Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us--and How to Fight Back

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NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED

affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.

We tried to warn you! The 2008 economic collapse proved how resilient and dangerous affluenza can be. Now in its third edition, this book can safely be called prophetic in showing how problems ranging from loneliness, endless working hours, and family conflict to rising debt, environmental pollution, and rampant commercialism are all symptoms of this global plague.

The new edition traces the role overconsumption played in the Great Recession, discusses new ways to measure social health and success (such as the Gross Domestic Happiness index), and offers policy recommendations to make our society more simplicity-friendly. The underlying message isn't to stop buying—it's to remember, always, that the best things in life aren't things.

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1. Feverish expectations

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Feverish expectations

Let’s put it bluntly: we can’t grow on like this. In these pages, we’ll argue that affluenza has overheated our economy and our planet while leaving us feverish with desire for ever more consumer products. Never before has so much meant so little to so many. In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, our feverish expectations are changing our planet beyond recognition, with little thought for those who will come after us.

The late, great environmentalist David Brower, who turned the Sierra Club from a tiny California hiking society into America’s most powerful conservation organization, used to give what he called his sermon as part of his many speeches. He compressed the age of Earth, estimated by scientists at some 4.6 billion years, into seven days, the biblical week of creation, if you will. When you do this, a day represents about 650 million years, an hour 27 million years, a minute about 450,000 years, and a second 7,500 years.

On Sunday morning, Earth congeals from cosmic gases. In the next few hours, land masses and oceans begin to form, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first tiny “protocells” of life emerge, probably from scalding primordial vents in the bottom of the oceans. In the next few days, life forms become larger, more complex, and more wondrous. Shortly before dawn on the last day—Saturday—trilobites and other strangely shaped creatures swim by the millions in the Cambrian seas. Half a billion years later, in real time, we will be amazed by their fossils, scattered about the globe.

 

2. All stuffed up

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All Stuffed Up

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.

—GEORGE CARLIN

We’re all stuffed up, literally! In our homes, workplaces, and streets, chronic congestion has settled into our daily lives—cultural clutter that demands constant maintenance, sorting, displaying, and replacement. For example, as affluenza infected the 1970s, the two-car garage became a standard feature of American homes, partly because all the newly acquired stuff wouldn’t fit even into the expanding houses. By the late ’80s many homes were being built with three-car garages—600 to 900 square feet of garage space alone. “That’s almost as much square footage as an entire family lived in, in the early fifties,” says the real estate agent La Nita Wacker. She takes us by a huge home with a four-car garage. Expensive cars and a boat are parked outside. The owner comes out wondering why La Nita is so interested in his place. “I own Dream House Realty,” Wacker replies, “and yours is a dream house.”1

“It was built to the specifications of my charming wife,” the homeowner says with a laugh. “So why four garages?” asks La Nita. “It’s probably because of storage,” the man replies, explaining that the garages are filled with family possessions. “You never have enough storage, so you can never have enough garages,” he adds cheerfully. La Nita asks if he has children. “They’re gone now,” he replies. “It’s just me and the wife.”

 

3. Stressed to kill

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Stressed to kill

We are a nation that shouts at a microwave oven to hurry up.

—JOAN RYAN,
San Francisco Chronicle

Affluenza is a major disease, there’s no question about it,” says Dr. Richard Swenson of Menomonie, Wisconsin, who practiced medicine for many years before changing his focus to writing and lecturing. Even in 1996, when John interviewed him for the Affluenza documentary, he was finding too many of his patients stretched to their limits and beyond, with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation, and reflection. They showed symptoms of acute stress.

Swenson observed that many of his patients suffered from what he calls possession overload, the problem of dealing with too much stuff. “Possession overload is the kind of problem where you have so many things, you find your life is being taken up by maintaining and caring for things instead of people,” Swenson says. “Everything I own owns me. People feel sad, and what do they do? They go to the mall and they shop, and it makes them feel better, but only for a short time. There’s an addictive quality in consumerism. But it simply doesn’t work. They’ve gotten all these things, and they still find this emptiness, this hollowness. All they have is stress and exhaustion and burnout, and their relationships are vaporizing. They’re surrounded by all kinds of fun toys, but the meaning is gone.”

 

4. Family fractures

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Family fractures

Affluenza is a family problem. In a variety of ways, the disease is like a termite, undermining American family life, sometimes to the breaking point. We have already mentioned time pressures. Then, too, the pressure to keep up with the Joneses leads many families into debt and simmering conflicts over money matters that frequently result in divorce. Indeed, the American divorce rate, despite reaching a plateau in the 1980s and declining a bit since then, is still double what it was in the ’50s, and family counselors report that arguments about money are precipitating factors in 90 percent of divorce cases.1

But modern life in the Age of Affluenza affects marriage in more complex ways, spelled out clearly by the psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz in their book The Lonely American. Longer working hours and the demands of caring for stuff require that parents find something to cut in their frenetically busy lives. What goes is time spent with friends and community members. Parents spend more time with their children today than a generation ago, though much of it consists of chauffeuring their children from one event to another, as Dr. William Doherty points out.

 

5. Community chills

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Community chills

That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bee.

—MARCUS AURELIUS

People are so fascinating that I love to sit at my computer and learn about them.

TIME COLUMNIST JOEL STEIN

You may have seen the ad for an SUV, picturing a suburban street of expensive, identical ranch-style houses with perfect lawns. The SUV being advertised is parked in the driveway of one of them. But in every other driveway is … a tank. A big, deadly Army tank. It’s a stark, ironic ad, reminding us how chilling our communities have become as our war of all-against-all consumer competition continues. How much our sense of community has changed since the 1950s! Back then, Dave used to walk with his grandfather four or five blocks to the town square in Crown Point, Indiana. Everyone knew his grandfather, even the guy carrying a sack of salvaged goods. Half a century later Dave still remembers the names of his grandparents’ neighbors and the summer backyard parties they threw.

In the fifties, Americans sat together with their neighbors, cracking up at Red Skelton’s antics. In 1985, we still watched Family Ties as a family, but by 2013, each member of a family often watched his or her own TV—while also texting messages or talking with Siri, the iPhone robo-genie. Isolation and passive participation became a way of life. What began as a quest for the good life in the suburbs degenerated into private consumption splurges that separated one neighbor from another. We began to feel like strangers in our own neighborhoods—it wasn’t just the “Mad Men” who were ill at ease. Huge retailers took advantage of our confusion, expanding to meet our new “needs.” The more we chased bargains and the paychecks that bought them, the more vitality slipped away from our towns. Now, if we want to experience Main Street—the way it was in the good old days—we create a virtual identity on a website like Second Life or we travel to Disney World to visit faux communities where smiling shopkeepers, the slow pace, and the quaintness remind us that our real communities were once close-knit and friendly. How will Disney portray the good old days of the suburbs, in future exhibits? Will it orchestrate background ambience—highway traffic, jackhammers, and beeping garbage trucks—to make it more realistic? Will it re-create gridlock with bumper-to-bumper cars, complete with smartphones to tell our families we’ll be late for the next ride? Will our tour of the “gated community” require more tickets than rides through the “inner city” do? Will Disney hire extras to play the roles of suburbanites who can’t drive—elderly, disabled, and low-income residents, peeking out from behind living room curtains?

 

6. Heart failure

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Heart failure

We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men.

—T. S. ELIOT

CINCINNATI—The blank, oppressive void facing the American consumer populace remains unfilled despite the recent launch of the revolutionary Swiffer dust-elimination system, sources reported Monday. The lightweight, easy-to-use Swiffer is the 275,894,973rd amazing new product to fail to fill the void—a vast, soul-crushing spiritual vacuum Americans of all ages face on a daily basis, with nowhere to turn and no way to escape.… Despite high hopes, the Swiffer has failed to imbue a sense of meaning and purpose in the lives of its users.

—FROM THE HUMOR NEWSPAPER THE ONION

The road switchbacks up, down, and around precipitous canyons, crosses raging streams, and winds by glassy lakes offering mirror images of an immense snow-covered volcano, the main attraction in Washington State’s Mount Rainier National Park. Each year, two million people drive the road. More than a few stop to admire the beautiful stone masonry, so perfectly in harmony with the natural setting, that forms the guardrails for the road or the graceful arches of its many bridges. This is quality work, built to last, built for beauty as well as utility. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

 

7. Social scars

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Social scars

America’s affluenza casts an enormous shadow over the rest of the world. While even poor Americans live with luxuries unimagined by the rich a century ago, the worldwide gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Two billion of the world’s people still live in a state of destitution, on income equivalents of less than two dollars a day. Many of them make the apparel and other consumer products we buy. Try an experiment: walk through Wal-Mart (or any other big-box store) and check out where the products are from. Chances are what you can buy so cheap is made in a place where the conditions of labor are no better than they were in the United States a hundred years ago.

In 1993, a Thai toy factory burned to the ground. Unable to escape, hundreds of female workers perished. Their charred bodies lay among the ruins of the building, a firetrap similar to many throughout the developing world where millions of plastic toys are made for American children. Here and there amid the blackened rubble were the toys themselves.

 

8. Resource exhaustion

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Resource exhaustion

We buy a wastebasket and take it home in a plastic bag. Then we take the wastebasket out of the bag, and put the bag in the wastebasket.

—LILY TOMLIN, COMEDIAN

Since the earth is finite, and we will have to stop expanding sometime, should we do it before or after nature’s diversity is gone?

—DONELLA MEADOWS

In case our society needs one more recipe for disaster, the Daily Grist writer Jim Meyer thinks he has a winner. “Ever wonder about the future of energy?” he asks, as if earnestly. “Will it be wind? Solar? Geothermal? No wait, I got it, tar sands! … They’ve got everything oil does, but they’re harder to get, crappier when you get them, and leave a much bigger mark on the climate.… Tar sands are deposits of about 90 percent sand, water, and clay mixed with only about 10 percent high-sulfur bitumen, a viscous black petroleum sludge containing hydrocarbons, also known as ‘natural asphalt.’” Referencing the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline (which, if built, would originate in tar-sands-stricken Alberta, Canada), Meyer says, “It would pump 1.1 million barrels of bitumen sludge a day, crisscrossing much of the continent’s freshwater supply, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.”1

 

9. Industrial diarrhea

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Industrial diarrhea

DDT is good for me!

—1950S JINGLE

The chemical age has created products, institutions, and cultural attitudes that require synthetic chemicals to sustain them.

—THEO COLBURN ET AL.,
Our Stolen Future

Imagine spotting them through binoculars at a baseball game—icons of advertising’s hall of fame, lounging in front-row seats behind home plate. Look, there’s the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, signing autographs and passing out smokes to the kids. The Energizer Bunny flings handfuls of batteries into the crowd like Tootsie Rolls, while Ronald McDonald argues defensively with an environmentalist about hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide residues detected in the Big Mac. The plump Pillsbury Doughboy giggles as the Jolly Green Giant looks down on the game from the parking lot, ho-ho-hoing every time the home team scores. No one messes with a guy that size, even though chunks of pesticide slough off his green body like gigantic flakes of dry skin.

They seem so innocent, so endearing, don’t they? So American. Many of us grew up with these guys, and we love their entrepreneurial optimism, their goofiness, their cool. Our demand for products like theirs has kept the US economy in the growth mode, overall, for more than half a century, and it really can’t be denied that America’s dazzling products make life seem bright, shiny, and convenient. But at what cost to our health, and the planet?

 

10. A cancerous culture

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A cancerous culture

The only chance of satisfaction we can imagine is getting more of what we have now. But what we have now makes everybody dissatisfied. So what will more of it do—make us more satisfied, or more dissatisfied?

—A CLIENT OF PSYCHOLOGIST JEREMY SEABROOK

Maybe the proof is in the pillow: the fact that more than thirty million Americans have chronic insomnia is one convincing indicator that all is not perfect in Camelot. We spend about $25 billion a year on sleep products, from pills to white-noise apps to comfort-zoned beds, but sleep researchers tell us that on average, humans in overdeveloped countries like ours sleep a full hour and a half less than we did a hundred years ago. In addition to peddling the pills that summon creepy luminescent green moths to our bedrooms in the TV ads, pharmaceutical companies in 2012 hustled Americans for $325 billion in prescription drugs. Among many other prescriptions (with, on average, seventy potential side effects apiece) we swallow half the world’s antidepressants.1

 

11. Early infections

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Early infections

Now that you’ve been introduced to affluenza and its multiple symptoms, you may be asking yourself how we got to where we are today. What was the genesis of affluenza? Is it a bug that’s always been there, just part of human nature? Is it culturally conditioned? Could it result from both nature and nurture? Those are the questions we’ll attempt to answer in the next section of this book. We’ll examine early efforts to contain or quarantine the disease, and attempt to understand how the virus mutated and grew more virulent over time in response to the forward march of history.

We believe it’s necessary to understand the epidmiology of affluenza in order to begin to fight it effectively. As we researched this aspect of the issue, we became convinced that affluenza is not a new disease. But during the last half century, it has been spreading faster than ever before, as cultural values that once kept it in check have eroded under modern commercial pressures and technological changes.

 

12. An ounce of prevention

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An ounce of prevention

The fear of affluenza, though never identified as such, has been part of the American tradition since colonists arrived here from Europe. It was a mixed bunch that risked life and livelihood to cross the Atlantic on small wooden ships. The first came seeking riches. The Spanish wanted gold; the French, furs. The Dutch sought new trade routes to the fabled Indies.

But among the early arrivals from England were refugees seeking to escape what they had come to view as a godless materialism rapidly taking root in Europe. “When the Puritans arrived in the New World, one of their major premises was their desire to try to create a Christian commonwealth that practiced simple living,” explains the historian David Shi.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans adopted what were known as sumptuary laws, forbidding conspicuous displays of wealth. They required colonists to wear simple clothing, for example. But because they were never applied fairly, the laws failed to stem a growing trade in luxury goods arriving in the New World from Europe. Wealthier, politically powerful Puritans could effectively ignore the laws and wear whatever they chose, while their poorer brethren were punished for transgressions of the dress code. In effect, the sumptuary laws exacerbated visible class differences.

 

13. The road not taken

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The road not taken

Our lives shall not be sweated From birth until life closes Hearts starve as well as bodies Give us bread, but give us roses …

Small art and love and beauty Their drudging spirits knew Yes, it is bread we fight for But we fight for roses too.

—JAMES OPPENHEIM, DECEMBER 1911

After the horrors of the Civil War, a new, quieter conflict, ultimately more powerful in its impact, emerged in the United States. Two roads, as Robert Frost put it in his lovely poem “The Road Not Taken,” presented themselves to Americans, and after a period of indecision that lasted nearly a century, we chose one of them, “and that has made all the difference.”

Nineteenth-century Americans still had more respect for thrift than for spendthrifts, and the word consumption meant something different then. As Jeremy Rifkin explained in the Affluenza documentary, “If you go back to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of the English language, to consume meant to exhaust, to pillage, to lay waste, to destroy. In fact, even in our grandparents’ generation, when somebody had tuberculosis, they called it ‘consumption.’ So up until this century, to be a consumer was not to be a good thing, it was considered a bad thing.”

 

14. An emerging epidemic

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An emerging epidemic

How little, from the resources unrenewable by Man, cost the things of greatest value—wild beauty, peace, health and love, music and all the testaments of spirit! How simple our basic needs—a little food, sun, air, water, shelter, warmth, and sleep! How lightly might this earth bear Man forever!

—NANCY NEWHALL AND ANSEL ADAMS,
This Is the American Earth, 1960

During World War II, Americans accepted rationing and material deprivation. Wasteful consumption was out of the question. In every city, citizens gathered scrap metal to contribute to the war effort. Most grew some of their own food, in so-called victory gardens. Driving was limited to save fuel. Despite the sacrifices, what many older Americans remember most from that time was the sense of community, of sharing for the common good and uniting to defeat a common enemy.

But shortly after World War II ended, pent-up economic demand in the form of personal savings, coupled with low-interest government loans and mushrooming private credit, led to a consumer boom unparalleled in history. The GI Bill sparked massive construction of housing at the edge of America’s cities, beginning with the famous Levittown development on Long Island. The average size of a Levittown bungalow was only 750 square feet, but its popularity encouraged other developers to build sprawling suburbs with larger homes.

 

15. The Age of Affluenza

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The Age of Affluenza

Advertising separates our era from all earlier ones as little else does.

—CONSERVATIVE ECONOMIST WILHELM RÖPKE

Any space you take in visually, anything you hear, in the future will be branded.

—REGINA KELLY,
Director of Strategic Planning, Satchi and Satchi Advertising

It’s morning in America,” announced the 1984 TV commercials for Ronald Reagan, whose message that Americans could have their cake and eat it too had overwhelmed the cautious conservationist Jimmy Carter four years earlier. And indeed, it was morning, the dawning, you might say, of the Age of Affluenza. Despite economic ups and downs, the last twenty years of the twentieth century would witness a commercial expansion unparalleled in history. Those Reagan commercials, small towns and smiling people in golden light, seem quaint now, more like the sunset of an old era than the morning of a new one. For one thing, there are no ads to be seen anywhere in the America pictured in those political commercials, no billboards, no product being sold except Reagan. That’s not America anymore.

 

16. Spin doctors

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Spin doctors

We have transformed information into a form of garbage.

—NEIL POSTMAN,
author of Amusing Ourselves to Death

Government agencies are supposed to be watch-dogs, but too often they are more like lap dogs.

—JOHN STAUBER,
founder of PRWatch

In the public relations industry, the idea is to manage the outrage, not the hazard.

—SHARON BEDER,
author of Global Spin

What happens when we ignore the symptoms of a disease? It usually gets worse. That’s why the epidemic of affluenza is spreading around the planet. Although symptoms like the stress of excess, the anxiety of resource exhaustion, and the depression of social scars are right in our faces, we tend to look the other way as we’re told over and over again that the market will provide. But will it?

The author and “adbuster” Kalle Lasn tells a metaphorical tale about a large wedding party that takes place in a spacious suburban backyard. The party oozes affluence and the good life: the live music is incredible, and everyone dances with abandon. The problem is that they’re dancing on top of an old septic system, which causes the pipes to burst. “Raw sewage rises up through the grass,” writes Lasn, “and begins to cover everyone’s shoes. If anyone notices, they don’t say anything. The champagne flows, the music continues, until finally a little boy says, ‘It smells like shit!’ And suddenly everyone realizes they’re ankle deep in it.”1

 

17. Diagnostic test

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Diagnostic test

The following situation, imagined by Affluenza coproducer Vivia Boe, has not occurred. Not yet.

You’re watching TV, in the middle of a program, when the screen goes black for a moment. The scene cuts to a breaking news story. A large crowd is gathered outside an expensive home with some equally pricey cars parked out front. A well-dressed family of four stands on the stairs, looking grim. One of the children is holding a white flag. The reporter, in hushed tones speaks into his microphone: “We’re here live at the home of the Joneses—Jerry and Janet Jones—the family we’ve all been trying to keep up with for years. Well, you can stop trying right now, because they have surrendered. Let’s eavesdrop for a moment.” The shot changes, revealing a tired-looking Janet Jones, her husband’s hand resting on her shoulder. Her voice cracks as she speaks: “It’s just not worth it. We never see each other anymore. We’re working like dogs. We’re always worried about our kids, and we have so much debt we won’t be able to pay it off for years. We give up. So please, stop trying to keep up with us.” From the crowd our reporter yells, “So what will you do now?” “We’re just going to try to live better on less,” Janet replies. “So there you have it. The Joneses surrender,” says the reporter. “And now for a commercial break.”

 

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