The Air We Breathe

Air is a fluid. The science of fluid dynamics is complicated and well beyond my understanding, but a simple definition might suffice for discussion today, accepting that air is a fluid in that it can be formed, reformed, and compressed to fit the shape of its container. External forces can be brought to bear -- gravity, physical energy, compression -- that can push or pull the fluid within its confines, and even, if the force is great enough, break the constraints with undesirable results. I don't want to belabor this definition, but I do want to stress the value of clean air, comparable to clean water, in its essential requirement for human health and survival. We tend to forget this fact, unless like my son you have just returned from two years of residence in Beijing, China, where the air is dark and heavy with dust, sand, and pollution to an extreme that requires air filters in offices and homes, and air masks for walking or exercising in order to protect body and mind from the detrimental effect of cough and sinus infection, serious respiratory disease, and other harmful consequence of constantly inhaling unhealthy, unbreathable air. As long ago as the 1997 Kyoto Agreement regarding climate protection, the problem has focused on the rising rate of greenhouse gas emission resulting primarily from the burning of fossil fuels to meet our increasing demand for energy. The recent Climate March in New York City and around the world was an expression of pent-up anger and resistance to the inability or unwillingness of governments to regulate, restrict, legislate, and enforce behaviors that continue to add to this serious worldwide health threat. According to, a watchdog organization, only 122 companies generate 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 10 percent caused by just four of the largest energy corporations worldwide. This is not new news, and we have spent too many years debating the question and postponing the answer. The solution typically offered is "cap and trade," a system by which one nation, heavily reliant on polluting technology, can buy a quota from another nation that has reduced its output or switched to alternative technologies. Germany and Denmark, for example, which have initiated accelerated change away from coal and oil-fired energy generation, would have a massive credit to sell to China or the United States. There have been experiments to create markets for such transactions, none yet particularly successful. What underlies this approach, of course, is what underlies the critical consequence of the continuing commodification of natural resources -- forests, minerals, fossil fuels, and water. Ironically, the solution is based on the continuity of the problem. While the so-called assets are traded to the advantage of some, the results are not necessarily modified globally to the advantage of all. Certainly air, like water, must be free and available to everyone to breathe and drink freely, breath by breath, swallow by swallow, day by day, in the name of individual and world health and security. But that is not the case, especially if you examine the essential premise inside the present dialogue that would seem to continue to enable private interests to usurp the essential value of the world's natural resources, to control and trade them in a closed, exclusive, self-beneficial market. What is missing is a sense of climate justice, of the understanding that we have moved beyond any rationale argument against the transformation of our historical assumptions, methods, financial structures, and patterns of governance, that by perpetuating these we act against our universal best interests, and that by failing to invent and accept alternatives to our ways of governing and living together we are taking an irresponsible risk for our collective future. The situation must now be politically unacceptable. People will march in the streets; people will change their individual patterns of consumption; people will fight in favor of land conservation and forest protection; people will protect aquifers and public water supplies, waterways, wetlands, coastal and marine resources; people will demand clean air; people will band together to assert their justifiable demand for equitable and universal access to what Nature provides for human subsistence, health, and growth; people will stand up for the land, the air, and the ocean as an integrated and enduring global social system. Indeed, people will stand up for a world community.