Ben Elton’s Gasping is a satirical and poignant play looking at the world of business and free-market economics. It is brilliantly crafted and constructed, analysing what happens when the provision of an environmental service is taken to its extreme.
A fictional company, ‘Lockheart Corporation’ has invented a product which sucks the oxygen out of buildings, ‘Suck and Blow’, and provides privatised air to the inhabitants of these buildings. The benefits of such for private consumers of air are not made explicit, aside from the marketing of “deserving your own air”.
Inevitably, problems occur. The atmosphere is sucked of its oxygen, and sudden winds result in the suffocation of people as the thin oxygen is removed from the area. In the end, local authorities have to provide oxygen for the local environment, which is conveniently provided by Lockheart.
Africa is pillaged for its natural resource, oxygen, and that is where the greatest hardships occur, as locals begin to run out of their own oxygen. This is contrasted with the African famines that regularly occur, whilst the excess of the west and the wastage of food goes on. It provides a striking comparison with today’s world, in particular the protection of natural and environmental services, and how the burden for this falls on the most disadvantaged in the world, whilst at the same time facing the most pressing, immediate concerns that place the most amount of pressure on the natural environment.
Gasping is just as relevant today as when it was written nearly 25 years ago. With the ongoing policy debate surrounding climate change and global warming, Gasping gives an example of what might happen into the future, if the ownership of carbon sequestration, carbon sinks and other public goods become privatised and monetised.
Unfortunately, property rights over environmental services are a double edged sword. On the one hand, the “the tragedy of the commons” is a problem which results in the pollution and over-fishing of our oceans, for example. On the other, exclusive and unfettered use and rights to the environment can lead to over-exploitation and other serious negative environmental impacts, penalising the societies that rely on them.
More specifically it has relevance to the controversy generated by the former CEO and current Chairman of Nestle Peter Brabeck-Letmathe when he said that “access to water is not a public right” or a human right. It’s a classic case of life imitating art. The problem being, that at some level there is a distinct logic to it. It’s not a basic human right to water the garden with fresh drinking water, but taken to its extreme, it becomes absurd. And policy that interacts with free-markets, finance, the environment and the business world invariably ends up being somewhere in the middle.
I am thrilled that Gasping is being updated and performed later this year. I think it is extremely timely, especially for Australia with current political debates. One theme that I hope is reinvestigated is the reduction in demand of oxygen (in the original Gasping), and the business decisions that result from this. I would like to see the producers of carbon credits and offsets satirised and analysed in a similar way.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In its new iteration Gasp will be taking a crack at mining and excess in the contemporary Australian life. Never the less, I am looking forward to seeing Gasp when it is performed by the Black Swan State Theatre Company later this year. In the meantime, if you are interested in a light hearted humorous read, poking fun at business, I highly recommend Gasping.