Breathe In

“It is possible to imagine circumstances in which air would be a part of wealth. If it became customary to sojourn long in places where the air does not naturally penetrate, as in diving-bells sunk in the sea, a supply of air artificially furnished would, like water conveyed into houses, bear a price; and if from any revolution in nature the atmosphere became too scanty for the consumption, or could be monopolized, air might acquire a very high marketable value. In such a case, the possession of it, beyond his own wants, would be, to its owner, wealth; and the general wealth of mankind might at first sight appear to be increased, by what would be so great a calamity to them. The error would lie in not considering, that however rich the possessor of air might become at the expense of the rest of the community, all persons else would be poorer by all that they were compelled to pay for what they had before obtained without payment.”
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848)

One thought on “Breathe In

  1. This is already the case. Every breath of air inhaled by people carries a price. If one lives in a large city, each breath of air introduces innumerable toxins into the pulmonary tract, thence to the tissues, the bloodstream. Diesel exhaust fumes appear to be as carcinogenic as cigarette smoke, yet Diesel is still promoted as in some way ‘green.’ If one lives on a landfill in Africa, every breath similarly introduces countless other, usually more detrimental, toxins and pathogens. Assuming that monetary value can be assigned to health care, and assuming the inhalers of these particulates and poisons have access to health care, the cost of breathing in the air could be calculated in these terms. If either of these assumptions is false, the ‘price of air’ is paid in human health and human life, in happiness and in suffering. Thus economic ‘externalities’ – in this case – are quite literally made up for by devaluing human internalities.

    This is, and always has been, unacceptable in any system of economics which holds a claim to being ethical.

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