Atlas Shrugged: Natural Capital

Atlas Shrugged: Natural Capital May 29, 2015

GlacierLake

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter I

In spite of Ayn Rand’s professed hatred for nature, we’ve already seen that Galt’s Gulch is a place of improbable natural beauty. This section further emphasizes that, as John Galt and Dagny continue their tour:

A stretch of violent turquoise blue split the cliffs ahead, ending the road; it took her a second to realize that it was a lake. The motionless water seemed to condense the blue of the sky and the green of the pine-covered mountains into so brilliantly pure a color that it made the sky look a dimmed pale gray. A streak of boiling foam came from among the pines and went crashing down the rocky steps to vanish in the placid water.

…Ahead of them, she saw a wooden pier projecting into the water of the lake. A young woman lay stretched on the sun-flooded planks, watching a battery of fishing rods. She glanced up at the sound of the car, then leaped to her feet in a single swift movement, a shade too swift, and ran to the road. She wore slacks, rolled above the knees of her bare legs, she had dark, disheveled hair and large eyes. Galt waved to her.

“Hello, John! When did you get in?” she called.

“This morning,” he answered, smiling and driving on.

Dagny jerked her head to look back and saw the glance with which the young woman stood looking after Galt. And even though hopelessness, serenely accepted, was part of the worship in that glance, she experienced a feeling she had never known before: a stab of jealousy.

“Who is that?” she asked.

“Our best fishwife. She provides the fish for Hammond’s grocery market.”

“What else is she?”

“You’ve noticed that there’s a ‘what else’ for every one of us here? She’s a writer. The kind of writer who wouldn’t be published outside. She believes that when one deals with words, one deals with the mind.”

The fishwife, if you didn’t know, is Ayn Rand herself, appearing as a character in her own story. It’s ironic that, whenever a critic brought up the point that people like Atlas’ protagonists don’t exist in real life, Rand offered herself as a counterexample; yet even in the form of an author avatar, within a plot and a cosmos she could wholly control, she wrote herself as not sufficiently great a capitalist to catch the eye of a Real Man like John Galt.

And then there’s that lake: “turquoise blue”, “brilliantly pure”. Once again, there’s the contradiction of pristine nature somehow existing, unspoiled and untouched, in the midst of a society of rapacious industrialists unbound by any environmental laws. How long can this possibly last? What’s going to happen when one of the capitalists decides that this beautiful alpine lake is a perfect place to dump their industrial effluent? For instance, we’ve seen that Dwight Sanders’ hog farm is just up the road; what’s going to stop manure runoff from washing into the lake?

In real life, this is a chronic problem with industrial agriculture: fertilizer, manure and other farm contaminants seep into waterways, causing toxic algae blooms that make the water undrinkable and kill fish, turtles and other sea life. Lake Erie has been turning green the past few summers from this exact problem. Farm runoff along the Mississippi River also causes a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which has taken a major toll on the seafood industry.

On a distant mountainside, in the dense green of a forest, she saw a pine tree slanting down suddenly, tracing a curve, like the hand of a clock, then crashing abruptly out of sight. She knew that it was a manmade motion.

“Who’s the lumberjack around here?” she asked.

“Ted Nielsen.”

The road was relaxing into wider curves and gentler grades, among the softer shapes of hillsides. She saw a rust-brown slope patched by two squares of unmatching green: the dark, dusty green of potato plants, and the pale, greenish-silver of cabbages. A man in a red shirt was riding a small tractor, cutting weeds. “Who’s the cabbage tycoon?” she asked.

“Roger Marsh.”

Why, that must be Dwight Sanders’ one-of-a-kind hand-made tractor!

But look again, because there’s another lurking implausibility here. How can it be that Ted Nielsen, executive turned lumberjack (and how can there be just one lumberjack?) is cutting down trees in the middle of a “dense green” forest? There must be at least several hundred people in this valley; you could hardly hope to build and maintain a complete industrial infrastructure with fewer than that. Presumably they all have homes, and many of them have businesses. That requires a lot of wood. Shouldn’t there be logging camps, big bare patches from the timber that’s already been taken? Yet this is written as if all the construction that’s already happened hasn’t even made a dent.

Rand’s cornucopianism is showing again. In the valley, there are always more fish to catch, more trees to chop down, more clean water to drink and irrigate with, more unclaimed fertile land where they can plant or graze livestock, more ore to mine and more oil to drill in the mountains. Even disregarding John Galt’s magic motor, they never run out of any natural resource they need.

You might say that the valley was pristine when they found it and there’s only a small number of people living there, so the problem hasn’t come up. But that defense definitely doesn’t apply to the outside world, where there are billions of people, not a few hundred, and natural resources are very much limited, even stretched. When many people are contending for the same scarce resource, you get a tragedy of the commons where everyone has an incentive to selfishly take more than the ecosystem can sustain. That’s what’s happening now in critically drought-stricken California, where farmers all over the state are drilling deeper and deeper for water, depleting in years the aquifers that took millennia to charge up. This is a desperation strategy that provides a temporary fix at the cost of even worse long-term damage, but purely selfish morality rarely thinks in the long term.

Randian protagonists treat nature as a resource, something to be subdued and harvested. In the Gulch, where there are no environmental laws, the capitalists can deforest, drill and pollute to their heart’s content. What’s ironic is that this shows their limited and faulty conception of value. Far from being a blank canvas for the works of man, as Rand depicts it, the natural world provides innumerable services to us that have real value.

To name a few: Wetlands and coral reefs protect the coasts by absorbing the energy of storms. Bees pollinate most crops for free (which makes their continuing die-offs, possibly due to pesticides, so worrisome). Trees cool the air, prevent soil erosion and exhale breathable oxygen. Natural decay recycles waste and builds up soil for us to plant crops in. The seas give us wild fish we can harvest and eat, like the ones that Rand’s self-insert is catching.

In 2014, a team of researchers tried to put a dollar value on the world’s natural capital – i.e., the amount we’d have to spend to replace all these services if nature didn’t provide them for free – and came up with a grand total of $142 trillion. That’s double the combined GDP of all the countries on earth. In other words, all the ingenuity of humanity amounts to just a fraction of the benefits nature gives us by sustaining our lives – and it’s very likely that the wholescale destruction of nature for industry and commerce wipes out more value than it creates. That’s something a capitalist, whether real or literary, ought to keep in mind the next time they chop down a tree or wax rhapsodic about the beauty of a smokestack.

Image: Glacier National Park sunset, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY 2.0 license

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