Protect Yourself

Last Friday I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in a forum on Smart Meters. Activists in the city of Fairfax led by Valerie Hood organized a town meeting to educate and organize the city’s citizens on how to prevent the installation of wireless Smart Meter technology. The significance is that Fairfax was the first of what is now a growing number of local governments in California that have forbidden installation of Smart Meters and their infrastructure. Fairfax is also the principal applicant before the California Public Utilities Commission in demanding that local communities as well as individuals have the power to opt out of Smart Meter installations.

There were over 150 people at the Fairfax forum. You will not be surprised to learn that many of these people wanted to know how to protect themselves and their loved ones from this latest assault by wireless technology. While the event itself was a form collective action and focused on what those present could do politically, many of the people who spoke from the audience wanted to know what they could do individually to protect themselves.

This contrast between collective and individual action illustrates how the tension and conflict between them is rife in our culture. That conflict affects our health in a profound way.

The social arrangements that enable us to meet our needs—including the need to protect our health—are, ironically, presented to us as environments in which our individual desires find satisfaction through our individual agency. Many of the people who spoke the other night wanted to know about therapies that would protect them from the health threat posed by Smart Meters and other wireless technologies. They also wanted to know about technologies that could protect their personal space.

These are rational concerns. Our culture conditions us to make it appear that the individualized strategy is the most effective—it’s just a matter of finding the right therapy or protective technology and going out and getting it. Collective action, on the other hand, seems less rational precisely because of its lack of apparent effectiveness—you have work with other people upon whom your fate rests against powerful and moneyed interests.

In this particular conflict, for example, investor owned utilities are determined to implement their Smart Meter program. Even if the California Public Utilities Commission were neutral—which it is not—the utilities promote their interests as a cost of doing business. Citizens who oppose them must do so in their spare time and at personal expense. The utilities have ready-to-hand the technical expertise to promote what they want. Citizens who oppose them must spend yet more of their spare time and money educating themselves.

Yet despite the cultural winds that blow us toward individual action, Fairfax and other communities are successfully resisting and even making headway against that imbalance of power. How is that possible?

Not too long ago, I was watching a movie in which the lead character, in a moment of reflection on the death of a criminal she had been chasing, says, “Like Nietzsche said, we come into the world alone and depart from it alone.” I’ve heard this alleged profundity before, but this time, like a slap on the back of my head, I understood how obviously, preposterously false that idea is.

At least one other person is always involved in a birth. We call them mothers.

In a more complex way, other people are almost always intimately involved in a death—whether as cause, witness, caregiver, or other role.

The idea, of course, is that, ultimately, we are each of us on our own. It is fundamental to the social arrangements, the political economy that enables use to meet our needs that we appear to do so through the exercise of our individual agency: the idea that each of us is on our own.

The people who sought protection at the Fairfax forum were asking for help… from other people. It was perfectly rational for them to seek what they needed by depending on others. They did not expect nor were they expected to be on their own.

This is only one instance of protecting our health by depending on others: Smart Meters, wireless technologies, endocrine disrupting chemicals, toxins in food, air, and water, and the many other wonders of heedless technical advance. Many have gone further by working to turn some social arrangements upside down. Instead of waiting to see what harm a new technology causes, enterprises promoting new technologies would have to prove their safety.

It’s quite obvious that collective action, depending on others is what is most effective in protecting our health.

Not long ago, researchers at Columbia University published a study in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Estimated Deaths Attributable to Social Factors in the United States.” The toll is greater than for the principal killers in our society such as heart attacks and cancer. Low education killed a quarter million, heart attacks 190,000. Racism killed 176,000, strokes 167,000. Low social support killed 162,000, lung cancer 155,000. And so on.

A comment to this paper by leaders in the literature on the social determinants of health argues that these estimates are low and demonstrate why.

Social conditions, the way in which we depend on one another, can harm us. They can also protect us. It’s obvious that we’re not on our own.