What Atlas Shrugged Can Teach Us About Climate Change

I’m in the middle of rereading my favorite book, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Every time I read the book, I am amazed by how much it illuminates today’s controversies, even though Atlas Shrugged is a) over 50 years old and b) a novel.

Consider the following passage, where industrialist-philosopher Francisco d’Anconia remarks to steel magnate Hank Rearden how dangerous the climate is absent massive industrial development. The conversation takes place during a severe storm (in the era before all severe storms were blamed on fossil fuels).

There was only a faint tinge of red left on the edge of the earth, just enough to outline the scraps of clouds ripped by the tortured battle of the storm in the sky. Dim shapes kept sweeping through space and vanishing, shapes which were branches, but looked as if they were the fury of the wind made visible. “It’s a terrible night for any animal caught unprotected on that plain,” said Francisco d’Anconia. “This is when one should appreciate the meaning of being a man.”

Rearden did not answer for a moment; then he said, as if in answer to himself, a tone of wonder in his voice, “Funny . . .” “What?” “You told me what I was thinking just a while ago . . .” “You were?” “. . . only I didn’t have the words for it.” “Shall I tell you the rest of the words?” “Go ahead.” “You stood here and watched the storm with the greatest pride one can ever feel—because you are able to have summer flowers and half-naked women in your house on a night like this, in demonstration of your victory over that storm. And if it weren’t for you, most of those who are here would be left helpless at the mercy of that wind in the middle of some such plain.”

This is the truth about every environmental issue, including the hysteria over the degree of man’s contribution to climate change. Our environment is inherently dangerous. Nature is inherently dangerous. The climate is inherently dangerous. Industrial development—including the freedom to use fossil fuels—makes these things far safer, not more dangerous. (For elaboration and statistics, see my book Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet.)

And yet today’s discussion of climate ignores the natural perils of our inherently-changing climate and ignores the manmade protections industry gives us from our inherently-changing climate. When leading intellectuals evaluate fossil fuel energy they bend over backwards to tie it to climate hazards but ignore the role of fossil fuel energy in creating the climate protection they enjoy as they type away on their (fossil-fuel-manufactured-and-powered) computers.

Why? Because they do not understand the essence of Atlas Shrugged, which Rand said  was “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” The mind, and the freedom to use it to mold nature to suit our purposes, the book tells us, is the key to every aspect of our survival and happiness, including a livable environment. Nature doesn’t give us safety from climate—we create it using our minds. Nature doesn’t give us ample usable resources—we create them using our minds. Nature doesn’t give us a static, predictable existence—we need to constantly use our minds to change and adapt, whether it is to man-made changes or non-man-made changes. And to use our minds this way requires one thing above all: economic freedom, including the freedom to use the best sources of energy.

With this in mind, think of the absurdity of today’s obsession with “climate change.” We are supposed to believe that we can’t cope with whatever changes might proceed from changing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from .03% to .04%—and the solution is to progressively outlaw the best energy technologies (fossil fuels but also the environmentalist-opposed nuclear and hydro) mandate the worst energy technologies (perennially unreliable, resource-intensive solar and wind) and hope for the best.

If more people read Atlas Shrugged and thought about it, they would be obsessed with what really matters: the dynamic process that is industrial progress, and the dramatically increased freedom that is required to achieve it.


Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, speaker, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress.