Sunday, June 29, 2008

Framing the sky

While leafing through George Lakoff's new book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, I was quite happily surprised to discover that an entire chapter was devoted to promoting Peter Barnes's idea of a "Sky Trust" as a means for fighting air pollution.

So, what exactly is a Sky Trust? Peter Barnes (entrepreneur of Working Assets fame) has been promoting the idea of trusteeship as a way of managing common natural resources for quite a while now, including in his excellent 2006 book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons (read it online right now!) It's hard to imagine dividing up an atmosphere into conventional units of private property, but by creating a private, non-for-profit trusteeship that "owns" the entire atmosphere over an area, giving everybody in the area a non-transferable share in ownership and charging those who pollute or damage the air (and redistributing the revenues to the participants), the economic value of the air can be dealt with in a way that discourages pollution and abuse while also preserving the integrity of the common resource. All of this works in a manner similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, or the single tax of Henry George, in a way that is consistent with market principles.

As global warming becomes a major issue, finding a way to deal with air pollution becomes an ever more urgent matter, and the sky trust is a rigorous yet simple way out. And it's not hard to see why liberals would find it appealing. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Lakoff also finds the means as well as the end congenial, in fact specifically stating that the sky trust is desirable because it maximizes the use of market principles and encourages entrepreneurship (to the point where even babies are participating, since everyone gets dividends from birth on) while minimizing the role of government and thus being immune to lobbying, and being administratively simple without creating the sort of bureaucracy spawned by regulatory administration.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Age of Barbaria
by Jorge Majfud; translated by Bruce Campbell

Published in the Humanist, July/August 2008

Annual trips back to the year 33 began in the Age of Barbaria. That year was selected because, according to surveys, Christ’s crucifixion drew the attention of most Westerners, and this social sector was important for economic reasons since trips to the past weren’t organized, much less financed, by the government of any country (as had once happened with the first trips into space) but by a private company. The financial group that made the marvel of traveling through time possible was called Axa. Acting at the request of the High Chief of Technology, who suggested infinite profits through “tourism services,” Axa transported groups of thirty people each to the year 33 in order to witness the death of the Nazarene, much as the tourist commoners did long ago when at each equinox they would gather at the foot of the pyramid of Chitchen-Itzá to witness the formation of the serpent from the shadows cast down by the pyramid upon itself.

The greatest inconvenience encountered by Axa was the limited number of tourists who were able to attend the event at one time, thus hampering the millions in profit expected by the investors. For this reason the group maximum was gradually raised to forty-five, at the risk of attracting the attention of the ancient residents of Jerusalem. That figure has been maintained at the request of one of the company’s principal stockholders, who argued, reasonably, that the conservation of that historic deed in its original state was the basis for the trips, and that if each group produced alterations to the facts, it could result in an abandonment of general interest in carrying out this kind of travel.

Over time it has been proven that each historical alteration of the facts, no matter how small, is nearly impossible to repair. Such damage occurs whenever one of the travelers fails to respect the rules and attempts to take away some memento of the place. The most well-known was the case of Adam Parker who, with incredible dexterity, was able to cut out a triangular piece of the Nazarene’s red tunic, probably at the moment the latter collapsed from fatigue. The theft did not signify any change in the holy scriptures, but it served to make Parker rich and famous, since the tiny piece of canvas came to be worth a fortune, and more than a few of the travelers who have since taken on the trouble and expense of going back thousands of years have done so to see where the Nazarene is missing “Parker’s Triangle.”

A few have posed objections to this kind of travel, which, they insist, will end up destroying history in ways beyond our notice. In effect, it has: for each change introduced on any given day, infinite changes are derived from it, century after century, gradually diluting or multiplying its effects. In order to notice a minimal change in the year 33 it would be useless to turn to the holy scriptures, because all of the editions, equally, would reflect the blow and completely forget the original facts. There might be a possibility of tracing each change by projecting other trips to years just prior to the Age of Barbaria, but nobody would be interested in such a project and there would be no way of financing it.

The discussion about whether history should remain as it is or can be legitimately modified also no longer matters. But the latter is, in any case, dangerous, since it is impossible to foresee the resulting changes that would be produced by any particular alteration. We know that any change might not be catastrophic for the human species, but could potentially be catastrophic for individuals: we might not be the ones who are alive now, but someone else instead.

The most radical religious groups find themselves on opposing sides. Barbaria’s information services have recently discovered that a group of Evangelicals belonging to the True Church of God in Sao Pablo, will make a trip to the year 33. Thanks to the charity of its faithful, the group has managed to gather together the sum of several million charged by Axa per ticket. What no one has yet been able to confirm are the group’s intentions. It’s been said they will blow up Golgotha and set fire to Jerusalem at the moment of the Crucifixion, so that we thus arrive at the greatly anticipated End Times. All of history would disappear; the whole world, including the Jews, would recognize their error and would turn to Christianity in the year 33. The entire world would live in the Kingdom of God, just as described in the Gospels.

Others dispute this as conspiracy theory, or they question how the travelers could witness the Crucifixion without trying to prevent it. The theological answer is obvious, which is why those least interested in preventing the martyrdom of the Messiah are his own followers. But for the rest, who are the majority, Axa has decreed its own ethical rules: “In the same manner in which we do not prevent the death of the slave between the claws of a lion when we travel to Africa, neither must we prevent the apparent injustices that are committed with the Nazarene. Our moral duty is to conserve nature and history as they are.” The crucifixion is the common heritage of humanity, but, above all, its rights have been acquired totally by Axa.

In fact, the changes will be increasingly inevitable. After six years of trips to the year 33, one can see, at the foot of the cross, bottle caps and magic marker graffiti on the main beam, some of which pray: “I have faith in my lord,” and others just limit themselves to the name of who was there, along with the date of departure, so that future generations of travelers will remember them. Of course, the company also began to yield in the face of pressure from dissatisfied clients, leading to a radical improvement in services. For example, Barbaria just sent a technical representative to the year 26 to request the production of five thousand cubic meters of asphalt and to negotiate with Pontius Pilate the construction of a more comfortable corridor for the Via Dolorosa, which will make less tiresome the travelers’ route and, besides, would be a gesture of compassion for the Nazarene, who more than once broke his feet on stones that he failed to see in his path. It has been calculated that the improvement won’t mean changes in the holy scriptures, since there is no special concern demonstrated there for the urbanism of the city.

With these measures, Axa hopes to shelter itself from the storm of complaints it has received due to alleged inadequacies in service, having to confront recently very costly lawsuits brought by clients who have spent a fortune and have returned unsatisfied. The cause of these complaints is not always the intense heat of Jerusalem, or the congestion in which the city is entrapped on the day of the Crucifixion. Above all the cause is the unsatisfied expectations of the travelers. The company defends itself by saying that the holy scriptures weren’t written under its quality control, but instead are only historical documents and, therefore, are exaggerated. There where the Nazarene really dies, instead of a deep and horrifying night, the sky is barely darkened by an excessive concentration of clouds, and nothing more. The Catholics have declared that this fact, like all those referenced in the Gospels, should be understood in its symbolic meaning and not merely descriptively. But most people were satisfied neither by Axa’s response nor by that of Pope John XXV, who came out in defense of the multinational corporation, thanks to which people can now be closer to God.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and who currently teaches at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His essays, story collections, and several novels have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian, and Greek. His latest novel is The City of the Moon (Baile de Sol, 2008).

Bruce Campbell teaches Hispanic Studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in Minnesota, and is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003) and the forthcoming ¡Viva la historieta! Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi).