Book Summary: Affluenza – The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor

Sure, Affluenza is a polemic, but it’s a powerful one. Sure, some of the book’s more startling factual assertions are, on closer examination, somewhat distorted. But this is a call to arms, not a scholarly dissection. By depicting our consumer culture as a deadly epidemic, the authors provide a metaphor that simply and intuitively captures the fears and concerns of millions of people worldwide. While some conservative readers might scoff at a book that breathlessly states that life was better before the industrial revolution, we recommend this book as a valuable peek into the intellectual world of the anti-globalization left.

Affluenza - The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor
Affluenza – The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor

Content Summary

Take-Aways
Summary
Affluenza: Causes and Symptoms
De-Individualization
The Ornamental Culture
Treatment
Prevention
About the Authors

Take-Aways

  • America is in the grip of an epidemic of consumerism: affluenza.
  • Affluenza can be seen in the constant craving for more possessions
  • Affluenza undermines community and family life.
  • The affliction causes depression, anxiety, and hopelessness as people attempt to fill nonmaterial needs with material goods.
  • Advancing technology, longer workweeks, and an ever-accelerating demand for new goods are exhausting our leisure time.
  • Our affluenza-induced craving for more stuff causes us to squander irreplaceable natural resources.
  • We begin to fight affluenza when we learn to want what we have, rather than trying to have what we want.
  • Many people are fighting affluenza by changing their values and joining groups like the Voluntary Simplicity Movement.
  • Affluenza is such a serious threat that it demands political action, including a shorter workweek, new regulations, and revisions of the tax code.
  • If we abandon our obsessions with economic growth and material acquisition, we can live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

Summary

Affluenza: Causes and Symptoms

America, along with much of the industrialized world, is in the grip of an epidemic – affluenza. We can see its symptoms in the widespread emptiness that people feel, despite their accumulation of material goods. Affluenza has its roots in the nearly religious obsession with an economic expansion that underlies the American dream. We must reject this materialism or pay a terrible price.

“Affluenza’s costs and consequences are immense, though often concealed. Untreated, the disease can cause permanent discontent.”

Shopping fever is the first symptom of affluenza. Since the end of World War II, Americans have been on history’s largest spending binge. Ancient cultures built cathedrals and temples; we build mega-malls. Our shopping spree has been financed by vast consumer debt, which has led to a flood of personal bankruptcies. Millions are having trouble paying bills and have no financial cushion. Our national savings rate is near zero. Our material expectations are higher than ever: bigger homes, SUVs, cheap airfares, exotic foodstuffs. We “need” far more than previous generations. Yet many Americans are suffering possession overload – stress caused by having too much stuff. They feel that their lives are consumed with getting and maintaining material things instead of people.

“In the Age of Affluenza, shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values.”

Another symptom of affluenza is time famine. We once thought that technology would give us more time, but we have less free time than we did 30 years ago. As predicted in 1970 by Swedish economist Staffan Linder, economic growth has made time scarcer, and we have developed a harried leisure class. Time pressures weaken marriages and undermine family life. Some conservatives are rediscovering the inherent tension between free-market economics, the dominant Republican/conservative ideology since the ascent of Ronald Reagan, and family values. The free market is unquestionably the best system for delivering goods to the most people at the least cost, and that has become our chief measure of progress and value. Yet human beings are more than consumers; we are producers who long to express ourselves through stable, meaningful work. We are also members of families and communities. The affluenza-driven obsession with accumulating wealth is the enemy of these values.

“The rising tide of American affluence hasn’t lifted all boats but it has drowned a lot of dreams.”

Affluenza has become a childhood epidemic. Marketers have become more and more effective – and less and less scrupulous – when it comes to marketing to children, especially young children who are unable to distinguish between commercial messages and other messages. Parents are labeled gatekeepers, whose efforts to protect children from commercial messages must be circumvented so that children can be “branded.” The marketers’ strategy: portray parents as fools who aren’t smart enough to know what’s cool, and suggest that anti-social behavior in pursuit of a product is good. As a result, children are infected with affluenza.

De-Individualization

Affluenza undermines the community. Social capital – the relationships, commitments, and networks that create trust in our neighborhoods – is shrinking. Membership in clubs, church groups, and the like are in steady decline; we’ve become a nation of loners. With many local small businesses being forced out of business by chain stores, local business leaders are an endangered species. We’ve been transformed from citizens to consumers, and while citizens have obligations to each other and the community, consumers do not. We assume that we’ve paid others to take care of things so we can focus on working and spending. Yet we’re learning that the service providers aren’t serving us, they’re consuming us.

“America’s 102 million households currently contain and consume more stuff than all other households throughout history, put together.”

All religions see a purpose in human life; no tradition finds purpose in the accumulation of material goods. Affluenza robs people of a sense of purpose and meaning, a process that leads to depression, anxiety, and lowered self-esteem. Today, these criticisms are usually heard from the political left, yet before Reagan, many conservative thinkers also fought against materialism. The conservative philosopher Ernest van den Haag observed that the production of standardized goods demands the production of standardized people, or de-individualization, which strips life of meaning and inherent interest. Today, many people are bored, despite their expensive toys. What they want is a meaningful life.

“To save the world, we need strong individual action, yet for effective individual action, we need to redesign the world.”

The gap between rich and poor is growing. We are exhausting resources as we poison our planet. American agriculture uses chemical pesticides, polluting transportation networks, and exploited labor to provide cheap food, but we ignore the environmental costs. Chemicals like antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, perfumes, birth control pills, and a host of other chemicals persist in the environment, pollute water supplies and affect animals (including humans), sometimes by mimicking natural hormones in the body. We need to replace the wasteful industrial revolution with a new era of ecological design and caution.

“The more Americans fill their lives with things, the more they tell psychiatrists, pastors, friends and family members that they feel ’empty’ inside.”

We’ve turned every aspect of life into a transaction. This lifestyle is approaching burnout because it demands long, stressful workweeks that eat up our time, natural resources, and health. It tells us to substitute consumption for citizenship and companionship and to fulfill non-material needs with material goods. Having what we want becomes everything when the real key to a happier life is to want what we have.

The Ornamental Culture

Affluenza isn’t a new disease. We can find evidence of affluenza in ancient cultures that achieved agricultural surpluses. There, political and economic hierarchies flourished and the upper classes began to oppress others. The ancient Hebrews and Greeks warned against affluenza. It has been part of American tradition since the first settlers arrived here from Europe. The American Revolution was, to some degree, a revolt against the affluenza afflicting Britain.

“Our ’pedal to the metal’ economy is based on beliefs that resource supplies are limitless and that the Earth can continually bounce back from abuse.”

Before the industrial revolution, life was simpler and less pressured. Most peasants had plenty of leisure time, and church feast days ensured many days off. With the rise of factories, employers kept hours long and wages low; yet thinkers, as varied as Thoreau and Marx, saw that people wanted more time to themselves. Shorter work hours were once a key goal of the labor movement. Yet eventually, at the insistence of industry, labor unions surrendered that goal, choosing money and consumption (affluenza) over leisure time and a simpler life. After World War II, affluenza truly emerged as a nationwide epidemic. The last American president to make a serious stand against affluenza was Jimmy Carter, who was promptly driven from office by Ronald Reagan. Right from his inaugural ball, Reagan sent the message that conspicuous consumption was good.

“In the use-it-once-and-throw-it-away, planned-obsolescence world of American consumer culture, it should not be surprising that attitudes formed in relation to products eventually get transferred to people as well.”

Since then, affluenza has spread faster than ever. Susan Faludi calls ours an “ornamental culture,” centered on celebrity and image, in which people only really play decorative and consumer roles. It is, says Faludi, a path to nowhere. In the 1950’s conservative economist Wilhelm Ropke warned that commercialism would rob life of its true purpose, making it ugly and dull. Many of Ropke’s predictions have come true.

“For the first time in human history, children are getting most of their information from entities whose goal is to sell them something, rather than from family, school or religion.”

The public relations industry helps fuel affluenza. As science exposes the environmental and health costs of affluenza, PR organizations form front groups to cloud the debate with junk science. The media are controlled by vast corporations whose own interests are tied to consumption, and advertisers also resist seeing the truth revealed. So we make our day-to-day decisions based on scant, incomplete information.

Treatment

Recovery from affluenza begins with rest. Take a break from keeping up with the Jonses. Cut back. Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wrote the 1992 book, Your Money or Your Life, which offered a vision of a simpler life, including a nine-step “new frugality” program that leads to sharply curtailed expenses and financial independence. Others are joining the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, which forms study groups in churches, community groups, and online. They help each other reduce their need for high incomes, share tips for cutting expenses, and learn to meet their real needs instead of the false needs created by advertising.

“Because sex is so instinctively compelling, it’s become one of affluenza’s most virulent carriers.”

Contact with nature is another treatment for affluenza. It helps us regain a sense of balance and value about our natural resources. Feeling nature with all our senses cuts stress and restores a sense of well being. We must also remake our economy so that it is designed to do something more than making money. We can reduce the amount of waste produced in manufacturing and emphasize recycling in consumer products. That means earth-friendly economic incentives, green-product certifications, and efficiency ratings, and new codes and specifications aimed at saving the Earth. Regulations that mandate efficiency would be a good start. Another good start is buying organic produce because it encourages sustainable, non-polluting farming techniques. Eating less meat, driving less, even choosing green power suppliers can all help. We must look for green design features, like efficiency, recyclability, low maintenance, and low pollution, in the products we buy.

“The more real wealth we have – such as friends, skills, libraries, wilderness, and afternoon naps – the less money we need in order to be happy.”

Political scientist Benjamin Barber warns that free markets can undermine full employment, environmental safety, public health, education, and competition, all of which must be championed by the people. Big business and big government have been the main forces in American society, says Barber, but the people can become the third great force, helping to restore citizenship and civic life. He urges us to demand public meeting places as part of such developments as housing tracts and malls. Some developments are using the Danish concept of co-housing, including amenities like a workshop, a public garden/orchard, and common house amidst private homes.

Prevention

There are also steps we can take to prevent the onset of acute affluenza. Adbusters magazine helps people become conscious of how they’re being manipulated by advertising. A new movement, begun in 1992 in Vancouver, asks us to observe the day after Thanksgiving (the busiest shopping day of the year) as “Buy Nothing Day.” The San Diego schools are teaching money-management to students in classes from kindergarten through high school. This Money Masters Program brings professionals from the Consumer Credit Counseling Service into schools to show students how to spend wisely and save. Students in some schools are being taught media literacy as they learn to analyze commercials, sometimes by taking video production workshops that expose the tactics that make commercials effective.

Affluenza has become so dangerous that political action is required. Campaign finance reform would help. We could abandon the legally established 40-hour workweek in favor of a flexible, shorter workweek. We should move toward a 1,500-hour work year – around the norm in Western Europe – and give workers some choices about whether to work shorter days or take more vacation time. We could also move toward gradual retirement. Some promote the idea of a total paid work life, which would allow people to reduce their hours as they approach the total. We should change the tax system, abandoning the income tax in favor of a consumption tax and create green taxes such as a carbon tax, a pollution tax, a disassembly tax on cars and a depletion tax that would increase the price of non-renewable resources and lower the comparative price of longer-lasting goods. We should restrict all advertising aimed at children, as we do now with tobacco and alcohol.

In truth, if America suddenly abandoned its addiction to more stuff, economic problems might well result. But that won’t happen; we’ll move away from consumerism slowly, not overnight. We could begin by taking stock of how we spend our time and energy, and whether we get the fulfillment, satisfaction, and value that our time is worth. List your values and compare them with your expenditures; this will tell you if you’re living life on your terms.

About the Authors

John de Graaf is a longtime producer of PBS documentaries. He has been a visiting scholar at Evergreen State College and lecturer on documentary production at the University of Washington. David Wann worked for more than a decade as a policy analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thomas Naylor has taught economics for more than 30 years at Duke University and is now Professor Emeritus of Economics there. His articles have appeared in several major newspapers and he is the author or co-author of 30 books.

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