Global Warming & Atlas Shrugged

A is A(w, shit.)

A is A(w, shit.)

I read Atlas Shrugged curious to see how it would resonate with our current Cashpocalypse, but throughout the book it was global warming that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Applying the realities of climate change to Rand’s story undermines the moral purity of her heroes and opens up all of the gray areas that she tries so overbearingly to flatten. It does not nullify Rand’s valid points — that would only serve to further flatten the storytelling landscape — but it does disprove her apparent notion that all of her points are valid. Given this space to grow, the story blossoms.

One-third of the way through the book, two of the main characters discover an abandoned prototype of an electric motor that could generate a perpetual stream of efficient, sustainable energy, if it were in working order.  Later, they learn that John Galt invented the motor but left it to rust rather than see his invention used to support a decadent and corrupt society. The physics of Galt’s machine appear impossible (as Arthur Clarke once said, any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic), but the point is that Galt has single-handedly solved the world’s clean energy problem and won’t go public with it.

When Galt convinces various industrialists and other anointed elites to quit carrying society on their shoulders and join his cause, he brings them to a hidden community, a libertarian utopia operating on a gold-standard economy. Ron Paul gets wood when he thinks about it.  In the Promised Land, all of these tycoons and executives work as farmers and grocers and handymen, finding satisfaction in producing the necessities of life directly from the earth. They pursue their passions too, inventing new ways to mine coal, copper, and oil and experimenting with their cleaner, better, faster, stronger methods in the hidden valley.

The entire community is powered by Galt’s magic motor, and of course we know the self-destructive effects of fossil fuel consumption, so it seems utterly absurd that the oil and coal guys are still chugging away when they have exclusive access to an endless source of clean energy, but this is one of those instances of tone-deafness for which Rand can’t be held fully responsible.  Ignore that particular quirk, and John Galt’s Promised Land is nearly an environmentalist’s paradise, with former titans of capitalism running farmer’s markets and building their own houses like the Amish.

The engineering and mining undertaken by the residents of Galt’s Gulch only seems backward to contemporary eyes; within the novel it makes perfect sense, since Atlas Shrugged spends a lot of its time exploring our country’s industrial infrastructure to demonstrate just how much we are reliant on those who manage the building and powering of homes, the reliability of transportation, and the efficacy of communications. These people make the world run, Rand is saying. Whether you like it or not, you need them way more than they need you. And this point is still extremely valid– these days, we’re expecting certain intellectual elites to provide solutions to the real climate crisis, and economic elites to renovate national infrastructure in line with these solutions, while we get high and watch mass entertainments depicting the infinite ways in which they will fail.

Say you invent a way to produce clean energy but don’t want to see your product sabotaged by the vested interests of outdated companies, so you build a power station just big enough to support you and your friends and loved ones instead. You wait for the inevitable disaster to wipe away the thieves and strongmen, and then begin searching for other communities of smart, creative people who figured out a way to survive.   This, in essence, is John Galt’s solution to global warming. Do not try and save a world that has lost its soul to mindless consumption; save yourself, and return when the consumers have consumed themselves.

The question is, would Galt’s calculus (or Rand’s) change if he (she) knew about climate change?  In the last third of the novel, the country’s desperate and violently irresponsible leadership begs Hank Rearden, the sole remaining titan of industry, to come up with a solution for the imploding economy.  None of the politicians or bureaucrats will take responsibility for the state of the country, and Rearden repeatedly tries to impress upon them that this is all their fault for avoiding tough decisions and taking panicked actions without thinking through the consequences or learning from past mistakes. Rearden points out that they are doing the same thing again and he won’t participate in their reality-denying games.  The author exalts Rearden’s sense of personal responsibility, and I can mostly dig it, but it creates an odd contradiction in Rand’s generic sanctification of industrial innovators. And Ayn Rand hates contradictions.

Throughout the book, the Industrial Revolution is reflected on nostalgically as the golden age when men were men, when railroads first knit a continent into a country, and technological triumphs of the human intellect first offered humanity-at-large the freedom to do more than toil and labor for basic survival.  And for sure, the innovations of the Industrial age opened endless new vistas for man’s mind to explore. But one of the things man eventually learned was: there are grave long-term consequences to founding a global civilization on this system.  So wouldn’t all these scientific, chemical consequences of industrial productivity be the responsibility of the industrialists, much in the same way that Rearden lays responsibility for the economic paralysis on the politicians and their attempts to avoid critical thought?

Galt’s biggest challenge whenever he converts anyone to his cause is to convince them that they should not feel undue responsibility or guilt for the  suffering of others, who lived off the accomplishments of greater individuals and must now realize their own potential for greatness or perish.  The riddle in all this is that with the reality of climate change and the rules of personal responsibility laid out by Rearden, the industrial heroes do share the responsibility for the future suffering of others, having endangered the material earth that they seek to save from wanton consumption and mental atrophy.

When John Galt is eventually offered an unrestricted dictatorship if he will save the world, he rejects it (much like Jesus), and this might be the only right choice whether he would assume responsibility for global warming or not, insofar as it would be an acknowledgment that no one, no matter how virtuous, can magically cure the world of its problems when the world’s people are generally spiritual neurotics.  Whatever the case may be, when you think about Atlas Shrugged in light of the modern environment, it raises a lot of ethical questions and, also, makes you want to buy some fertile land out in Colorado.

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