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Questioning: Environment

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Like many, I have recently read Ayn's two most famous works and found much in them that resonates. I am now in the logical phase that follows: examining the evidence and attempting to reason my way through perceived contradictions. Along the way I have found many contradictions that were illusory. Some still remain.

Once such contradiction is that, in a truly free market economy, I see no incentive for companies to refrain from practices that cause long-term damaging effects to health and the environment.

To make an example more concrete, let's take the disposal of batteries. After inappropriate disposal they tend to leak into the ground and contaminate it with heavy metals that are toxic. They reduce the value of the areas in which they are disposed of: thus they are rationally immoral.

However - it seems to me that people are using rational self-interest to dispose of batteries. They throw them in the bin; their time is more valuable to them than the issues of future generations.

Now, sometimes these sorts of problems turn out to be an immediately health/economy threatening and people do react - usually in a manner far more costly than would have been the case with sufficient forethought. But this, surely, means that objectivist principles will usually lead to (costly) reactive behaviour rather than (efficient) predictive behaviour.

From a purely reductionist view:

1) I am capable of avoiding areas contaminated to such an extent that they would cause ill effects upon me.

2) Future generations have no effect upon me, and as such are not part of any rational argument.

3) Were I to concern myself with future generations, I could console myself that these unborn children will do as we have all done and fight against the inimical in their own environment with whatever (greater) toolset they might have.

See the contradiction?

Rationally, we should use foresight to incur lesser costs

Rationally, we should think within our own lifespan

The contradiction arises from being bothered about long-term efficiency.

It seems one must assume long-term efficiency is rational: if I know a dollar today will cost me two dollars tomorrow, I do not take the dollar.

Given the lack immediate economic value in any pre-emptive action, how do we ensure someone fixes the problem by promoting proper disposal habits and - indeed - doing the disposal work itself without sufficient economic benefits?

Does the objectivist recognise an issue to be solved?

I currently do not see a way that does not involve sophistry designed to make the problem seem illusory, or much-loathed coercion by government.

Many thanks for any thought you bring to this.

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Once such contradiction is that, in a truly free market economy, I see no incentive for companies to refrain from practices that cause long-term damaging effects to health and the environment.

What about the fact many people don't like long-term damaging effects to health? They'd likely do something about it, like refuse to buy products from the company.

The way you ask this suggests that these damaging effects are rights violations. A company can have all the toxins it wants on its property, but as you said, inappropriate disposal causes leak into the ground and contaminate the area. Force in a case where there is property damage or manipulation is proper because there would be someone else forcibly harming you whether intended or not. A helpful question to ask yourself is what kinds of initiation of force there is. Aggressive action like shooting a gun at someone unprovoked isn't the only type of initiation of force.

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The rational individual dislikes damage to his or her own health, but humans as a whole are notoriously poor at finding links between action and reaction over any extended period, and worse at acting upon evidence of the causation, even once it has been scientifically established.

The 'fuzzy' issue for me is not whether people will act to preserve their health or safety in the even of an immediate and obvious hazard, but whether they see any value in protecting the health of anybody (including themselves!) over the longer term. And it's not just time that muddies causation - distance can also. In the presence of such reticence to understand - or care - businesses will not act in a way I would consider rationally, as they are gambling that someone else will be carrying the cost later on.

Again - risk-taking and gambling are perfectly rational in a world where not all outcomes are certain.

Your point about force taking many forms is very interesting - I thank you for it. I hadn't considered that simple neglect, thoughtlessness or ineptitude could be considered aggressive actions in themselves.

I suppose if we can prove culpability scientifically, then it does become an issue of law. Again thanks - I have to do a little more thinking. :-)

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The 'fuzzy' issue for me is not whether people will act to preserve their health or safety in the even of an immediate and obvious hazard, but whether they see any value in protecting the health of anybody (including themselves!) over the longer term.

If businesses leaders don't think rationally, their companies will not last. I don't know how a company could cause destruction to property and hope someone will carry the cost after the owner dies besides outright fraud and denying any damage is done. Point is, if my property is affected and damaged, then that is a rights violation.

Now, if you're wondering what's to stop people from being so stupid to think that electrolytes are what plants need like in the movie Idiocracy which leads to the destruction of land to be used for farming, well, there isn't much to be said except that SOMEONE has to care about and interested in what constitutes "damage" in order for anything to get done in regards to property damage.

Your point about force taking many forms is very interesting - I thank you for it. I hadn't considered that simple neglect, thoughtlessness or ineptitude could be considered aggressive actions in themselves.

Well, my point wasn't that fraud or things like that are aggressive actions. They aren't. You could ruin property by indirect means like having toxic chemicals from your yard leak into mine. By aggressive I only meant direct actions like punching someone or arson, things that are immediate or near-immediate in the amount of total damage they cause. It isn't as clear cut a matter if someone building a massive helipad on their lawn which makes a tremendous amount of noise is initiation of force in the sense of property damage or manipulation. Your question of environmental damage is much like that, especially since the damage isn't all at once or obvious. Environmental damage (save for natural disasters of course) takes time to build up, it's not like everything is rainbows and unicorns one day and the day the business owner dies, the land turns into a desolate wasteland filled with genetically deformed goblins and sludge pits.

Edited by Eiuol
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I would question the idea that pollution is a long term problem. It seems to come from specific technologies (e.g. batteries), not all technologies.

And as people have become educated about it, they are demanding cleaner technolgies and we see that all around us. Historically capitalism has given the most tech progress, so it is the quickest way to save the planet.

Long term threats are nearly always ideas not concretes.

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I would question the idea that pollution is a long term problem. It seems to come from specific technologies (e.g. batteries), not all technologies.

And as people have become educated about it, they are demanding cleaner technolgies and we see that all around us. Historically capitalism has given the most tech progress, so it is the quickest way to save the planet.

Indeed - CFCs are a good example. Consumer power was the critical factor here. Aerosols changed in a matter of months when people refused to buy any with the offending propellant...

Long term threats are nearly always ideas not concretes.

...but CFCs were replaced with HCFCs which are still damaging the ozone layer today; albeit more slowly. It merely pushed the problem into someone else's lifespan.

So, for me, the dilemma remains:

Long-term vision is rational; it is a more economic method of value retention (in appropriate cases).

Long-term vision is difficult for humans to grasp, and thus more difficult to tell your shareholders about while retaining your stock value.

If a company is willing to dodge the 'moral' issue of knowingly reducing value (and many have, historically), is the final decision based on a comparison of potential stock-fall (due to loss of reputation) against cost-of-cleanup? I doubt it, somehow. I imagine it is based on 'holding out for as long as possible' (pure speculation, of course).

As for consumer-power - I suppose if someone can prove that a company is causing damage in the medium/long-term, then consumers might refuse to purchase the goods. But this only works with single-steps of culpability: would I buy from a company that purchased materials from a company that purchased materials from a company that discards batteries unethically?

Probably. Most likely, I'd never know.

If we ignore the companies themselves, I think at least a fragment of my original question still stands:

Does Objectivism alone offer sufficient incentive for complex issues such as these to be investigated - and perhaps solved - before they become costly and dangerous?

If so, given that I don't think consumer power will work in many cases, how?

If not, must we not conclude that either:

- Companies in a perfect lassez-faire capitalist system would follow Objectivist principles, leading to ethical breaches of this kind. Thus Objectivism is flawed.

or

- Companies in a perfect lassez-faire capitalist system would not follow Objectivist principles (and value Value) meaning that Objectivist and corporate goals are incompatible. Thus Objectivism is flawed.

Bleargh... now I'm feeling ill. I'm sure there's a massive wedge of 'fail' in my reasoning somewhere, but my eyes are now too close to the page.

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  • 1 month later...

Hi Madrayken,

Like you I have recently been looking into Objectivism more deeply and have asked similar questions. I am particularly interested in how free markets will deal with the environment and sustainability.

While investigating some forms of eco/green capitalism I found the following "natural capitalism" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_Capitalism:_Creating_the_Next_Industrial_Revolution

In Natural Capitalism the authors describe the global economy as being dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services that nature provides. Natural Capitalism is a critique of traditional "Industrial Capitalism", saying that the traditional system of capitalism "does not fully conform to its own accounting principles. It liquidates its capital and calls it income. It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs- the natural resources and living systems, as well as the social and cultural systems that are the basis of human capital.

What I liked about his approach was he does not seem to advocate taxes or legislation as a solution. He is simply and elegantly advocating a change in the way we assign value to capital.

I realize this is not an answer to our question, but it seems like an interesting direction.

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If businesses leaders don't think rationally, their companies will not last. I don't know how a company could cause destruction to property and hope someone will carry the cost after the owner dies besides outright fraud and denying any damage is done. Point is, if my property is affected and damaged, then that is a rights violation.

Well I guess hes not really talking about a company spilling some oil on your lawn. I'd say hes asking about larger impact scenarios, like mining, de-forestation, fishing out fisheries etc.

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Just as concentration is the source of materials existent in the real environment, dilution is the solution to pollution. Each person must rationally decide what is pollution and how much to commit, evaluating the cost/benefit. Traditional education has failed the rational.

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