Package Deal

deflated snowman decoration on green lawn
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Looking for a last-minute Boxing Day gift? How about something they literally can’t live without?

How about a can of “Fresh Clean Air” from VitalityAir.com? The business started that started as a gag, and now promises easy breathing to people around the world. Co-founder Moses Lam and his friend Troy auctioned off a bag of local Alberta, Canada air on ebay for 99 cents. The second bag went for $160US, and they realized that they might have a saleable product. Now, on can buy 3  liters sourced from Banff National Park or Lake Louise in Alberta for $28.99CA.  A single can, “Fits comfortably within your purse, satchel, gym bag or backpack and lasts up to 80, one-second inhalations.” For those who might think Vitality Air is (still) kidding, the site asks visitors, “Remember the day when people laughed off bottled water?”

Have in mind something heftier? Try ShipSnowYo. In February 2015, founder Kyle Waring found himself shoveling out of a record-breaking heap of snowfall in the Boston, MA area. For $89.99 and a laugh, he offered to overnight styrofoam coolers packed with white stuff anywhere in the country —except the Northeast. He found a market with companies in warm states, and has sold 1016 pounds of flakes to-date. (Boston is having a warm December this year, but ShipSnowYo is offering coolers and snowman kits sourced from Colorado and Vermont.)

Vitality Air calls its product an “affordable luxury experience,” and a cooler of snow is a silly splurge for most customers. But like many good jokes, these quirky gimmicks also resonate with some darker, more dangerous truths.

Many of Vitality Air’s shipments, for example, are going to people in areas like northern China, where the item itself is a novelty, but where clean air is a daily concern. The Chinese government issued red alerts for high air pollution levels this month.

Boston’s surplus of snow in 2015 put the city in such crisis that sending it out by the box didn’t seems like such a bad idea. By Feb 15 it was already the snowiest month on record with 45.5  inches, and by mid-March it beat the record for snowiest winter with 108.6 inches total. The last snow in a “snow farm” —an emergency area where the city moved snow from its streets—didn’t melt until mid-July At the same time, California was issuing strengthened warnings to rights holders who diverted water in the midst of the state’s drought.

Health risks and extreme weather are among the many concerns that brought together 195 States Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Paris Conference a few weeks ago. (For a review of the history of these negotiations) . or the basics of how human activity causes climate disruption see the COP-21 web page.) The goal of the meeting was to reach an agreement that applied to all and that would keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Among the many hurdles of reaching such an agreement was finding a solution that seemed fair for all nations, given the uneven distribution of resources, contribution to pollution to-date, and vulnerability to pollution or weather effects (drought, flood, etc). The primary dividing line is among what had been dubbed “Annex-1” (typically referred to as “developed”) countries and “non-Annex-1” (typically referred to as “developing”) countries. Reaching an agreement required terms of “common but differentiated responsibility,” basically stating that the commitment to control pollution applied to all but that developed countries will need to meet a higher standard for that commitment. (For a good discussion of the nuances with references to original text, see The Atlantic’s “A Reader’s Guide to the Paris Agreement” )
3 liters of clean air for $20, 12 pounds of precipitation, overnight delivery. The appeal of these novelties may, on some level, reflect an unrealistic desire for a simple solution to the complex problems of air quality and extreme weather that we are facing. One could say the same about the Paris Conference. Many observers agree that the agreement’s value may be in the symbolic value of articulating a common, sustained commitment to minimize the effects of climate change. That may be enough. Surely the sellers and buyers of cans of air and boxes of snow, and whatever trinkets and gadgets were exchanged this month, understand a more complicated truth, too. The value of what is given and taken is in the mutual acknowledgment behind the gesture. We can’t solve everything by boxing it up and putting a bow on it, but we can honor our undeniable human ties.