“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
— “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
There’s a lot of hype about the next big industry: will it be Big Tech, space travel, virtual reality technology, renewable energy, bioengineering, synthetic food?
The truth might end up being a little more sobering:
What if the next big industry was the air you breathe?
It might sound absurd to most readers.
Many of us can imagine projects and policies to improve air quality, fight climate change or restrict large polluters from ruining our air, but air as a common consumer product?
Surely I must be joking, right?
With 90% of the world suffering from poor quality air and serious pollution it’s an industry that’s set to boom. Tragically, an estimated 1.6 million Chinese citizens die per year from health problems directly linked to polluted and toxic air.
Think about the irony here: a ruthless global capitalist system (or capitalist-communist fusion system in the case of China) that exploits natural resources and has poisoned our atmosphere for centuries is now profiting from selling you bits of clean air from the few remaining places whose atmospheres aren’t already toasted.
Still, where some see doom and gloom others see an exciting entrepreneurial opportunity.
A growing number of businesses are now cranking out fresh air in energy-intensive factories full of bottles that leave a significant carbon footprint, producing a product that’s at best an occasional boutique band-aid for a real problem.
Is this the kind of world we want to live in?
Jane Burston is executive director of the UK-based Clean Air Fund, a philanthropic organisation working globally to empower funders, researchers, policymakers, and campaigners to deliver clean air for all.
Although she understands the motivation toward buying clean air, Burston cautions against seeing it as a solution, noting in an interview with Ideapod that “ten minutes of bottled air won’t make up for a lifetime of breathing dirty air, and nor will it address one of the key drivers of climate change.”
Instead, Burston wants to see more proactive approaches that tackle the problem as a whole instead of just its symptoms. She said:
“The solution to air pollution won’t be found in an off-the-shelf canister, but through bold action from government, business, and the public.”
The Clean Air Fund doesn’t just talk the talk either.
They are involved in initiatives to improve air quality and raise consciousness around clean air worldwide.
Examples of several of their initiatives include work in Poland — which deals with severe air pollution particularly in areas where coal is still used as a primary source of energy.
With poor air quality leading to almost 50,000 premature deaths per year in Poland, the Clean Air Fund partnered with Forum Energii Think Tank and the Purpose Climate Lab to create the LeadAir initiative.
This included workshops and educational forums across the country, educating leaders on air quality and empowering citizens and stakeholders on how to build cleaner infrastructure, apply for renewable energy funding, and work in cooperatives to change over industry and energy to cleaner sources.
Mayoral advisor Marcin Galoch from the town of Legionowo about half an hour north of the Polish capital of Warsaw said:
“Regardless of which city we live in, which institution or company we work in, everyone should act to improve air quality for our common good, for our health.”
“It is very important to exchange information between cities and institutions to be effective, learn and inspire each other.”
In India, the Clean Air Fund has also worked to fund grassroots activism and initiatives to improve air quality in a country where several million deaths per year are caused by extreme air pollution.
Their current projects in India include Health Care Without Harm, where medical officials become educated and can help patients, politicians and the public become aware and empowered about demanding cleaner air.
In addition to widening media coverage and public awareness, the Clean Air Fund has been able to spur policy change in India and make new factories and industries live up to higher standards.
They’ve also funded citizen efforts which have resulted in large-scale air cleanup efforts in India’s Bengaluru region and are continuing to fund projects and air quality work throughout India.
But back in the dirty world of today, there is still a lot of work to do. Consumers are thirsty for even a few breaths of clean air and are reaching out for any stop-gap solutions.
Chinese commuters inhale bursts of fresh Canadian air to get down the smoggy streets, and a British company called Aether also competes in the same market.
If you don’t breathe, your physical body will die quite quickly.
In that sense, from a capitalist perspective, air is the ultimate “demand.” And as the “supply” dwindles, it is inevitable that large corporations are going to set up shops selling us the invisible oxygen that allows us to wake up to a new day.
During this pandemic, thousands of people have died from lack of oxygen, particularly in Latin America, where cities like Manaus in Brazil have run out of sufficient oxygen to keep COVID patients alive.
However, unlike medical oxygen whose quality is strictly regulated and measured, commercial air is sold without regulations and is more of a brand and lifestyle, considering there isn’t scientific evidence to back up any beneficial effects from occasionally inhaling from a bottle of clean air.
Still, bottled air is becoming a hot commodity, especially in highly polluted places like China, Mexico, and India.
Companies such as Canada’s Vitality Air are the next wave of capitalism: selling you air.
As Vitality co-founder Moses Lam explains, this isn’t about upgrading air, it’s more of a swap:
“We’re not talking dirty air and filtering it to make it clean. We’re literally taking clean and pristine air from one side of the world and moving it to the other,” Lam notes.
Vitality is projecting that in the decades to come bottled air will be the new bottled water: popular, widely-sold, and part of a growing market share.
Their sales have skyrocketed each year and they have undergone various large expansions of their air capture and bottling operations and facilities.
“I want to be known as the king of air,” Lam says proudly.
Vitality sells air from the pristine Banff area of Alberta in Western Canada, retailing 8-liter bottles for around $32 USD, which adds up to about one quarter per breath.
“Airtrepreneurs” like Lam and his co-founder Troy Paquette see enormous potential in the market. As Lam notes:
“We haven’t really cracked China or India. Even if we were to do 0.5% of market share, we’d be looking at 3 to 4 million bottles per country.”
And there’s something else to consider:
If air is valuable enough to pay money for, how long until you start getting charged taxes just for breathing it?
We already know about carbon taxes for greenhouse gas emissions and cash for clunkers programs as governments work to get gas-guzzling vehicles off the road and replaced by more renewable options.
“Alongside demanding action from local and national leaders, the best thing people can do to reduce air pollution in their daily lives is considered how they travel: take public transport when you can, cycle and walk more, and swap a diesel or petrol car for an electric vehicle.”
When it comes to a carbon credit system or carbon swaps, Burston sees them as a valuable idea, but far from a solution that could achieve clean air. She says:
“They have their place, but we can’t rely on them to tackle the climate emergency or air pollution. Instead, we have to be more ambitious, working towards a future where they’re not needed at all.”
In terms of more dramatic policy, would it really be such a stretch to see the day you’re taxed for breathing?
I’ve been living in Brazil for the past year and there’s a saying there that’s ironically coming true.
When people complain about high taxes they say: “the taxes are getting so high that the only thing not taxed yet is the air.”
There’s nothing wrong with collective action to improve our way of life or tax emissions or consumption, the question arises of how such changes might be applied and whether they would actually work. She explains:
“We’d like to see governments adopt ambitious air quality targets in line with WHO guidelines and enforce them rigorously to motivate the public and private sector, and the general public, to reduce their own emissions to protect public health and the health of the planet.
Air pollution is increasingly becoming part of the political debate, but we want to see those words turn into actions.”
Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum with his Fourth Industrial Revolution promises a new revamp of capitalism that’s an ultra-sustainable “circular economy,” but at the end of the day, many questions remain about how a reset of the same problematic capitalist system would really benefit the planet’s environment and beings.
The time is ripe for people to come together collectively and voluntarily to improve this world.
Ground-up innovation, working together to grow healthy food, preserve our environment, and committed to raising future generations with respect for the earth and each other.
But how do we move towards a reality that’s closer to this?
Do we have the power to truly change how we live and to work or will we just become the next consumers grabbing a clean bottle of air at 7/11 in a few years?