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Buy Any Means Necessary

Sociologist Argues That Merely Spending Green Dollars Isn't Going to Fix Our Environmental Problems

Jennifer Daniel

By Scott Carlson | Posted 4/9/2008

Survivor Tools have been popular recently: bottled water, Cipro, duct tape. I have even found myself in discussions--with anti-gun liberals, no less--of the pros and cons of owning a gun. You know, just in case. At least one gun manufacturer, O.F. Mossberg and Sons, has capitalized on the pervasive anxieties with the Mossberg JIC ("Just in Case"), a 12-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip that comes in a watertight canister, complete with miniature survival kit. The marketing tag line, running with pictures of a monster hurricane ripping apart a city, seeks sales through fear: "Does your emergency plan include defending your home and loved ones?"

American armament may be the latest, most violent stage of a trend that sociologist Andrew Szasz tracks in his overlooked book, Shopping Our Way to Safety, published by the University of Minnesota Press late in 2007. Although Szasz never discusses a rush to buy guns, he does examine other ways that individual Americans are trying to wall themselves off from threats--through, say, the purchase of bottled water and organic food, as people try to insulate themselves from environmental toxins. It's a phenomenon he refers to as "inverted quarantine" or "survivalism lite," and, Szasz argues, it could have devastating consequences.

Szasz traces inverted quarantine back to the Cold War era, to the building of bomb shelters and the creation of the suburbs. As the Cold War heated up, the U.S. government projected an illusion that a significant portion of the American citizenry could survive a nuclear war if they were tucked away in underground shelters when the bombs fell. Although the bomb-shelter era is well remembered and lampooned in popular culture, the building of shelters never caught on--in part because activists pointed out their folly. Citizens, lawmakers, and government officials began to realize that the war survivors would emerge into a poisoned, blackened world, and would probably die a short time later. The bomb shelters also could have had unintended results--making nuclear war appear winnable, and therefore lowering inhibitions to waging it.

The suburbanization of America was a much more pervasive trend, with far more damaging repercussions. Affluent and middle-class urbanites began fleeing for calmer spaces, better schools, and open land in the 1950s, and the retreat only accelerated in the decades that followed as unemployment and crime took a tighter grip on inner cities. As any Baltimorean knows, the every-man-for-himself flight to exurbia has rotted the great American cities, eaten up whole regions of farmland, and led to unnecessary pollution, not to mention dividing our culture.

This phenomenon has led to "downward spiraling positive feedback loops," Szasz writes. "If mass practice of inverted quarantine contributes to further worsening societal conditions, people will be motivated by those deteriorating conditions to try even harder to protect themselves. . . . Their retreat deeper into personal protective shells can only further erode society's will and ability to deal with the situation."

Now that the U.S., and the world, faces various environmental crises, Szasz sees Americans retreating en masse into their toxic-free bubbles. If meatpacking plants are turning out tainted beef, then spend more on free-range, organic, and gourmet meats. Ozone depletion? Slather on the SPF 50. Worried about metals and chemicals in the water supply? There's always vapor-distilled SmartWater.

This response is inadequate in at least a couple of ways, Szasz says. For one thing, this "personal filtering" doesn't really do much good. Because toxins are pervasive in the environment, our bodies are repositories for them, no matter how much organic food we eat.

But more importantly, perhaps, Szasz sees this "consumeristic response to threat" as a trend that runs counter to a democratic ideal: that people should get together to address the threats through activism and regulation. "A person who, say, drinks bottled water or uses natural deodorant or buys only clothing made of natural fiber is not trying to change anything," he writes in Shopping Our Way's introduction. "All they are doing is trying to barricade themselves, individually, from toxic threat, trying to shield themselves from it. Act jointly with others? Try to change things? Make history? No, no. I'll deal with it individually. I'll just shop my way out of trouble."

Szasz's contention that conscientious shopping doesn't change anything feels a little harsh. Many people who are moral shoppers are also environmental activists, and they see their purchases as another form of protest. The trend toward organic food, natural and nontoxic goods, and energy-efficient cars and appliances has pushed industry--even just a little--toward more responsible products and manufacturing processes. Car companies now tout their "environmentology," conventional grocers are offering organic food and reusable bags, and corporations that flouted ethics of sustainability in the past would not dare do so openly today. Even Wal-Mart has wrapped itself in a mantle of green, in part because more people are shopping green.

But much of this trend is also merely companies projecting a green image, and Szasz is right that Americans are not going to shop their way to a cleaner, healthier, more just, and more sustainable society. Whole industries have to be reorganized--and that's a much bigger task than merely offering organic and energy-efficient alternative products.

Szasz sees no end to this trend--in fact, he sees people retreating further into their bubbles. This also feels a bit pessimistic. In a few short years, people have been galvanized on the issue of climate change, and teach-ins, protests, and petitions surrounding the issue of carbon emissions have been generated by students on college campuses. The question is, to what extent are people willing to abandon the status quo of nonstop consumerism? Most people who support a cleaner environment still want all the products and conveniences they are used to getting today--the flat-screen TVs, the solo commutes, the industrial food, and so on. That appears to be an impossible contradiction.

If Americans are going to do something about the environmental crisis, Szasz says, they have to take on the notion that shopping is not the answer. "I do not know how exactly we can get there," he writes, "but I am quite sure that to start moving the right direction we must give up the fantasy that inverted quarantine can save any of us."

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