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Affluenza the All-Consuming Epidemic Book Review

Updated on August 30, 2011

Affluenza, The All-Consuming Epidemic (ISBN-10: 1576753573, 2005) by John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, is a book that started as a PBS Documentary about American consumerism. This 288-page book reads in an entertaining and witty, and sometimes biting style, but provokes strong reactions, and offers much food for thought.

Using disease as their metaphor, the authors of Affluenza describe America's obsession with keeping up with the Joneses, and its deleterious effects on society.

In section one, Symptoms, authors describe the day after Thanksgiving, where Americans feverishly shop for bigger, more expensive gifts at gigantic mega-malls, amassing mountains of debt. But this example is just a familiar and easy-to-recognize touchstone. The symptoms of Affluenza reach far beyond the shopping mall and into the homes of American families, who have too much stuff, too much debt, and too little time, because we are devoting our lives to working to pay for all that stuff.

We are building and buying bigger houses to store the stuff. One particular passage made me gulp. The authors describe the evolution of American home ownership in the 20th century, from 750 square foot bungalows to 4000 square foot McMansions with double cheese. Do you want fries with that? And as American family's car purchases have increased, so have the need for garages. The median sized home has increased to a 2300 square foot house with a three-car garage. Now ask me how big is the house I just bought?

The authors describe Affluenza as "n. A painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."

The human costs of affluenza are just as high as the financial ones. The authors describe people who are out of touch with their communities, and a whole generation of people whose motivations are neither moral or social, but financial.

Affluenza is divided into three sections: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.

Affluenza doesn't read as a holier-than-thou diatribe against consumerism. Though the book does a fabulous job of showing the human and social costs of "the dogged pursuit of more." Instead, the writers of this book lay the blame at the feet of the American Advertising industry, suggesting that advertisers and big corporations have manipulated the social environment by misleading consumers and preying on and promoting American greed to encourage sales. The authors suggest that the American economy is functioning on the assumption that Americans must continue to buy, build, and consume more, more, and yet more in order to achieve a viable standard of living. But this model is unsustainable, because resources aren't in endless supply. And that is why this book radically changed my thinking.

The stylized political cartoons of Pullitzer-Prize wiinning illustrator David Horsey add visual interest and ironic humor to an already well-written book.

As I read this book, I couldn't help but recall one the 1979 movie The Jerk, starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. In this rags to riches to rags movie, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters suddenly find themselves filthy rich, and almost as suddenly, they find themselves in the poorhouse once more. As Martin's character tries to console Peters, she says,I don't care about losing all the money. It's losing all the stuff. On one level. that movie was well ahead of its time.

The Solution is Simplicity

I am a parent of three children, and the dogged pursuit of more isn't the legacy I want to leave for my family. I was struck by the complexity of the social issues presented in this book, but encouraged by some of the solutions the authors suggest. Among these solutions are the voluntary simplicity movement, which encourages people to live simply on less, and more radical social and political changes, like shortening the work week. These solutions offer more of a vision for a different future than focusing in on the nuts and bolts of right living. However, the author's vision of a simpler, better future include a greater connection to the natural world, and growing one's own food.

I think that the "cure" section of Affluenza isn't as well-presented as the previous two sections, but the book offers a good overview of the social problems created by consumerism and overspending, while trying to offer a different and better vision for the future. I would strongly encourage this book as recommended reading or a high school or college-level civics class, or as excellent selection for any book club.

Voluntary Simplicity Movement — Begin with a Garden


Submit a Comment

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    8 years ago from Iowa

    Thanks Smireles for reading this long forgotten review article. I was deeply moved to change my thinking after reading this book and hope to make continued improvements in my consumerism and waste. I agree that taking care of a large home can be a burden. Not only does it use up more energy and more space, but it is hard to keep a large home clean! We knew we probably couldn't handle a really large home during retirement, and we hope to keep this home for that purpose some day, so we opted for something smaller. However, realistically, if we could live in an 800 s/f house in our later years, I would opt to reduce my costs even more and use the equity to live on. The only downside is I'd have to get rid of my own earthenware pottery collection, which I have gleaned at a lot of yard sales and consignment shops. Guilty!

  • Smireles profile image

    Sandra Mireles 

    8 years ago from Texas

    I am in agreement with the authors of Affluenza and you. When I found myself in posession of a 2600 square foot home I soon realized that anything above that was more house than I could handle. Two people do not need such a huge place and requires far more time and energy than I am willing to give. Unfortunately, I have been unable to banish my desire for bone china and crystal so inspite of lightening the load in our home there is a section that will never decrease! Still, we are thinking that smaller is good and that is a start.

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    8 years ago from Iowa

    I think it depends where you are. My new neighborhood is in a suburban area where there are many bank-owned homes. We bought one. So many of these houses are 3000-4500 square feet. And people are rushing to buy them. Even our family is guilty. After years of believing that at 2000 s/f home would be a dream fulfilled, we "settled for" an almost 2300 s/f home. In my neighborhood, this is perceived as "modest,' though its as big as we will ever need. I personally have come to terms with the Jerk in me, but America, despite its terrible financial woes, is only at the beginning of a moral recovery. Please forgive my long ranting reply. I wish I could agree with you.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    8 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Well, it looks like the Affluenza craze is becoming a thing of the past. Honestly, I can't understand how people can keep wanting stuff. All that junk just gets in the way of living. It becomes a burden.

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    9 years ago from Iowa

    Interesting you should bring that up--the authors of Affluenza actually address that point in their book. A witty observation!

  • Rochelle Frank profile image

    Rochelle Frank 

    9 years ago from California Gold Country


  • Rochelle Frank profile image

    Rochelle Frank 

    9 years ago from California Gold Country

    Everything stated in the garden.. (watch for snakes.)


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