I go to my local grocery store. Fall is here, and with that comes the purchase of a seasonal air freshener. While I am faced with a multitude of options, my eyes naturally scan over to the organic, nontoxic brands. They cost extra, but they’re worth it; the extra $3 will serve as an imaginary, reassuring gap between myself and the menacing “toxic” chemicals that I would otherwise subject myself to. This idea leads me to think of something I read in “Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times,” a novel by Alexis Shotwell: “We are inescapably entwined and entangled with others, even when we cannot track or directly perceive this entanglement.” Shotwell writes this to explain our intermixing with the chemicals in the air, the toxins in the foods we consume and the people on every corner of the earth.
Because the truth is, we live our lives cushioned in the safety of these fallacious gaps between ourselves and the things that scare us about the modern world — the looming presence of the toxins and chemicals we’ve introduced to it. Yet, this idea of being able to delineate and sectionalize any discomfort the world provides us is rooted in purity culture in its simplest form, deriving from the incorrect yet age-old idea that the world is as simple as black and white; good and bad; toxic and harmless; healthy and unhealthy.
The skin care brand Philosophy, for example, capitalizes off of this idea. Much of the brand is formed off of their slogan, “philosophy: when life is complicated, purity is simple.” This and their top soap line, “purity made simple,” perpetuates the idea that there is a blank slate within ourselves we can revert back to. After all, 87% of users said their skin “immediately looked and felt like a clean canvas” after using, according to Philosophy’s website. This idea that we were born pure and need to restore our natural state is ingrained within us from the moment we are born. We’re blamed for our inevitable integration with the toxicity of the world and targeted by brands such as Philosophy that sell us the promise of regaining our “natural, pure” state.
Yet, there’s no form of consumption we can engage in or lifestyle we can adopt that does anything other than further solidify us with our hundreds of years of human impurity; we’re a world built on synthetic chemicals. That green juice, as much as we may wish it would, won’t erase the tens of hundreds of years of mass atmospheric chemical distribution, and spending the extra $3 on the nontoxic aerosol sprays won’t undo the chemical and immoral residue that has been left behind for us to grow from. Regardless, personal responsibility for these complex issues is pushed, yet these have existed long before we were able to make the choice of paper or plastic, toxic or nontoxic.
Going back to a “clean canvas” is simply impossible. Conservative estimates predict that humans are exposed to about 700,000 toxic chemicals on a daily basis. DDT was sprayed from the backs of cars in the 1940s and its harm will persist for at least three generations. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide emitted from the production of meat products continue to seep in and out of our lungs.
We continue to chase this idea that separation from things that cause us discomfort and are deemed “impure” is possible. But the truth is that our cells, bodies and communities are not pure or separate. We are objectively shaped and touched by elements of the world that we don’t like. Human genomes exist in only about 10% of the cells in our body, while the other 90% of cells are inhabited with genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists and whatnot: We are outnumbered by these nonhuman elements. We exist in a perpetual state of togetherness, and not in just a cheesy, brightly-colored, Instagram-infographic type of way, but rather in a much larger, chemical sense. The spaces between our human and nonhuman counterparts are not as explicitly bordered as we believe them to be, because it isn’t simple as good and bad; toxic and harmless; us and them.
So what is the answer? In regard to nonhuman toxicity, are we expected to continue to try and run from this or give up completely? Our attempts to delineate and make sense of this inevitable truth are commendable — human, even — yet unequivocally irrelevant. This isn’t to say that we should be pro-chemical, pro-pollution, pro-toxicity; ideally, we should be just the opposite. Shotwell’s point is that our attempts at “purity” in a relevant sense can often get misconstrued with personal responsibility. We are not all equally responsible for the toxins that lie dormant in our bodies, but we are equally called to respond. We chase this idealized “blank slate” facade, yet have never existed as anything other than pre-polluted.
Perhaps this longing for purity is nothing more than a deep-rooted trauma response that caters to our perpetual need for ease and serves as a blanket response to moral and social depredation of all forms. Shotwell believes this to be the case. We’ve marketed the idea of “purity,” yet this does nothing more than promote a sort of defensive individualism that leads us to believe that the separation of ourselves and nature is as explicitly bordered as eating organic and using nontoxic plug in sprays. This is what truly characterizes us as human: our unending longing to separate ourselves from elements of the world that make us uncomfortable, and the false illusion that we’re able to do so.
In regard to deconstructing this method of thought, we must start by transforming our mindset from avoidance to acceptance of this interconnectedness. The active acknowledgement of the fact that we’re all made up of and surrounded by the same elements will allow us to internalize that what we do matters in regard to the greater whole. There are elements of the world and ourselves that we repudiate, yet we can’t change what others have done before us, just as we can’t rearrange our internal makeup to distinctly separate ourselves from what we fear the most. This co-constitution is an unchanging situation, regardless of how many $14 air fresheners we buy. These arbitrary borders between good and bad, toxic and clean, us and them, are immensely blurred and unequivocally socially constructed. Individualism is valiant, (and true in an intellectual sense), yet a fantasy when looking at our bodies and the ways in which we have relied on others from the moment we’re born. The strangers you pass on the train, the pollutants we tell ourselves we bypass through the selection of nontoxic, the bits and pieces of yourself that gust through the crevices between you and them and this and that — we all exist as beings made up of the same elements. The idea of interconnectedness is a lot more comforting to me, anyway.