We Can't Shop Our Way to Safety

Concerned with toxic chemicals, more people are buying products with labels like "organic," "green," and "natural." But a consumerist response to environmental threats is not only inadequate, it is dangerous.
Organic food has boomed in the last decade, moving from a tiny niche market to a $17 billion dollar industry. Those who can afford it are buying nontoxic and organic rugs, mattresses, and clothing. Almost half of all households in the US have purchased a water filter of one kind or another. Across the country, people are growing more concerned with the possibility that their food and water could actually make them sick -- and are responding by buying more products with labels like "organic," "green," and "natural."

Is something wrong with this picture?

In Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves, Andrew Szasz argues that a consumerist response to environmental threats is not only inadequate, but also dangerous in the way it enables individuals to isolate themselves in what he calls an "inverted quarantine," focused more on protecting oneself in the short term than actually doing anything towards systemic change. Instead of viewing discrete sources of pollution as things to be contained and dealt with, Szasz says, we now view the environment itself -- the air we breathe, the water we drink -- as potentially hazardous, and are containing ourselves instead.

Szasz details some of the actual threats to us from pollution and environmental destruction, and makes a convincing case that we should, in fact, be worried about the water coming out of our tap and the pesticides used on conventional produce. But quarantine, he argues just as convincingly, simply doesn't work: standards for toxins in food, air, and water are too low, or aren't followed correctly; there are too many substances (and combinations of substances) that don't have any regulation at all. And even if you managed to eat only organic food and drink only filtered water (and if both of those things meant you were really not ingesting any toxins), you'd still have to deal with breathing air polluted by factories -- or get an oxygen tank.

But that's not really the point: whether or not these products work, people seem to believe that they do, and are shopping accordingly. And that's where the real danger comes in. Regarding consumer goods as an acceptable solution to environmental problems effectively takes the weight off of those responsible for creating those problems; factories can go on polluting the skies and waterways as long as we have (or think we have) adequate filters and water purification systems. We buy organic instead of doing anything to stop the dumping of pesticides on crops, buy a Brita filter instead of taking action against the factories dumping toxic waste into the streams and the power plants contaminating our groundwater.

Szasz makes an interesting and lengthy comparison of this sort of consumer-based environmentalism to a different (and more literal) type of inverted quarantine: the nuclear panic that led to the widespread construction of fallout shelters in 1961. After a frenzy that lasted a few months, people began to realize that bomb shelters wouldn't really do anything to protect them from a nuclear explosion. Even if their shelters actually held together during the blast, the chances of surviving the fallout (or the weeks of isolation in a tiny, airtight bunker) were slim. And even survivors would emerge from the shelter into a poisoned, devastated world.

On top of the fact that the shelters were useless, some argued that shelters would actually increase the potential for nuclear war. The false sense of security afforded by the shelters, they suggested, would make the consequences of nuclear war seem more acceptable, and thus the public would be more forgiving of a hawkish political stance. And that's the essence of Szasz's argument as extrapolated to the current environmental crisis. What we're doing is not only useless and "a cruel illusion," as he puts it, but it invites even greater environmental destruction to go on unimpeded, because people believe that they are individually secure. It's that false sense of security that leads people to accept greater risks, whether in the case of nuclear war or the depletion of the ozone layer.

But the all-important point in this argument -- one severely understated by Szasz -- is the fact that this false sense of security is not something unintentionally or accidentally created. In the case of nuclear war, Szasz points out that the U.S. government had a large hand in fostering the nation's faith in bomb shelters; their nuclear posturing could only be effective if the U.S. population was prepared and willing to endure a counter-strike. Szasz writes, "If American citizens were willing to 'take it,' the nation's leaders could stand tall on the world's stage, free to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. They could 'negotiate from strength,' which meant, really, that they would not have to negotiate much at all; instead, they could insist that other nations bow to America's wishes."

When it comes to modern inverted quarantine, though, Szasz's examination of how the phenomenon has been created falls a little short. He acknowledges that corporations use inverted quarantine as part of their marketing plans, and notes that a large portion of the "inverted quarantine products" available for purchase are controlled by big corporations that have bought up and consolidated the market, but goes no further than that. Rather than identifying modern inverted quarantine as the result of business and government PR, he discusses it as if it were an organically-evolved concept.

Of course, it's a tricky question of cause-and-effect -- is industry allowed to run rampant in its destruction of our environment because the public doesn't care enough, or do we not care enough because politicians and corporations have convinced us environmental protection isn't a priority?

Either way, one thing is clear: manipulated or not, the general population has largely succumbed to the idea that we can't or don't need to change the way we live, and that more and better products will become available for us to keep ourselves safe from an increasingly toxic world. That illusion, Szasz says, must be destroyed, and replaced by a real effort to protect our environment.

Szasz describes that effort, the opposite of the "inverted quarantine" approach, as the "social movement" approach, whose adherents "define problems as collective, and ... say that only systemic change can fix them." Unfortunately, Szasz's ideas about how we might individually respond to those collective problems are pretty limited. He describes a "political actor" as someone who, for example, "pays dues to an organization that lobbies to strengthen the Clean Air Act or votes for candidates who support clean air initiatives." He suggests that one can "e-mail congressmen and senators before key votes ... try to get the political system to acknowledge it and deal with it."

Szasz argues, quite rightly, that relying on consumer goods to protect us makes us blind to how we really are in danger of an environmental collapse. But just relying on politicians to take care of things can be similarly blinding -- even if a senator helps to pass more legislation to regulate a particular toxic chemical or increase emissions standards, factories will keep spewing out toxic sludge (with a now-regulated amount of chemical X) and contributing to global warming (at perhaps a slightly slower rate). Small "victories" like that give us an illusion of greater safety, and that can be just as dangerous as believing your bottle of Evian is pure and pristine. It might help protect us in the short run, just as eating organic might keep some pesticides out of our bodies, but in the long run, institutionalized pollution and environmental destruction is allowed to continue, producing decidedly greater and greater threats to our individual and collective health.

The efficacy of his suggested activism aside, Szasz's argument for identifying and ridding ourselves of the illusory safety provided by inverted quarantine is unquestionably sound and needed. Even on a purely individual level, understanding that your shopping choices alone are not going to make you safer or healthier is certainly a crucial and positive step to take. But it also doesn't mean we shouldn't take our consumer choices to heart. Buy your organic apples and nontoxic dish soap, but do so with the knowledge that it's not enough -- and act accordingly.

Erin Wiegand is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. Currently a project editor at North Atlantic Books, she is also the former managing editor of LiP Magazine. Her writing has appeared in LiP and In These Times, and in two books: Tipping the Sacred Cow (AK Press) and In the Beginning (HarperCollins).
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