Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic
© 2001, 2004, 2014 John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas Naylor
In getting and spending, we lay waste to all our powers — so sayeth the poet. Originally published in 2001, Affluenza is a critique of consumerism, which it depicts as a disease affecting not just the body politic, but the environment. The authors use visual language drawn from medicine — “feverish expectation”, “hardening of the traffic arteries”, “community chills” to argue that rampant consumerism is not only making us unhappy, it has unraveled communities and is presently sacking the Earth. This book has been on my radar for many years now, but I’ve always resisted it given that I’m in the choir this is preaching to. I found it more varied than expected, and it does an admirable job of attempting to be nonpartisan. This third edition is genuinely valuable in keeping the material up to date, using the sharing economy as a way of demonstrating of how we can do more with less, Most of the suggestions for cutting back are appropriate only for an affluent audience, however, so I suspect the target audience is the comfortable-yet-feeling-guilty.
Affluenza has a pronounced emphasis on environmentalism, but it opens with a more diverse array of topics. There’s a disappointingly small section on the psychology of desire, how we pursue happiness through the acquisition or consumption of things but are then left feeling unsatisfied. Their history of consumerism draws from works like Susan Strasser’s Satisfaction Guaranteed indicate that the family-based consumer dream of the 1950s quickly became an individual-based consumer dream, with society being re-made to match. Stores, for instance, became locations to go to and consume, rather than being part of the community; compare walking down the street and mingling with fellow citizens, then buying goods in a small bookstore owned by someone in the community, whose business interacted and supported other businesses (local accountants and sign-makers, for instance), to a solitary individual driving by himself to a large box owned and sustained by a corporation outside the community. The mass focus on maximizing individual consumption — the cheapest price, at any cost — has reactions that not only unravel the very fabric of communities, but create lonelier people in the bargain. Technology is something of an enabler in this regard: people whip out cell phones to stay “connected” the moment there is a lull in their activity, but in so doing lose focus of the very people they are with. I think Erich Fromm — who wrote in To Have or to Be? that we have become a people obsessed with having, with possessing and attempting to mount our happiness on that — would have much to say about people who attend a play or go to the zoo and spend the entire time staring at their phones…..so concerned with capturing the experience they actually remove themselves from the experience.
The chapters on the despair of consumer therapy have the authors at their nonpartisan best. They report with delight that the Mormons are even more concerned about consumerism — or rather, materialism — than the students of Berkley. They quote William Ropke’s A Humane Economy: the Social Framework of the Free Market, in which the conservative offers a measured defense of free markets — measured in that the free market is a necessary element of a free society, but that it cannot be the definer of its values. Elsewhere, they continually use the conservative label to refer to anyone in league with advertisers and plutocrats, so I don’t think they’re very used to seeing anti-consumerism as a nonpartisan issue. They marvel at Ropke, asking readers if they could imagine any conservative writing such a thing today. Well…yes? Rob Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Anthony Esolen are a few who come to mind immediately, and just about anyone writing for The American Conservative. Another hiccough is that the authors don’t seem to be paying attention to what they write: shortly after proposing a series of laws with the object of improving quality of life by reducing hours and mandating vacation/sick/universal paternity-maternity care, they discuss a factory that reduced its operations to four days a week to save money, despite the union’s protests. After fighting to resume the five-hour day, the union’s members immediately realized they actually preferred the extra day off, and so petitioned to reverse their previous petition. The authors comment that it was unfortunate that the initial choice was forced on people, apparently not realizing that its previous list of mandatory this–and-thats are also forced. Ditto for the authors hailing regulatory agencies and in the same breath lamenting that said regulatory agencies are in cahoots with the people they’re supposed to be policing. Regulatory capture, dear authors — problems can’t be dispatched with a bill from Congress.
I found Affluenza an interesting book, quoting from a good range of authors — diverse in fields as well as core beliefs. Its overall emphasis is a little weak, I think — “Someday we’re going to run out of resources and that will suck”. Environmental stewardship is always an easier sell from the immediate quality of life angle (clean air and water) than the more abstract (bad things…eventually..in the future). The same is true for anti-consumerism and advocacy for simple living; they would be better served with an emphasis on the misery of getting-and-spending than on matters that can only be handled by the national government at large, i.e public policy.
Related books which were cited:
Satisfaction Guaranteed, Susan Strasser
Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
The Geography of Nowhere, Jim Kunstler
American Mania: Why More is Never Enough, Peter Whybrow
Cited and on my to-read list:
Alone Together, Sherry Turkel
A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market
The Plain Reader, various authors