From the issue dated January 25, 2008
The Dangerous Delusions of 'Inverted Quarantine'
How people's impulse to protect themselves from poisons can actually hurt the environment
By ANDREW SZASZ
IN 1982, JUST 25 YEARS ago, Americans were consuming about 3.4 gallons of bottled water per person per year, 783 million gallons over all. By 2005, the latest year for which we have good figures, consumption had grown to 26 gallons per person per year. That's over seven and a half billion gallons of bottled water. Assuming that a person drinks half a gallon of fluids a day, 182.5 gallons per year, bottled water accounted for less than 2 percent of fluid intake in 1982, and more than 14 percent in 2005. Bottled water used to be a nonfactor in beverage consumption, invisible next to soft drinks, coffee and tea, beer, milk, and juice. Today, after enjoying years of "enviable, unending growth," bottled water has become the "superstar [of] the beverage industry," as a trade publication put it.
Last year, quite suddenly, bottled water became a hot political issue. New York City launched a campaign to persuade its citizens to cut back on bottled-water use and return, instead, to drinking the city's tap water, which, officials claim, is some of the finest water in the world. Across the continent, San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, issued an order banning city employees from using city funds to buy bottled water. Other cities considered similar measures. A Chicago alderman proposed a 10-cent to 25-cent tax on each bottle sold in the city; Mayor Richard M. Daley voiced support for the idea. Alice Waters, trendsetting cook and pioneer of California cuisine, announced that she would stop selling bottled water to her customers at her famed Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse.
Bottled water has a huge environmental footprint, the critics now say. It takes immense amounts of raw material and energy to make all those plastic bottles. At the other, postconsumer end of the product life cycle, hundreds of millions of empty plastic bottles end up in landfills, in an era when it is increasingly difficult to find new waste-disposal sites.
And for what? There is no real benefit, the naysayers argue. Bottled water is less stringently regulated than tap water. Tests over the past several decades have shown that bottled water is about as good as tap water; some samples test worse, with contaminants that exceed Safe Drinking Water Act standards. Better taste? When blindfolded, taste testers can't typically tell which sample is from a bottle and which is from the tap.
Customers pay maybe a thousand times as much as they would pay for the same amount of water from the tap. They get little or no benefit for the extra expense, while society as a whole incurs the environmental costs. No wonder we are seeing something of a backlash.
Having studied the bottled-water phenomenon in some detail, I can say that these criticisms are all correct. But the popularity of bottled water is not an isolated or unique event; it is only one instance of a more-general phenomenon. In many households, for instance, water is filtered before people drink it or cook with it. Those who can afford it are increasingly choosing to buy organic foods. Not that long ago, "natural" food was a marginal, niche consumer item, found only in small, specialized stores. Today, after a decade or so of 20-percent annual growth in the organic-food market, one can find organic alternatives for every kind of conventionally raised food item. Not just fruits and vegetables, but meat and dairy, organic snacks, organic wine and beer. Organic foods are sold nationwide, in trendy, upscale chains such as Whole Foods. Mainstream markets, such as Safeway, and "big box" discount chains, such as Wal-Mart, offer organic foods. American consumers are buying "organic" or "natural" shampoos, soaps, and cosmetics; "nontoxic" household-cleaning products; clothing made of natural fibers; furniture, bedding, drapes, and rugs made only of natural materials.
What does all this "green" consuming mean?
Evidently people believe that if they aren't vigilant, if they go ahead and drink tap water, eat conventionally grown foods, use ordinary household products, they might be drinking, eating, or breathing poisons. If they have the money to do so, they are more than ready to shop their way out of harm's way.
I think what we are witnessing here is a distinct form of, or expression of, environmentalism. Bottled water, water filters, the wish to eat organic, to use "nontoxic" cleaning products in the home — all that is evidence that the environmental movement has been partially successful. Environmentalism raised people's awareness of toxic hazards. But it turns out that the awareness — that feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk — does not necessarily lead people to political activism to reduce the amounts or the variety of toxins present in the environment.
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.
One might call this a fatalistic, even nihilistic, expression of environmental consciousness, one that recognizes that there is a hazard but then acts as if there isn't anything to be done about it except to try to individually barricade oneself from it.
After some reflection, I decided to call this kind of response to environmental awareness "inverted quarantine." In traditional quarantine, infected individuals are confined, separated from the rest of the community, which is still healthy. But here, in the case of bottled water, organic foods, etc., the dyadic opposition at the heart of the logic of traditional quarantine — diseased individual/healthy community — is inverted. The dyadic opposition is now: diseased conditions/healthy individuals. The environment is toxic, illness inducing. The threat is not discrete, is not just here or there, not just these persons and not others, so it's not possible to separate off the threat, to contain it, quarantine it. Danger is everywhere. How are healthy individuals to protect themselves? They can do so only by isolating themselves from their disease-inducing surroundings, by erecting some sort of barrier or enclosure and withdrawing behind it or inside it. Hence, inverted quarantine.
Billions of gallons of bottled water; water filters in millions of homes; organic-food consumption growing 20 percent a year; organic food on sale at Wal-Mart. The inverted-quarantine response to toxics in our environment is now a mainstream, mass phenomenon.
Just because something is a mass phenomenon, though, doesn't mean it is important or warrants concern. So what if we see individualistic, consumeristic behavior in response to environmental threat? Isn't that just what we would expect in a culture that emphasizes individual responsibility and equates consumption with the good life?
Here is why we should be concerned, in fact alarmed: Inverted-quarantine products do not work nearly well enough to actually protect those who put their faith in them. But consumers believe they work. That belief, in turn, tends to decrease our collective will to truly confront serious environmental issues.
People who eat organic foods do have lower levels of pesticide residues in their bodies, but their bodies aren't completely free of those residues. Bottled water, on the other hand, is a product that appears to, but does not, deliver substantial protection. Bottled water is expected to meet the same standards as tap water. It doesn't have to be any better. Some of it may be. Studies show that sometimes it is worse. How can a consumer know if this next bottle is good or not? Water filters remove some contaminants, but not all. "Natural" personal-hygiene products? "Nontoxic" household-cleaning products? "Natural" clothing, bedding, furniture? It is, right now, impossible to say. These products are poorly regulated, when they are regulated at all. There are no good data that I could find in the course of writing a book about them. Using them may help lower the levels of toxics in indoor air, but no one knows for sure.
More important, the problem isn't only the quality of this or that individual product. It's that we live, now, in an environment suffused with, soaked with, toxic materials. Hazardous substances are everywhere, though mostly in tiny amounts — in our food, our water, indoor air, and outdoor air. One can devote tremendous amounts of attention, time, and money to trying to create for oneself an ever-better commodity bubble in an all-out effort to try keep all those toxics out of one's body, but it won't work. At best we may be able to reduce our exposures somewhat by eating organic foods rather than conventionally grown foods, say, or by filtering some materials from tap water, but one cannot shield oneself from every possible source of exposure all the time. Even the most diligent effort falls far short of perfect protection. You can't hold your breath every time you go outside.
But the person who spends money for inverted-quarantine goods thinks they work. That belief has political consequences. As W.I. Thomas, an early American sociologist, famously pointed out, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."
The consequence, here, is the effect I have called "political anesthesia." Feeling that one has successfully insulated oneself from an environmental threat, one feels no pain, no fear, no anxiety (maybe I should have called it "political anxiety relief"). It follows that one feels less urgency to do something about that particular threat.
Take water, for example. It is estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars will have to be spent in the next decades to keep the nation's public-water infrastructure in good repair, to keep up with growing demand, and to upgrade water purification to deal with new pollutants. With a substantial portion of the population drinking bottled water and/or filtering their water, what is the likelihood that politicians will hear from their constituents that they should be voting to make that necessary investment?
Consider environmental regulation in general. Survey after survey finds that Americans overwhelmingly agree that they want clean air and clean water. Other surveys show, though, that a candidate's position on the environment doesn't loom large when voters go to the polls. Ronald Reagan and the second President Bush proved to be relentless enemies of environmental protection; neither was punished by voters for what their administrations did to environmental protection in the United States. I believe environmental policy would be much higher on Americans' list of political priorities if tens of millions of citizens did not think that they had successfully purchased protection for themselves and their families.
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.
In conclusion, I am not saying that we should stop eating organic foods or doing other things that really do reduce our exposures somewhat, in solidarity with the world's poisoned masses. Today a person can't just trust that regulators will protect us from toxics in the air, in drinking water, in food. Federal regulations have never been as effective as they should be, and they have grown steadily weaker since about 1980. By all means, buy your children organic foods, if you can afford to.
But that's not enough. 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 into our environment. For that, we will need a new, more vibrant, more adamant 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 purely individual solutions to our collective problems.
Andrew Szasz is a professor and chairman of the department of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of EcoPopulism (University of Minnesota Press, 1994). This essay is adapted from his new book, also from the University of Minnesota Press, Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed From Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves.