We seem to have entered an era of ‘reductio ad absurdum’ capitalism. Many of life’s fundamentals such as land, water and energy have been or are being enclosed and privatised. As capitalism runs out of convenient colonies to parasitise, it has begun to work on societies within its traditional hosts in the developed world through austerity. In parallel the realm of privatisation extends into areas previously considered as public goods available as of right. Is there any ‘natural’ limit to this process? Could air be privatised?
We should perhaps envy Marx for his somewhat detached historical perspective on the development of capitalism. All things must pass. The problem, perhaps felt more acutely if you have children and grandchildren, in that by the time capitalism has eaten itself there will be nothing left for our descendants to sustain themselves with.
If you had asked a member of one of the 170 native American nations before 1880 who owned the land they would not have understood the question . Fast forward 140 years and the idea that land is just a special type of property, and that its resources and use-value can be reserved to the owner is embedded in law and in the general unchallenged narrative about ‘how things work’. Very little land is now held in common, and the only current activist initiative pissing into the prevailing wind is that of Land Value Taxation – a proposition which, while welcome, does appear to accept that land has been irreversibly enclosed, and restricts itself to demanding a land rental back to the exchequer in the form of a tax.
In Ireland a series of #right2water marches have attracted tens of thousands protesting at the Irish government’s plans to privatise water via the creation of a new semi-state (a public-private hybrid) Irish Water and the imposition of water charges. Elsewhere, in Flint, Michigan, following a series of commercial disputes over water supply, a state of emergency was declared as the extent of lead pollution became clear. In neither of these cases are we in an area of water shortage or stress. The common factor seems to be the introduction of public/ private partnerships to move the costs of water supply off of the national (or state) accounts.
In parallel the development of the bottled water market has burgeoned, seemingly unaffected by the inconvenient ‘market externality’ of trillions of plastic bottles going to landfill, and by Coca Cola (via their Dasani brand) and others bottling treated tap water  – based on an idea by DelBoy .
The creativity of the market, which at its best is a joy to behold and a source of life-enhancing innovation is a curate’s egg. And the parts that are bad are fouling the world. Markets have no inbuilt ethics. And we have yet to demonstrate any governance capability that can detoxify them.
As a thought experiment, (and since we are in reductio ad absurdum territory) consider the potential privatisation of the air that we breathe. That air is a basic necessity of life is of itself no protection. There is no apparent ethical barrier – other necessities such as land, shelter, energy and water have been enclosed by elites and rented back to citizens. So there is no ‘in principle’ difficulty.
The difficulties are practical.
For example there is rather too much clean air to make for the globalised opportunity which would be ideal. However this does not need to be a major barrier provided we sculpt the narrative properly. In the U.S. 92% of tap water is of the highest potable quality  but this has not interfered with the growth of bottled water sales. Creative (occasionally mendacious) advertising plus mainstream media focussing on any convenient tap water scare stories have done the trick.
The prime difficulty is in the physical enclosure of a separated-air-space and supply. A controlled-quality-air environment can be envisioned at the personal, dwelling, community, municipality or planet level. So there are product development opportunities for personal breathing devices, masks and filters, passive house variations with recirculated air and domes. As pollution increases, helpful stories about diesel particulates or Beijing air quality will progressively sensitise consumers to the need for interventions. Our inability to leave fossil fuels in the ground will help this narrative get established – an interesting variation on the theme that every market failure provides an opportunity for a new market. At the community level we should see a natural extension of the gated community service proposition to include guaranteed air quality inside large scale geodesic domes. Some municipalities – particularly scenic locations – may banish sources of pollution, buoyed by extra-high local rates acceptable to wealthy residents. Depending on local micro-climates such Canute-propositions may persist for a few years until higher pollution levels waft in from neighbouring areas. At a planetary level geoengineering solutions will develop to pump pollution back into less prosperous sink areas.
So it’s just a matter of being creative. Technology plus entrepreneurship can enable the enclosure of any public good. Absent effective sustainability-minded governance that is.
1]: “My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away” –Black Hawk quoted in Lewis and Clark: The Unheard Voices http://archive.adl.org/education/curriculum_connections/in_this_issue_fall_2004.html
2]: Bottled Water is a Scam: March 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/03/14/bottled_water_is_a_scam_pepsico_coca_cola_and_the_beverage_industrys_greatest_con_partner/
3]: The renowned Peckham Spring brand featured in Only Fools & Horses episode Mother Nature’s Son http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0666564/
Featured image: barbed wire. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/barbed-wire-1221152.
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Graham Barnes is a Currency Innovation Strategist. He is a Director of Feasta and co-organiser of the Feasta Currency Group. He holds a PhD in Computer Science and worked at a senior level in IT and online marketing in a previous life. His current projects include the design and delivery of currencies to be sponsored by a local authority; by a social entrepreneur to complement and enhance a well established sustainability methodology; and by a restaurant chain.