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Reply To: The Air We Breathe

Richard Sumpter

    Years ago while working for USEPA I did a paper on Necessities in the context of Sustainability.  It was based on the ancient belief that there were four elements: earth, air, fire and water.  I borrowed much of it from “The Sacred Balance” by David Suzuki.  Here is the portion on Air.

    While 99% of the air we breathe is highly active oxygen, and mildly reactive nitrogen, about 1% is made up of Argon, an inert gas.  Because it is inert, it is breathed in and out without becoming a part of our bodies or entering into metabolic transformations.  Each breath contains about 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of
    argon plus quintillions of molecules of carbon dioxide.  Suppose you exhale a single breath and follow those argon atoms.  Within minutes they have diffused through the air far beyond the spot where they were released, traveling into the neighborhood.  After a year, those argon atoms have been mixed up in the atmosphere and spread around the planet in such a way that each breath you take includes 15 atoms of argon released in that one breath a year earlier.  All people over the age of 20 have taken at least100 million breaths and have inhaled argon atoms that were emitted in the first breath of every child born in the world a year before!  Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed.  Argon atoms are here from the Last Supper and from the recitations of the classic poets.  The longer each of us lives, the greater the likelihood that we will absorb atoms that were once part of Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ or extinct dinosaurs.  Every breath is an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come.

    Relative Proportions of Gases in the Lower Atmosphere

    Nitrogen                                   78.08%
    Oxygen                                      20.95
    Argon                                           0.93
    Carbon dioxide                          0.035
    Neon                                            0.0018
    Helium                                        0.0052
    Methane                                      0.00014
    Krypton                                       0.00010
    Nitrous oxide                              0.00005

    Your article’s focus on breath caused me to see another metaphor.  As Campbell said, the hero is one who gives himself to something greater than himself.  This leads me to considerations about the implications of individualism and communalism. If I truly believe in the primacy of community over individuality, of other over self, then I must accept the reality that I and the other are one – that I and all others are one.  That is the notion of community.
    The binary thinking, which I’m trying to avoid, opposes individual to community.  It is, however, a false dichotomy.  A community is built of individuals – but individuals who have come to achieve their individuality through service to the community.  This is where and how the individual flourishes and is fulfilled (becomes heroic): by becoming one with the community.  So the individual and the community are not seen as a duality, but rather as parts of a whole.
    Integrating the concepts of individuality and community is like breathing.  The breath is a single thing, but it is comprised of a dual action: inhaling and exhaling.  One cannot only inhale or exhale.  We must do both to survive.  Inhaling is akin to serving self and exhaling to serving others.  Both are necessary for survival.  The one thing necessary is breathing, but it has two components.  “Self-ishness” is like inhaling and holding your breath.  You can only do that for so long.  If you persist, you die. To fulfill your individuality, your selfhood, you must exhale – give to others, to the community.  The whole breath is definitely greater than the sum of its two parts. Only by joining in community are “we all in this together.”