Air for sale?

_I don’t know who you are, but one thing do I ask of you,
Don’t sell yourself.
No, Air — Don’t sell yourself,
Don’t let them channel you,
Don’t let them run you through tubes,
Don’t let them box you, or compress you,
Don’t let them make you into pills,
Don’t let them bottle you. Take care!_

Today, in 2005, those fears imagined by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in his Ode to the Air some 50 years ago have a real foundation that grows daily. Along with water, the oceans and the rain, air is increasingly viewed as an ‘environmental service’, another class of merchandise for which all of us must pay, like it or not.

The concept of ‘environmental services’ has become popular over the past decade. Originally coined by economists, the term now appears frequently in documents produced by governments, the World Bank, universities and business associations. It has also been adopted in the vocabularies of development agencies, NGOs and social organizations. The idea has crept insidiously into our collective consciousness without setting off the alarm bells that it should have done.

For example, ‘atmospheric regulation’ – the ability to keep air quality at breathable levels – is considered today to be an ‘environmental service’. The alarming implication is that each time we take a breath we must remember that we are not simply breathing but are ‘receiving a service’.

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