Bookstore shelves groan with volumes on how the world is out to get us. Authors tell us that what we eat, drink and breathe are just a slow way to commit suicide. The media is full of crime stories, drug busts and murders. It’s a wonder people get out of bed in the morning.
But since hiding in the house is not an option, people search for solutions to protect themselves. Chemicals in the water? Drink bottled water or buy a filter. Pesticides in the food? Go organic. Crime worries? Move to a gated community.
Those “solutions” are what sociologist Andrew Szasz, in his new book Shopping Our Way to Safety, calls “inverted quarantines,” and they are likely to produce exactly the opposite of what people intend. “Act jointly with others?” asks the author. “Try to change things? Make history? No, no. I’ll deal with it individually. I’ll just shop my way out of trouble.”
Inverted quarantines—erecting barriers to wall off threat—are hardly new. “Separating and distancing oneself from threatening social conditions” is as old as walled villages, writes Szasz, but what is different about today is that “inverted quarantine has become a mass phenomenon. Millions—many millions—do it.”
Szasz, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, begins his study with an examination of the fallout shelter hysteria of the 1950s and early ’60s, which eventually collapsed in the face of the obvious fact that no one would survive a nuclear war. Szasz points out—with a certain amount of wry delight—that one of the major boosters of fallout shelters, Nobel laureate and former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission Willard Libby, lost his shelter to a brushfire in Bel-Air. “This suggests,” writes Szasz, “that it may not have been sturdy enough to withstand a multimegaton detonation over Los Angeles.”
But that didn’t stop Americans from trying to shop their way to safety.
In 1975, the average American consumed a gallon of bottled water a year. By 2005 that figure had grown to 26 gallons. In 1970 there were approximately 2,000 gated communities in the United States. By 1997 that figure had grown to 20,000.
Take, for instance, suburbanization—a subject the book examines in detail. What’s the problem with a little peace, quiet and crabgrass? According to Szasz, plenty.
“The suburbs’ gains were the cities’ losses,” argues Szasz. Federal money went toward highway construction instead of mass transit. Industry moved out of the cities because transport costs were reduced, thus depressing urban tax bases. That in turn created underfunded schools, deteriorating infrastructure, and the problems of urban America: poverty, crime and drugs.
It is fairly easy to make an argument that bottled water is a bad idea, even that the suburbs create more problems than they solve. But is organic food really a bad idea?
Szasz argues it is. It is not that the author is Pollyannaish about the variety of awful things people ingest in their food, or that eating organic food doesn’t lower the chemical and toxic load we all carry.
But this is a book about social consequences, not how to dodge the latest designer pesticide, and his logic about the downside of organic food is hard to fault. Szasz argues that the combination of growing wealth inequality, with the expense of organic food, means there is “a class dimension” to eating right.
Those shut out of the organic food market because of cost represent the bulk of the population, and it is a sector that likely will increase. This will result in “two agricultural systems side by side: a large conventional sector that grows affordable, if slightly contaminated, food stuffs for the majority, and a smaller one producing organic alternatives for a minority, largely made up of affluent health seekers.”
This two-tier system for what we eat, drink and breathe creates a kind of “anesthesia” that, according to Szasz “impedes the development of public sentiment that would support a broader reconsideration of the toxic mode of production in general.”
Inverted quarantines are also a lot of work. “When inverted quarantines become one of the central organizing principles of a person’s life, freedom of movement incrementally decreases. The person voluntarily imprisons herself or himself, restricting movement in social space…living in an ever shrinking life-world.”
Shopping Our Way to Safety will make the reader uncomfortable (although Szasz’s dry wit and engaging prose makes the book a pleasure to read) precisely because he doesn’t give easy answers. But the book is hardly apocalyptic. The author gives a number of historical success stories wherein people repudiated the inverted quarantine and sought solutions within a wider social framework. The resistance by peace activists and nuclear scientists to the fallout shelter mania was an important part of why people eventually rejected it.
“It is heartening to remember that the shelter critics won their struggle to convince Americans that building fallout shelters was folly and suicidal. Rationality prevailed over the illusory siren song of individual self-protection. That fight needs to be fought—and won—again, this time concerning environmental threats, not nuclear ones.”
Rejecting the inverted quarantine, he says, is like refusing to make a wrong turn. In and of itself, that choice does “not guarantee anything,” but it creates “the possibility that better choices could yet be made. But that is a lot.”
Conn Hallinan is a former provost in journalism at UC Santa Cruz.
SHOPPING OUR WAY TO SAFETY: HOW WE CHANGED FROM
PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT TO PROTECTING OURSELVES
By Andrew Szasz, professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz.
University of Minnesota Press. $24.95.