In Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves, author Andrew Szasz explores how and why many individuals concerned with the environment have moved from pushing for environmental regulations to shopping. Szasz explains how as a society we went from political activism to purchasing bottled water or how we moved from mass movements to shopping, and how we became concerned insulating ourselves from environmental problems rather than addressing them head-on.
To establish a framework for his discussion Szasz describes a concept that he calls “the inverted quarantine.” He uses this term to describe the response of individuals who seek to insulate themselves from conditions that they perceive to be threatening, in this case an environment that is toxic. Szasz applies his “inverted quarantine” analysis to current environmental problems arguing that as a society, individuals have sought to insulate themselves from environmental problems rather than confront them directly. He argues that this is a phenomenon that has occurred before in U.S. history, using the examples of the Fall Out Shelter Panic of 1961 and the suburbanization of the U.S. While interesting, he spends a little too much time on these historical examples, with a little less than half of the book focusing on those examples.
From his definition of the “inverted quarantine” as a concept, Szasz moves into an examination of various perceived “solutions.” He focuses on three areas through which toxins enter the body–drinking, eating, and breathing. In each of these areas, he looks at common “solutions,” including bottled water, water filters, organic foods, and “natural” health products and examines their potential to address toxic threats. Szasz analyzes all of these responses, arguing that while in some cases–particularly with organic foods–there seems to be a health benefit, they all fail to address systemic issues. He says that it is nearly impossible to completely insulate oneself from all of the toxins in the environment. Even if one drinks bottled water, eats all organic food, and uses natural products, standards are often weak and there is no guarantee that “contaminated” ingredients were not used somewhere in the process. Particularly with outdoor air, there is no way to completely insulate oneself, thereby rendering the “inverted quarantine” response ineffective.
In addition to offering what he calls an “imaginary refuge,” the belief that one can insulate themselves from environmental problems has a more sinister effect–it undercuts support for efforts aimed at addressing environmental problems. The idea that bottled water is safe undercuts public support for improving the countries aging water systems, while the domination of the organic foods market by people who eat that way for health–not political reasons–will limit its ability to take on the industrial agricultural system. The presence of “inverted quarantine” products also limits the potential for people to seek political solutions to environmental problems, because if they believe they can buy products to protect themselves, they will likely do that over organizing and consequently never develop the political consciousness that directs them to the source of the problem. Szasz also points out that in most cases, “inverted quarantine” solutions have a class dimension, as the products can generally only be purchased by those who can afford them.
Shopping Our Way to Safety offers an interesting critique of contemporary environmentalism and the shift towards consumption instead of movement building. People who wonder how we went from mass demonstrations on Earth Day to buying light bulbs will find the book interesting, as will anyone concerned about the state of the Earth.
Andrew Szasz, Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves, (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).