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Shopping Our Way to Safety

How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves

2009
Author:

Andrew Szasz

Shopping Our Way to Safety

What could be wrong with bottled water and sunscreen?

Many Americans today rightly fear that they are exposed to toxins in their environment. Yet we have responded not by pushing for governmental regulation, but instead by shopping. Andrew Szasz examines this phenomenon and argues that when consumers believe that they are buying a defense from hazards, they feel less urgency to fix them. To achieve real protection, he concludes, we must give up individual solutions and together seek reform.

Andrew Szasz’s keen sociological imagination enables him to show how health-conscious individuals’ efforts to protect themselves from toxics via personal, lifestyle choices undermine their sense of the necessity for political action on behalf of environmental protection.

Riley Dunlap, co-editor of Handbook of Environmental Sociology

Many Americans today rightly fear that they are constantly exposed to dangerous toxins in their immediate environment: tap water is contaminated with chemicals; foods contain pesticide residues, hormones, and antibiotics; even the air we breathe, outside and indoors, carries invisible poisons. Yet we have responded not by pushing for governmental regulation, but instead by shopping. What accounts for this swift and dramatic response? And what are its unintended consequences?

Andrew Szasz examines this phenomenon in Shopping Our Way to Safety. Within a couple of decades, he reveals, bottled water and water filters, organic food, “green” household cleaners and personal hygiene products, and “natural” bedding and clothing have gone from being marginal, niche commodities to becoming mass consumer items. Szasz sees these fatalistic, individual responses to collective environmental threats as an inverted form of quarantine, aiming to shut the healthy individual in and the threatening world out.

Sharply critiquing these products’ effectiveness as well as the unforeseen political consequences of relying on them to keep us safe from harm, Szasz argues that when consumers believe that they are indeed buying a defense from environmental hazards, they feel less urgency to actually do something to fix them. To achieve real protection, real security, he concludes, we must give up the illusion of individual solutions and together seek substantive reform.

Shopping Our Way to Safety

Andrew Szasz is professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of the award-winning EcoPopulism (Minnesota, 1994).

Shopping Our Way to Safety

Andrew Szasz’s keen sociological imagination enables him to show how health-conscious individuals’ efforts to protect themselves from toxics via personal, lifestyle choices undermine their sense of the necessity for political action on behalf of environmental protection.

Riley Dunlap, co-editor of Handbook of Environmental Sociology

Shopping Our Way to Safety is an important reconceptualization of individual responses to social and environmental threats. It exposes the political implications of confusing personal troubles and social issues.

Allan Schnaiberg, author of The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity

It’s cynical on the part of the manufacturers and the people who want to sell this stuff. In a world where people want to continue to aspire to middle-class consumption patterns, but they are also wanting to feel like they are responsible citizens who care about social and environment issues, how do they reconcile that? They go shopping for something that declares itself to be ecologically friendly.

Andrew Szasz, Los Angeles Times

Szasz’s message is timely and incisive.

New Scientist

Szasz brings up an intriguing puzzle based on the two types of organic customers. No doubt his book will find its way into many college classrooms.

Portland Tribune

Environmentalism strives to fire citizens up, get them to act collectively, politically; to organize and force real change. Environmental awareness does push many people toward activism, for sure, but we now see that environmental awareness can also lead to this other response, in which people act not as political subjects, not as citizens, but as consumers who seem interested only in individual acts of self-protection, in trying to keep contaminants out of their bodies.

Andrew Szasz, The Chronicle of Higher Education

We need stronger regulation of production. We need to encourage technological innovations that provide us with adequate amounts of material goods while dumping lower levels of hazardous materials in our environment. For that, we will need a new kind of environmental activism. That will happen, in turn, only if Americans reject the mirage of inverted quarantine, reject the seductive but false idea that there are individual solutions to our collective problems.

Andrew Szasz, The Chronicle of Higher Education

The consumer of these goods does not get the protection she or he hopes to get. That’s a problem for the individual. The problem for society is that false belief produces political anesthesia. It’s a classic case of unintended consequences. When enough people flee to inverted quarantine, society’s ability or willingness to face the problem diminishes. Meanwhile, the threat persists. The threat may well intensify, so that collective conditions continue to deteriorate. As it does, everyone, certainly too the consumer who placed her or his faith in those inverted-quarantine goods, is at ever-greater risk.

Andrew Szasz, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Szasz is right—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.

Baltimore City Paper

For an engaging look at the environmental beliefs and actions of the general public, look no further than Szasz’s new book. Szasz has given readers an intriguing framework for understanding current environmental issues.

Choice

Shopping Our Way to Safety is an important contribution. Szasz makes a powerful and politically astute argument about the wrong-headedness of individualized solutions to collective environmental problems, and takes the reader through the promises and pitfalls of consuming our way out of environmental crises. This well-written and accessible book nicely summarizes the key problems with individualized consumer approaches to environmental regulation. While scholarly, the book is a fine piece of public sociology that can be enjoyed by an interested lay public and undergraduate audience.

Canadian Journal of Sociology

Andrew Szasz’s dry wit and engaging prose makes Shopping Our Way to Safety a pleasure to read.

The Berkeley Daily Planet

Szasz’s dark vision of the futile, self-defeating paradox at the heart of green consumption is compelling.

Left History

This is a book about social consequences, not how to dodge the latest designer pesticide, and his logic. . . is hard to fault. Shopping Our Way to Safety will make the reader uncomfortable (although Szasz’s dry wit and engaging prose make the book a pleasure to read) precisely because he doesn’t give easy answers.

Registered Nurse

The best part of Shopping Our Way to Safety is that it is readable, approachable, and not overly burdened by jargon or esoteric academic debates (these are kept to extensive endnotes). This makes it an excellent teaching text, as well as a joy to read. . . . Szasz tells us that he’s been thinking on and off about these things for more than 20 years. The gestation period for the book may have been long, but it is well worth the wait.

Organization & Environment