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How capitalism turns air into a commodity

From imposing imaginary borders in the sky to selling expensive bottles of mountain mist, the air is becoming a useful commodity for the bosses to exploit explains Sam Ord 
Issue 2814
a photoshop image of corporation hot air balloons with an industrial, dystopian city in the back ground. air balloon companies include cirgin and BP oil

A price is even being put on the air we breathe

Air is more than what sustains life on earth. Whether it’s carbon trading or selling bottles of mountain air, it’s the new the new frontier in capitalism’s search for profit. From the very beginning, capitalism began to commodify natural resources. 

Unlike previous societies, capitalism is a system defined by what Karl Marx called “generalised commodity production”. It means things are made to bought and sold on the market, rather than to be used immediately by us. 

Marx described how natural resources were brutally captured by the newly developing capitalist class. The land was enclosed, people were expelled, and commodities were sold back to them. 

But this process isn’t exclusive to the land beneath our feet. Fresh water is captured and bottled or pumped to houses, fishing and oil drilling rights are sold to companies to access oceans and logging rights to butcher the woodland.

Marx predicted that capitalism would try to commodify everything. He said, “The things which until then had been communicated, but never exchanged, given, but never sold, acquired, but never bought. All at last enter into commerce.”

One of the ways in which this is done is by carbon and emissions trading, commonly-known as cap and trade. Environmentally damaging industries are given credits that allow them to pollute the atmosphere to a point. Then, if they don’t use all their credits, they can sell them to other industries.

This trade is the commodification of air. And it means capitalists have benefitted by trading the problem elsewhere in global markets worth £717 billion.

The air we breathe is tied with the land, soil, oceans and more. In fact, approximately 50 to 80 percent of oxygen is produced by oceanic ­plankton. This means that, when capitalists sell forests or rights to use the oceans to dump sewage or waste, they’re also ­selling off the ability to produce clean air.

To produce the largest crop, Greenhouse farms buy carbon dioxide to pump into the glass houses. Often ­workers have to wear air tanks. This fundamentally changes atmospheric makeup in the name of profit.

For many ordinary people, clean air is an unaffordable luxury. Developers often build polluting infrastructure, such as waste incinerators, in working class areas because the land is cheaper.

Poorer people have no choice but to face the realities of air pollution—including asthma, lung disease, miscarriage and death.

But, if you’re rich, you can by and large afford to buy houses in less polluted parts of the city or rural areas. It’s no wonder that estate agents use “clean air” as a selling point. These sorts of class battles over air have been taking place since the rise of capitalism in the 19th century. 

In The Condition of the Working Class in England, Frederick Engels described how the rising capitalist class—the bourgeoisie—protected itself from the smog of its industries. He writes that they “live in remoter villas” or “on the breezy heights of Cheetham Hill, Broughton, and Pendelton, in free, wholesome country air”. 

In other cities—such as Leeds—the rich made sure to build their areas high up, away from the prevailing winds that brought pollution from their factories. Today some of the world’s super-rich are even buying bottled air from the Swiss alps.   

Under capitalism, the bosses destroy the air we breathe because they are locked into a competitive system. If one tried to behave “ethically”, they’d be driven out of business. It means ­everything is subordinated to the logic of capital accumulation and ­profit-maximisation. Health of people and the environment come a distant second. 

As Engels wrote, “What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees. 

“What cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock.” 

For centuries before the development of capitalism, humans worked with nature.  Now as the mega-corporations own mass farms, land and industries, poorer people are made to suffer through work, receiving just a fraction of the value that they produce. The plunder of natural resources and exploitation of labour goes hand in hand.

Marx described how our ability to work collectively, shaping the world around us, is taken away under capitalism.  He called this process “alienation”, where workers are separated from the product of their labour because its owned and control by someone else. We’re left without a sense of control over our lives. 

Humans are disconnected from the land, oceans—and now the very air we breathe—through the same process. 

Only by taking back control—and ­producing for human need, not profit—can we stop the capitalist drive to destruction that literally takes our breath away.


A battle over invisible borders

Air has become an imperialist battleground. Ordinary people are being forced to share the air with fighter jets, drones, radioactive clouds and toxic gas used in warfare.

Even the space above us has been carved out and invisible borders established. As aviation grew, borders between nations rose into the sky, giving states the ability to sell or deny access to air space. 

But, of course, the air we breathe transcends the borders freely, circling the globe. Pollution drifts with the wind, and more worryingly, so do chemical weapons.  It has allowed imperialists to weaponise the air.

In 2014 Israel began using crop dusters to spread herbicides near the besieged Gaza Strip. They did this when the wind was blowing into Gaza, destroying Palestinians’ crops and increasing hunger and malnutrition for many.

It destroyed vegetation leaving Palestinians exposed to the bullets and surveillance of the Israeli border force. In Syria from 2012 chlorine gas bombs were dropped by the government in Aleppo, a populous city. It produced dull green clouds causing suffocation, vomiting and affecting vision.

Chlorine gas is much heavier than air, meaning it settles on the ground and is more resistant to winds, impacting humans on the ground for longer periods.

Israel and Syria are examples of states using the air to strengthen their occupation and crush resistance.


The poor pay the price

“We definitely don’t all breathe the same air. It’s a myth. Lung disease is a poor person’s disease.”

Those are the words of Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, the mother of nine year old Ella Roberta.  Ella died of asthma attacks as a result of air pollution from the south circular road in south London.

This is the deadly reality of capitalist competition and its drive to grow profits no matter the cost to public or environmental health. Air pollution is an issue shaped by racism and class, and it shows no sign of slowing.

The Silvertown Tunnel that will span the River Thames in London will increase traffic in Newham.  The borough already has 51 percent of children living in poverty, and just 13.1 percent of its population are white British. 

If the tunnel is built, it will cause misery, sickness and death for all that live near it. Poor people who don’t have the means to protect themselves will be most affected by air pollution. 

In Canada, tar sand plants make the nation one of the biggest crude oil producers in the world.  These polluting plants are built on stolen indigenous land.

Nitrogen and sulphur gases are spewed into the air and carried by the winds producing a strong smell that evicts people further than the direct perimeters of the plants. Two surveys of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada, carried out in 2009 and 2014, showed higher than normal rates of certain cancers due to the nearby tar sand plants.

Indigenous people protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, but capitalism continues to exploit these lands to capture valuable commodities.


Profiting from pollution

One of capitalism’s solutions for clean air is to create products like air filters, high carbon intake houseplants and more. Capitalists are profiting from pollution.

In highly polluted areas such as China and India, wealthy residents are being marketed and buying bottled air from Banff, Canada. Harrison Wang, Vitality Air’s China representative said, “In China fresh air is a luxury, something so precious.” 

That’s why his company has sold out of eight litre bottles or 160 breaths of national park air costing almost £21.” 

They also are selling air from Lake Louise in Canada, the mist from glaciers and eight litres of Banff air with diamonds signed by rapper 2chainz for £12,864. For many this seems utterly ridiculous—it is—and dystopian. 

The company says, “Remember the day when people laughed off bottled water? “The truth is we have begun to appreciate the clean, pure and refreshing taste of quality water. Air is going the same direction.”

Domestic air pollution filters have become increasingly popular, with Amazon selling a range of products to reduce air pollution.  These, of course, are not solutions to combating the multi-billion pound polluting industries.

Many air purifiers are unaffordable, with the cheaper ones being less effective.  Amazon’s price ranges from £30 to several hundred for an effective machine. 

These filters are becoming an unaffordable essential for the poorest in the worst affected regions, facing the deadly consequences of toxic air.  And if people gain an air pollution-related illness, pharmaceutical companies can profit from the medicines and equipment that attempt to make them better.

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