Written by Kristen Toft, ESLLC 2015-2016
Shopping Our Way to Safety is a book written by Andrew Szasz that brings up some very interesting and true points. Western culture has become so capitalistic, people’s identities are largely based on what they buy. Buying things is a huge part of the way we live and that is why we are known to be a “consumer culture.” This much is known, but how is our consumeristic culture effecting the environment, and are people using shopping as a defense mechanism?
According to Szasz people are shopping to protect themselves. Many people know about the environmental problems that plague the world around us. The food and water we consume are not safe and neither is the air we breathe. Usually if an environment is unsafe to live in or poses a threat to the population, that area is put into quarantine, however Szasz describes a trend in which people are quarantining themselves from the “unsafe” environment around him. This trend is appropriately termed “inverted quarantine.” People are buying food, water, and other products that make them feel safe and protected from the toxic environment.
Many products have come out promising health benefits or claims that they are safer for the environment. One of these products is something that you may be quite familiar with: bottled water. Collectively, the bottled water companies all try to market their products in a way that makes them seem better than tap water with labeling and descriptive techniques. They put photos of mountains, running rivers, lakes, or islands on the packaging and give claims that the water either comes from far off, fantastical places that are untouched by human civilization (and therefore unpolluted) or that the water is processed through highly advanced filtration; both of these try to seem as if they package and sell water that is much cleaner than what will come out of your home faucet or filter.
Although many bodies of water in America are in fact polluted, this is not proof that bottled water is better than tap water. In fact, tap water is put through a highly regulated treatment process to make the water as clean as possible before it comes out of the tap. The treated water also must get tested on a regular basis to make sure it is safe for consumption. The treatment plants may not always get out 100% of pollutants, but they do get out a lot. Does this mean bottled water is better because of their claims of having highly filtrated, “pure” water? Probably not. In fact, bottled water is highly unregulated and untested and many of their claims of being more “pure” or clean than tap water are unproven and false. Tests have shown that bottled water can be better than tap, but it can also often be either worse than or equal to the quality of tap water. So consumers are being fooled by the claims that bottled water will make them safer and healthier, and unwittingly contributing to the pollution and environmental degradation that bottled water companies cause by extracting water from its source, selling it to places far from where it was extracted thus depleting that resource, emitting greenhouse gases from transporting it (before and after bottling), and creating plastic bottles as well as the pollution of the bottles themselves. Not to mention it takes more water to create a plastic bottle than is in the bottle itself.
What a scam.
While the scam of bottled water may seem like an obvious thing to many, it is not so obvious to many, many more people, which is why the consumption of bottled water seems to be rising exponentially.
Food is also a scary and dangerous thing to many people who know the amount of pesticides and harmful chemicals that are used in conventional agriculture, and how conventionally raised livestock are fed with those chemical plants, they drink the polluted water, and are also raised with loads of antibiotics that build up chemicals in their systems and may actually cause the bacteria to become immune to the medicine and turn into a super-bug. And who even knows what genetically modified food can do to someone!? All of this is terrifying and is a very reasonable reason to not want to eat conventionally grown food even before you consider the implications these methods have on the environment.
If you don’t know the environmental implications, let me give you the run-down. Conventional farming practices clear large areas of land to grow their crops (even If it is a rainforest). They kill all the animals in addition to all the plants living in that area and may forcefully relocate all of the people who were living their before. Then they grow usually only one type of plant in that whole space, and apply lots of pesticides and fertilizers to maximize production. This completely devastates and destroys the natural ecosystem of that area, and the harmful chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers run off into the ocean and create ocean dead-zones. Animal agriculture does the same thing basically, but on a worse scale. Obviously pesticides are not used for animals, but the pesticides and fertilizers go into all the food that is grown for them and has the same environmental impacts mentioned just a moment ago, and then there are tons of carbon emissions let out to transport these foods to a processing plant, process them, package the food, then transport it to the animals. Then there’s the matter of the animals themselves who produce TONS of excrement every single day. Multiple times every single day. And much of this hazardous (since it’s got a build up of chemicals that doesn’t stay in their bodies from the chemical food, polluted water, and antibiotics) waste is not processed in treatment facility and runs off into streams and also greatly contributes to ocean dead-zones as well as global warming.
This is where organic food comes in to save the planet.
Unlike bottled water, organic food does actually have a lot of substance to back up their claims. Studies have shown that eating organic food actually can significantly lower someone’s exposure to pesticide residues and lower the amounts of toxins that build up in their body. Also since it is a much smaller scale of farmer, and much more sustainably practiced, there are far fewer (if not no) implications. They do not use any pesticides or harmful fertilizers so they do not contribute to any of the toxic run-off that creates ocean dead-zones. While these health and environmental benefits are extraordinary, it does make the food a bit harder to grow and does make it more expensive (also since it isn’t subsidized by the government), which unfortunately makes the harmful stuff cheaper and easier to buy.
Believe it or not there are also people who are afraid of every breath they take because of how polluted the earth and its atmosphere are. There is an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxide) as well a other harmful gases such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other harmful substances that become so small that they are carried away into the wind – these are called particular matters and can be heavy metals, benzene, combustion by-products, and who knows what else. Breathing this stuff in “inflames lung tissue, reduces lung function in children, aggravates asthma, increases susceptibility to bronchitis and pneumonia, and increase the risk of getting lung cancer” so maybe people’s worries aren’t so crazy after all. Not to mention that all of these things are contributing to climate change, species extinction (as many lower animals are much more susceptible to these toxins and are killed from them), and ecological destruction.
The worst part is that many of these pollutants as well as other harmful chemicals can be found in homes because they are given off in the materials that come in conventional building materials and furnishings. Not only that, but they are found in clothing, makeups, and cleaning products (home-cleaning products like Windex or laundry detergent as well as self-cleaning products like shampoo and soap) as well. This makes people who are aware of these issues not only afraid of breathing in the toxins, but also afraid of coming into contact with any of their everyday home materials for fear of these toxins being absorbed through their skin and they will not risk buying them! These people go out of their way to buy “natural” or “eco-friendly” versions of all of these things to avoid the harmful toxins, however these terms are not defined nor regulated by the government so companies can basically use them however they please, so their claims may not always be true. It is largely just a marketing tactic for businesses to claim that their product is safer than another so that you buy their product instead even if it may not actually be safer for your health or the environment.
In summary, what you buy may or may not be safe for your health or the environment.
We live in a difficult age that seems to be ruled not by the government, but by the capitalist economy. One must do all their own research to find out if the products they buy for basic life needs actually offer what they claim because many of these companies selling these products only care about one thing and it isn’t anyone’s well-being. You obviously cannot trust what most companies claim because they are just trying to appeal to the customer and it isn’t like their claims are well-regulated anyway: this is a free-market system!
What we need to do is inform more people about this scandal, this facade that the large corporations are putting on all in the sake of money and take it down. People deserve to live freely and healthily without having to go through books and books of research to do so. Species of all kinds deserve to live on a planet that isn’t being destroyed by pollution of all these big corporations, and everyone who has yet to be born deserve a planet that they can live on – they don’t deserve to be born into a world that isn’t even safe to live on.