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Green consumerism counterproductive

Shopping Our Way to SafetySzasz, 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 viewpoint from which to tackle such a globally relevant topic.

Thankfully, Australia's own navel gazing seems to have gone the way of our previous government, with the announcement of a 1000-person summit in April this year to help establish 'a long-term strategy for the nation's future', including 'climate change — the single most pressing challenge to Australia over the coming decade'.

According to the workings of Szasz's paradigm this is the first step in a long walk to a brighter future. 'To achieve real protection and security we must give up the illusion of individual responses and together seek substantive reform,' he writes. In other words, for hope to be put into action complacency must make way for the caveat: 'good things happen when people refuse inverted quarantine'.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and deputy editor of the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry (currently on maternity leave).



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Existing comments

Thank you for your spectacular, incisive and extremely timely review. You've perfectly identified the pitfalls of the reflexive logic of contemporary morality - that deeds done are performed so as to have an immediate subjective pay-off. A wonderful piece ... and, you're right, Szasz's is a very important book.

Scott Stephens | 15 February 2008  

The increasingly unacceptable rules of conduct being imposed on Australians by 'thinkers' like Mr Szasz, Senator Nettle etc., can be characterised as 'political correctnesss' posing as Ethics. Western society's 'illusion' is not represented in its claimed obsession with making 'individual responses', but its lack of understanding of that which constitutes the essence of Jewish, Islamic and Christian morality. Any self-appointed guru can offer us his/her moral compass no matter how absurd, for approval, and if it is given the seal of approval by the 'politically correct' and self-congratulatory cohort, we're all expected to embrace it or be cast into the 'outer darkness' of the 'politically incorrect'.

Claude Rigney | 15 February 2008  

A subject that needs addressing, but I fail to see how buying bottled water could possibly be thought of as "green", and I can't see how getting skin cancer helps the environment. Szasz seems to be trying to be sensational rather than practical.

Lenore Crocker | 15 February 2008  

Lenore - I agree! The issues of bottled water et al seem to be directed towards those cashing in on the so-called 'green movement'. So long as there is a buck in it! When is the debate going to focus on real issues such as commitment by individuals to, for example, installing green power (read solar, hydro, wind) in their homes. These actions would belie the assertion of the 'illusion of individual responses'. Substantive reform by collective action seems to me to have abjectly failed so far. From personal experience I regard these as the really key issues for all of us individually.

Brian Larsson | 18 February 2008  

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