The privatization of natural resources essential to sustaining life sounds ethically wrong, sure, but that hasn’t stopped people from buying a corporate ownership of water, especially in the United States. There is truth to be found in conspiracies, especially when governments and corporations are near indistinguishable.
The 1990 film Total Recall begins with Vilos Cohaagen, the governor of the entire Mars settlement, addressing the importance of terbinum ore. Cohaagen is a corporate dictator turned government official, so any hope that he was capable of putting the needs of human life over the bottom line is gone. He and his men discover an alien reactor made up of the highly sought after terbinum ore — but Cohaagen desires to maintain the monopoly of the selling of air to the citizens of Mars and so he goes to great lengths to ensure the reactor is never turned on. By the end of the movie the purpose of the reactor is made clear. It's meant to generate breathable air for the planet by melting a massive glacier of ice below, thereby releasing enough oxygen to neutralize Mars' toxic atmosphere. Cohaagen actually plans to blow up the reactor to prevent any such air purification happening. It's almost unfathomable to imagine this level of greed.
With the way things are currently going, it may not be a future that’s far away. It’s easy to imagine what the privatization of air would look like when it’s not a natural resource. Total Recall explores what could happen when private corporations have control of a resource that isn’t yet accessible to all. If there was a way to privatize breathable air on Earth, there is a good chance it would happen just like water.
Commodifying water through privatization makes it a good that can be bought and sold instead of a basic human right. It effectively puts the safety of the public in the hands of corporations. Private water companies have little incentive to make sure they’re carrying out improvements or maintenance of public water systems that will last well beyond their contracts. Their goal is increased profits — mix that with a little government corruption, and bad things are bound to happen, most notably, Flint, Michigan, which is still without improved infrastructure and drinkable water.
Sadly, Vilos Cohaagen isn’t that farfetched of a fictional character, and neither is one of the cities of the Mars’ settlement, Venusville. The powers that be on Mars had been doing wrong by some of its Venusville citizens long before the reactor discovery. The first settlers to help colonize Mars were exposed to the toxic Mars atmosphere thanks to poorly constructed domes. This exposure lead to genetic mutations that passed on to their offspring — offspring who now make up the population of Venusville. To add injury to insult, those early settlers weren’t even given proper burials when they died; instead, they were buried in caves under the settlements. Cohaagen considers citizens of Venusville disposable because they’re mutants, but they also happen to make up most of the resistance working to expose him and his true intentions. So, not only does the corporation responsible for what happened to those early settlers get to avoid any kind of accountability, they have a government official in place who is willing to get rid of the problem altogether. Thus, putting a price of air: human life.
Total Recall is an extreme example of what happens when public safety is left up to those who find more value in currency than actual life. Venusville, Mars, isn’t too different from a Flint, Michigan, in those regards. In 2011, the city of Flint was in a $25 million deficit that fell under state control. The former Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, appointed an emergency manager to oversee and cut city costs. As you might have already guessed, city costs were indeed reduced. They were done so by ending the city’s five-decade practice of piping treated water for its residents from Detriot in favor of a cheaper alternative. Corrosive water was pumped from the Flint River, and city officials failed to address it, and therefore lead leaked out from aging pipes.
When Arnold Scharchnegger’s character Quaid is close to helping the resistance blow the government conspiracy wide open, Cohaagen retaliates by turning off the ventilation system in the Venusville sector of the Mars’ settlement. He is next-level committed to doing whatever he can to make sure that an essential resource remains under his control instead of making the entire planet of Mars inhabitable. In the end, Cohaagen’s greed is what causes his demise, a horrific death — but one he had coming. He suffocates to death in the same toxic atmosphere he refused to make safe when it was entirely in his power to do so. Cohaagen believed the price of air was worth human life and paid for it with his own.
Trying to profit by selling essential life-sustaining resources is eventually not worth it for anyone, not even those in control of them. It’s taken the COVID-19 pandemic to get some people to finally realize that healthcare, housing, livable wages, and a government that actually takes care of its citizens shouldn’t be luxuries only afforded to some — they’re essential life-sustaining resources as well that all humans should have a natural-born right to. Unfortunately, we have quite a few Cohaagens in positions of power, but we also have many who are resisting and demanding better.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.