Atlas Shrugged: Intrusions of Nature

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter I

After a brief detour through the glorious disaster that was the Atlas Shrugged: Part I movie, we’re ready to dive into the second part of the book. When we last checked in, Ellis Wyatt had blown up his oil wells and vanished. Part II raises the curtain at the State Science Institute:

Dr. Robert Stadler paced his office, wishing he would not feel the cold. Spring had been late in coming…

It was not cold today, the chill was in his bones — he thought — the stored accumulation of the winter months, when he had had to be distracted from his work by an awareness of such a matter as inadequate heating and people had talked about conserving fuel. It was preposterous, he thought, this growing intrusion of the accidents of nature into the affairs of men: it had never mattered before, if a winter happened to be unusually severe; if a flood washed out a section of railroad track, one did not spend two weeks eating canned vegetables; if an electric storm struck some power station, an establishment such as the State Science Institute was not left without electricity for five days.

Dr. Stadler has summoned Dr. Floyd Ferris, the Institute’s top coordinator, to complain about the scarcity of power and heat. Ferris is notable if only because he’s the first villain who isn’t overweight and gangly. Possibly Ayn Rand realized her all-unattractive-people-are-evil message was getting heavy-handed, even for her, although she still has to slip in a bizarre jab at his appearance:

He had an air of immaculate grooming and a ballroom grace of motion… He did not mind repeating, in the tone of a joke on himself, that a movie producer once said he would cast him for the part of a titled European gigolo.

Ferris offers oleaginous apologies for the oil shortages, explaining that the “Wyatt Reclamation Project” keeps hitting unforeseen setbacks. The government has taken over Ellis Wyatt’s oil fields, but hasn’t been able to recreate his method:

“…but we have succeeded in forcing a flow from one of the wells, to the extent of six and a half gallons. This, of course, is merely of experimental significance, but you must take into consideration the fact that we had to spend three full months just to put out the fire, which has now been totally — almost totally — extinguished. We have a much tougher problem than Wyatt ever had, because he started from scratch while we have to deal with the disfigured wreckage of an act of vicious, anti-social sabotage which… I mean to say, it is a difficult problem, but there is no doubt that we will be able to solve it.”

In Rand’s worldview, only if businessmen are allowed to act without restriction can they keep us safe from inimical natural forces. Now, obviously, we all like heated houses in winter. But the thing Rand didn’t know then, but that we do know now, is that fossil fuels aren’t a panacea. Our industrial civilization has glutted itself on cheap energy, but there’s a price to pay for that, and the bill is coming due. We are witnessing a “growing intrusion of the accidents of nature into the affairs of men”, but it’s caused by an excess of capitalism, not a lack of it.

Over the past few decades, sea levels have been slowly rising: a steady creep that erodes beaches, turns wells salty, and threatens coastal communities with catastrophic flooding. Ocean waters are getting warmer as well, and in conjunction with sea-level rise, fueling more powerful and destructive storms – like when Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast and swamped New York City in 2012.

Meanwhile, western states are grappling with a new normal of severe drought year after year (some by praying for rain), and mountain states like Colorado have been ravaged by massive fires for the past several years in a row, to the point where fire experts are saying the the only thing to do in the future may be to let the state burn all summer until the autumn rains. In the Midwest, nuclear power plants are having to shut down because the rivers and streams they use for cooling are too warm.

And industries that rely on cold weather are seeing their livelihoods slip away. Most famously, just this year the Sochi Winter Olympics was nearly ruined by warm weather that melted snow and left slushy courses. Ski resorts all over the U.S. are turning to artificial snow as a desperation measure, and many may go out of business. In Europe, wine production is shifting north, to Scotland and Poland, where it’s becoming warm enough to grow grapes for the first time; while the valleys of France, Spain and Italy may soon be too hot.

There’s no mystery to any of these things; it’s precisely what climate scientists have been warning about for decades. Humanity’s reckless burning of fossil fuels is pumping carbon into the atmosphere, creating a heat-trapping swelter of greenhouse gases that’s warming the world, altering weather patterns and pushing the climate out of equilibrium. These increasing intrusions of nature are caused, not prevented, by human industry.

We didn’t know this when Ayn Rand wrote this book, so she at least has an excuse. But her intellectual descendants, modern-day libertarians, are some of the most consistent climate-change deniers around. Ironically, this means that they’re now the ones playing the role of Randian villains: wondering about these strange accidents of nature intruding into the world of human beings, when the answer is staring them right in the face.

Other posts in this series:

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  • unbound55

    I do get a chuckle out of the concept of Ayn’s heroes being such amazing inventors that no one can figure out how to duplicate what they’ve done. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an inventor / CEO (e.g. Thomas Edison), but in Atlas Shrugged, the world is populated with dozens, if not hundreds, of them.

    And it doesn’t take long reading news about some of the patent wars in court to understand that the vast majority of patents being applied for (and granted) which are very minor ideas (e.g. there is a patent over linking a phone number to a database) and just blatantly obvious. The concept of all these businessmen and businesswomen with inventions that no one else in the world can understand is absurd on the face of it.

  • Nathaniel

    Its a comic book version of understanding reality. Literally. Tony Stark and Mr. Fantastic from Marvel are great examples of the “genius lone” inventor type.

  • arensb

    It’s been a long time since we’ve had an inventor / CEO (e.g. Thomas Edison)

    Did Steve Jobs count? He co-invented the Apple back in the 80s, though I don’t know how much of his later years were spent inventing, and how much managing. For that matter, I don’t know how much hands-on inventing Edison did in his later years.

  • arensb

    A lot like the “mad scientist” trope in science fiction. Once upon a time, it was possible for one person to revolutionize a field like atomic theory or medicine. But these days, more and more scientific research is collaborative. And I believe a lot of Nobel prizes go not to individuals, but to teams.

  • unbound55

    Whether you want to count Steve Jobs or not, it’s not like there are hundreds of these people running around.

    In regards to Steve Jobs, he has always relied more on others than even Edison did (Steve’s start with Atari was based on him selling Wozniak’s Pong as if it was Steve’s work, and Wozniak was creator of the first Apple computer). To my knowledge, Steve Jobs is listed only for patents that are incremental…the same very minor ideas that were blatantly obvious (e.g. shoving all the Apple components into the monitor, minor changes to mouse design, Apple version of MP3 player (aka iPod)) that I mentioned in my first post.

  • busterggi

    Do NOT forget Hank Pym!

  • X. Randroid

    Steve Jobs wasn’t (and didn’t claim to be) a technological wizard. His genius was in figuring out what users would want and getting others to make it happen.

    Of course, come to think of it, Edison did a lot of that too.

  • Jeff

    The flip side of that arrangement is the “renaissance man” who is well-versed in a wide variety of subjects. Acquiring an education that spans very different subjects in depth is of course possible, but it was a heck of a lot easier back in the days when the various sciences were still new. Nowadays one needs to specialize in a field to have any sort of significance in it. Specialization (and the work that that requires) naturally means a deficiency in other subjects.

    Except in randworld, where a metallurgist is also an architect is also a CEO of a national corporation.

  • X. Randroid

    But the thing Rand didn’t know then, but that we do know now, is that fossil fuels aren’t a panacea. Our industrial civilization has glutted itself on cheap energy, but there’s a price to pay for that, and the bill is coming due. We are witnessing a “growing intrusion of the accidents of nature into the affairs of men”, but it’s caused by an excess of capitalism, not a lack of it.

    Rand had an excuse; she had no way to know.

    More telling is that her present-day followers are almost all climate-change denialists. Some admit that there is a warming trend, but they insist it’s natural (climate changes all the time, etc.), and even if it’s not, it’s not a problem because warmer is a good thing and if you don’t like the weather, where you are, you can always move. And all of them insist that, even if a warmer climate is a problem, the solution is to eliminate all taxes and regulations, which would set human ingenuity free to address the problem.

    Of course, they can’t produce one iota of evidence that regulation is somehow holding back BP or ExxonMobil or any of its other “victims” from doing anything to reduce CO2 emissions … because, in reality, regulation is the only thing keeping them from emitting even more.

    It’s an example of how, despite Objectivists’ insistence that their philosophy is reality-based, when reality disagrees with Rand, the Objectivist fails to take reality’s side.

  • X. Randroid

    Should have read more carefully – I see Adam made many of the same points.

    However, given that not all libertarians are Objectivists, and given that Objectivists loudly profess their allegiance to “objective reality” above all else (which is not true of all libertarians), I think it’s telling that they land so hard on the side of climate denial.

  • Incogneato

    Wozniak did almost all of the actual inventing for early Apple. In fact, here’s a little story about how Jobs handled tech creation in his youth.

    Atari was looking to complete the Breakout project in dramatic
    fashion. Atari founder and engineer, Nolan Bushnell, and Alcorn offered abonus of $100 for each TTL chip removed from the game design. At this time standard games used 130-170 chips while tighter games used 70 to 100 chips. Jobs saw an opportunity to leverage the skillset of Wozniak to complete the project and possible snag a hefty bonus. He volunteered for the job and Alcorn gave him the specs for the Breakout game.

    As expected, Jobs reached out to Wozniak with the project promising him half of the $700 purse. Jobs, however, did not mention the bonus forreducing the TTL chipset. Rather, he told Wozniak the payout would jumpto $1000 if he could reduce the TTL count to below 40. He also put the project on a 4 day timeline to match his personal travel schedule.

    In the end, Wozniak was able to reduce the TTL count to 46 and complete the design in 4 days by designing during the day at Hewlett-Packard and working with Jobs at night to build the prototype. When the final product was submitted to Atari, everyone was very impressed and Jobs waspaid the $700 plus a $5000 bonus for the TTL chip reduction. He used the bonus to fund his personal travels and split the $700 with Wozniak. The lack of transparency regarding the bonus would go on to become a thing of gaming legend.

    Wozniak cried when he learned that his friend had ripped him off. Of course, this only demonstrates that Jobs was a Randian superman and Wozniak was a worthless parasite.

  • Incogneato
  • Azkyroth

    The hell? Steve Jobs imposed a one-button mouse on users for decades out of sheer spite.

  • Adam Lee

    It so happens I just read a book that touched on this: Michael Malone’s The Guardian of All Things, about the history of human memory and the technologies that enhance it (phonographs, photography, computers, etc.).

    He mentions both Edison and Jobs as examples of people who were unquestionably brilliant, who were good at figuring out what they wanted to invent, but left the actual research and technical implementation up to subordinates in many cases. As Jerrad and X. Randroid said below, Jobs was more of an idea man than a hardware engineer or a programmer. The book also said that Edison, as an inventor, was known for a slow, plodding style – often things went faster at his lab when he left the work up to subordinates.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    It’s an example of how, despite Objectivists’ insistence that their
    philosophy is reality-based, when reality disagrees with Rand, the
    Objectivist fails to take reality’s side.

    That is one thing that would annoy so much me when I dealt with Objectivists and Randians in the past. They would insist that they valued logic, reason, evidence and reality to such high degrees but there was always a rejection of empiricism to their attitude, unspoken as it may have been. They always seemed to believe the first two were so unfailing, at least their handling of them was, to the point that the latter were superfluous, if not axiomatic, in light of the former.

  • arensb

    And I guess that legacy lives on in the iPad, with its one button.

  • X. Randroid

    That’s how Objectivists argue. If you pick apart their logic, you’re being “rationalistic”; if you try to make them focus on data, you’re being “anti-conceptual.” Either way, you’re wrong.

    One thing Rand was good at was making up ways to insulate herself from criticism.

  • Science Avenger

    “They always seemed to believe the first two [logic, reason] were so unfailing, at least their handling of them was, to the point that the latter were superfluous, if not axiomatic, in light of the former.”

    This has come to be the unspoken philosophy behind the Republican party. They give fealty to facts lip service, but what they really believe in are their own pseudo-logical speculations of what the facts are. This is why they are so comfortable with the made-up moral myths of chain emails and conservative blogs, and why they are equally disinterested in any debunking of them. They already know what the facts are, you see, so it’s just nitpicking to point out problems with the example.
    Just watch any Foxnews discussion of economic matters, and note their complete lack of data supporting their claims. Obamacare caused full-time jobs to become part-time jobs, raising the minimum wage will dramatically reduce the number of those jobs and increase costs for the products of businesses that are stuck with them, women only get paid differentlt ahn men because they want different things. They don’t need facts, the conclusion is logical, and that’s the end of it.

  • Loren Petrich

    Spite? It was from testing various numbers of mouse buttons and finding that a single mouse button is the easiest for non-expert users to learn. However, more expert users often want multiple mouse buttons, and Apple eventually supported multibutton mice. Apple even introduced a mouse that could work as a one-button or a multibutton mouse.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    As I’ve heard it described, libertarians/Randians have a strong preference for the theoretical over the empirical. As long as they can reason out how things are supposed to be, it doesn’t matter if observation says the exact opposite, they’ve got their story and they’re sticking to it. Indeed, why bother testing anything against reality when you already know what’s true?

    So for example, libertarians reason that anti-discrimination laws are unnecessary because no rational business owner would turn down minority customers and their money. But then you point out that this is exactly what happened for decades on end, and they’re completely unfazed. Either it didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen, or it was all the government’s fault or something.

  • eyelessgame

    I’ve known a number of very, very smart, innovative people who worked at Apple. Jobs stood at the top of an enormous human pyramid. No one’s saying he didn’t earn the spot at the top, but “his head was five hundred feet above the ground” is a very different claim from “he was five hundred feet tall”, if you follow me.

  • eyelessgame

    There is a part that Rand and Objectivists get right – there *are* solutions that humans can develop and innovate, that will ameliorate the worst of environmental change: the best solutions to the problems of technology will inevitably involve more technology.

    But the solution is not necessarily the development of some dingus you can sell to people for money. Sometimes the solution is a new set of behaviors that we will need, collectively, to encourage or even compel – because the individual cost of the behavior outweighs the individual benefit, but the benefit to all individuals from all other individuals acting this way is enormously greater than the cost. That’s the innovation that they really don’t ever seem to understand, except for the single, kindergarten-level understanding of direct physical assault.

  • arensb

    Yes. That’s why I originally asked whether Steve Jobs counts as an Ayn Rand style titan of industry, a la Hank Rearden. Because figuring out why you’d want to glue a hard drive to an MP3 decoder is a useful talent, but it’s very different from actually inventing the iPod. And both of those are different from actually organizing people and making iPods come out of a factory.

  • Science Avenger

    “The free market wasn’t given enough time to beat racism” is what they’ll tell you. Their view isn’t that no rational business would turn down black customers, but rather that businesses that don’t will get more customers than those that do and eventually the latter will drive the former out of business.

    The problem with this and most of their analyses is that they assume completely rationality on the part of the customers, ignoring the fact that there were (and still are, especially in the south) customers who will not frequent the business that accept black customers, and if the bigots outnumber the blacks, then its the bigoted business that has the economic upper hand, which is why this sustained itself for so long.

    I’ve never seen an Objectivist deal with issues like this. They seem incapable of incorporating into their analysis the reactions of people to the decisions businesses make.

  • Doomedd

    “Wozniak cried when he learned that his friend had ripped him off. Of course, this only demonstrates that Jobs was a Randian superman and Wozniak was a worthless parasite. “

    Somehow, I don’t think the “superman” would have mush success without the “parasite”.

  • RedneckCryonicist

    Rand’s followers and similar people have missed an opportunity here. Wouldn’t they want man to have the ability to control Earth’s climate, like you would see in an advanced civilization out of science fiction? The global warming science shows that we’ve accidentally discovered some of the planetary climate’s control knobs.