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Why is it that if something is free, it is seen to have no value?

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I have reflected elsewhere on the way people who provide their labour and skills free as volunteers are sometimes not valued as they ought to be.

There are other, and in some ways more important areas where some resource, which is available at no cost, is not valued as it ought to be.

The air we breath is probably the most necessary and the most undervalued resource. Without the oxygen in the air we would all die in a matter of minutes, our power stations would be useless and our motor vehicles would be stationary objects. Without the nitrogen in the air, we would all die of hyperoxia and everything combustible would burst into flames at the merest hint of a spark. Yet we all treat air as something of which we have an everlasting and free supply which we can use however we want.

We consume oxygen in every energy consuming activity from walking to generating electricity and in doing so we lock the oxygen into carbon dioxide which make the oxygen unavailable. There is a natural process which counteracts this. All living plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen in their essential living process of photosynthesis. While the consumption of oxygen by animals and the generation of oxygen by plants remains in balance we will always have all the oxygen we need. However, we continue to alter this balance by clearing land of trees for our own use as farms, golf courses, roads, housing blocks, and cities. It is true that farms and golf courses contribute to the generation of oxygen, they are less efficient than trees so the supply is still diminished.

While there is no prospect of a dangerous diminution of the supply of air in any human time span, there are ways in which we risk our very existence by our cavalier attitude to this most essential natural resource.

Our every activity modifies the air. We breathe out carbon dioxide. Our cars produce both carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides which tend to accumulate. We manufactured chlorofluorocarbons and released them in such quantities over many decades that the ozone in the upper atmosphere, on which we rely for shielding from the harmful UV components of sunlight, has been dangerously depleted. We also load up the air we breathe with smoke and other material to such an extent in some cities that it is dangerous for those with respiratory diseases to breathe it. All of us suffer some harm from this pollution.

There are signs that we now understand that we must treat the atmosphere with care but there is always the argument that this protection costs money and the air is free so nobody wants to pay anything for it.

The greenhouse effect of the accumulation of human generated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will, it is now clear, increase the temperature of the earth with various outcomes, some of them beneficial but most of them disastrous. Unless we find a solution soon, there are many people who will lose the land on which they live. Some who live on small Pacific islands will lose their whole country. We already see changes in the weather with increase severity of hurricanes and with drought becoming more severe and more prevalent in some parts of the world.

If the true cost of the maintenance of the atmosphere were born by those who misuse it, our economy would have to find a different balance. Some things would be more expensive. Some businesses would not be able to operate at all. We would adjust our lifestyles so that we would continue to live and prosper. The benefit would be that we would leave a truly sustainable world for our children's children.

Another natural resource on which our survival depends is water. While the earth has more water than land most of it is contained in the oceans and is unavailable for our use because it is saline.

In most parts of the world today, the supply of fresh water from rivers, wells and bores is under threat. Both the quantity of water available and its quality are compromised and a large proportion of the world's population have difficulty in obtaining enough clean water.

This problem is now recognised in many parts of the world but, as with the air, providing the money to fix the damage we have done to a "free" resource is generally someone else's responsibility.

If the cost burden of the damage to these free resources had to be borne by those causing the damage, perhaps cutting down "free" trees to make paper wouldn't be a viable business. If the cost of making motor vehicles pollution free were really borne by the users of motor vehicle, we would all live in a better and more sustainable environment. If those who generate pollutants had to implement processes to convert the pollutants to benign material, we would not face having to abandon the human use of some land because it is too poisonous for us to live there.

I believe that all of these dangers arise because of the "free" nature of the natural resources. People believe that are able to use and abuse these resources because they don't belong to anyone when the truth is that they belong to us all. Clearly the economic systems we use to regulate and direct our societies are distorted in a major way to enrich the consumers and polluters of these free resources at the expense of the future generations.

I promised that I wouldn't ever end a discussion of today's world on a pessimistic note. Please read "The world isn't going to hell in a basket, is it?" to discover how I believe it will all turn out!

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Created: 08.09.2004 and last revised 05.11.2004
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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