play a very prominent role — at least when judged with respect to their impact on society. It is probably unlikely that she originated these ideas, but she certainly served as a socio-cultural amplifier of their influence. Adherents of objectivist philosophy would quite likely disagree on my broadscale description, emphasizing instead that the important ideas are about reality, consciousness, and existence. But judging impact-wise, perhaps the biggest ideas are (a) that governments only role is to protect individual rights, in the narrow sense that is compatible with unrestricted laissez-faire capitalism, (b) that technology is an expression of mankind’s intellectual superiority over nature, which is generally considered as hostile and has to be fought, and (c) the key tool to subdue nature is fire.
It is quite amazing to study the extreme extent that fire was revered by Ayn Rand. Smoking, for example, epitomized to her the idea of man holding and controlling fire in his hands and hence was considered a holy duty. This went to the extent of members of the clique of objectivists that formed around her back then needing a good excuse for not smoking:
The all-encompassing nature of the Randian line may be illustrated by an incident that occurred to a friend of mine who once asked a leading Randian if he disagreed with the movement’s position on any conceivable subject. After several minutes of hard thought, the Randian replied: "Well, I can’t quite understand their position on smoking." Astonished that the Rand cult had any position on smoking, my friend pressed on: "They have a position on smoking? What is it?" The Randian replied that smoking, according to the cult, was a moral obligation. In my own experience, a top Randian once asked me rather sharply, "How is it that you don’t smoke?" When I replied that I had discovered early that I was allergic to smoke, the Randian was mollified: "Oh, that’s OK, then." The official justification for making smoking a moral obligation was a sentence in Atlas where the heroine refers to a lit cigarette as symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas. (One would think that simply holding up a lit match could do just as readily for this symbolic function.) One suspects that the actual reason, as in so many other parts of Randian theory, from Rachmaninoff to Victor Hugo to tap dancing, was that Rand simply liked smoking and had the need to cast about for a philosophical system that would make her personal whims not only moral but also a moral obligation incumbent upon everyone who desires to be rational. – lewrockwell.com
To Ayn Rand, mastery and utilization of fire is what sets man apart from animals, and reshaping the world according to what she thinks "the rational mind" wants it to be, like by harnessing fire’s power, is seen as mankind’s supreme destiny. Correspondingly, the engineer (master of the engine) is elevated to the status of the High Priest of Fire.
Actually, Rand’s views on fire are quite a distinct issue from her political ideas about government and capitalism. Still, she fused them under the intellectual roof of her philosophy of objectivism. While one may argue that her political position with respect to government might have some justifiable points and hence would at least have some value for opening an important debate, her perspective on the relation between mankind and nature appears to actually be a product of an outright psychotic fear of nature. Still, much of this seems to have rubbed off onto libertarianism (perhaps as a sort of communicable mental disease?), judging from the general tone of articles on environment-related issues that originate in the libertarian sphere .
Still, deranged as her views on mankind and nature (which she expressed on many occasions) may seem, there is something fascinating about studying her beliefs — fascinating in the sense that studying the odd freak case where something has gone seriously wrong often allows one to take a peek at deeper mechanisms at work that are otherwise invisible to us. Apart from the intriguing aspect that such views keep attracting quite a number of followers, what is it in the human psyche that can make one believe such weird things? I am far from having finite and definitive answers on this, but my present working hypothesis is that (a) such a perspective is essentially fear-driven, and (b) there is a quite fundamental issue with the human mind itself here that we would do well to understand better.
Could it be that being at the mercy of forces which are beyond our intellectual understanding can cause serious emotional distress, and which in some people seems to lead to a perception of nature as an enemy that has to be fought as fiercely as possible? After all, there definitely is something highly irrational about how present day society handles fossil fuels — rapid depletion of high quality fuels perhaps being the most immediately visible symptom.
A hidden drive to use as much fuel (hence, fire) as possible in order to re-shape the world may just manage to explain a lot about the precarious situation we have got ourselves into. Is the deep fear of everything that remotely smells of wild nature related to another deep fear in the conscious mind — the fear of not being in control in an even more fundamental sense? After all, the conscious mind keeps on trying very hard to fool itself into believing itself more reliable than it actually is. The more I study the structure of self-proclaimed ‘rational’ articles on both the topics of the environment as well as on rationality itself, I get the impression that something very important is going on — there seems to be a lesson out there to be learned about self-deception. Quite often, it is amazing to see how certain ‘rational’ authors use enormous intellectual firepower to fool themselves into not seeing some fairly obvious things — such as some quite straightforward self-contradictions.
This, then, certainly is an important insight: as long as one is unable to properly question the reliability of one’s own mind, even being the cleverest person in the world would be of little value, for subconscious irrational fears of all sorts of things would make one unconsciously abuse this intellectual power to spin deep internal lies to one’s own consciousness. With the term "deep internal lie", I mean a thought that has subconscious and mostly emotional origins which get masked by the conscious mind in such a way that the mind considers it born of sound, rational reasoning. This seems to be a key problem in particular with ‘objectivism’.
Funny enough, in the field of mathematical logic, we know that there is a very good reason to stay well away from anything that claims to having shown its own logical soundness. Indeed, there is a deep theorem that any reasoning system that can prove it would never end up producing contradictory claims will automatically and inevitably be in deep trouble straightaway: We have learned by now that if one can prove that, then one can indeed prove anything — that one plus one equals five and simultaneously one plus one equals three, that every number equals zero, and that black is white, etc.  Basically: as soon as reasoning can reason out its own soundness, it has gone crazy and can be made to reason out any absurdity one could come up with. Somehow, people insisting in their own rationality seem to not have paid attention to quite a few important observations. One would be wise to stay away from them.
When I started to ponder these issues of the human mind sometimes playing tricks on itself and making itself believe in its own reliability (or to, say, describe itself as ‘rational’), I started to often notice the problem of some people spinning sophisticated stories first and foremost to themselves in order to save themselves from seeing something quite prominent. There are some well known clinical phenomena which seem strongly related to this – such as bizarre cases of blind people that cannot be convinced that they actually are blind (Anton–Babinski syndrome — see also ). It may well be that in order to make substantial progress on some of the most pressing environmental issues, we have to learn to understand the nature of such situations in which the human mind badly fools itself. And we better make progress on this fast.
Mankind depends on both nature and technology to survive — but in this, we are not actually that special. Precisely the same holds true for e.g. termites, birds, and even trees. (Have you ever wondered why forests use photosynthetic energy to engineer structures that utilize sunlight to return water to the atmosphere?) Technology, after all, is just about the tools to achieve certain objectives — it does not have much significance beyond that. Why then did Ayn Rand make such a clearly visible distinction between fire-based technology and other tech? Might this be related to the misconception that there actually has to be something that sets man apart from the rest of nature, and that it was easier for her to believe that fire plays that role better than, say, language (many animals make different types of sounds to convey information), death rituals (even magpies seem to have them), warfare, mathematics, or similar things that often are considered as “human” but are also observed with other species?
It is bemusing to see how the objectivist perspective on smoking changed once science clearly showed its dangers — objectivists, after all, being bound to experience substantial cognitive dissonance, believing things that are seriously in contradiction with well-established research results. Of course, the question remains how objectivists could ever have believed in its significance if its necessity actually is so clearly impossible to reason out. It’s pretty much the same with their ideas about fire. For pretty much every fire-based technological solution, we actually seem to know alternative solutions that can achieve an equivalent effect without it. One should note in particular that focusing on “fire” may be a cheap rhetoric trick for not having to contemplate the role of fuel — without which there would be no fire, and which, after all, are produced by nature. A key question the libertarians have to ask themselves here is: to what extent are they willing to allow the strange beliefs of Ayn Rand that seem rooted in a deep fear of anything that is natural (with the exception of fuels) misguide their thinking?
To me, it is difficult to judge to what extent the often quite aggressive positions on climate change found in the Libertarian camp can be attributed to Ayn Rand’s phobias. But that there has been some damaging impact seems out of the question.
Continue to Part II….
- E.g.: https://www.capitalismmagazine.com/science/climate-science/945-the-scientist-trap.html
- See for example: https://yudkowsky.net/rational/lobs-theorem
- A medical article on the Anton-Babinsky Syndrome: https://jmedicalcasereports.com/content/3/1/9028