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Green consumerism counterproductive

  • 15 February 2008
Szasz, Andrew. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves. University of Minnesota Press, US, 2007. RRP $49.95

Don't let the affable photo of Andrew Szasz on the inside dust jacket of Shopping Our Way to Safety fool you. Szasz is one straight shooter — a smiling assassin. And he has America's ignorance in his aim.

At the foundation of the professor's argument lies the rapid rise of the 'shopping green' movement in the US and its impact on the environment. So far, so good, but hardly startling. Surely the negative flipside of the western world's proclivity for bottled water and the soy bean is now common knowledge? The carbon footprints alone should be enough to put us off our soy skinny latte.

But Szasz moves beyond this, arguing that by buying bottled water, organic food or sunscreen (his examples) consumers are buying into what he coins 'inverted quarantine' — 'shutting the healthy individual in and the threatening world out'.

It hits a nerve, doesn't it? After all, who among us hasn't turned to one or all of the above, thinking we were doing our bit not only for our own health but for the health of the 'global village'? Perhaps this is why Szasz resists pointing the finger, instead acknowledging that our 'inverted quarantine reflex' has been shaped by the increasingly compromised world we live in.

Adopting its tenets, however, has disastrous consequences. Essentially, by doing so we allow ourselves to be carried away by an illusion. 'When consumers believe they are buying a defence from environmental hazards they're much less inclined to actually do something about them.' The result isn't simply ineffective; it's counter-productive and, ultimately, counter-revolutionary.

A classic historical example includes the great US fall-out shelter panic of 1951. But the gloom and doom is balanced (almost) with a few shining examples of large-scale positive change. The recent phasing out of the production and use of ozone-depleting CFCs is a case in point. A classic inverted quarantine response would have been to encourage the mass use of sunscreen without further societal action.

Intriguingly, while the CFC about-face holds particular significance for us here in Australia, Szasz doesn't seem all that interested in engaging an audience beyond America's borders. His research is impeccable, exhaustive and by no means footnote lite, and yet the writing itself is doggedly US-centric; an oddly blinkered