Privatizing the air, 100 years ago

Carbon trading is a recent invention, but the idea that capitalists would privatize the air if they could isn’t new at all.

Carbon trading is a recent invention, but the idea that capitalists would privatize the air if they could isn’t new at all.

Lately I’ve been re-reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s wonderful novel about working class life in England, written before World War I. In this passage, the socialist Frank Owen is explaining the causes of poverty to his workmates, all of whom accept capitalism as the only possible system.

Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by “over-production”; it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by “over-population.”

It’s caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth.

The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it.

If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work or them in order to get money to buy air to breathe.

And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air-or of the money to It-even as now thousands are dying for want of the other necessaries of life.

You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect have air to breathe unless they had the money to pay for it. Most of you here, for instance, would think so and say so.

Even as you think at present that it’s right for a few people to own the Earth, the Minerals and the Water, which are all just as necessary as is the air.

In exactly the same spirit as you now say: “It’s Their Land,” “It’s Their Water,” “It’s Their Coal,” “It’s Their Iron,” so you would say “It’s Their Air,” “These are Their gasometers, and what right have the likes of us to expect them to allow us to breathe for nothing’?”

And even while he is doing this the air monopolist will be preaching sermons on the Brotherhood of Man; he will be dispensing advice on “Christian Duty” in the Sunday magazines; he will give utterance to numerous more or less moral maxims for the guidance of the young.

And meantime, all around, people will be dying for want of some of the air that he will have bottled up in his gasometers.

They haven’t invented gasometers, but they have found ways to let corporations buy the right to use and pollute the air we all need. A century ago, Tressell knew a simple but profound truth: if anything can be made into a commodity, capital will do just that. Capitalists will profit, and we will pay.


More from my notebook …