Oxygen: Create It or Buy It

This is what hit me about twenty years ago. I was visiting the Campo reservation of the Kumeyaay people, east of San Diego. They had just, controversially, stopped allowing local ranchers to use their land to graze their cattle on. It was a move they knew was going to lose them money, big-time. But they had other priorities.

"The land needs a rest," said Mike Connelly, a former engineer with the US space program who had returned to help run his tribe's environmental program. Since then, everything from native grasses to mountain lions to water tables have come back. The place just feels healthy.

And I got it: the idea of letting Nature recover, by doing nothing, just not interfering. The accumulation of all the pricking and scraping and dousing with chemicals and extracting for a short term benefit that we do has to have a consequence...the earth does need a break. And we need to find ways of existing that don't give her forests a crew cut, that cease the disemboweling of her belly, and poisoning her circulatory system.

Paris is coming down the turnpike and yet we still don't know how to save such oxygen factories as the Amazon, Papua-New Guinea, the Congo basin. And the oceans. And the krill that are maybe our most essential oxygen-creating allies.

What to do? Use oxygen production as the bellwether, the canary. Give oxygen value, crude value, real, like oil. And then pay for it, to guarantee its supply.

How? Create an International Oxygen Tax. We net-oxygen-consumer countries pay net-oxygen-creators for the oxygen they produce for us. Just as we pay $5 for a gallon of gasoline (at least in California), we need to start paying the creators of each lungful of oxygen we breathe.

People's first reaction is "Oh God, now we have to pay to breathe??" And you get a tirade about Big Government.

As Das Dabu, one of the readers of last week's blog, said in the comments section, "Here we go! Tax the air we breathe. Taxes solve everything!"

But there is no going back to the days of a Mother Earth who can handle our limitless hunger for exploitation, whom we thought knew no end to her bounty. Especially not while we rip ancient life - the forests that have turned to oil - spend its compressed energy like drunken sailors, and send its carbon waste to a garbage dump called the sky, to wrap around us like an unwanted blanket on a hot night.

The practicalities: How would it work? Carbon credits? Carbon tax? Uh, no. Such slapping of people on the wrist for creating carbon doesn't work. It says "Go forth and sin, and then atone for your sin." We need positive reinforcement for doing good.

So this is a simple incentive: User pays. Let me say that again. U.S.E.R. P.A.Y.S. Pay the countries that create a surplus of oxygen, employing a formula based on how much Co2 you both use and how much net oxygen they create and you need. The countries which create more carbon than they create oxygen must pay net oxygen-creator-countries to make up for their oxygen shortfall and to protect the oxygen nurseries that are their - and our - patrimony. And: From the monies we pay them, they must pay for, yes, military protection forces if necessary to make sure jungles aren't illegally felled, seas plundered, ecosystems stripped.

And perhaps most important, the industrial countries, the net creators of carbon must be given the financial incentive to start creating more of their own oxygen, to lower their own carbon output. To speed up alternative energy production, bring life back to their contiguous oceans, plant trees, whatever. And so do themselves an actual financial favor.

And incentives to developing countries have to reverse: Carbon creators must pay the Amazon farmer more than McDonald's would for the beef he would otherwise produce.

If the oxygen-burner countries want to carry on as before, fine. So long as they are willing to pay for every ounce of oxygen they have to "buy" from oxygen-producing countries. And for every ounce of carbon they create.

See the switch? Now doing the right thing actually "pays" dividends.

But can you measure how much oxygen a jungle, an ocean, or a country for that matter, produces?

Talk to Ralph Keeling. He's the famous oxygen measurer and son of the even more famous Charles David Keeling whose "Keeling Curve" established once and for all the existence of a growing man-made Co2 blanket encircling our earth. Yes, Keeling fils once told me from his office at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, you can measure the amount of oxygen being created in a given area, just as you can measure carbon dioxide. In fact, this is what he spends his life doing. You can get a pretty good idea even from ocean areas, he tells me.

With an oxygen tax, hopefully the "tax" money pouring into oxygen-producing countries' coffers would become the powerful guarantee that destruction would stop. Inspectors like the ones currently controlling the Iran nuclear agreement would make sure the money ends up where it should. In carbon-creating countries, the financial incentive to move to alternative energy and oxygen self-sufficiency and so stop paying those onerous taxes would suddenly give politicians the backbone to face and fight the carbon tsunami that's approaching us all.

But how do you organize this? Because this must happen on a global scale. It is an all-or-nothing thing. It's of such a magnitude that the much-maligned United Nations needs to become its principal organizer. It needs to get agreement on taxes that oxygen-consumer nations pay producers. It needs to coordinate the enforcement mechanism.

Because, folks, this is real. Until we switch to world-embracing incentives for action, and a mindset that hauls us back from the brink, we'll be continuing our lemming march to the destiny of our sister planet, Mars.

So that's my basic rant. Now, as Paris looms, I'm going looking for people who can throw ideas and reality-checks in, but not get locked into a procession of doomsday stories. We get that it's bad. Here we are looking for a realistic way out. Yes, it's like turning a supertanker around. We won't stop it by Paris. The task feels as impossible as the one the creators of the US Social Security program, 80 years old this year, must have faced back in the thirties. But if we can plant some positive ideas that give some uh, oxygen at the meeting, it'll be a start. Like the Kumeyaay of Campo, you give Mother Earth a break, let her rebalance, she will return the favor.