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A Fresh Can of Air

A rather prescient essay (“Luft in Büchsen”) written in 1972 by this German author.  You can find the original in this collection.

For a while now at the train station of the Berlin Zoo, cans have been sold with the label “Berlin air,” surely nothing more than a sentimental token for anyone leaving the city.  This rather amusing invention on the part of the souvenir industry could soon turn, however, into a bestselling item.  And it wouldn’t have to read “Berlin air,” only “air.”  Not oxygen, not what iron lungs provide, but just your average, run-of-the-mill breathable air.  Every morning we could send our kids off to school with a couple of cans of air, take a couple to work at the factory or office, and during breakfast or lunchtime, between our sandwiches, milk, and coffee, take a couple of sips of fresh air.  Since water (not mineral water, but your average, run-of-the-mill spring water) is already available for purchase, air in cans doesn’t seem like a satirical exaggeration.  In this productive and efficient world of ours (of us Europeans, in any case) centered around sustainable profit and increasable turnover, there will always be enough bread, wine, and distilled beverages to go around; there will even be enough milk, butter and beer.  But there will no more water or air.  Every so often, when I park my car in a parking garage or lot, I would love to have a can of fresh air on me.  If we – brave, modern people that we are – are searching for a modern myth in our modern industrialized society, there is really only one available: that of King Midas, who turned everything he touched or came into contact with to gold.  If one understands gold as productivity, efficiency, profit and growth, this myth could soon fit the bill.

Soon, average, run-of-the-mill breathable air will be treated like treasure, just as we drive countless miles into the countryside to somewhere that still has normal, proper drinking water.  In bottles, balloons, or tubes, we take water home from these weekend excursions because we have determined that it tastes better than what our water dealer delivers to us every day or every week.  All the fruits and nuts of the world are at our fingertips, but we’re low on water and fresh air is a rarity.  And there, in the middle of our glorious megalopolises where we build metro stations so as to make more room for cars, an ancient, Eastern–looking figure will reappear: the air merchant.  But he too will have a large tanker and, for a Deutschmark or two, let us take a few drags from his air hose.  Extinguishing fires in modern homes and buildings has already created a new industry: the file incinerator or shredder.  Since one can’t burn anything – and I mean anything – in one’s own home any more, it is natural that one wouldn’t wish to deposit all one’s files or one’s entire correspondence in the trash.

We have speculated about the exploitation of man by man since the dawn of our existence, but we have consecrated far less time to pondering our exploitation of nature.  In our blind, profit-ridden optimism, we have industrialized our world for more than one hundred and fifty years.  We’ve always got the goods when the money’s right.  Even when the money’s only halfway there; although now it turns out that we are not only exploiting man and nature, but also poisoning and displacing the elements.  There have been enough architects, sociologists, psychologists, and even on occasion a couple of theologians who have warned and scolded us, but until now, little has occurred.  And if one thinks it over, why is that hard-to-define segment of humanity that one calls youth so apathetic or even pessimistic?  Shouldn’t we ask ourselves what kind of future we’re readying them for, or what we think their quality of life might entail?  Even the water merchant and the air merchant cannot reconcile themselves with this suicidal civilization.

According to what the Secretary General of the United Nations has announced, by the year 1985 we will have spent nine trillion Deutschmarks on the arms race.  That’s one nine and twelve zeroes, an almost mythical amount owing to the burden of handling all those zeroes and putting all those numbers into words.  In order to prevent a water crisis, we will have to spend two hundred thirty-four billion Deutschmarks by the year 2000, a number equivalent to ten times our defense budget.  And to prevent all possible catastrophes, which I will not enumerate here, there must also be regional planning, city planning, traffic planning, health services, educational reforms, and environmental protection.  New values must be established which will inevitably come into conflict with the existing mores – profit, productivity, increase in turnover – and which have to be taken into consideration in all these complicated, embedded problems because it is high time and time passes oh so quickly.  And every politician who believes all this can be done without an increase in taxes is either lying to himself or to others.

No longer does it seem like pure nonsense but rather suicidal cynicism when, in the face of the problems only touched upon here, a word like “plan” is denounced by the Christian Democrats and their allies.  These same Christian Democrats (and same allies) who claim to be able to resolve our domestic and foreign problems.  How are these problems supposed to be solved if there isn’t a plan?  The opposite of “plan” does not need to be “freedom,” it can also be termed “a lack of foresight.”  And the consequences of industrialization bereft of both foresight and consideration lie right before our eyes.

Breathable air and drinkable air should not be the property of a privileged stratum who can afford to drive out into the countryside, to their second house or second apartment, where, it should be said, they have access to two things which city dwellers rarely have at their disposal: a fireplace (and a fire in that fireplace) and soil, the earth and land of a park or garden.  The new term “quality of life” is not a thing of beauty.  It stands for something very old, those elements necessary for life itself: air, water, fire, and earth.  And there is something else rarely included on the list of classic elements that must, however, be counted with them: peace and quiet.  The number of those disturbed by noise increases every day, as does the number of those who cannot afford to flee this unbearable din because, by doing so, they might lose their jobs.

The legend of the air merchant could soon be as true as the legend of the seller of peace and quiet.  In the near future we may have an inventor of a system that can grant these poor, wretched, crazy, persecuted successors to Midas a little bit of tranquility – and the water merchant, the air merchant, and the peace-and-quiet handler will only be retailers.  Wholesalers and corporations will form, sell and hoard water, air, and quiet, and sell them to retailers for an immense profit.  It is already unimaginable that, in the face of this development that has already come to pass, words like “plan” are still denounced, although one has been planning now for quite a while.  Advertising “campaigns” are also being planned, and they are called “campaigns” just like the “campaigns” of military terminologists.

Not only states and communities have budgets, the earth has one as well.  It has an oxygen budget, a nitrogen budget, and we are already living on credit.  In the blind construction phase of the Federal Republic, exploitation and selling−off were achieved in thoughtless euphoria with only profit as their goal, and the rest of the world was astounded by this reconstruction and thought it a miracle.  The reason for this miracle was not only diligence, but also collective blindness.  We’ve always got the goods when the money’s right, halfway into our paycheck envelope or halfway into our stock earnings.  These are glorious times, simply glorious.  But the second miracle will be a bit more difficult.  It won’t need any type of national planning because the problems have long since been international ones, as the Soviet scientist Sakharov told us years ago writing about our ecology and its fate.  Writing, in other words, about the budget of our earth.

Reader Comments (2)

Lovely. A true conservative!

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

I really have to stop being such a right-wing reactionary. It's starting to affect my health.

This essay was pieced together very quickly, I'm not quite sure for what occasion.

July 8, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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