I just pounded out another solid read from the good ol’ Minneapolis public library… this book was called Shopping Our Way to Safety by Andrew Szasz and some really interesting and relevant ideas were laid on the table.  The key concept was centered around a term Szasz himself coined, ‘inverted quarantine.’

We’re all aware of how traditional quarantines are defined… a problem (often a disease) is isolated with the intent of keeping it from spreading to the masses.  Inverted quarantines are basically the opposite… they’re about individuals isolating themselves from larger conditions that they perceive as being threatening… like a toxic environment.

We experience inverted quarantines on a daily basis without really recognizing what they are… a great example of one in action is the infamous eco-villain, bottled water… people buy it because they believe city tap water is contaminated and therefor poses a risk to their health.  Bottled water presents a solution for individuals to defend themselves against this threat…. that’s why we often see words like ‘pure’, ‘natural’ and ‘pristine’ on each bottle, despite many brands being sourced directly from municipal water supplies… sadly ironic, eh?

Other inverted quarantines include things like organic food, non-toxic cleaning products, zero-voc paints, organic cotton and dozens of other green products that we’re constantly told are solutions to our environmental woes.  Again, like bottled water, each of these items is purchased with the intention of separating ourselves from the source of a problem, like poisons in the air, pesticide residue in foods, etc.  I’m not implying that buying and using green products is not helpful… they are extremely beneficial but are in and of themselves not a holistic solution.  In this day and age, it is impossible to live toxin-free.  Between the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, toxins and chemicals are unavoidable.  Let’s break down water for a second…. 60% of the water in our bodies enter in the form of liquids that we directly drink (that could be our filtered spring bottled water).  The other 40% comes in the form of ‘commercial’ water… it’s in the food we eat, fruits, veggies, meats, etc.  We have no control over how pure the water is that cows drink or plants receive, and we ingest it unknowingly.  So even if we do everything we can to control the purity of our water consumption, we’re still only doing slightly better than half.  Similar examples can be made of food and air as well….

So what’s the point of all this inverted quarantine business?  Why doom and gloom about unavoidable toxins?  Well, basically we’re discovering that this inverted quarantine concept is not only ineffective, but is actually extremely damaging.  Here’s why: When confronted with a hazard, we are putting focus on individualism and consumption, taking attention away from systematic solutions.  Millions of people have embraced the idea that they can fend off threats by buying and using ‘green’ products, and this mass flight into inverted quarantine decreases the likelihood that something substantial is done about perceived hazards.  We are basically insulating ourselves from environmental problems rather than addressing them head-on.  The idea that bottled water is safe undercuts public support for improving water systems, while the organic foods market will limit people’s ability to take on the industrial agricultural system.  With this change from mass movements to shopping, we are also creating a sense of political anesthesia… If individuals feel that they can buy their way into to protecting themselves, there is little incentive to seek political solutions…

Let’s imagine for a second if there weren’t any inverted quarantine products were on the market… When a person learns of a toxic threat to their health, there would be no individual escape hatch.  The only two options would be resignation or action… citizens would be much more adamant about the need for regulations that reduce toxins.  And historically speaking, good things happen when people refuse inverted quarantines.  We can look at ozone depletion as a success story… confronted with the discovery of increased radiation through holes in the ozone, the global community came together to provide regulations to banish the source of the problem, chlorofluorocarbons.  If it were left to an inverted quarantine approach, individuals would further isolate themselves from the radiation risk by buying more sunscreen, wearing sunglasses, hats, etc.  Not much of a solution there!

So what can we take away from all this?  I guess the primary idea is that we need to keep our eyes on the prize and not be content with individual solutions.  Of course eating healthy food, drinking clean water and minimizing air contaminants are extremely important, but these options should be the norm, available to everyone, not just an elite few who purchases them as a luxury.  Natural market transformation is certainly an integral part of this change, but in the bigger picture of authentic sustainability, it represents only a small piece of the pie.

A link to Andrew Szasz’ book HERE.