I had the occasion to be driving in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolis this weekend. The warmer weather tends to spawn a desire to get out under the sunshine in whatever ways possible, and a road trip to the Twin Cities beckoned with success. In acknowledgement to the early arrival of Spring (I choose to believe that it is here now until the presence of its sister, Summer), I chose to drive our van, which is dormant for most of the winter months. I uncovered it, checked the oil and tires, made sure that the fuel tank was full and we embarked on a gorgeous Friday afternoon. But surprises are always in wait, and this one really caught me off guard.
We stayed the night at the home of one of our daughters. In the morning, we got up early to walk our dog at the brink of yet another beautiful day. But when we stepped outdoors, I noticed that one of the van’s tires looked a bit saggy, not enough to be flat, but deflated enough that it needed another infusion of air in its tube. I made a mental note of it, and we went about our sunrise walk.
After our walk and breakfast, I asked my son-in-law if there was a nearby service station where I could fill the sluggish tire, and his response shocked me. “Well, there are plenty of stations around,” he said, “but up here, most of them charge you for the air. I’m not sure where there’s free air around here.”
I was transfixed for the moment, not at all certain that I had heard him correctly. My wide open jaw must have conveyed my disbelief. “Yes, it’s true,” he said with a shake of his head. “They actually charge you for air. I’ve never experienced it before, but it’s pretty common here.”
Now, paying for something that has previously been free is nothing new. For example, when it comes to the airlines, it’s now the norm. I pay for my bags to be loaded onto the plane. I pay for any food I might wish to eat on board that plane. In fact, I’ve even had to pay a fee to assure myself of a seat on that plane, even though I’ve already purchased a ticket! I used to watch television for free, while I now have to pay a monthly fee to the cable company to bring the signal into my home. So the burden is nothing new. But air is the truest commodity, one which is actually needed by all of us for life itself, and the prospect of having to pay for it, even for my automobile tires, well, just jars me to the very core. Pay for it? Really?
By the time I wrapped myself around the incredible truth of it, my son-in-law did remember one station where the air is still free, and I carefully noted his directions to the station, as though successful arrival at its pumps and portals was a feat of momentous achievement. But as we drove to it, I reflected on this troubling trend of modern life. If air has to be purchased from a hose, how long before someone tries to control it outright? What might it mean to have to pay for air?
A song from the 60’s envisioned something like that in the tune, “Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell. One line of the song talks about taking “all the trees, put them in a tree museum, and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to seem ’em.” I remember thinking at the time that the likelihood of that seemed pretty far-fetched, but in these days, I’m not so sure. If the big oil companies, who already command profits from their ventures that are beyond imagination, are still seeking ways to further increase their revenues by selling air, then apparently anything is possible, and maybe even likely.
As I thought about the outrageous idea of paying for air (the oil companies would be far better off simply not offering the service rather than charging for it), it triggered some thoughts about similar outlandish realities faced by others. In Nicaragua, when a rural peasant farmer buys certain hybrid corn for planting, the corn plant bears ears of corn whose kernels are not plantable for the following season; they have been modified in such a way as to prevent their regeneration. In this way, the giant seed companies hold the farmers hostage year after year, forcing them to purchase new seed annually. In other cases, hybrid corn is sometimes planted in such a way that some migrates onto a neighboring farm by accident; the seed companies will sue the unsuspecting neighboring farmers for patent infringement, and even win the judgment. Imagine having to pay for someone else’s error and greed, when you are barely able to feed your family to begin with.
We live at a time when eighty-five of the world’s wealthiest individuals hold as much wealth as half the world’s entire population. It is apparently the case that those who command such wealth are not content with such disparity, and seek to control virtually all of the world’s substantial bounty. Including the air. While humans have always lived amidst great differences in wealth and resources, never have we seen inequalities as these.
There is no moral to this story or analogy to be made. It is simply a report of our further evolution as a species which appears to be intent upon playing the zero sum game of “last man standing.” For the few who play it, it must be exciting. But in the end, it will be the loneliest of all victories….