To What End?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An article by a guilt-ridden, modern Puritan reminds me of a passage in Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto. Here's a taste of the article:

It's true, you're not going to save the planet by choosing pleather jackets over leather ones, beer over wine, or MP3s over CDs. But each time we stage one of these cage matches, we're forced to consider just how complicated the idea of "eco-friendliness" can be. It doesn't just come down to greenhouse gas emissions or energy usage--though those are the two metrics people seem most interested in these days. A complete analysis would also weigh the potential effects of each choice on water pollution, land use, and biodiversity, among many other issues. Plus, studying life cycle analyses--no matter what answers they ultimately provide or how trivial the initial question--reminds us that the products we buy tend to have intricate back stories. [minor edits, bold added]
I vaguely recall, about twenty years ago, when forced recycling was first being crammed down our throats, an intellectual (possibly an Objectivist), noting that we were being told to "hoard garbage as if it were gold."

The above passage, back then, would have seemed like a poor, over-the-top attempt at a farce, with its implicit demand that we become experts about the entire world economy down to the point that we can deduce the detailed history of any item we might think about purchasing. If that passage isn't enough, read the whole article. It amazes me what some people spend their lives thinking about, but I can see why so many people happily (albeit wrongly) defer to authority out of sheer mental exhaustion.

What passage does this remind me of and why?
The subject is not the only attribute of art, but it is the fundamental one, it is the end to which all the others are the means. In most esthetic theories, however, the end--the subject--is omitted from consideration, and only the means are regarded as esthetically relevant. Such theories set up a false dichotomy and claim that a slob portrayed by the technical means of a genius is preferable to a goddess portrayed by the technique of an amateur. I hold that both are esthetically offensive; but while the second is merely esthetic incompetence, the first is an esthetic crime.

There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means--neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef. ("The Goal of My Writing," in The Romantic Manifesto, p. 166.)
This pathetic nit-picking about the detailed lineage of one doo-dad versus another by otherwise educated adults from an advanced civilization is the epistemological equivalent of the aesthetic crime described in that last paragraph. It is a subordination of the investigative and integrative powers of the human mind to the arbitrary dictum that we must not change anything in nature, rather than to its proper end: human survival.

It's too bad that people are too busy worrying about "the potential effects of each choice on water pollution, land use, ... biodiversity," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Otherwise, they might have time to notice the ethical lapse they're committing with all this feel-good busywork, as well as its consequences:
The only way to leave no "footprint" would be to die--a conclusion that is not lost on many green ideologues. Consider the premise of the nonfiction bestseller titled The World Without Us, which fantasizes about how the earth would "recover" if all humanity suddenly became extinct. Or consider the chilling, anti-human conclusion of an op-ed discussing cloth versus disposable diapers: "From the earth’s point of view, it’s not all that important which kind of diapers you use. The important decision was having the baby." [minor edits]
Tomorrow, I won't be thinking about my "footprint." I'll celebrate my life and the reasoning mind that makes that life possible. And how does that happy result of natural evolution, the human mind, make my life possible? By making me able to exploit the earth, as Craig Biddle explains:
Exploiting the Earth--using the raw materials of nature for one’s life-serving purposes--is a basic requirement of human life. Either man takes the Earth’s raw materials--such as trees, petroleum, aluminum, and atoms--and transforms them into the requirements of his life, or he dies. To live, man must produce the goods on which his life depends; he must produce homes, automobiles, computers, electricity, and the like; he must seize nature and use it to his advantage. There is no escaping this fact. Even the allegedly "noble" savage must pick or perish. Indeed, even if a person produces nothing, insofar as he remains alive he indirectly exploits the Earth by parasitically surviving off the exploitative efforts of others. [minor edits]
In their outlandish attempts to catalog every minutia about every item they consider purchasing, the greens may feel like they are keeping the big picture in mind, but they are wrong, because their whole altruistic, self-sacrificial premise is wrong.

But they're too busy examining every tree with a magnifying glass to see that forest.

-- CAV


Mo said...

I was reading the article about exploiting the earth and I came across some comments from an environmentalist. Its very interesting as it also reveals how the movement (according to him) grew out of the conservative party. I'll leave you with some selections:

My environmentalism stems from three basic sources: 1) My own personal love of the outdoors and of outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, camping, etc; 2) My belief that unspoiled nature has an inherent worth that is well beyond and separate from the sum total of its mineral, oil, timber, etc, wealth; and 3) Science and reason. Now, kindly explain to me how any of these contradict basic libertarian/conservative tenets.

notice how no.2 coincides directly with the principle of environmentalism that the TOS article mentions.

further comments

There is enough valid scientific evidence that suggests that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming, and even if they don't cause it there are plenty of other reasons to switch away from their use, such as dead coal miners, blown up offshore oil platforms, oil spills, giving money to really unpleasant people in the Middle East, fighting wars to secure access to oil, etc.

The fact is that the planet, like it or not, is one big "commons" and what you do on your property can have a negative influence on my property and my health. For example, I don't want to pump your used motor oil out of my well because you were too ignorant to dispose of it properly and I'm sure you don't want to breathe the air pollution that my factory spews forth. Many libertarians and conservatives have a knee-jerk reaction against preserving wild spaces and protecting the environment and I just don't get it, especially when one considers that the modern environmental movement sprung from the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

very revealing and also seems to misunderstand property rights if I'm not mistaken

Aestus said...

Using Ayn Rand's work, I consider the Slate article as an example of both implicit concrete-boundedness and implicit complexity worship which, in my mind, now more clearly go together than I may have previously realized or at least remembered. I also have to at least give a nod to Dr. Leonard Peikoff for his recent work in epistemology because the approach that exhibits and ties the aforementioned together is... conceptual disintegration.

I've noticed that in the course of the past year or two, some Objectivists have gone to some length to indicate that the Leftists or at least the Obama administration constituents are particularly horrorific for committing certain sins. Those particular qualifying Objectivists of the indicated sort have not gone as far to note that the religious right was guilty of some of those sins such as advocating self-sacrifice _far earlier_ in history as well as right now. Nevertheless, I would also maintain at the same time that the Slate article _clearly_ shows that while there are religious tendencies among environmentalists, environmentalists in the main and many Leftists tend to be engaged in disintegration rather than conceptually misintegration.

This last point, which I continue to contend generally holds true, is important. Why? As pernicious as the content of the Slate article is, that article is more evidence that environmentalists are consequential and not fundamentally culturally causal to America's current direction, and ultimately futile as Dr. Peikoff has repeatedly contended.

In summary, environmentalism mimics religious thinking in parts, and environmentalism is threatening, but it still is not the fundamental or historic or most severe threat to America. Obviously, one article can only provide partial evidence to the sort of conclusions I am pointing to, but I posit that there is very much more in the current culture that indicates the consistency of the religious right's misintegration as that same culture reflects the Modernist left's epistemic disintegration.

This isn't to take away from the notice you've provided; I just wanted to give a wider context to consider.

Gus Van Horn said...


You are correct on both counts. In addition the person who doesn't understand property rights is package-dealing environmentalism with such things as national self-defense and individual freedom (and in the process, in the latter case, these are the very reasons to enforce property rights correctly.


I agree with you, and see the dis-integration as paving the way for religion. The enviornmentalist movement will merge with religion, of which it is (as part of the left) a secularized variant already.