Why were we all drinking bottled water? Was it just nefarious marketing, or was it something deeper?
Andrew Szasz thinks it's because it feels more reassuring to buy a solution to an environmental problem. Drinking bottled water--or eating organic food--is a way to maintain individual purity in the face of a overwhelmingly toxic environment. As Szasz writes, it's not possible to hold your breath every time you go outside, but it is possible to only eat organic foods, or drink bottled water. And that's exactly what some try to do. According to Szasz, "inverted quarantine" is the futile act of trying to isolate yourself within a hostile world.
Szasz claims the scale of the problems that we face are too big to solve by aggregating individual action. We need regulation, so that there are fewer toxic compounds in the air, testing, so we know what the ones in the air are doing to us, and standards, so that the organic produce you're buying actually is better for the environment than conventional.
What we get instead of that, Szasz claims, is an organic "movement" that puts products in front of us, like bottled water, that make us feel better in the short term, but actually do further harm in the long term. But if we "define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," says W. I. Thomas, an early sociologist. Therefore, when we buy bottled water, we think of it as a real solution to the problem of pollution.
Read the entire article (it's fairly short and well worth it) at The Chronicle Review.
It's not that we should all give up on organic produce, but rather that we should think carefully about the idea that we can buy our way out of this problem -- and reconsider our roles are as citizens, not just consumers.
Image by adamci via sxc.hu.